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Phubbing: When phones wreck relationships

Phubbing, or phone snubbing, is when a person ignores their partner in favour of their phone. It might look like picking up your phone whilst your partner is talking, checking your phone when you're spending quality time with your partner, or reaching for your phone rather than your partner. 

When left unchecked, continuous phubbing can leave partners feeling sidelined, ignored and deprioritised. It can have an adverse effect on your communication with your partner, as it can leave them feeling like they aren’t being listened to. Phubbing can also lead to increased conflict, reduced quality time, and reduced emotional connection. But why does phubbing happen, and what can we do about it?

Phones are addictive

One of the reasons that it can be so difficult to put down our phones is that the apps that we use are designed to keep us engaged. Whether that’s with notifications, sounds or scrolling, attention is the currency that advertisers are depending on. 

The longer that you pay attention to something, the more adverts an app can throw at you. And the more adverts that you look at, the more likely you’ll be to remember a brand name, click a link, or make a purchase - or, pay for a subscription which removes the adverts altogether. Either way, that’s money in the app creator’s pocket. 

Habits are hard to break

We might also be reaching for our phones out of habit. Whether we’re bored, understimulated, need a distraction, or we’re anxious, there’s an app for that. Picking up our phones in a situation that feels awkward, or a conversation that feels like it isn’t going anywhere can serve a function; it can help us to stay in a situation for longer.

An app can provide a little extra stimulation to keep you going, or give you something else to think about for a while. After a while, these processes can become almost automatic. Feeling anxious? You could be scrolling social media in seconds without even noticing.

Ready to stop phubbing? 

If phubbing is taking its toll on your relationship, there are two changes you need to make. The first is turning away from your phone, and the second is turning towards your partner. 

How to turn away from your phone

  • Notifications, off It might be an obvious one, but it’s an important one. When our attention isn’t on our phones, our apps desperately try to get it back. That might be with a notification badge, a vibration or a sound. To keep your attention where you want it, turn these distractions off.

  • Move your charger When our phones are charged in the bedroom, it can make it really easy to reach for your phone when we wake up, and when we go to bed. If you share a bed with your partner, this time could be used for connecting with each other. Try charging your phone in a different room, so it isn’t reachable from your bed.

  • Switch to grayscale An effective way to make your phone less enticing is to change the screen from colour, to black and white. Research suggests that switching to grayscale results in significantly less screen time, as well as anxiety. You can find out how to turn your phone to grayscale here

How to turn towards your partner

  • Rituals and routines When do you typically notice yourself phubbing? Is it in the morning before you get up? At the dinner table? When your partner is driving you somewhere? Creating a ritual or routine together can provide an alternative to picking up your phone. This might be making a hot drink, sharing stories, playing a game or something different, but it should be something that brings you both into connection.

  • Take a break If you find yourself reaching for your phone during tricky conversations, or escalations that can turn into arguments, it might mean that you need a short break. Instead of opening an app, communicate kindly to your partner that you need to put a topic down for a while, and set a time to revisit it.

  • Get stimulated If you find yourself looking for an app because you’re bored, you might need to find something engaging to talk about with your partner. It might be time to introduce some novelty, like a new activity you can try together. Alternatively, try asking your partner Aron’s 36 Questions, to create more emotional intimacy.


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