It happens all the time. Two people are talking, sitting next to each other, or perhaps separated by a table. They might be eating or watching a series after dinner. They are spending some time together. Then, a notification arrives. An alert sounds, or the screen lights up, and before you know it someone has their phone in their hands and they stop listening to the other person. On social media, this is known as phubbing (phone snubbing), and it is the cause of many fights between couples. “It is one of the factors that create the most problems; the top complaint. More and more people come lamenting that, when they are together, their partners ignore them because they are glued to their phones,” explains couples therapist Beatriz González.
Despite being a seemingly harmless habit, studies show that this can have serious consequences on interpersonal relationships. Recent research links higher levels of phubbing to higher marital dissatisfaction. Similarly, a study by the University of Münster, Germany, shows that this practice can generate feelings of “mistrust and ostracism.” On top of that, it causes a domino effect: snubbed people tend to return the offense, feeding a toxic cycle that can only harm the relationship.
“What my patients feel is that their partner doesn’t want to share time with them. That they prefer to spend time with other people through their screen rather than talk to the one who’s in front of them, in the flesh,” explains González, who is also the director of a psychology clinic in Madrid. In many cases, it is work that absorbs the attention, even outside working hours. Disregarding a message from your boss can be harder than one from your mother. “It’s the perfect excuse, but it’s still an excuse. If it really was a matter of life and death, they wouldn’t send you a message. They would call,” notes the therapist.
A series of problematic behaviors can hide behind this habit, from addiction to technology and the impossibility of disconnecting from work, to the need to compulsively monitor one’s social media accounts for fear of being left out. In addition, the fact that smartphones are made to monopolize the user’s attention makes it difficult to ignore their signals. “In principle, when a person pulls out their phone it’s because their surroundings are less fun. We don’t do it when we are at the movies,” says Juan Carlos López, an attention psychologist at the University of Seville in Spain.
The brain is constantly looking for stimuli and novelty, and when a conversation or a situation becomes boring, it usually tries to find these impulses elsewhere. “In this sense, the phone has it all: it is designed to capture the attention and hold it for a long time with virtually no effort. It’s like giving chocolate to the brain,” López continues. The fact that digital content is more entertaining than a person’s partner is one of the factors that causes more insecurity in a person who suffers from phubbing.
However, the expert advises not to take it as a personal offense. “It is not that our partners bore us; that’s not what this is about. It’s just that the information in our phone grabs our attention with much more force than anyone else. For this reason, the only way to get rid of the habit, once it has become problematic, is to completely eliminate the source of distraction,” recommends López.
More conflicts after the summer
Summer tends to be bad for couples who are hooked on screens. González explains that in September they notice a higher incidence of phubbing-related conflicts: “Families go on a trip hoping to finally spend time together, thinking that they will be able to ignore their smartphones, but when this doesn’t happen they come to therapy with a lot of resentment and reproaches. The summer helps them realize that work was just an excuse, and that the problem is more serious than they thought,” explains the therapist.
González recommends establishing some ground rules to limit the use of the phone during moments of shared leisure. The most basic suggestion is to designate areas of the house where the device is off-limits. “Undoubtedly, the worst thing is having it on the table during meals. There are studies that show that even if it is not used, its mere presence decreases social interactions. There is no reasonable excuse to interrupt this moment of the day to answer a message,” he explains.
Another habit that has become increasingly common is looking at the phone while watching a series or a movie at home. Unlike going to the movies, being comfortably seated on one’s couch takes away the ceremoniousness of the activity, making it excusable for a person to be distracted. “It seems like it’s nothing serious, but the other person feels just as ignored as when their partner looks at the screen while they talk. If they decided to spend some time watching TV together, they have to do it together, without distractions,” insists the psychologist.
In addition to leaving the device in another room, another way to curb phubbing is to check which notifications are activated. Between social networks, news alerts, streaming apps, email apps and more, the barrage of alarms and sounds becomes increasingly difficult to ignore. Choosing carefully the notifications that are really necessary to keep an eye on things without neglecting your loved ones is a good way to combine both needs.
Finally, if the situation is unavoidable, González advises improving communication from both parties. “On one hand, it’s not the same to say something like ‘Put your fucking phone down’ than to say ‘Please, I need you to be with me right now,’” says the psychologist. “It also helps if the person looking at the screen describes what they are doing, apologizes for being absent mentally and explains the need that arose. After all, communication is the base of everything.”
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