How to keep 'phone snubbing’ — or ‘phubbing’ — from ruining your love life

Do you and your friends play the “Phone Stack Game?”

When out at a restaurant with a group, everyone places their mobile devices in a pile on the table and leaves them untouched for the duration of dinner. If someone caves early and grabs their phone, they have to pay for everybody’s meal. It’s a trend that’s been gaining steam for years, as we find it easier to stay connected but harder to stay present.

Perhaps it’s time to come up with a comparable activity for dates. Having a friend glued to their phone during a group hangout creates distance, but when a romantic partner does it, there are serious consequences for the relationship. A recent study out of Baylor University studied the effects of phone snubbing (or “phubbing”) and found that people who are frequently ignored by a partner for a mobile device feel way worse about the relationship and about themselves in general.

A Balancing Act

It’s hard to know which comes first: the relationship conflict or the phubbing. Are we fighting more and feeling bad because our partners ignore us or are we ignoring each other because we’re unhappy in our relationship? Either way, we have to balance the necessity of having technology attached to our bodies with our obligations to each other.

Talking on the phone or texting while hanging out with a partner clearly demonstrates that the people in the device take precedence at the moment: they deserve immediate attention, implying their time is more valuable. It’s a small way of taking someone for granted, making them wait while you attend to other matters.

The same goes for taking out a phone frequently while together, keeping it in one’s hand or line of sight, interrupting discussion to respond to a notification, and looking at the screen while holding a conversation with someone present. All of these are ways to show that the current situation isn’t a priority.

Modern Version of an Old Issue

But that’s not to say that any of this is technology’s fault: None of these are new problems and in many ways the ubiquity of communication technology has been a boon for relationships. A couple decades ago, long-distance lovers had to survive on letters and phone calls, maybe email or Instant Messenger if they were fancy. Today, not only can we find someone on another continent, but we can also spend the entire day interacting with them through video chats, social media, even sex toys.

Having the entirety of human knowledge at our fingertips certainly makes it harder to stay present in conversations that we might otherwise find engaging, but it’s also an excellent excuse for being a crappy partner. Relationships take effort and it’s easy to slide into lazy patterns after novelty wears thin.

Craving Stimulus

For the first year and a half of a romance, our brains are flooded with neurochemicals that cause us to compulsively think about our crush. We feel stimulated by their presence and even get excited by pictures of them. It’s easy to be an attentive lover at that point. Someone who phubs a date in the early months is displaying disinterest or general rudeness. 

Eventually, though, the chemical reaction to one’s lover slows down and the feeling of mania goes away. Hopefully this lust is replaced by more substantive intimacy, we get better at knowing what will be meaningful to our specific partner, and find routine ways of showing love. But the chemical high is dimmed and our stimulus-seeking brains look for fixes elsewhere, like in the instant gratification available online. Getting notifications about Instagram likes and Facebook comments provides doses of pleasurable brain chemicals … just like attraction to a partner.

This stimulation seeking, for some, verges on an addiction. A Mobile Consumer Habits study found a third of people couldn’t watch an entire movie without checking their phone, nearly 1 in 5 used a phone during church, 12% in the shower, and 9% acknowledged they had used a phone during sex (although they didn’t specify how). This is despite the fact multiple studies have found that spending lots of time on social network sites often leads to feeling badly about oneself and loss of trust in others.

What Can We Do?

The fact that the Internet is everywhere has a variety of effects. While a quarter of all couples report experiencing conflict because of phubbing, a greater percentage pointed out that technology allows them to stay in contact and resolve issues more easily.

According to Pew polling, both the negative and positive outcomes are greater among younger folks: half of 18- to 29-year-olds say the Internet has had a major impact on their relationship while only 10% of people over 65 said the same.  This discrepancy isn’t likely because of age or relationship duration as much as the place technology holds in their lives.

Perhaps we can learn from the best practices of different age groups in our approaches to dating and tech.

  • Outside of emergencies, minimize phone use when in social situations: keeping them put away during meals and dates.
  • As a corollary: Be understanding if it takes a while for someone to reply.
  • When apart from your significant others, cultivate connections throughout the day with meaningful messages, or sharing pictures and links.
  • When there’s conflict, try to resolve it in person, as a lot can be lost in translation in texts and emails.
  • Respect your partner’s wishes for discretion by not sharing private messages, especially sexts or nude pictures.

Dr. Timaree Schmit earned her Ph.D. in Human Sexuality from Widener University, where she now trains future sexologists and clinicians. Her passion is bringing rational, empirically-based, sex-positive information to the world, empowering others to celebrate their bodies, build intimacy and experience pleasure. 

She has an award-winning podcast, "Sex with Timaree", and hosts a BYOB sex ed, comedy/game show "DTF: Darryl and Timaree Fun Hour" which can be seen every second Friday at the Franky Bradley's (1320 Chancellor St.)