The problem with cell phones

Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, CGT

The problem with cell phones

I’m writing to you from Mexico. I’m not there anymore, by the time you read this at least. But I am (or was) there. And as usual, I was observing people. That’s what I do. I observe.

As I sat drinking my morning coffee, I was overlooking a dozen beach cabanas filled with a dozen or so couples. All of them on their cell phones.

My initial judgment - “gosh, you’re in this beautiful place and you’re buried in your phone.” I tut tutted in my head and went about finishing my drink.

I looked over at my husband. He was reading me the weather from his phone. “Well, this is different from the couples on the beach. We have to figure out what the weather is…our scrolling has purpose.”

Later, we walked down a dusty street to grab something to drink. We went into one of those beachside spots that just screams mindful living - you know the spots - juices, smoothies, books placed on a shelf, palm trees, sand beneath your feet as you dine. But, I looked around and everyone was on their phones. I wasn’t on mine. I’d like you to believe it’s because I have great self restraint but that would be a lie. My phone died on the walk.

I spotted an older couple in the corner. “They don’t have their phones out,” I thought, “they know how to be present with each other.” Then I turned back around and my husband had pulled his phone onto the table top and was scrolling.

I remember thinking...

  • “That couple is probably judging us.”
  • And then... “why can’t my husband be present with me.”
  • And then... “I only give a shit because my phone is dead. I would be on mine too if it weren’t for that.”

When we paid our check and left, I glanced at the older couple who was unknowingly mentoring me about the power of presence by being so very present with one another, only to find that they… were on their cell phones.

When I see patterns I can’t help but try to think them through. Are we really living in a world where no one cares to give each other presence? Is every single couple that we pass completely disconnected? Is it that bad to do a little side by side scrolling? Are we doomed?

When I returned to our hotel, I took another glance at the couples on the beach. They were still on their phones but they didn’t seem particularly disconnected. I saw one partner look up, note that their partner was getting red from sunburn and lovingly apply sunscreen.

Another couple was sharing something they saw on one of their phones - they were laughing about it and engaged.

A third couple, holding hands gently as they read an article, or social post, or watched a video - who knows - but what I do know is that they looked connected. No one looked distressed.

When I looked back over at my husband who was on his phone looking up baseball cards on Ebay (I think I will need to peel this apart in a future newsletter), I started to question my earlier frustration. Why do I actually care if Andrew is on his phone right now? Would I be upset if it was a book instead? If he was journaling?

No, I don’t actually care that he is on his phone right now. We don’t have a kid to chase around together at this moment. There aren't any dishes in the sink. I have nothing particularly interesting to share with him. Just as the people on the beach also didn’t care.

From the time of my morning coffee, though, I had been making a judgment. It started with a judgment about what it means for other couples - but when you’re sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong and making judgment calls it tends to be more about what it symbolizes to you than it does to them.

To me, cell phone use when we are together, has come to symbolize disengagement. But I don’t even know if I created this symbol or just assumed its ownership. I wanted to rethink it. When does cell phone use feel like disengagement? When does it feel like what my husband lovingly calls (and highly encourages) “nothing box time” - the time we all need to go within - not in any reflective, hard work type of way - but in the disconnected, lazing about, type of way.

Can you answer these questions for your own relationship?

  • When is cell phone use experienced as hurtful disengagement?
  • When is cell phone use experienced as necessary “nothing box” time?

I don’t actually believe we always need to be connecting - with another person or even with ourselves. Sometimes mindlessness is ok.

Cell phone use is a fairly popular issue in couples therapy. If you were a fly on my wall you would hear most couples talk about their discontent about phones with each other.

So, it can be an issue. It can cause relational distress. But, the issue is rarely fully defined. Rather, one-size-fit all beliefs are developed around it:

  • “Couples who love each other should put their phones away.”
  • “When couples are together, they shouldn’t be on their phones.”

These beliefs then become catch alls. In order to reserve energy, we lean into them time and time again without really considering context. I took time to consider my one-size fits-all beliefs about cell phones - your turn: What are your one-size-fit all beliefs about cell phone use?

You can define your belief about cell phone use by considering your own philosophy. If you were ruler of the earth, what would you say people should do with their cell phones, particularly when it comes to relationships?

A great way to identify your philosophy is to start with the phrase “Couples should…” or “Couples shouldn’t…” Should and shouldn’t are often gateways to our deeper, often unspoken, philosophies.

Once you’ve got yours, ask your partner the same question. What is their philosophy about how couples should navigate cell phone use?

Understanding your individual philosophies around cell phone use will help you to be cognizant of what might be experienced as disengagement from your partner. You can use this as a starting point for a conversation and hopefully towards agreements around cell phone use within your relationship.

When is cell phone use problematic?

So, when is cell phone use actually harming the relationship? Cell phone use is problematic when…

  • It results in chronic turning away behavior
  • The cell phone is used as conduit to breaking the couple bubble
  • You begin to utilize the fundamental attribution error when looking at your partner’s cell use.

Let’s break these down:

Chronic Turning Away Behavior

In John Gottman’s research on happy couples, he identified that the happiest couples turn towards each other 86% of the time. “Turning towards” is a term that means when your partner makes a bid for connection, you respond to it. The response might be brief, i.e. your partner comments on the beautiful weather, you look up, smile, and say “yeah it is beautiful!” or it might be time consuming, for example when your partner asks for help building their new Ikea dresser.

Bid for connection: A bid is any attempt from one partner to another for attention, affirmation, affection, or any other positive connection. Bids show up in simple ways, a smile or wink, and more complex ways, like a request for advice or help.

Couples who are the least happy utilize something called turning away. When one person makes a bid for connection, their partner just doesn’t respond. You can see how this would play out with problematic cell phone use.

Here's how to avoid this issue: Be cognizant of your surroundings when you’re on your phone. Make sure that you are still responding to most of their attempts to connect. Even better, make a conscious effort to make bids for connection while you are on your phone - just like the beach couples who took a moment to notice sunburn, shared a funny meme with each other, and grabbed their partner’s hand.

Breaking the couple bubble

This probably doesn’t need to be said but if you’re using the cell phone to violate any contracts within your relationship then the cell phone use is a problem. For example, flirting with people online even though you know your partner would be hurt by that. Or buying things with money you don’t have which later impacts the financial health of the family.

Here's how to avoid this issue: Be clear with each other about what your contracts are in your relationship around sex, finances, boundaries, and any other issues that come up around cell phone usage.

Utilizing the fundamental attribution error

Becoming hyper critical of your partner is a bigger risk to your relationship than agreed upon, healthy, cell phone use. When we utilize the fundamental attribution error, we look at our partner's behavior as a reflection of their character while identifying our behaviors as a reflection of the situation.

Fundamental Attribution Error: The tendency for people to under-emphasize situational and environmental explanations for an individual's observed behavior while over-emphasizing dispositional and personality-based explanations.

Earlier today, I used the fundamental attribution error while I was drinking my coffee. “Those couples are disconnected from each other” but my “husband and I are just looking up the weather before we head out for the day.”

When you start using this with your partner, you will begin to make unfair assessments of your partner’s behavior. For example, you might see them on their phone while you’re sitting down to breakfast. Even though you were just on your phone while they drove the car, you’ll think “Well that was because I wanted to get my emails done while we had some down time but their use is evidence of how rude they are.”

As you begin to define your partner's cell phone use by their character, they will respond in turn. Your conflict around the cell phones will then become harder and harder to solve. You both will believe it indicates a flaw in the other, while also continually defining your superiority around the issue.

Here's how to avoid this: Start to catch yourself defining your partner’s behavior as a character flaw. Instead, ask yourself “when was the last time I was doing that? And what situational excuse would I have given? Is it possible my partner has the same excuse?”

You also can work on better identifying what it is you actually want and expressing that instead. Your partner is much more likely to be moved towards you if you talk about your needs.

That’s what I am about to do right now. My husband is on his iPad and I am drinking yet another coffee (yolo, it’s vacation). I want to connect with him. Instead of saying “Why are you still on that?” I am going to close my laptop, give him a hug, and let him know I want to hang out.

Before I do though, you can take a moment to use one of these tips now:

1. Define your philosophy of cell phone use.

2. Look up + connect - I know you’re on a device right non, so take my advice to look up from it and make a bid to connect. If the person is there, give them a hug or ask them a question. If you’re alone, send someone you love a message.

3. Tell someone what you need - If you are with someone you want to connect with, practice saying that’s what you want instead of criticizing their character.

Now, time for me to give my husband a hug,


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