If your screen-time report has been slowly creeping up since March, you’re not alone: Surveys show that people are spending up to 20 percent more time on their phone’s apps than they did in 2019. And with most social gatherings off the table, it does makes sense that we’d started funneling more time into perusing Instagram and doomscrolling headlines. But if you find yourself picking the latest episode of The Daily over having coffee with your quarantine roommate/significant other, you might just be guilty of partner phubbing in quarantine.
To be sure, the term “phubbing”—a cheeky mashup of “phone snubbing”—has been ruining relationships since way before 2020. “Phubbing is a form of technoference, which involves snubbing your partner in favor of your phone,” says sexologist Jess O’Reilly, PhD. “You may be checking texts, scrolling through your newsfeed, responding to notifications, or reading and returning emails. Anything that involves prioritizing your phone over your partner might qualify as phubbing.”
On a personal level, you’ve probably felt a pang of annoyance or hurt when your partner picks up their phone mid-conversation to look at a screen instead of your face. The potential dangers of phubbing, however, go beyond anecdotes. A 2017 study found that people who left their phone outside the room (not on the table or in their lap) during dinner experienced the highest levels of trust, empathy, and intimacy with their companions, and additional research points to phubbing as a source of marital dissatisfaction.
While no studies as of yet have examined the landscape of phubbing during the pandemic, specifically, sex and relationship therapist Shamyra Howard, LCSW, says phone-sparked issues are likely more elevated in quarantine, when our partner may be the only other person we interact with on a regular basis. “With the increased and forced virtual interaction that quarantine has presented, people are using their phones even more to stay connected to the outside world, but this is causing a disconnect inside of their homes,” she says. “In therapy sessions, I’m hearing couples say these same five words to each other: ‘You’re always on your phone.’”
“In therapy sessions, I’m hearing couples say these same five words to each other: ‘You’re always on your phone.’” —sex and relationship therapist Shamyra Howard, LCSW,
Dr. O’Reilly says the negative relationship effects of increased screen time in quarantine gets compounded by the fact that when you’re with someone 24/7, their novelty tends to (harsh, but true) wear off. “Because you’re spending more time together during quarantine, you may be less inclined to focus on the quality of the time spent together. You don’t have as many opportunities to miss one another and it’s easy to take one another’s presence for granted,” she says. And thus, you phub, phub, and phub some more.
Of course, when you do look up from your phone screen, you’ll eventually notice that you’re trading genuine human connection—a rare commodity right now—with your phone. That’s why both Howard and Dr. O’Reilly suggest picking certain times of day to quarantine your phone and give your undivided attention to your relationship. “Minimizing technoference can be easier and more successful if you choose specific strategies and roll them out, one at a time, as opposed to trying to overhaul your entire lifestyle or trying to change everything at once,” says Dr. O’Reilly. Below, she and Howard give five ways to stop partner phubbing once and for all.
5 ways to keep partner phubbing from creating a pandemic in your relationship
1. Agree on phone-free pockets of time—starting with dinner
“In the past, we didn’t have to go out of our way to take a tech-break, but leaving the phones at home—or put away in another room if you’re dining at home—is a simple way to ensure that you’re present and connected to your partner,” says Dr. O’Reilly. Ask your partner if they’re cool with making dinnertime a tech-free space, then enjoy one another’s company.
2. Make a point of going on phoneless, pointless walks together
One of Dr. O’Reilly’s go-to recommendations is to soak up the summer weather with a walk. Only, instead of relying on your phone for navigation, wander together a bit, turn down a street you haven’t seen before, and make a game of finding your way back home with only the help of one another. “Technology is grand and can help you to see more relevant places in a shorter period of time, but it can also detract from discovery and the excitement of the unknown,” says Dr. O’Reilly. “Once in a while, whether you’re on vacation exploring a new city or simply wandering the streets of your own neighborhood, opt to leave the map at home so you can discover new streets, cafes, parks or architectural features on your own.”
3. Check in with your significant other before starting a conversation
Let’s say your significant other is checking their phone, and you want to ask them if the dishwasher is clean or dirty and discuss what should be on the menu for tonight’s dinner. Before you dive in, ask them one simple question: “Is this a good time to talk?”
“If one person is busy, be sure to suggest a better time. For example, you can say, now isn’t the best time for me, but I’ll be available in an hour, will that work? Collaborate on a mutually convenient time to talk,” says Howard.
4. No phones in the bedroom
This is one of Arianna Huffington’s go-to sleep rules, and Dr. O’Reilly says it can benefit your relationship just as much as your slumber. “We all make excuses for keeping our phone next to us in the bedroom. We say, ‘I use it as my alarm’ or ‘I use it to relax.’ Although leaving your phone in another room may make you feel uncomfortable at first, it will work wonders for your mood, sleep and sex life,” she says.
5. Recognize when you’re using phubbing to mask other relationship issues
“Don’t blame technology for relationship problems when it’s your behavior that is ultimately leading to friction, mindlessness, and conflict,” says Dr. O’Reilly. “You’re in charge of how you use your phone, so take control and make changes today if you feel your phone habits are interfering in your relationship or life satisfaction.” We tend to use our screens as scapegoats a lot, so be wary when you find yourself falling into that pattern in relationships and beyond.