Rewire Logo
A nonprofit journalism
website produced by:
Twin Cities PBS Logo

What Chronic 'Phubbing' Can Do to Your Relationship

by Gabe Zaldivar
March 25, 2019 | Love

The fact that many of you are reading this right now with your partner next to you at dinner or in bed is all you need to prove we have a serious problem, America.

That's called "phubbing," and experts say it's hurting our relationships.

Phubbing, a portmanteau of the words "phone" and "snubbing, happens when someone is “ignored at the expense of someone using their smartphone instead of paying attention to them," said Baylor University marketing professor James A. Roberts, who coauthored a study on phubbing.

Far too many of us unthinkingly do this to our significant others, making them feel more insignificant in the process.

“Phubbing is a bad habit that can ... lead to heightened insecurity and trust issues in relationships," study coauthor Meredith E. David said.

Their research in 2017 discovered that 79 percent of Americans can’t bear to part with their phones, checking them a whopping 221 times a day. And nearly half of people say they've been phubbed by a significant other.

Why you should care

I know. Those tweets aren’t going to like themselves. But being captivated by the phone rather than the person you love could have repercussions.

Illustration of couple at dinner table with man on his iPhone. Phubbing pbs rewire
For couples, the fix is often in setting boundaries.

Roberts and David found that about 23 percent of relationship phubbing resulted in “conflict” and about 37 percent stated that they felt depressed “at least some of the time.”

Roberts broke it down to a very basic level: “We’re being ostracized. We’re being ignored. That goes to the very core of who we are as humans.”

And that can impact our overall quality of life, even outside of our romantic relationships.

“When we’re unhappy in love, we’re unhappy in life," Roberts said. "People who reported lower levels of relationship satisfaction also report lower levels of overall life satisfaction and higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression.”

Your nightly companion

Getting into bed, tucking yourself in and rolling over to snuggle with your smartphone might be your nightly routine, but it could be causing you to skip out on some important debriefing time with your partner.

Even “the opportunity to go to sleep at the same time" and cuddling are important parts of a relationship you might be missing if one or both of you turn right to your phones, Sanderson said.

Talking about your days, holding one another, having sex: Smartphones have become that third wheel that wiggles its way between you two at night.

And the thing about present-day relationships is that nothing has existed like the smartphone.

“Smartphones are basically rabbit holes," Sanderson said.

If you were so inclined, you could thumb through one article after another for eternity. If you want to put a stop to phubbing, you'll have to enforce it yourself. That makes it a really hard habit to kick.

Out of sight

If you're trying to spend quality time, not only should you put down your phone, you should probably put it in another room.

“Research has shown that the mere presence of a cell phone, so even a cell phone that’s turned off, decreases people’s ability to have meaningful conversations with people in their own lives," said Catherine A. Sanderson, author of the book “The Positive Shift” and a psychology professor at Amherst College.

In one study, a group of people were given about 20 minutes to chat. Some of these conversations took place with a phone, turned off, sitting on the table.

Sanderson explained that simply having even a dead phone on the table meant “less intimate, less meaningful, less vulnerable conversations than if the phone (wasn’t) there.”

Think about your own life, and how you feel when your phone is in your line of sight. Like Smeagol looking for his Precious, your phone calls to you to open it and plunge into the who, why, what scenario. Who isn’t texting; why aren’t they texting; and what are they doing without me? Even if you resist, it's a subliminal onslaught.

[ICYMI: 3 Ways Social Media Might Be Hurting Your Love Life]

A phubbing fix to get back on track

For couples, the fix is setting boundaries, Roberts said. He suggests writing up something along the lines of a social contract, spelling out exactly what phone etiquette is expected.

The rules could vary based on where you're hanging out, what day it is or what time of day it is. This part is up to you and your partner.

“It’s not going to be easy. But we need to start with, ‘Hey, our relationship is important and I’m willing to do what’s necessary to improve our relationship,'" he said. "And that might mean, amongst other things, addressing how we use our technology.”

Of course, our phones have a time and a place. When used mindfully, technology can bring another layer to our relationships.

“Smartphones can be used to send those whispers, the high-tech sweet little nothings into your romantic partner’s ear,” Roberts said.

“Those are things that can enhance our relationships as well. You can foster that sense of connection and concern; share funny things. I think there’s a definite role for phones in relationships as a positive influence."

Gabe Zaldivar
Gabe Zaldivar is a Los Angeles-based writer who has covered all manner of sports for Bleacher Report and, as well as all manner of travel interests for
Are you here? So are we!
Rewire LogoFor a better life and a brighter future
A nonprofit journalism website produced byTPT Logo
©2020 Twin Cities Public Television.Privacy PolicyTerms of Use