Phone Addiction and Its Perilous Effect On Relationships: Simple Changes Can Make A Big Difference

A marital client privately confessed last week, "I think I might be addicted to my phone; and if I'm really honest with myself, this might play a huge role in the problems with my marriage." He's not alone. I hear from my clients, day in and day out, and see in my own marriage, how phones can get in the way. According to recent studies (as featured in the New York Times May, 2017), a large majority of partners deemed smartphones and other technology devices as the cause of greater relationship conflict and dissatisfaction, and for many, this included lower life satisfaction as well. 

While our smartphones offer tremendous obvious benefits, including staying in better touch, they have also introduced unprecedented barriers to human connection, within ourself and between each other. Many seem to have a sense of the problems their phones might be causing them, often lightly joking about the issue. Most underplay the severity of their compulsive phone behavior and the damage caused by these tempting devices (aka denial). A great many simply lack awareness. Not easy to do, but simple changes can make a great difference. 

But first, let's assess whether our relationship to our phones is, in fact, interfering with our relationships, and next explore the kinds of problems these digital best friends might cause. Awareness is the first and essential step to creating motivation for change. Then I'll share 4 Simple Changes to keep ourselves in better balance. 


Are We Addicted — Is Our Phone Interfering?  A recent New York Times article featured Dr. David Greenfield, a University of Connecticut psychiatry professor who developed a Smartphone Compulsion Test. Through a series of 15 simple questions, Dr. Greenfield provides an easy way "to help people determine if their phone use is reasonable or excessive." Anywhere from asking whether we keep our phones at the dinner table to the degree we feel the urge to check a text, I recommend taking a few minutes to take his short questionnaire. I'll break the ice. According to Dr. Greenfield's relatable criteria, I clearly have a compulsive relationship to my phone. Regardless of how you scored or assess yourself, I believe we all benefit from exploring how we allow our phones to get in between each other and block us from the best version of ourselves.

How Phone Addiction Might Hurt Us. Be on guard for the following 4: 

  • Relationship Dependency or Neediness. For my client, he found that his phone fed a needy tendency, particularly because of the 24/7 opportunity for access. His constant checking compulsion, coupled with the expectation for an immediate reply, only exacerbated his insecurity.  Smartphones have created a shift in perceived accessibility.  Used to be, in those olden days of landlines and knocks-at-the-door, we would not expect to reach each other so instantly and constantly. We had a stronger “wait for it” muscle which naturally encouraged us to work through our emotional vulnerability, internally.  Today, it’s easier to use our phone as a security blanket when we feel lonely, empty, bored or unsafe. While there's a great value to keeping better connected, phones can leave us seeking a false sense of security from others and more likely to jump to conclusions when we don't hear back as quickly as we'd like. 
  • Desire For Instant and External Gratification.  Similar to triggering emotional neediness, our smartphones can make us more likely to seek stimulation and validation both externally and instantly. When we stay too attached to our phones, this can diminish a deeper connection to our inner self and life.
  • Lack of Being Present.  Above any other grievance I hear and deal with personally is how phones can make us all distracted and simply "not there." In this digital technology era, it’s even harder to be alone with ourselves, easier to feel fidgety and lost when there's quiet time. Phone usage (or abus-age) makes being present and fulfilled in the moment much more difficult — a state of being already challenging for us human doers. When we lack a connection within ourself, we are less available to be present with others.  The complaints I hear about partners' phones are only growing  in my counseling office —  “If she would just put down that phone!” The blank shell of a connection, when we are with someone who keeps looking at their phone, can leave us empty and ripened for bitter words. Most couples report that each are as guilty as the other. We simply cannot feel and grow our love together when we are not "there,” sharing at least some degree of guarded quality time.
  • Crossing Boundaries and Increased Jealousy. The lines have blurred with what is appropriate contact since smartphones and social media have entered the romantic arena. Many doors of temptation have slipped right open, one little text at a time.  This easier-access component, combined with an already jealous and insecure mate, can make for quite a conflictual and unsafe brew between couples. 

4 SIMPLE CHANGES to open doors for better intimacy and fulfillment, within ourselves and together with the ones we love. 

  • Declare No Phone Zones and Times

Just yesterday, out of town visiting our son, my husband and I took him out to lunch. Instantly, the phones hit the deck. It was a casual dine, but still, I didn’t want to miss one minute of connecting with Jeremy. Writing this blog was already on my mind, so I felt especially empowered, “Hey Buddy, can you put the phone away for lunch.” He’s quite accustomed to this request, but I could tell, he was happy I asked. 

Tip: Don’t be afraid to set boundaries, to take a sabbatical within your day or a whole day of the week. Designate as a couple, or a family, certain phone-on and phone-off times. Be sure to do so with love. Most of us have trouble with our phones and criticizing or shaming never draws the very connection we seek. 

  • Make Friends With Pain

Much of what makes us addicted stems from our desire to run from our pain, to move away from discomfort — whether that be boredom or shame, hurt or fear, emptiness or loneliness. Our human nature dictates that we must fix these uncomfortable feelings, and quickly.  So we get addicted, to whatever keeps us from feeling uncomfortable. Smartphones can certainly provide an easy instant (albeit illusionary) fix. There is a great difference and distance between feeling good in the moment and fulfillment, long term. Choose wisely.

Tip: When you notice yourself turning to your phone, especially with that compulsive feeling, catch yourself. Then check to see what you are feeling. Breathe and Be, with that feeling. Name it, accept it, explore it.  Pause and see if you still feel that checking your phone is best for you.  At the very least you will have grown that pause muscle, the "wait for it" capacity known as Patience. This is the beginning step towards tolerating what’s uncomfortable and setting yourself free.  

  • Put the Phone Down and Ask Yourself, “What Do I Enjoy?”

Fixating on our phones, or a person on the other end, might mean a stagnation or lack of creativity in our life. I asked my client what he would enjoy doing, if he weren't spending as much time checking his phone or thinking about his wife. I asked him, “Where might you feel stagnant in your own life?” This opened a treasure chest of hobbies, passions, and interests he had forgotten all about, creative ideas that put him in the driver seat of his own happiness.  He was thrilled to remember how much he used to enjoy things like reading and volunteering, hiking and studying spirituality. 

Tip: Make a list of what you enjoy. Ask yourself where you might feel stagnant, where you have desires and dreams, goals and a sense of purpose to explore. Then take simple actions.  As I learned for myself from Monica Berg, spiritual teacher and writer, our direction "unfolds by doing."

  • Practice Being Present

In Hebrew there’s a term, Hitbodedut, which means to “be by yourself alone,”  I learned this from Michael Elchadif, who gave a seminar on being present in the here and now.  I have painstakingly memorized this word (I don't speak Hebrew) because of my love for this concept. When we grow comfortable in our own skin, being by ourself alone, we build an immunity to external addictions because we have nothing to run from.  We become full — right here, right now.  This fullness within, our capacity for being present,  is the key to close relationships. 

Tip: We can be by ourself alone in many ways. I love being in nature, music, and journaling. All together, well, that’s extra credit in my book. All of these are surprisingly powerful tools for bringing our focus from outside to inside, to feeling okay right where we are, with who we are. How do you like to be by yourself alone?