Screens are a fun, addicting relationship killer. This isn’t news to anyone: their primary function is to distract and present us windows into different worlds that are more engaging than real life. Let’s face it: Scrolling through someone’s vacation Instagram stories or playing a round of Wordscapes is a pleasant distraction from talking about soccer schedules or parent-teacher meetings. But a partner is always ignoring you for their phone — also known as phubbing — bad things happen. Partners feel dismissed. Frustration builds. So does resentment. The phone becomes a barrier. And barriers do not a happy marriage make.
As with any marital issue, it’s important not to let such problems fester. It’s also not useful to explore passive aggressive routes. So what’s the best way to actually talk to your partner about their phone use? According to Stephanie Wijkstrom, MS, LPC, NCC, psychotherapist and founder of the Counseling and Wellness Center of Pittsburgh, there are certain guidelines to remember. The most important? Don’t immediately criticize their behavior, and try to make sure that when you bring up the issue, you offer solutions about the both of you. Also not a great idea? Throwing their phone against a wall and smashing it into 1,000 pieces. Not a great look. Although it is satisfying. Here’s what to know.
1. Try Different Ways to Get Your Partner’s Attention.
Part of communicating effectively around screens is making sure that you’re getting your partner’s attention before you start speaking. So, it’s important to signal to them that you have a story to tell or something to bring up. If your partner drifts into some Instagram story about a friend’s vacation or scrolling through their work email as you’re talking to them, it’s important to find a calm way to confront the distraction. Maybe it’s a touch on the shoulder; maybe it’s a tap on the counter. “We all have different ranges of attention,” says Wijkstrom. “Some people need a touch on the shoulder that brings them out of the zone.”
2. Be Honest About How It Makes You Feel.
Constantly being second to a partner’s social media or email makes you want to grab a sledgehammer and go all Gallagher on their phone. We get it. The better move? Take a breath and tell them how it makes you feel. This, of course, requires tact.
“The best format to approach any topic like this is by using a soft start,” says Wijkstrom. A soft start means that you say what you feel — and, then, what you need. Does their phone use make you feel anxious? Lonely? Do you think it’s setting the wrong example for the kids? Be frank and straightforward and allow them to respond honestly. Only then can you arrive at a solution.
3. Create an Actionable, Achievable Plan
The next step? Present a plan of action. No, this isn’t the time to declare a phone-free household. Small steps are key here. Figure out ways to lessen phone time and beef up eye contact. Wijkstrom recommends making meal-time a “sacred space” and phone-free zone. Another recommendation? Powering phones down just an hour before it’s time to go to bed, or leaving the phone outside of the bedroom. Make suggestions and work as a team to employ them.
4. Be Realistic.
The modern world requires us to be on-call or take late night emails. In that sense, it can be unrealistic to have the bedroom be a totally phone-free zone. There are still steps you can take to put a barrier between you and your phone. Why not make sure the phone is an arm’s reach away or on the dresser away from the bed with the volume on?
Another idea: Use apps like Apple’s “Screen Time,” which can power down your phone for everything but phone calls for certain hours. That puts an extra barrier between your partner picking up their phone and scrolling when it’s in the room while still allowing them to use their phone for essential work duties.
5. Set Aside an Hour of IRL Face Time Per Week
If work and life continue to get in the way of trying to limit screen time every day, dedicate one hour to week phone-activities prioritizing eye contact and deep conversations, says Wijkstrom. If it happens on a Saturday morning before the kids are up, that’s when it happens. Sometimes, the weeks might be too crazy to focus on one another — but even just 60 minutes of intentional time can make a huge difference.
6. If All Else Fails, Seek Couples Therapy.
If conversations and plans continue to fall flat, it might be time to seek a professional, says Wijkstrom. When that happens, your partner will understand that you’re stating a clear boundary — that their phone use is becoming a problem and hurting your relationship with them — and the outside help will provide some much-needed perspective. “If your partner really isn’t hearing you, and attending to your needs, that sounds pretty lonely. How happy can a relationship that breeds such loneliness be?” says Wijkstrom. “Everybody is entitled to their deal breakers and boundaries and knowing them intimately is very important.”
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