Wife annoyed with husband on cell phone

Taming the smartphone “beast” in your marriage

The single most important thing a couple can do to keep their marriage on track is to regularly set aside time for non-distracted communication.

In my work with more than 5,000 couples over the past 18+ years, one of the most frequent complaints I hear is, “I wish he — or she — wouldn’t look at his phone when I’m talking.”

Two trends have long made it a challenge for couples to maintain a strong connection over the course of their marriage. Couples tend to get progressively more comfortable with each other over time. At the same time, the burdens they are asked to carry get heavier and heavier.  

I used to jump out of my chair when my wife walked in the door. Soon enough, I was giving her a quick wave instead. Meanwhile, we started to have children, bought a home, and earned job promotions at work. All this “good news” made us busier and busier—while we were taking less and less notice of each other.

Couples drift apart thanks to this double whammy of getting busier as they grow more comfortable with each other.

Our growing affection for our smartphones

A recent third trend—our growing affection for our smartphones—has made maintaining connection in marriage even more challenging. The smartphone has become such a presence in our lives that we can forget it is a relatively recent phenomenon. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2011, just 35% of Americans owned a smartphone—today that number is 85%.

Meanwhile, the number of hours we spend on our phones is growing. The digital marketing research firm eMarketer found the average person spent almost four hours a day on their phone in 2021—up from 2.5 hours a day in 2014. This growing smartphone use is only adding to the strains on our marriages.

The single most important thing a couple can do to keep their marriage on track is to regularly set aside time for non-distracted communication. The great majority of communication is non-verbal. If you are not looking at each other when you talk, you are missing out on a full range of valuable information.

Here’s an example from my own marriage. After one of my quick waves to my wife, I asked her how her day went. She said “fine,” and I said “great.” But I was checking my email at the time. Ten minutes later, I realized the way she said “fine” actually meant “terrible.” I missed out on an opportunity to connect emotionally with my wife because I was glued to my screen. I caught myself doing this once. How many times did I not even notice? 

The importance of non-distracted communication

The renowned marriage research Dr. John Gottman found that couples who connect for just two minutes in the morning—without distraction—feel closer, are more positive about their relationship, and connect more spontaneously with each other throughout the remainder of the day.

Years ago, I met with a couple from France and just sat back and listened as they repeatedly accused each other — with thick French accents — “You check your Blackberry before you wish me good morning”… “No! You check your Blackberry before you wish me good morning!”

It’s only gotten worse in the years since. A 2013 IDC research report found that 62% of us check our cell phones immediately after waking up, but among 18-24-year olds, 74% were guilty of this practice. This is the age cohort that is now coming to me for advice as they set out on their married lives together.

Our habit of checking our phones first thing in the morning sends an unhappy message to our partners: “I am more excited to wake up to my phone than I am to wake up to you.” No wonder the French couple felt so offended!

A smartphone-free start to our days?

Smartphone use is linked to higher levels of stress, but it is particularly damaging to look at our phones in the morning before we are fully awake. We begin our days feeling overwhelmed before we’ve had a chance to think about our priorities.

This is not good for us as individuals, and it’s not good for our marriages. Teamwork in marriage suffers when we miss our partner’s emotional signals.

That’s why my wife and I have committed ourselves to a smartphone-free start to our days. We embraced Dr. Gottman’s research and now spend two minutes—without distraction—connecting with each other in the morning. We look at our phones only after this morning ritual of connection.

I am a better husband all day when I spend uninterrupted time with my wife in the morning. I notice when she is tired, and I am more appreciative of her throughout the day. I am also quicker to offer help when I can see she is going to have a difficult day.

When couples come through for each other—day after day—in small ways like this, marriages get better with time.

Keeping the smartphone “beast” at bay

What can couples do to keep the smartphone “beast” at bay?

  • At a minimum, I recommend couples declare their bed a phone-free zone. Even better—if your life allows it—make your whole bedroom technology free.
  • Do not use your phone as an alarm. Use a watch or an alarm clock.
  • If you need to keep your phone in your bedroom, don’t keep it within reach of your bed. Few of us can maintain the discipline of not reaching for our phone if it’s right there next to us.
  • Commit to starting your day as a couple with at least a two-minute ritual of connection. Ours comes after we’ve each had our coffee—by this time we’re fully awake. Check your phones only after this connection.

But what if you “have” to look at your phone as soon as you wake up? I hear this from couples all the time whose jobs demand constant connection.

First, it’s important to reiterate, checking your phone immediately after waking up is not healthy for your brain—let alone for your marriage.

My own solution is to get up a little earlier so I can have that valuable quiet time with myself and my wife. I’ve also “favorited” the important people in my life so I can see any messages from them on my phone’s lock screen without having to pick up my phone.

I also encourage couples to establish shared guidelines—“rules”—regarding at-home cell phone use. My wife and I have agreed, for example, we’re not allowed to walk into our house holding a phone in our hands. We need to walk in ready to connect.

To enjoy larger chunks of non-distracted time together, I also urge couples to set aside phone-free time—perhaps even an entire weekend—on a shared calendar. In this day and age, I am convinced a phone-free weekend is life’s greatest luxury.

Last, but not least, I urge couples to schedule their conversations—with the understanding that smartphone use is not allowed when they’re talking with each other. With this practice, you’ll never have to say to each other, “I wish you weren’t looking at your phone when I’m talking.”

This post was originally published on the Institute for Family Studies blog.

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