Is your phone getting in the way of your relationship? Psychologist and author Dr Elaine Kasket shares her advice for introducing tech boundaries in the bedroom
Two people lie in bed, their faces bathed in twin circles of light from their respective smartphones. Physically, they are together. Mentally, they’re in different worlds. This scene, which plays out nightly in bedrooms everywhere, may sound all too familiar.
When watching, scrolling, gaming, working, or texting in bed becomes more compelling than interacting with your partner, you’re experiencing technoference. A burgeoning phenomenon, technoference occurs when we allow tech to distract us from our relationship or to diminish its quality. If you’re like most smartphone users, you charge your device next to you while you sleep, so the bedroom provides little respite from its siren song.
The rise of "phubbing"
In 2012, smartphone sales exploded by 45 per cent and a new word was born. Phubbing is snubbing someone by looking at your phone instead of attending to them. Behaviours once seen as unacceptable in social situations, like starting to read while someone’s speaking to you, are now common practice.
"Chronic phubbing within a relationship lessens feelings of intimacy"
Phubbing a significant other can have serious consequences, especially when it becomes habitual. Chronic phubbing within a relationship increases feelings of exclusion, decreases partner responsiveness, and lessens feelings of intimacy.
Why is technoference harmful in the bedroom?
From a health perspective, the lights and noises of bedside devices can reduce sleep quality. Before attempting to rest, we jangle our nervous systems by "doom scrolling", doing work, or grabbing the phone whenever a notification drops.
But relational wellness is affected as much as individual wellness. Handheld devices, not designed for jointly enjoyed activities, skew us towards solitariness. Technology has reconstructed the bed as a place for working, communicating with the outside world, and engaging in solo online entertainment; increasingly, intimacy with the person who’s lying next to us gets short shrift.
From our earliest days, contact, touch, and verbal interaction forge our social bonds. As babies, we feel safety, love, and trust when our parents look at us and mirror our expressions. As adults, we still need to be seen and appreciated by our loved ones. When a partner pays attention to us, we feel attractive, liked, and important; constantly playing second fiddle to a gadget provokes rather different feelings.
Psychology behind phubbing
Our phones have become such extensions of our bodies that it feels odd to go too long without checking on them. We toss around the acronym FOMO (fear of missing out), but many of us are well beyond knowing exactly what we’re worried about missing; we only know that constant access to the phone feels important, even necessary.
"Our phones have become such extensions of our bodies that it feels odd to go too long without checking on them"
Faced with the anxiety of separation from our phones, we give ourselves permission to keep them nearby, telling ourselves persuasive-sounding stories. The phone serves as the alarm clock. It contains sleep or mindfulness meditation apps. Audiobooks, podcasts, and streaming videos helps with winding down and nodding off.
But sometimes clinging to the phone in the bedroom isn’t just about habit—sometimes it serves a conscious or unconscious function. Devices allow us to escape from real-life worries, including relationship problems. Tackling difficult emotions and issues with a partner often isn’t easy or comfortable, and we may lack communication confidence or skills, or fear conflict.
Diving into your device numbs feelings of loneliness and discontent in the short term, and if you’re already not feeling very close to your partner, you can deploy your phone to fob them off. Manoeuvres like I’m listening to my podcast and I’m answering work emails have likely replaced I have a headache.
Unfortunately, these moves only deepen disconnection over the long haul and prevent us from building relationship skills. If you’ve drifted as a couple, if an emotional or sexual rift has already appeared between you, it’s unlikely that bedside phones will encourage you to put in the work that will help you grow closer again.
Strategies to combat technoference in the bedroom
To fight back against technoference, you must first shift out of automatic pilot. Our devices are expertly calibrated to pull you in, but don’t leave the health of your relationship in the hands of your device’s designers.
Open a dialogue. Describe what you’ve noticed about how you both use technology, and how it feels. If you’ve observed a decrease in quality time, conversation, and intimacy, tell your partner that. Tell them what you miss. Ask them to share their experience.
In devising solutions, focus on values. Don’t institute a gadget-free bedroom without also discussing why it’s so important to do it. Talk about your desires, what matters to you, and what you want your relationship to be like.
"Don’t institute a gadget-free bedroom without also discussing why it’s so important to do it"
If technoference is rife in your household, you’ll need to design both your physical and digital environments to create friction between you and your unhelpful habits. Gadgets may need to become less visible or not present during dinners or walks, or in certain rooms at certain times. Settings can be reconfigured to provide oases of dis-connectivity.
If you and your partner agree that you’re using tech in ways that distance you from one another, commit to taking more active responsibility for your relationship by creating and protecting space and time for conversation, touch, mutual interests, and the pursuit of joy. As smart as your phone is, it can’t control your behaviour. Phones provide endless connectivity, but true connection is entirely up to you.
Elaine Kasket is a psychologist, speaker and coach. Her new book, Reboot: Reclaiming Your Life in a Tech-Obsessed World, is out now.
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