Phubbing and Relationship Satisfaction

Scientists in Beijing have investigated how snubbing a partner to engage with technology can lead to depression.

“Phubbing” is when we ignore a partner for our cellphones. L’oeil étranger/Flickr

If there’s one aspect of modern life that is bound to inspire snark (snide + remark) it is the advent of a new portmanteau word. The lowest form of wit was once the pun: now it is the hacking apart of two perfectly serviceable words before sewing their cadavers together into a linguistic monstrosity. Or, as I like to call it, a “lingosity”.

I can hear the detractors now. “Chillax (chill + relax)”, they’re saying. “Portmanteau words aren’t all bad. After all, without portmanteau words, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy those hipster staples, cronuts (croissant + donut) and guyliner (guy + eyeliner)”. But for every cronut, there’s a tofurkey (tofu + turkey). For every guyliner, there’s a Brexit (Britain + exit).

I will refrain from flinging craptacular (crap + spectacular) portmanteau (porter + manteau) words at you like an over-caffeinated Giles Brandreth. Instead, allow me to mansplain (man + explain) what this blog is about: phubbing.

Phubbing is one of those behaviors that is so achingly modern it positively reeks of silicon chips. It’s when one member of a couple uses their phone to snub their partner. Phone + snubbing = phubbing. And it’s more common than jeggings (jeans + leggings) in Hoxditch (Hoxton + Shoreditch, which I just made up but, unsurprisingly, is revealed by a quick Google to already exist).

Xingchao Wang and colleagues from Renmin University of China wanted to find out if phubbing is a harmless activity (like jazzercise — jazz + exercise), or likely to result in marital dissatisfaction and depression (like glamping — glamourous + camping).

They surveyed nearly 250 couples on their phubbing behavior and their mental health. The volunteers filled in a series of questionnaires: a relationship satisfaction inventory, the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale, and the Partner Phubbing Scale (yes, that really does exist — it was published last year).

The researchers found that people phubbed by their partner were more likely to report being depressed, but that this effect was indirect. Phubbing by the partner decreased relationship satisfaction, and it was this decrease in relationship satisfaction that explained the higher depression scores. This led the researchers to recommend interventions to decrease depression that target phubbing and its effects on satisfaction.

What’s more, this effect of phubbing was only found for couples who had been married for more than seven years. Among relative newlyweds there was no link between phubbing and depression. But why? Wang suggests that the effects of a person’s behavior on the behavior and psychology of their partner increase in significance over time. A couple who has been together a long time will be more interdependent; couples with briefer relationships are less interdependent. This could mean that couples who have been together for less time are not as annoyed by phubbing.

Another possibility is that this is a cohort effect. Couples who have been together for less time are more likely to be younger. And perhaps among millennials, phubbing is less of a taboo. For older folk, snubbing your partner to check your phone is probably more, well, vomitrocious (vomit + atrocious).

Wang, X., Xie, X., Wang, Y., Wang, P., & Lei, L. (2017). Partner phubbing and depression among married Chinese adults: The roles of relationship satisfaction and relationship length. Personality and Individual Differences, 110, 12–17. Read summary

For an audio version of this story, see the 14 March 2017 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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