Is Phone Use a Red Flag in Relationships?
Perceived inattention is a relationship killer. Here’s how to ask someone to pay attention without making them defensive.
I loved this quote about phone use as a red flag:
“[Phone use is a red flag if] they’re hanging out with you and they’re constantly on their phone […] It’s the fact that I don’t have their undivided attention — ever — that puts my hackles up.” — Megan Boley (”Are You Dating a Bucket of Red Flags?” in P.S. I Love You)
This quote reminds me of a great HuffPost article that argues that women leave men they love because the men are no longer present:
Why Women Leave Men They Love: What Every Man Needs To Know
As a marriage counsellor working with men and women in relationship crisis, I help clients navigate numerous issues…
Indeed, I have been guilty of being on my phone at the wrong time, and I am only now starting to learn the costs of being inattentive and disengaged.
I want to know when we can get a free pass, though — and I think the solution is open and honest communication without defensiveness.
Obviously we all know paying too much attention to your phone while hanging out is very rude. I think that’s true in any social situation.
But if I am deep into a second or third hour of watching TV with a friend, can I get permission to text some friends back? Or is still a red flag?
One of my goals is maintaining more close friendships, not being the most attentive TV watcher — so should I wait to text my other friends?
Personally, I’ve noticed that using my phone during TV time can provoke the same hostile response as if I were doing it during a romantic dinner.
Maybe it’s a lame excuse, but I have ADD and feel the temptation to whip out my phone whenever I get distracted, which is a lot.
For example, during a recent local concert, I wanted to text a friend, shoot a video, and write down a workout idea — all at the same time.
I only held off because of the social pressure of seeing no one else on their phones, and even then I just waited for a few minutes and did what I wanted.
I genuinely feel it’s being inauthentic to myself to not do that stuff — particularly when I’m not socializing with friends or on a date.
Sure, there are definitely times when checking your phone is a real faux pas — in social situations, and all the more so when dating.
And maybe I need to further break my habits (formed when lonely, and alone) of using my phone while out or while hanging out. (I’m doing better!)
In fact, because it’s 2020, I actively try to squelch the part of me that sees a friend on a phone and thinks “Why aren’t they paying attention to me?”
So, my question is: Is phone use really such a huge red flag?
Yes, yes it is. The research clearly shows that using a phone during a relationship is poisonous to our romantic relationships:
“[P]hubbing [a portmanteau of “phone” + “snubbing”] is basically relationship napalm. One recent study found that the behavior actually facilitates relationship dissatisfaction on an almost subconscious level by creating emotional distance between romantic partners.” — Jeremy Brown (“The Danger of Phubbing: Choosing Your Phone Over Your Relationship Will Destroy It” on Fatherly)
So, Megan Boley’s insight is right — phone use is indeed a red flag when dating. But is the best solution asking “What are you doing?”
To me, the question “What are you doing on your phone?” invites instant defensiveness — because the question indicates mistrust.
My experience has shown that even legitimate answers like trying to coordinate with the friends we had agreed to meet out still creates the dynamic of “But you should have been paying attention to me.”
And I can concede that point when I’m out with friends, whether hanging out or dating — but when just watching another hour of TV? Give me a break.
Indeed, there is a fundamental miscommunication here — my partner (or friend) perceiving my ADD acting up as a lack of interest, while I perceive any questioning of my phone activity as spying on my phone.
And spying on someone else’s phone will blow up any relationship:
“Realize that spying on their phone highlights a lack of trust within the relationship, and will probably just result in arguments (if they find out). Remember, relationships are built on a foundation of trust. If that isn’t there, the entire structure will come crumbling down.” — Matt Lillywhite (“5 Bad Relationship Habits Most People Think are Normal in P.S. I Love You”)
It sounds like spying on someone’s phone, or even asking about their phone activity, is out. So how can we ask for the attention we deserve?
I think the solution is saying what we really mean. Something like:
Friend: “I perceive you as not being fully engaged and present because I see you looking at your phone.” NOT: “What are you doing on your phone?”
Derek: “I want to stretch my legs. I could use a few minutes outside as a change of pace to keep me engaged.” NOT: “Why do you want to know?”
I have written previously about how to take accountability when communicating, especially when we mess up:
Maybe the culprit in my case is actually the choice of boring activity (TV) that can potentially drag on for hours.
I can surely choose more fun / sociable activities that keep me engaged.
But I can also remember to keep my phone in my pocket!
We would all do well to remember Megan Boley’s point — that perceived inattention during social time is a serious slight in and of it self, even without an actual transgression (like cheating in a monogamous relationship).
So, from now, it will be “phones away” for me around others — as best as I can! In order to do so, I plan to be compassionate with myself when I slip up and communicative (open, not defensive) if I do take my phone out.