Relating to Mobile Phones: Attachment styles in modern life & how to use them to enhance security
By Sue Marriott, LCSW, CGP. A young man in his early 20’s was exploring why he had a tough week after he had been internally withdrawn and cut off from his partner and later, with just a little help talking in session, felt completely reconnected to her. Then he said something quite fascinating. He said it was just like the feeling of losing his phone and later finding it again, right where he’d left it!
Now this is a particularly astute observation showing insight into his own internal process that also might lead us to consider something else… our attachment relationship with our mobile phones. Stay with me for a second… just think about it: when you are separated from your phone how does it feel? I don’t know about you, but if I can’t find my phone, I’m truly out of sorts even though I know perfectly well that the world is going on, my kids have probably not suddenly had an accident and I don’t urgently need to make a call.
And it’s not just me, there is even a word for this now… nomophobia. No joke, it was coined from a study in 2010 in the UK looking at anxiety related to phone use and has made it to Wikipedia! No-more-phone fear — whether it’s a drained battery, no service available or the separation from the physical device. Get this — there is even a suggestion to list this form of anxiety in the DSM-V under specific phobias!
Whoa now, let’s just slow down here, most of us aren’t phobic about this, right? Indeed, but apparently it’s typical of most smart phone users to experience significant distress if we are involuntarily disconnected from our phone, and we actively seek proximity to our device and feel notably relieved upon reunion. Some might hear in that echoes of safe haven and separation distress. If you think I’m exaggerating, research shows that young adults are separated from their phones for an average of only a few hours per day, keeping it turned on non-stop, checking it frequently and often sleeping with it or very near it (Pew, 2012).
Our new blankie. Umbilical cord. Comfort object.
How we relate to our mobile phones is an expression of and extension of our attachment system to people in the world. It’s possibly even a two-fold object of security. There is the attachment to our network of people that the mobile device so effectively serves, and perhaps there is also a secondary attachment to the device of the phone itself.
We’ve oriented ourselves around our phones, especially smart phones, in a relationally significant manner. We check them when they haven’t buzzed and keep them within reach. And it’s not just the kids that are dependent and attached to their phones. Mobile communication shapes both the process and context of adult partnering. Texting, for example, is used for everything from finding a partner, vetting and dating, falling in love and maintaining sexiness and affection, fighting and breaking up (Weisskirch, 2011). Mobile phones serve to deeply imbed and connect us by serving as storage for memories, solving problems, answering questions, entertaining us, navigating us towards wherever we mean to go and creating various versions of our self (avatars) on social media. One study showed one third of users would rather go a week without sex than be separated from their device for the same length of time, and 43 % of iPhone users specifically said they would rather go without shoes for a week than be separated from their phone for a week (Telenav, 2011)!
We are already familiar with powerful attachments to pets and non-specific human entities — example, the time of day of the sessions, the specific seat in group, the noises and smells of a safe space, personal rituals. Our evolutionarily driven biologically-based attachment system co-opts objects to facilitate a sense of security (Bereczky 2016 et al), exactly what transitional objects are all about.
Insecure relational patterns show up in our relationships with our phones.
Using interpersonal neurobiology terms, we may be seeking to regulate ourselves more and more with technology and the “information” it brings us. Fitness bands, health apps, social media…I am having to stop myself from documenting here these burgeoning industries just so I stay on point. But for those of us who have difficulties with self-regulation and experience insecurity in our attachments, this may not be easy.
A new and growing body of research on mobile phones use and attachment supports this idea. One study found anxiously-attached individuals show heightened distress upon separation from their phones and more actively use them to stay connected to their networks — rather than primarily using them for playing games or looking up information (Bereczky 2016). This can backfire, though, because the same features that make us feel part of things and reassured by the attention a post gets can also make us feel excluded or that what we have to say (or show) is not that interesting. The latter experience can trigger profound preoccupation in someone predisposed to anxious attachment.
And consistent with our intuition, another study showed that dismissively-oriented adults call and text their partners less, and get fewer calls and texts from significant others (Vincent, 2006).
Build security by using their (ahem, our!) favored communication device.
We want to always be nudging toward more and more security in ourselves and in our relationships, and listening to a client’s relationship with their mobile devices may be a way to understand and even intervene on their behalf. Oh, I can hear it now: Sue said we should increase attachment security by relating clients to their inanimate object of affection, as if they aren’t already addicted to the damn thing!
Yes, I am kinda saying that — it’s a tai-chi move, or the “if you can’t beat them join them” technique. It’s not a solve, but a tool.
When working with folks tilting towards the avoidance side of insecurity, it helps to get them in touch with their needs and vulnerability, right? As many of you know, that is not an easy task. A practical and to-the-point exercise of rewriting mobile phone use “best practices” is often intriguing to them, and is important because what is so-far internalized will be rather flat communication, at best. Paint by numbers here. Teach them that a text that says “On my way,” isn’t too needy, clingy or irrelevant. A “yay” in response — even if they don’t yet feel it — will go a long way in warming up their relationship. Connecting before desire is correct here just as it can be with starting sexual activity in order to get desire for romantic contact.
Same for using it more often during the day to stay connected, actually using voicemail to leave a sweet message, or sending a photo of what’s up. Don’t dis snapchap, people. That’s what it’s all about — sending a helmet-cam of a mood or an expression to your person, little or no text, it’s emotional communication visually.
For those in a dismissive state of mind, let’s face it, it simply won’t feel natural. However if the goal is to move towards security, then improving mobile interpersonal communication is a low-investment, high-payoff endeavor for those of us on the avoidant side of insecurity.
Another good example for our more avoidant folks is saving key communications (text, email, perhaps a meaningful favorite photo) to remind them that they actually need and want their partners. Example, grab an email they sent after a fight that contains some genuine affect and even better… fear — now that is gold! This needs to be memorized and reviewed often because the whole nature of their problem is losing connection to exactly those feelings of vulnerability and need. I know this sounds strange but it’s highly effective because you are helping them connect to their own feelings, so they are less likely to feel invaded, trapped or manipulated.
Reverse course for the anxiously insecure.
Increasing the ability to self-soothe and stay grounded for anxiously-oriented folks (the other side of organized insecurity) requires a different tact. Taking themselves more seriously, staying within the window of tolerance and throwing soft balls that are easy to catch — rather than hurling a hardball — are all part of the journey to feel and be safer in relationships. So, practicing ever-widening periods of not checking their device is a way to sneak up on a mindfulness practice, which is just the ticket to learn more self-soothing for folks that are highly anxious about relationships. “Abstaining” from their device forces them to access and develop their internalized relationships and learn there is nothing on that phone of importance that can’t wait. It’ll be right there for them whenever they do get around to looking. In the meantime, there is space to work on self-soothing, healthy distractions, engaging in self-compassion and the other needed skills to grow security. Again remember in order to gain security us anxious folks have to learn to incorporate a little dismissiveness. It’s true.
The anxiously insecure could also benefit from the technique of saving key communications in order to better hold their partner when they aren’t there. However, for these folks it may work better if the communication is from their partner (rather than written by themselves) to remind them they are important, valued and loved by the other even when the other isn’t right there.
Remember the guy at the beginning of this article? He’d lost contact with his feelings of attachment to his partner, felt worse, connected with himself again by opening up and talking, and then easily reconnected to his warm feelings for his partner, thus feeling notably relieved. It was an internal process of being reminded that the love is right there where you left it, you just have to call it back up (bad pun intended). Like the moon — it’s not gone when it isn’t visible, we just can’t see it from the angle we are at in the moment… but it is right there, where it supposed to be, and will soon return if we look for it. Or as he said more colloquially, like the missing phone that wasn’t actually lost to begin with.
Bereczky, B M; Gigler, D; Konok, V; Miklosi, A. 2016. “Humans’ attachment to their mobile phones and its relationship with interpersonal attachment style,” Computers in Human Behavior 61 537e547.
Vincent, J.2006, “Emotional attachment and mobile phones.” Knowledge, Technology & Policy 19(1), 39–44
Weisskirch, RS, 2012. “Women’s adult romantic style and communication by cell phone with romantic partners,” Psychological Reports, 111(1), 281–8.
Sue Marriott, LCSW, CGP, is co-host of the soon-to-be-launched Therapist Uncensored, a podcast and platform where psychotherapists speak freely about real life matters. She has been in private practice for over 25 years and leads 3 long-term therapy groups, provides clinical supervision and training for other therapists, and occasionally tandem sky dives because she’s too chicken to do it by herself.
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