Technoference: Is Your Phone Destroying Your Relationship?

By Dr. Jess Relationships a man takes a phone call while in bed with his partner

Technology has the power to connect us – and divide us.

On the positive side, communication technologies (e.g., VOIP, video chat, texting) have generated new ways to create and maintain meaningful connections from afar, so you can stay in touch with loved ones anywhere in the world.

This is particularly relevant if you’re in a long-distance relationship. Luckily, there are many ways to keep the spark alive from a distance – including app-enabled sex toys and apps designed to boost coupled connection. Social media has also created new opportunities for expressions of appreciation and affection. Some research suggests that couples who share a profile pic or post about their relationship are also happier in real life.

But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, as tech can also interfere with connection, affection, trust, presence, and pleasure. Rather than engaging in conversation or connection before bed, you may be scrolling on your phone or watching TikTok videos until you pass out. Instead of waking up to your partner, you may check your email or news feed before you even brush your teeth. Or perhaps you’re missing out on intimate conversations over dinner because you’re cramming in work emails or distracted by your DMs.

The adverse impact of technology on relationships has become so common that researchers have coined the term, technoference (the interference of technology in human connection) and phubbing (snubbing someone in favor of your phone).

One study found that more than 60% of meals are interrupted by phone use and these interruptions account for about a quarter of the time spent together. Research also confirms that technoference can result in conflict, feelings of social rejection, jealousy, and an overall decline in relationship quality.

Most of us have experienced the frustration of someone constantly checking their phone – often at the expense of the real-life, real-time interaction. And most of us will admit that we’ve also been the guilty party at times. Even with the best of intentions in the most engaging company, many of us find our eyes glued to our phones – during meetings, on dates, at parties, and even in bed.

Technology is integrated into our lives and serves essential functions at work and play, so it follows that few (if any) of us have plans to ditch our devices any time soon. What we can do is make some simple changes to reduce the negative effects of technoference and maximize the upside of technology in relationships.

If you’re committed to reducing technoference so that you can be more present, consider the following strategies to get started.

a couple embraces while staring at their phones

1. Recognize your role in technoference – and the signs that your device may be adversely affecting your relationships.

If you find that you get a rush when you hear your phone ding or if you find yourself refreshing to check for messages at every opportunity, you may want to set some boundaries for yourself.

If your partner complains that you’re always on your phone or that you’re often distracted or not listening because your device is in hand, you might want to consider their perspective.

If you check your phone in the middle of the night or find that you need it by your side at all times, perhaps ask yourself what you’re worried about missing. Research reveals that those who are high in FOMO (fear of missing out) are more likely to engage in phubbing, so you may want to consider and address this fear as an underlying cause.

Most of us are quick to point the finger at others, but if we begin with ourselves, we’ll likely see more positive results. And fret not if you find yourself guilty of phubbing – it has become ubiquitous and just as we have created the habit, we can create the opposite one.

Quick tip: Set limits on your phone right now. Use your settings to create time limits on certain apps (e.g., email, text & social media) so that you’re blocked from checking after a specific time (e.g., 3 hours before you tend to go to bed). Don’t worry, you can always go back into your settings to override it if you need to make an exception.

two people using a phone and a laptop in bed

2. Ban your devices from the bedroom – starting with just one night.

Try leaving your phones and tablets in a different room as far away from your bedroom as possible. Buy an alarm clock if you tend to use your phone as your alarm so that you don’t use “my phone is my alarm” as an excuse to sleep next to it.

Not only does the blue light emitted by your phone interfere with sleep (and poor sleep is associated with adverse relationship outcomes including more conflict), but when you’re staring at your phone, it’s easy for your partner to feel neglected and/or unimportant.

Ask yourself what message you might be sending when you ignore your partner in favor of your phone. Consider how you feel when the roles are reversed. Do you worry that what they’re looking at on their phone is more important, alluring, or interesting than the person sitting next to them? Of course, this may not be the case, but mere perception (without reassurance) can cause tension and stress in your relationship when devices become omnipresent.

This isn’t to say that you can’t enjoy scrolling in silence in the comfort of one another’s presence at times, but hopefully, you’re also making space for a connection that doesn’t involve your online friends and network.

3. Plan phone-free meals or rituals.

Whether you lock your phone in your garage or a closet over dinner or plan phone-free Sunday mornings, one small change can go a long way. Not only will an hour or two without your phone force you to be more in the moment, but after you survive a few hours without it, some of your attachment anxiety will likely dissipate – especially if you make it a habit.

If phone-free meals feel too drastic, try it on Saturday nights to begin with and see if you can gradually increase the frequency. Many couples (and families) report that their relationships, mood, and energy improve when they prioritize tech-free meals.

a woman using her phone during a meal in a restaurant

4. Go for a walk, bike ride, or drive without using your phone.

Obviously, digital maps allow us to make a plan and cover more ground when exploring a new city, but they can also detract from discovery and the excitement of the unknown. Once in a while, whether you’re on vacation exploring a new city or wandering the streets of your own town, leave the phone at home (or in airplane mode) so you can discover something new. Exploration, spontaneity, and unpredictability are essential to passionate relationships, so the more you create opportunities for impromptu discovery, the more excitement you’ll likely feel – in and out of the bedroom.

5. Talk about technology with your partner and/or other loved ones.

There are no universal rules, expectations, or feelings when it comes to tech, so taking time to understand their perspective can be helpful.

Use these prompts to start the conversation:

  1. How do you feel our devices affect our relationship?
  2. How often do you want to be connected/disconnected?
  3. What draws you to your phone?
  4. How do you feel about electronics in the bedroom, at the dinner table, in the car, or elsewhere?
  5. How do you feel about how often we use our devices when we’re together?
  6. How does technology enhance our relationship?
  7. How do you feel when your partner is on their phone in different scenarios (e.g., out for dinner, while watching a movie, in bed)?
  8. What changes are you willing to make to reduce technoference?

If you want to hear a personal perspective, have a listen to our podcast where we (my partner and I) discuss our feelings and issues with tech in our marriage.

Remember that one small change can go a long way, so make one commitment right now to reduce technoference and bask in the pleasure of being in the moment, whether you’re single or partnered.

Feel free to share your tips for managing technoference in the comments below. We love hearing from you!