How ‘phubbing’ could be wrecking your relationship

My husband said my name and I didn’t even look up from my phone, writes Franki Cookney. I phubbed him. If we’re honest, all of us are guilty of it sometimes – even if we don’t realise we’re doing it

Monday 30 October 2023 16:37 GMT
People who are ‘phubbed’ themselves are more likely to ‘phub’ others, further contributing to feelings of isolation
People who are ‘phubbed’ themselves are more likely to ‘phub’ others, further contributing to feelings of isolation (Getty Images)

You can see it in their eyes when you’re talking to them. You can hear it in their voice when they respond. Mmm… yeah… totally. Eventually there comes a point where you have to front it up.

“Babe, are you actually listening?”

Often, during these exchanges, my husband won’t even have his phone in his hand. But I can tell it’s burning a hole in his pocket. I can tell because, while he might be looking in my direction, his eyes are glazed. In his head he’s somewhere else, possibly reflecting on an email from his boss, but more likely mentally composing a pithy comeback to some football banter on social media.

“Phubbing” refers to snubbing, but when there’s a phone involved. The term was coined way back in 2013 and dubbed “cheerfully daft” by this newspaper. Few of us took it seriously, although most people agreed it was bad manners. “We can only hope,” wrote former Independent editor Simon Kelner in 2013, “that, one day, it becomes as socially unacceptable as lighting up a Marlboro without seeking permission.” A decade later we’re no closer to this utopia. But we do know a lot more about the damage phubbing can do.

A clutch of new studies show it can be a significant cause of dissatisfaction in long-term relationships, that it makes people feel excluded and rejected, and that it can become a vicious cycle, with people who are phubbed themselves being more likely to phub others, further contributing to feelings of isolation.

Makes sense, right? Feeling ignored by your partner, feeling that you can’t hold their attention, that they’re not interested in you, all strike me as clear-cut reasons to be miserable. Yet we continue to do it to each other.

“I’m actually just sending an important message?!” my husband once snapped when I complained. He might well have been. So much of our lives is mediated through our phones. From paying bills to sending birthday cards, there are a million genuinely important things we could and probably should be doing at any one time. As for me, I can spend hours reading articles, scrolling social media, chatting on WhatsApp with my friends, to the exclusion of everyone around me. “It’s not just that your attention is divided, sometimes it’s like you don’t even hear me,” my husband tells me.

There’s a psychological term for this experience: ambiguous loss. It describes the feeling of losing the emotional connection even when the person is there physically. It’s how I feel when my sister checks her messages in the middle of us having coffee, even though we haven’t seen each other for months. It’s how my husband feels when he says my name and I don’t even look up.

Neither of us would actually go as far as to deny phubbing. We know we do it. We’re not proud of it, and we know the other person doesn’t like it, but until now we’ve accepted it as an inevitability. We tell ourselves we “aren’t that bad,” or certainly “not as bad as other people.” But if we don’t get it in check, it’s going to have serious consequences.

The first thing to do is to set some boundaries. If you want dinner time to be quality time, for example, you have to put your phones away. And I don’t mean in your pockets. I mean up on a shelf, in another room, under your bed – whatever works. Research shows that even having your phone next to you on the table can cause you to act more distracted, and less engaged with your dining companions. I buy us a charging dock and plug it in on the dresser in the kitchen. That way we can still play music on our Bluetooth speaker, but we’d have to actually get up and cross the room if we wanted to check them during dinner.

The next step is to drop the defensiveness and give each other the benefit of the doubt. “I’m sorry, I was writing a text. Let me just finish this sentence and then I’ll be all yours,” I’ll say when I look up to find my husband glaring at me. And instead of quietly fuming when he gives me distracted, half-arsed, responses, I’m trying to simply ask, “Is now a good time?” before I launch into a story about my day (bonus points if I manage to keep the passive aggressive tone out of my voice). And when we do pick up our phones, we communicate about it: “Give me five minutes to pay the childminder and then we can chat, okay?” “I just want to finish reading this article I started earlier, but then let’s watch telly together?”

They’re small steps and we definitely haven’t cracked it. Plus, we both recognise there are times when it’s probably fine to just loll on the sofa scrolling our respective screens. But at least we’re not ignoring the problem, even if we do still occasionally ignore each other.

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