How to Talk to Your Partner About Their Smartphone Obsession

Couple laying in bed looking at their smart phones.

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How many times a day do you touch your smartphone? Most people figure it’s a few hundred times, but according to a 2016 study done by DScout, a Chicago-based survey and research company, people touch their smartphones an average of 2,600 times a day, with heavy users topping 6,000. We'll bet you didn't guess that high.

With that knowledge, your frustration with your partner’s digital device use is probably not unfounded. “Guess who you’re not touching while you’re touching your mobile phone,” quipped Kari Dean McCarthy, one of the survey authors.

The fact is, the more you connect with your phone, the less you connect with each other. Whether it’s over dinner, at the movies or on a drive, the amount of attention you pay to what’s happening in your digital life takes away from the people you’re with.

Whose Problem Is It Anyway?

When your spouse checks the phone absently as it buzzes or chirps during an actual IRL (in real life) interaction it’s distracting — but it’s also downright rude. And you have every right to be annoyed or frustrated when it happens. But what about your own phone use?

“One of the most common responses I hear in couples confronting their partners is: ‘But you’re on your phone 24/7,’" says Mike Dow, Psy.D., psychotherapist and New York Times best-selling author of “The Brain Fog Fix.” "So if this is something that you want to change, then it’s best to model this behavior. ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’” (Or relationship, in this case.)

If you have a smartphone, you’ve probably checked it absently during a conversation when it called your attention. You probably felt justified for your actions and didn’t think twice about it. But you’ve also probably been on the other side of it — like when you’re talking with your partner and they absently check their device.

Did it make you feel, even for a second, that they weren’t giving you their full attention? Multiply that feeling by every time you check your phone, and you’ll see how that can mushroom into a bigger attention issue while simultaneously giving your partner permission to do it too.

man in couch using mobile phone neetworking late night


Signs Your Partner Is a Smartphone Addict

We’re all tied to our phones for work, appointments, kids, responsibilities, reminders and notifications, but how do you know whether it’s an obsession, a habit or a casual reference?

Dr. Dow has worked extensively with addicts of all kinds — food, heroin, shopping, gambling, video games and smartphones (yup, it’s a thing) — and points out that in most cases addiction is a form of self-medicating for a deeper issue, such as depression, anxiety, ADHD or low self-worth.

Then again, sometimes checking a device is simply an unconscious (or conscious) way of avoiding social interactions. You’ll also find people checking their phones when they have nothing to occupy them.

“Over time, because phones do serve a function, it becomes like a nervous habit to compulsively keep checking it," says Ramani Durvasula, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the book “Surviving Narcissists.” "It’s like having a bag full of every addictive substance — so when you get tired of one you can move on to another.”

Maybe learning how often people check their phones (see the beginning of this article) would be enough of a wake-up call for your spouse, but that’s not the case for most heavy users. Dr. Dow suggests starting an honest dialogue with your spouse and asking a series of questions.

“One of the quick ways to assess for addiction is the four-question ‘CAGE’: Have you ever felt like you needed to CUT down on it? Have other people felt ANNOYED by it? Have you ever felt GUILTY from it? Do you need an EYE-OPENER first thing in the morning?” Dr. Dow says.

A couple laying together on a blanket.

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Excuses and How to Counter Them

People are touchy about their cellphone use, and the heavier the user, the touchier they seem to get. If you’ve approached your spouse in the past about overuse, Durvasula points out that you’ve probably heard a combination of these common excuses:

  • It’s work.
  • I’m busy at work.
  • I need to be available.
  • I am waiting for X or Y to get through.
  • My kids may need to reach out.
  • And some people will actually simply own that they can’t stop themselves and just need to keep checking it.

But, she offers, there are good counters to those excuses that may help redirect your spouse’s behavior and get you some more actual face time. Here are five:

  1. As recently as a decade ago people did their jobs without being plugged in 24/7.
  2. Put the phone facedown. If it is an important call you will still hear the ring (or suggest they give the important people, such as their kids, a distinctive ringtone).
  3. In one hour nothing terrible is going to happen.
  4. When you keep checking the phone you miss all the cool stuff that is going on around us and you get distracted from all the great stuff we are talking about.
  5. It’s incredibly sexy when you’re not on social media.

How to Start the Conversation

You’ve probably figured out that when you nag your spouse about their obsession, it makes them defensive and doesn’t really change their behavior. Nagging sends a message of judgment, and in the case of an obsession it leads to feelings of frustration and helplessness. While getting your spouse to acknowledge their obsession is beneficial, taking the focus off their negative addiction goes a long way too.

While the phone is a very attractive distraction, so is a dedicated loving partner (if you're reading this, that's you!) and life in the real, 3-D world of the five senses. “Mindfulness — paying attention to the present moment on purpose and without judgment — is the antidote to distraction,” Dr. Dow says.

It also helps if you pledge to use your device less as well. And when you do bring up this potentially sore subject, “better to make it a conversation and share your feelings rather than nag them,” Durvasula says.

For example, you can agree to digital-free times in the day (like at dinner, right after work or before bed) and stick to it. You can gently suggest leaving the phone behind or setting a ringtone that only goes off for urgent requests at other times. And don’t forget to acknowledge when they give you, not the phone, their full attention. “Take note of when they go phone-free and thank them. People like having their efforts recognized.”

Even setting aside just half an hour each day when you both set down your phones together can help you reconnect with each other as a couple. Before long, you’ll find yourselves enjoying a sunset without thinking about taking a time-lapse photo of it, or enjoying a meal without posting it on Instagram first!

What Do YOU Think?

Have you and your main squeeze argued about digital device use? What are some of the methods you use to get through to your partner? Will you establish digital-free times?