Could Phubbing Be Hurting Your Relationships?

Couple having drinks in bar

By Tracey Dowdy

How many times have you been guilty of phubbing? Better yet, how many times have you been phubbed? What’s “phubbing” you say? Why I’m glad you asked. Phubbing is the act of snubbing someone in favor of your phone.

Phone + Snubbing = Phubbing

You may not have heard the term but you’re definitely familiar with the act. How many times have you sat across the table or next to someone on the sofa and had them browse their phone mid-conversation with you? In the words of Dr. Phil, “How did that make you feel?” For a lot of people, the answer is “Not so great.” According to research published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, not only does phubbing lead to conflict in relationships, it may also lead to higher rates of depression and greater levels of dissatisfaction with life for the individual being phubbed.

Professor James Roberts of Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business and his team of researchers surveyed 453 adults nationwide in two separate experiments. The first experiment asked a pool of 308 individuals to respond to the following statements:

  • During a typical mealtime together, my partner pulls out and checks his/her cellphone.
  • My partner places his or her cellphone where they can see it when we are together.
  • My partner keeps his or her cellphone in their hand when he or she is with me.
  • When my partner’s cellphone rings or beeps, he/she pulls it out even if we are in the middle of a conversation.
  • My partner glances at his/her cellphone when talking to me.
  • During leisure time that my partner and I are able to spend together, my partner uses his/her cellphone.
  • My partner uses his or her cellphone when we are out together.
  • If there is a lull in our conversation, my partner will check his or her cellphone.

The second experiment focused on couples and the impact of phubbing on their relationship. One hundred and forty-five participants were asked to identify behaviors they had experienced in their relationships and rate their security, satisfaction and levels of anxiety/depression felt as a result of their partner’s behaviors and actions.

Not surprisingly, 46.3 percent of respondents said they’d experienced phubbing from their partner and 22.6% admitted that it led to problems in their relationship. Those who reported higher rates of phubbing fought more with their partner. Again, not really a surprise that individuals who felt snubbed experienced conflict and increased tensions with their partner.

Phubbing-1“The results presented herein suggest that partner phubbing creates conflict over such use of one’s cell phone which in turn impacts reported relationship satisfaction, and ultimately personal well-being,” co authors James E. Roberts and M.E. David wrote.

One mitigating factor of note is the attachment anxiety levels in the relationship. Those who felt secure about their partner’s level of commitment were less likely to be negatively impacted by the phubbing. Those who were unsure of their relationship status or commitment level of their partner were significantly more likely to make it an issue.

The study concluded:

The institution of marriage (and romantic relationships in general) is under attack. Approximately 40-50 percent of all marriages will end in divorce, while many of the intact unions are poorly functioning and are characterized by low levels of relationship satisfaction on the part of one or both partners.

As intimated in the title of this paper, it appears that life has become a major distraction from our cell phones. It is ironic that cell phones, originally designed as a communication tool, may actually hinder rather than foster satisfying relationships among romantic partners.

Although it sounds like Chicken Little may have been part of the research team, I don’t think it’s nearly as grim as the report would suggest. A little self awareness goes a long way. The ubiquity of cellphones is a societal norm and they aren’t going anywhere. Like everything else in a relationship – how to replace the toilet tissue, where to squeeze the toothpaste and whether you’re spending holidays with your partner’s family or with yours – it’s all about compromise and respect. Talk about what works and what doesn’t and give a little grace to get some in return.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

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