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How to Handle Phone Distraction in Marriage

This is part of a series based on anonymous questions we have received at Build Your Marriage conferences across the United States. Some details may be modified to protect the identities of individuals.

How can I signal my spouse that their being on the phone while we’re having a conversation hurts me and our relationship?

The distraction of the screen has become prevalent in marriage today. It may be your smartphone, tablet, or computer, but the “ping” or the vibration notifying us that SOMETHING needs our attention or SOMEONE is waiting for a response beckons us. Like Dr. Pavlov’s dogs we are conditioned to respond and it hurts our connection with our spouse.

Have you ever been at the dinner table or in a restaurant waiting until your spouse was done doing “something” on their phone? Or been in the middle of talking to them when an email, text or call came through your spouse’s phone and they were immediately distracted? If you’re like us, you’ve had that experience. While we can be patient a few times, but after a while their behavior simply becomes rude and discouraging. We are trying to connect with our spouse while they are trying to connect with others.

Oxford University did a study of 24,000 married European couples and found a direct inverse link between the use of social networking and marital satisfaction. In fact, researchers who study the attachment to devices that distract from communication in a relationship have coined a new word and called it: “technoference.

Unintentionally, the message is being sent that whatever is on the screen is more interesting and engaging than the person physically present. Over time, spouses can feel their relationship is marginalized and trivialized.

So what can you do to bring change in your marriage and minimize the device distraction?

1. Plan what to say.

Before addressing your spouse, pre-think how you want to start the conversation and where you’d like to end up. When you talk, keep the focus on your desire to connect with your spouse. Instead of attacking them and their behavior, let your spouse know how you feel when they are distracted by their phone.

“Babe, I love you and I really enjoy our conversations—even the casual ones about how the day went. But when we talk and you get distracted by your phone, I feel devalued and as though whoever is contacting you is more important than me. Can we set aside time each day when our phones aren’t near us so we can just talk without distractions? Or is there a better solution you might recommend?”

2. Choose your timing well.

Often we allow our frustration to build up until we blow up. “WHY do you ALWAYS have to be on your PHONE? DON’T I MATTER TO YOU ANYMORE???” Suddenly your spouse is on the defensive, the tone is set, and no helpful resolution will be reached.

Instead, ask your spouse when the best time would be to talk with them about something that is important to you. Perhaps on a date night or a walk you can set it up by saying, “There’s something that has been on my heart for a while that I need your help solving. I’d like to try to talk without distractions if possible. Would this be a good time to talk about it? If not, when would be good for you?”

3. Agree on device-free times.

Maybe you make the decision that dinner time will be device-free. Together, you choose to leave your phones on the counter (you can make this a whole-family commitment). When our church youth group used to go to a restaurant they would stack their phones on top of each other until the meal was over and they couldn’t touch them (can you imagine teenagers doing that???).

Some couples choose to charge their devices away from their bedroom. Then when they go to bed their focus is entirely on each other as they drift to sleep.

4. Set the example.

When you want a distraction-free time with your spouse, put your phone away and tell them, “I want to focus entirely on you.” Over time, your example will set the stage for them to make the same choice. Be patient, though, as they may need some time to be weaned off their device dependence.

You CAN restore connection with your spouse and tame device distraction in your marriage. As you do, you will appreciate each other more and build your marriage.