Articles by Alex Ryder, Communication, Couple's counselling, Couples, Mental Health, priorities, Relationships, respect

How to stop smart phones damaging your relationship

“My Partner is Always on their Phone”

A complaint about mobile phone use may not be the first thing a couple raise when they come to see me for couples counselling, however, phone dependency, phone intrusions and prioritising phone use are strongly correlated with relationship dissatisfaction, life dissatisfaction and even depression [1].

These convenient devices pack a punch.

Few things can kill romance, intimacy and goodwill as quickly as pulling out your mobile phone while you’re with your partner. But the confusing thing is that it is becoming socially acceptable… ‘every one else is doing it too’.

Lack of boundaries is the challenge. In the 60 odd years that we’ve had TV most emotionally intelligent and high functioning couples and families have worked out suitable boundaries for using TVs that serve them and their relationships. Smart phones however are a different story. They’ve only been with us since the turn of the century, and many couples have been together longer than smart phones have been in use. Our boundaries around phones are unclear and very often insufficient. This affects our emotional wellbeing and makes our relationships all the more difficult.

Dependency and Phubbing

There is nothing inherently wrong with using your smart phone. We are able to connect with friends and loved ones more easily than any other time in history. Phones also distract us from the stresses of work and modern life, and they provide entertainment and news all tailored to our individual tastes. Our phones are not the enemy.

The problem I see in marriage and couple therapy is when a person’s relationship with their phone is interfering with their relationships with people. Again, phone use can seem quite innocuous particularly in light of our cultural dependency on them, but it is causing damage all the same. There are two key behaviours that are becoming a problem for couples:

  1. Normal Use versus Dependency
    • Couple relationships work best when the individuals are resilient, have inner-strength and maintain an identity outside the relationship. However, a dependent relationship with your phone [or anything or anyone else] will make you less resilient, reduce your self-worth and cause you to rely on the security of your phone.
    • Smart phones allow us access to a hit of dopamine at any moment, and that is why a relationship of dependency and addiction can take hold so easily. If you feel uncomfortable waiting for an elevator, or waiting to cross the road without relieving anxiety by checking your phone then it is likely you are in a dependent relationship with your phone.
    • Addictions or dependencies of any kind should be taken seriously because they severely affect relationships. When your resilience, self-worth and identity suffers, your relationship will suffer.
  2. Phubbing
    • When you ‘snub’ your partner in favour of your phone (colloquially called ‘phubbing’) you run the risk of damaging the relationship in two ways.
    • It may cause direct conflict in the relationship via an argument. The phone then becomes a regular source of pain for the couple. One partner monitoring use and the other hiding use.
    • If direct conflict does not arise, phubbing can slowly erode goodwill and closeness in your relationship. Feeling second in importance to anyone or anything in an intimate relationship will cause the relationship to suffer.
    • Ultimately it sends the message to your partner that the people you are communicating with, video you are watching or app you using are more important than them. That may not be your intended message, but if you are phubbing your partner then that is exactly what you are telling them.

Interacting with your phone rather than your partner does affect your partner at a different emotional level when compared to reading a book or remaining focused on a particular task like cooking the dinner.

The thought that you are more interested in the person at the other end tends to trigger deep relationship fears more than the act of passively reading a book for example.

If you think smart phone use has become an issue in your relationship, here’s what you can do:

  1. When it comes to using your phone when you are with your partner, behave like you would in a meeting with a good client or your boss. If you wouldn’t scroll through your social media pages in front of them then don’t do it to your partner.
  2. Allocate time to use your phone that doesn’t interrupt time when you are with your partner.
  3. Make sure both you and your partner know when time is for each other and when you are simply cohabitating. There are plenty of times when you are home with your partner and you need to be elsewhere mentally. That is fine. Just ensure your partner understands when you are checking out of the relationship so you can check in with work or just have some down-time on your phone. However, multi-tasking on your phone while you’re meant to be with your partner = Phubbing = Relationship trouble.
  4. If you need to check your feed after work then spend 5 mins in the car or around the corner before you arrive home checking your feed so that when you arrive home you are able to be present with your partner.
  5. Your phone is a tool. Learn to use it effectively. It’s likely that a voice message will be sufficient for 98% of calls. If you really need to take it, excuse yourself like you would in front of your client or boss.
  6. Set some clear boundaries that will support your relationship. For example:
    1. Don’t bring your phone to bed
    2. Put your phone on silent and leave it out of sight while you are sharing dinner with your partner
    3. Try to avoid walking into the house on your phone. Greeting your partner when you first arrive home makes them feel important to you.
  7. Your child’s relationship with their phone will initially mimic your relationship with your phone, and it is ignorant to think that your child will be less anxious and less dependent than you.
  8. Unfortunately, many children are exposed to bullying via social media. If you treat your phone as more important than the people around you it is likely your child will do the same. As a result, they may place greater psychological importance on the bullying message, and therefore suffer more, and demonstrate less resilience.
  9. Live your priorities. If your partner is more important than your phone, then prove it.

Inappropriate phone use is rarely the first complaint a couple will bring to couples counselling. But when couples are feeling detached, ignored, lonely or distant in their relationship it is likely their day to day interactions need some attention. Couples counselling is a good way to identify and address behaviours like this and set some clear boundaries that strengthen rather than undermine the relationship. We are here to help you.

Contact Sydney Couples and Family Specialists today on 02 8968 9397.

About Alex

Alex is an accessible and compassionate therapist.  His clients appreciate that Alex listens with the intention of genuinely understanding them.  He’s lovely with adolescents, who seem to warm to him

immediately, and he creates a space in sessions for any or all participants to have their say and feel heard.

Alex’s particular strengths are in the area of working with couples and he has extensive experience and training in this area.  He is both Gottman and Systemically trained and draws on practical ideas that clients can immediately make use of to enhance their relationships.

Alex comes to Sydney Couple and Family Therapy Specialists from backgrounds as a Lifeline Crisis Line Counsellor and Trainer and Therapist at the highly-respected Jansen Newman Institute.  He has supported individuals and couples through trauma, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and adolescent struggles.

Alex has helped many people through intensely frightening and painful life events – and to a place where they have the skills and confidence to carry themselves forward.

Alex is married with a young family and therefore easily relates to the stress and struggles that many couples and young families face today.

“It takes a lot of courage to share a moment of crisis with someone you don’t yet know.  Even more so, to entrust your intimate relationship over to them.

I have been in the fortunate position to be trusted with that responsibility many times and have helped people – through their own bravery, honesty and effort – to transcend their suffering and improve their key relationships.”

Alex also runs the pre-marriage counselling course at the Sydney Couple and Family Specialists

Qualifications and Professional Membership

Alex holds a Masters of Counselling and Psychotherapy from Jansen Newman Institute Sydney, and a Bachelor degree from the University of Sydney.  Alex also holds a Gottman training certificate.

He is a member of the Australian Association of Family Therapy, the Counsellors and Psychotherapist Association of Australia, and the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia.

Why see a Couples Counselor?

Are you wondering if couples counselling is for you? In this interview Alex Ryder answers common questions we hear from people who want to understand more about this process.

And remember, if you are a new client you can book a free 15 minute telephone session with Alex.

“We really like your approach. The other couples counsellor we saw left us stuck in negativity.  Right from the start we felt hopeful with you.  Your positive approach helped us out of the slump, so we could address the real issues.” – Murry (36) married to Tasha (39); One Child (3) – Clients who saw Alex Ryder for Relationship counselling.

“I’ve wanted to refer you to so many people.  Obviously I haven’t given the circumstances, but we are huge fans and are so grateful for your help.” – Tom (49) married to Sarah (43). Two children; 15 & 13 – Clients who saw Alex Ryder for Relationship counselling following an affair.

“I think we told you in our first session that you were the last couples therapist we were going to try. Everything was on the line.  So thank you for… well everything.” – James (55) married to Philippa (53) – Clients who saw Alex Ryder for Relationship Counselling


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