With All of the Remote Work and E-learning, Beware of Phubbing

Many couples and families are entering a new chapter in the story of life in a pandemic: back to school. This transition introduces new daily rhythms and creates an opportunity for us to reflect on our relationships—both the relationships with each other and with our phones. The research is clear that our interactions with our phones impact our interactions with our partners and our family members, and this impact is generally not for the better! One sneaky phone behavior is so common that more than 70% of us are guilty of doing it (McDaniel & Coyne, 2016) even though it has been found to have negative effects on the quality of our relationships (see for example Halpern & Katz, 2017; Roberts & David, 2016; Wang et al., 2017).

That behavior? Phubbing.

Phubbing, or phone snubbing, is when you scroll while someone is trying to talk to you. What’s tricky about phubbing is that it can feel ego-syntonic. In other words, while you are phubbing, your subjective experience may be that you are in fact paying attention to what your loved one is saying, but when we multi-task, we are not doing anything particularly well. Researcher Sherry Turkle writes, “When psychologists study multitasking, they do not find a story of new efficiencies. Rather, multitaskers don’t perform as well on any of the tasks they are attempting. But multitasking feels good because the body rewards it with neurochemicals that induce a multitasking ‘high.’ The high deceives multitaskers into thinking they are being especially productive. In search of the high, they want even more” (Turkle, 2011).

Two things are true at the same time: We need time to connect with each other, and we need downtime. There are few if any boundaries between our roles. We are parents, workers, partners, lovers, and caregivers, changing hats rapidly throughout the day. Our kids are students, friends, athletes, brothers, and sisters, and these constantly changing roles are ever-present because seldom is anyone leaving the house. With all of the new demands we’re experiencing, zoning out with our phones in our hands is certainly an understandable need. But when our partner, for example, makes a bid for our attention, we need to be thoughtful about what happens next.

Phubbing seems like a minor offense, but that is just the problem: It’s a death-by-a-thousand-cuts phenomenon if we aren’t mindful of how we engage. Conversation is a multi-sensory adventure. Words mix with facial expressions and gestures to create a full-bodied communication. So, if we are not “taking in” the other person, and not looking at them as we listen and respond, we are shrinking our experience of each other right down. We are less able to feel into the interior of ourselves and of the other person, and feelings of empathy and trust will erode.

Instead of phubbing, make one of these choices:

  • Put your phone down, make eye contact, and listen “with your whole face” as we say in our house.
  • Say, “What you’re saying is important. I need you to please wait while I finish this up. Is that all right?”

This modification will nip phubbing in the bud. Because you are likely both a perpetrator and a victim of phubbing, you may want to share this simple shift with the people in your home. My advice to you is that you introduce this new practice during a low-stress time (in other words, not mid-phub) and make a couple or family agreement about some new digital boundaries.

Our phones are essential and seductive, and with mindfulness, we can prevent them from causing relational damage. Resist the urge to straddle worlds. Put both feet in the phone world or both feet in the real world.

While your phone is on your mind, here are two exercises designed to increase your self-awareness, taken from my book, Loving Bravely: Twenty Lessons of Self-Discovery to Help You Get the Love You Want.

My Phone and Me

Take this opportunity to do a fearless moral inventory (Alcoholics Anonymous lingo) about your relationship with your phone by creating a table with three columns: Before/During/After. Over the next few days, take notes on this table about how you feel before, during, and after you scroll through social media (or wherever it is on your phone that most commonly takes your attention). Make sure in your notes that you include any specific observations you have about the impact that your use of social media has on your intimate relationship. As you look over the data you have collected, what do you notice? What feels troubling? What feels reassuring?

Best Practices

Based on what you learned in the previous exercise about your relationship with your phone, identify which of the following practices would help you live with more presence. Select two or three from the list below and stick with them!

  • Unitasking. If you are talking to someone, talk to someone. If you are watching a show, watch a show. If you are checking Facebook, check Facebook. Take one task to completion before beginning the next one.
  • The boring bits. Related to the unitasking challenge, see what happens if you opt not to use your phone to mindlessly fill in the “boring bits” (Turkle 2015). For example, when you are in the checkout line at the grocery store, instead of looking at your phone, look around, daydream, ponder, or strike up a conversation with the cashier or the customer 6 feet across from you in the next checkout line. Feeling competent and confident at small talk is important for those looking for love as well as for those in love.
  • Increasing intervals. Set an interval for how often you can check your phone that is longer than the interval you have now. For example, if you check every ten minutes, challenge yourself to check every twenty minutes.
  • Phone home. Leave your phone in one central place in your home instead of carrying it around with you.
  • Shut it down. Choose a daily technology end time, maybe an hour before you go to sleep.


Halpern, D., & Katz, J. E. (2017). Texting’s consequences for romantic relationships: A cross-lagged analysis highlights its risks. Computers in Human Behavior, 71, 386

McDaniel, B.T., & Coyne, S. M. (2016). Technoference: The interference of technology in couple relationships and implications for women’s personal and relational well-being. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 5(1), 85–98. 

Roberts, J. A., & David, M. E. (2016). My life has become a major distraction from my cell phone: Partner phubbing and relationship satisfaction among romantic partners. Computers in Human Behavior, 54, 134

Wang, X., Xie, X., Wang, Y., Wang, P., & Lei, L. (2017). Partner phubbing and depression among married Chinese adults: The roles of relationship satisfaction and relationship length. Personality and Individual Differences, 110, 12-17.

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