You have to be intentional if you want tech to strengthen your relationship.
This post was co-authored by Sarah Coyne, a professor of human development at Brigham Young University, and McCall Booth, a graduate student at Brigham Young University.
You are out to dinner with your boo, and you have just sat down after ordering your meal. You hear a ping, and you bring out your phone to check the text you just received from a friend. It takes you a bit to respond to their question, so meanwhile, your significant other brings out their phone and taps away. You spend the next couple minutes before the food arrives with both of your heads buried in your phones. Once the meal is brought to your table, you say a few words to each other, but then continue to eat while staring at your screens.
Or imagine this:
You have had a really rough day at work, and you just want to come home and vent your frustrations to your bae. You sit down together, and you begin to share how you are feeling. After a couple of minutes, you realize that they have brought out their phone and are only responding with a few distracted “hmmm”s and “uh-huh”s. You feel frustrated that they have only been paying half-attention, and you leave the room in a huff.
What do these two scenarios have in common? They are both examples of technoference (McDaniel & Coyne, 2016), or when media and technology interrupt or reduce the quality of interactions between two or more people.
While we may not realize it, our media use can negatively impact those around us. Think about it: Even though it seems like a small thing to double-task and be on Facebook while you are making plans with your spouse, it can send a big message. It signals to the other person that “you aren’t worth my full attention.” Of course, that is rarely the intention, but research shows that when you engage in technoference, there is more conflict and less relationship satisfaction (McDaniel, Galovan, Cravens, & Drouin, 2018).
In addition, we are not as great at multitasking as we think we are (Ralph, Thomson, Cheyne, & Smilek, 2014). We might miss out on important information that would help us connect with our loved ones. For example, my 12-year-old daughter was trying to tell me about her day while I was trying to check an email I had just received from work. I’m sure I was making non-committal noises as she described her day and only realized that I wasn’t fully listening when she said, “Mom! Technoference! Put down your phone and listen.”
Along the same lines, the more we engage in technoference, the fewer opportunities we have to enjoy quality time together with our romantic partners.
Creating Healthy Boundaries Around Tech
So, we realize that we have a problem with technoference—what do we do now? An important first step is to set goals together as a couple. Figure out times and places where you would like to have each other’s attention at 100 percent. Maybe these tech-free zones are dinner time, after 8:00 p.m., or when you are going on a drive. Find out what works best for you.
In addition, even in those instances where you have no set boundary prohibiting phone use, ask yourself: “Can it wait? Is there something else I should be focusing on right now?”
Finally, ask yourself, “Am I sending the wrong message?” While your intentions might be innocent, consider how your actions might come off to your loved ones. Is your lack of eye contact hurting the conversation? Are you providing the support they are seeking?
Media is not an inherently bad thing. There are many ways that you can use technology to improve your relationship. For example, you can use it to increase communication (Coyne et al., 2011). Send each other texts throughout the day, call when you are apart, or even create a shared calendar so that you can jointly keep track of important events.
You can also use media to bond as it provides another opportunity to have shared leisure (Motley, 2008). Make intentional decisions to use media and technology as a way to have fun. You can create a weekly ritual where each Monday night you and your partner watch an episode of your favorite show together, you can send each other memes and have inside jokes, you can play video games together to increase your teamwork abilities, etc. There is a world of opportunity for bonding through media—the key is being intentional around shared media use.
Ultimately, it is up to you whether technology use helps or hinders your relationship. Be intentional with your use and pay attention to times when you are not giving your partner 100 percent. By doing so, you will find that media and technology can be a tool for good.
1. Be present when someone is present.
2. Work together to create boundaries.
3. Intentionally use media to connect and bond.
References Coyne, S. M., Stockdale, L., Busby, D., Iverson, B., & Grant, D. M. (2011). “I luv u:)!”: A descriptive study of the media use of individuals in romantic relationships. Family Relations, 60(2), 150-162. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3729.2010.00639.x 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. McDaniel, B. T., Galovan, A. M., Cravens, J. D., & Drouin, M. (2018). “Technoference” and implications for mothers' and fathers' couple and coparenting relationship quality. Computers in human behavior, 80, 303-313. Motley, M. T. (Ed.) (2008). Studies in applied interpersonal communication Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412990301 Ralph, B.C.W., Thomson, D.R., Cheyne, J.A., Smilek, D. (2014). Media multitasking and failures of attention in everyday life. Psychological Research, 78, 661–669. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-013-0523-7