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The increasing role of phones in divorce

Have you ever checked your average daily screen time or number of phone pick-ups in a day. Maybe you were surprised by the amount of time you’ve amassed on your smartphone in just 24 hours. For many of us it’s easy to underestimate just how much time we spend on our phones, but the figures often speak for themselves.

As an integral part of our daily routine our phones are multi-purpose tools enabling us to connect with friends and family, work, shop, or carry out admin at any time of day. The list is endless, and while we can often justify the reason for being on our phone, we don’t always recognise how it’s impacting our relationships with those around us.

Are your phones ruining your relationship?

Research suggests that the use of phones can have negative effects on relationships, including an increased risk of divorce. According to a study published in the journal “Computers in Human Behaviour,” individuals who reported higher levels of technology use (including phones) in their romantic relationships were more likely to experience conflict and lower relationship satisfaction.

Family therapist Luisa Williams agrees but believes understanding the reasons some partners use their phone too much can tell us more about the health of the relationship. “Often, in therapy we discover the underlying reasons for excessive phone use. They can range from boredom in the relationship, to avoidance of their partner, or even infidelity.”

Extra marital tension

Use of phones to form a relationship with someone outside of the marriage is a common factor in divorce. While infidelity has long been a primary reason for separation, phones have made it so much easier for people to have extra-marital affairs.

Social media platforms, texting, and messaging apps provide a convenient gateway to communication with others, and in some cases, can lead to emotional and physical affairs.

At the touch of a button, you can communicate privately with almost anyone. For some it’s hard to resist the opportunity to reconnect with someone from their past, rekindle old relationship, or start a conversation with someone new.

A 2023 study suggest UK adults spend on average 3 hours and 15 minutes on their phone each day. So, it’s easy to see how affairs initiated online can often be hidden in plain sight.

Phubbing

Even if you don’t know what it is you’ve probably ‘phubbed’ someone. Phubbing, or ‘phone snubbing’, is when we’re so absorbed in our phones that we ignore the people that we’re with.

Unlike other pastimes like reading or watching tv, phones are uniquely immersive. We may ‘phubb’ our loved ones without realising, but it’s a habit that can lead to real-life consequences for couples.

By choosing to use your phone, rather than giving your partner access to your attention, can be hurtful. It can reduce intimacy and erode your connection. Over time it can have a harmful impact on meaningful interaction between you and your partner.

Loneliness and other negative feelings

Feeling lonely when your partner is using their phone is a common experience for many people in relationships. It’s natural to want to connect with your partner and have their full attention, but when they’re engrossed in their phone, it can feel like a barrier between the two of you.

Excessive phone use by a partner can make one feel ignored, undervalued, isolated, and lead to feelings of loneliness.

Avoidance tactics

Taking a break from difficult conversations can provide a useful opportunity for reflection. However, seeking refuge in their phone to avoid or delay conflict, can come across as rude and dismissive, and potentially antagonistic.

Few of us enjoy “we-need-to-talk” conversations. However, burying your head in sand by reaching for your phone when you or your partner are upset is likely to impact your ability to resolve things successfully.

Reducing connection and intimacy

Excessive phone use diverts care and attention from a partner and face-to-face interactions, reducing the quality and depth of communication and emotional bonding.

Constantly checking their phone while you’re in someone’s company means you zone out, fail to pick up on body language, and ultimately shows a lack of interest or respect.

Put simply, time spent on your phone, is time away from your loved ones. Gradually you may notice that you use your phone when you could be enjoying your partner’s company.

Phones and tech abuse

Another issue that increasingly arises in domestic abuse cases is the use of phones to monitor and ‘spy’ on a partner, otherwise known as tech abuse.

In some cases, an abusive partner may install spyware or tracking apps on their spouse’s phone to monitor their activities. Often combined with other forms of domestic abuse, tech abuse is a serious breach of privacy and trust.

Increased distraction

The constant distraction of notifications, messages, and social media can take away from quality time spent with a partner.

Moreover, the use of smartphones in the midst of an argument or disagreement can escalate the situation, leading to further tension and resentment between partners.

The ease of access to social media and messaging apps means that ongoing conflicts can spill over into public forums in the heat of the moment.

10 signs you may be using your phone too much:

  1. You constantly check your phone, even when there are no notifications
  2. You neglect face-to-face communication
  3. You feel anxious or uneasy when you’re not on your phone
  4. You neglect important tasks or responsibilities and struggle to be productive
  5. You spend less time on other activities you usually enjoy
  6. You automatically gravitate to social media to fill your time
  7. You experience physical symptoms such as eye strain, headaches, or neck pain
  8. You feel isolated or disconnected from the people around you
  9. You have difficulty focusing or paying attention
  10. Your sleep is disrupted.

What to do if you think your partner’s phone use is excessive

If you’re concerned about your partner’s excessive phone use, it’s important to have an open and honest conversation with them. Try to find a time when distractions are low and ask your partner to put their phone aside if you have to.

Start by expressing your feelings and concerns in a non-judgmental way and be specific about the behaviours that are bothering you and the way they make you feel.

It may be that your partner’s phone use is not a reflection of their feelings towards you. They may simply be trying to multitask, respond to pressure at work, or have developed a habit of constantly checking their phone.

Listen to their perspective and try to find a compromise that works for both of you.

Take some time to think about your own phone use and be honest with yourself. Perhaps changing your phone habits is something that you can tackle together.

Approach the conversation with understanding and be willing to work together to find a solution.

5 tips for creating better phone habits:

  1. The first few minutes of your day set the tone for the rest of the day. Jumping straight into the digital world when you wake up increases stress and overwhelm. Create a new morning routine that doesn’t include your phone.
  2. Better yet, remove your phone from the bedroom entirely. By bringing your device into your bedroom, you limit the possibility of intimacy with your partner. Make the transition easier by using a regular alarm clock and charging your phone somewhere out of reach.
  3. Setting app and communication limits, and scheduling down time, can help you to manage your phone use and provide a reliable endpoint. Identify the apps you use most and the times you’re most often on your phone to gauge the best place to start.
  4. Turn off your phone notifications. They are designed to get your attention! Without them, you are in control of when you pick up your phone, rather than your phone demanding your attention.
  5. Set up device-free times and places when smartphone use is prohibited, like mealtimes, and dates or family outings. And agree a time to switch phones off for the day so you can give each other undivided attention.

Disconnect to reconnect

There is a recognised connection between excessive phone use and relationship troubles. Unhealthy phone habits can gradually form over time. So, it’s likely you’ll be unaware of the extent of the impact it’s having on your connection with your partner.

Even when you do recognise the damage it’s doing to your relationship, it can be difficult to establish what came first; the disconnection between you and your partner, or the excessive phone use.

Take time to address the issues. Understanding any underlying causes can help you to work towards resolving the issues and getting your relationship back on track.

Seek support if you think it will help to better understand the root causes of yours or your partner’s over-reliance on phones.

By spending less time immersed in the digital world, you’ll reap the benefits of reinforcing your connection to your partner.

Useful links

Stowe Support – Relationships and wellness

My spouse wants to divorce – what should I do?

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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Comments(2)

  1. thomaschaytor says:

    Stowe Family Law’s article on the role of phones in divorce provides an insightful look at how smartphones and social media can contribute to the breakdown of marriages. From infidelity to excessive phone use, the article highlights the many ways in which phones can impact relationships. It’s a reminder of the importance of healthy communication and setting boundaries to protect the privacy and intimacy of the marital relationship.

  2. Laurette says:

    Yup, my husband had an internet affair, and he continues to choose whatever is on his phone, over me. The foolish man, chose the couch and his phone over his wife…

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