When Smartphones Put Pressure On Your Marriage…

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I received this letter from a reader, and immediately knew this was a Big Issue: one which we are struggling with too and to which I also wanted an answer. So, I thought about who I’d really like to ask for advice on this one, and immediately thought of two people: Ashleigh Slater, author of Team Us: Marriage Together, and Arlene Pellicane, whose new book Growing Up Social: Raising Relational Kids in a Screen-Driven World (co-authored with Gary Chapman) I am currently reading. I’m so grateful they both agreed to help. So, instead of an “Ask Bronwyn” slot this week, here’s the new edition: “Ask Ashleigh, Arlene AND Bronwyn!”

When Smartphones Put Pressure On Your-2

Dear Bronwyn,

I’ve heard many “unplug to reconnect” sermons, but have resisted them, thinking instead about how much email, phone calls, and facebook have helped me to connect to loved ones far away. Much good can come of technology: for my husband and I these are quick messages during a work day, little bits of encouragement when we are apart, etc.)

But what do you do when you feel like your partner habitually checks his phone, twitter, emails, etc. way too often? At the dinner table? in bed? in the midst of family time? Even the phrase “way too often” assumes that someone is right about their expectations and about what is too much and when is or is not a good time for these things. But I am stumped about HOW to talk about this without falling into a bunch of conversational traps: moral high-grounding instead of giving the benefit of the doubt, being just one of them. The question, “Can we spend some time together?” is now a loaded one in our house, really meaning, “Will you please put down the computer or phone now?” Neither of those questions go well.

It hurts to be sharing something (even something simple, like how my day went) when I can see his eyes tracking, line by line, whatever he is reading in addition to listening to me. I sometimes feel resentment well up when he laughs or smiles at something he reads, which is lousy because I love to see him happy, love to hear that something delighted him or was funny or turned out well. But over time it is hard to feel seen and valued, hard to feel like I’m interesting to him. I get that my routine or experiences are not captivating. But feeling not captivating as a person, feeling like I have a hard time getting his attention versus the endlessly entertaining or stressful or soothing or just NEW stream of information always waiting for him–this has a profound effect on how I experience our relationship.

He is a loving dad and husband, cares deeply about us, works hard to provide for us, and is aware of these issues. But we are stuck. We’re long-married and deep into these habits. We have not had much success with setting aside time for non-gadget interaction. Even family time often includes sharing something funny we saw or getting a tutorial on a program that really speaks to our kids’ interests.

I guess the questions here are several. But really, relationally, I feel weary and sad about this issue a lot. Any thoughts on how to have productive conversation on this? – Overwhelmed

Arlene Pellicane 600x600jpg-1Arlene writes:

Dear overwhelmed friend,

Thanks so much for your honest wrestling. It sounds like you and your husband have some digital habits that are eroding the sense of closeness you have in your marriage. Habits are hard to break, but it is certainly doable. First, you and your husband have to believe. You have to believe, both believe, that technology is interfering with your relationship. If it weren’t, you wouldn’t be having these feelings. You must also believe that it’s within your power to make positive changes and that those changes will be well worth it.

Once you and your husband have the “why” in place (why do we need to make changes?), the “how” will make itself clear. Don’t be discouraged if you’ve tried different digital fasts to no avail in the past. Start with small steps. Start with, “When we are talking to each other, let’s put down our phones and look each other in the eyes instead.”

Just that one step will make a big difference.

Once that comes naturally, you can maybe a try tech-free hour every day. Or shut down screens after 10:00 p.m. Just changing habits by sheer willpower is difficult. You must create an environment where change can take place.

In Growing Up Social: Raising Relational Kids in a Screen-Driven World, I quote author William Powers who tried a digital Sabbath with his wife and teenage son. They unplugged their home modem from Friday at bedtime until Monday morning. Listen to what he said:

“We’d peeled our minds away from the screens where they’d been stuck. We were really there with one another and nobody else, and we could all feel it. There was an atmospheric change in our minds, a shift to a slower, less restless, more relaxed way of thinking. We could just be in one place, doing one particular thing, and enjoy it…The digital medium allows everything to be stored for later use. It was still out there, it was just a little further away. The notion that we could put the crowd, and the crowded part of our life, at a distance like this was empowering in a subtle but significant way. It was a reminder that it was ours to put at a distance.”

The entertainment, emails to return, news stories – all of these things can be put at a distance. That can be very liberating! Neither one of you should feel like you have to compete with pixels for the attention of your spouse. In ten years, what will really matter?

What will really matter is that you gave your loved one your undivided attention when he or she wanted it. May God bless your home with peace and guide you with wisdom to take the next step towards being closer in your marriage.
Arlene Pellicane is a speaker and author of Growing Up Social: Raising Relational Kids in a Screen-Driven World and 31 Days to Becoming a Happy Wife. She has been featured on the Today Show, Family Life Today, K-LOVE, and The Better Show. She lives in San Diego with her husband James and three children. Visit Arlene at www.ArlenePellicane.com for free family resources including a monthly Happy Home podcast.

ashleigh slaterAshleigh writes: 

First, you aren’t alone in this issue. My husband Ted and I struggle with it at times too.

Ted’s a web developer. Dozens and dozens of websites depend on his skill set and expertise, which means he’s basically on call 24 hours a day. iPhones, iPads, and laptops are always within reach. The more they’re used for work, the easier it is to also use them for continual play. And it’s not just him who struggles, I do too. We’re continually working toward balance. And that’s what I hear you saying you want too: balance.

So how do we talk about an issue like this in a productive way? In a way that helps bring change?

When we face issues, Ted and I like to use one of our favorite communication techniques called the communication sandwich. It means that when we have criticism to share with each other, we sandwich it between praise. Much like we’d place liverwurst (not that I actually eat that, mind you) and Swiss between two slices of Wonder Bread. We’ve found that we’re both more willing to chew on the negative, if we’re fed some positive also.

You mentioned that your husband is already aware of these issues. Since he knows it’s a problem already, how can you put together a communication sandwich that will spur him on to actively seek balance? Well, I’ve crafted an example of a communication sandwich for you below. And, I asked Ted – since he has similar struggles – to edit it for me. I wanted to know what he’d best respond to if he were in your husband’s shoes. Here’s what we came up with:


p style=”text-align:center;”>PRAISE
I’m daily reminded of what a great husband and dad you are. You really do work hard to provide for us. I’m really thankful for how well you care for me and our kids. And I love how proficient you are with technology. It is helpful to me and to our family.
But I miss the undistracted connection we once had. You know, back before technology was such a big part of it. I don’t think we need to go cold turkey with technology, but I would love to see us have more balance. It would mean a lot to me if we could start setting aside blocks of time that are technology free where we both disconnect from stuff like Facebook, viral videos, texts, and emails. Where we’re off the grid together and nobody can interrupt us. Maybe during that time we could take a walk or pull out an old board game or read together.
You really are such a fun to spend time with. I love to see you laugh and enjoy yourself, so that’s why I really want to find ways to do that better together.

It’s not the perfect sandwich, but hopefully it gives you an outline from which to work. I pray that you and your husband will be able to successfully find balance long-term in this area.

41xItKlfZELAshleigh Slater is the author of the book, Team Us: Marriage Together. As the founder and editor of the webzine Ungrind and a writer with almost 20 years of experience, she unites the power of a good story with biblical truth and practical application to encourage readers. Ashleigh and her husband, Ted, have been married for more than a decade. They have four daughters and reside in Atlanta, Georgia. To learn more, visit AshleighSlater.com.

IMG_0185Bronwyn writes:

I struggle with this so much too: I am guilty of often being too absorbed in my own screen and ignoring my family, but I get so quickly hurt or frustrated when I feel like I cannot get my husband’s attention. It makes me feel that I have to be More Interesting Than The Entire Internet for him to look up, which, even on my most awesome days, isn’t even close to possible.

I wonder sometimes what people did in years past during their evening hours. I have romantic notions that in the years-before-the-internet, couples spent every evening amiably chatting to each other, fully absorbed and engaged in one another’s company.

But there must have been introverts in previous centuries too, and so this makes me think that I’m quite sure the problem of ‘how do we spend our downtime?’, and ‘I feel I am competing with his/her hobby for attention’ is an old one. I read the after-dinner scenes in Jane Austen with some interest: the habits of men and women retiring to read/crochet/smoke and play board games – and all the time hoping for snatches of real conversation in the midst of it. Maybe the competition we feel from the internet is not that different from the competition people felt from TV in the 70s, or from newspapers, or novels, or whittling, or quilting, or (add your pleasurable pastime of choice).

When I think of it that way, it makes the pressure of technology seem a little less frightening to me, because while it’s true that spouses have never had to compete with All The Information In The World for attention, it is also true that couples have been wondering how to stay interesting to distracted spouses for centuries. I think the internet does complicate things, because while novels or quilting projects or woodwork projects may distract for a while – they have a natural end and eventually someone has to look up because they’ve reached the end of that activity. But the Internet has NO END. So there’s that – and I think it calls for more a little more self-awareness and better internal boundaries, since the externally-imposed boundaries (like running out of pages to read in a book, or a movie ending) don’t apply.

I think that for us, one reason we get entrenched in screen time is that we think the other is distracted/engaged with something else – and so while they’re busy/unavailable, we then busy ourselves with our own interests. So for example, I’m emailing when he sits down to chat, so he waits and gets busy catching up on tech news. Then I’m done but can’t catch his eye, so I pull up that article I bookmarked to read. He looks up and I’m still reading, so he clicks over to read the comments on his favorite website. I look up and see him scrolling, so I check into Facebook and instantly fall down a social media rabbit hole. He looks up and sees the ominous blue and white glow on the screen and knows I may not come up for a while, so he starts watching a show he knows I’m not interested in. I eventually surface from Facebook, hurt that I’ve been wanting his attention all night, but because he was busy I had to keep myself busy, and now he’s watching a show I hate, so I may as well go to bed with my book…

Agh. A tragedy. I can’t tell you how many nights we spend like this.

Here are my thoughts: I need to acknowledge the behaviors I am guilty of which communicate distraction/disinterest to him, and do my part to be available and interested: “Sorry, I know I’ve been distracted, but I will shut this thing down in 5 minutes”. I also need to speak up and ask for what I want: “when you’re finished reading that, can we hang out/talk about something? I’d like to talk to you and it’s hard to share when I feel I’m competing with the screen. Let me know when you’re done…” Also, I need to acknowledge that we may have to talk about this more times than I’d like: we are all struggling with how the technology tsunami interfaces with our lives, and it is (for sure) a conversation we are going to have to have again and again.

In the final analysis though, I’m thinking that the fact that you have children provides one significant way to help have that conversation, because while it’s one thing to talk about technology between the two of you, its another thing to ask (and have to periodically revisit): “what lessons about technology and relationships are our children learning from our behavior as well as from our words?” I’m starting to see how my children, young as they are, are reflecting our changing attitudes to the internet: “Well, we can just order that online,”, or instead of debating an answer, saying “we can look that up on Wikipedia”. More sinister, though, is having them watch a show and ignore us when we speak, or saying “I”m just finishing this first”, and dismissing us. It hurts and angers us both to be treated like that by our children, but strangely enough – that is also possibly the best reality check we have both had to realizing they are learning that behavior from us.

Perhaps a conversation about “what lessons are we modeling about priority in relationships” with your spouse might also be a safer way to tread the waters, and keep you both accountable?

Thanks for asking such a great question. I hope that something here has been of use. Praying for you, and for us – for we all need so much wisdom in this.

Bronwyn Lea has not written any books, and is the only one on this answer page who is not endorsed by Gary Chapman, but gets to write an answer here because this is her blog 🙂 If you have a question you’d like to send in (about anything: life, faith, relationships or anything – click over here. Thanks for reading. 

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12 thoughts on “When Smartphones Put Pressure On Your Marriage…”

  1. On the John Tesh radio program, he says that the reason we check our mail so often is that our brain sends a little shot of the hormone that makes us happy every time we get an email. Our brain registers these emails like a treat. After he pointed this out, I have noticed it is true. We are not really looking for the messages. We are looking for the drug like hit.

    1. Have you read the book “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr? He talks about how our brains are actually rewired by internet usage, and that eventually, this rewiring means that our thoughts become “shallower”: more fleeting, distracted, struggling to follow complicated arguments or abstract reasoning. Fascinating book. It’s one reason I ditched Facebook and Twitter.

  2. Tesh is right, but other parts of the brain are failing to develop from lack of use. (1) The ones involved in interpersonal, i.e., face-to-face, family communication that build communication skills and knowledge of one another that yields trust, love, and losses of those abilities, which we in turn take into relationships outside the home. Children, especially, are equipped in the family for the tests of relationship they meet at school or on the street or in other public places. (2) We can develop an inner sense of what is happening at a distance, who needs us right now, where God wants us to go, and even how to find someone who is injured and lost in a remote location. Those sorts of “spiritual” abilities that were notable in Jesus and the disciples have been storied through the ages and are common among many Christians I know. They require the careful listening in “slowing down” described in Powers’ digital slowdown and in Bronwyn’s description of “quiet pastimes” so we can truly listen to one another. Learning to listen to others is the foundation for learning to listen to God. I think our reliance on electronic devices has turned trivial communication into “necessities” simply because that kind of contact is addictive (Tesh’s point) while eroding or short-circuiting the development of those important abilities attached to knowing our family members deeply and knowing the will of God.

  3. Thank you for your post. We struggle with this too and I feel like such a hypocrite every time I think I should bring this up to my husband since I am so connected to my phone. I laughed out loud when you said “I wonder sometimes what people did in years past during their evening hours. I have romantic notions that in the years-before-the-internet, couples spent every evening amiably chatting to each other, fully absorbed and engaged in one another’s company” because I know that is absolutely not our husbands, which you addressed with your next sentence “but there must have been introverts in previous centuries too”. I’m still learning about communication with my introvert husband.
    I am challenged by your post to bring our technology use with my husband and see if we can find some balance to foster communication and model this behavior to our daughter.

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  5. I love the way you put it here:
    “I think that for us, one reason we get entrenched in screen time is that we think the other is distracted/engaged with something else – and so while they’re busy/unavailable, we then busy ourselves with our own interests.”
    The same dynamic applies at our house even though neither of us has a smartphone. 🙂 All it takes is us two introverts on the couch reading our books after our son has gone to bed: I look up from my book: oh, he’s still reading, so I start a new chapter. He finishes his chapter, looks up, sees me engrossed in my book, so he starts reading again…. and so on, until one of us is too tired to read, puts the book down and waits for the other one to finish. At this point, we’re too tired for any meaningful conversation.

    The simple truth: good communication with your spouse is a deliberate choice. Always. Even when you’ve got the modern technology out of the picture. When you finish a book, there are always other books to read. The next load of laundry to sort out. Something else to do. Unless we choose to stop, look and listen. 🙂
    (And oh how hurtful it is when the other one never seems to make that choice.)

  6. I’m glad I read this article. I am in a relationship that has been tested many times due to temptation from the internet. My first marriage of 12 years ended a few years ago mainly because I was so caught up in the web of temptations online and I was too blind to see what I was doing to my family. I feel like I’ve been given another chance with a great man and though we’ve had our struggles I had decided I would make the changes I should’ve done long time ago….I deleted my Fb acct, Twitter and am about to change my phone number as well. It’s a start at least. Someday maybe I will be back in the social media thing but it will be an acct with both our names on so theirs no room for secrets.

    1. Hi Angie, Thanks for reading and commenting. What a tough lesson you have learned! I’m sorry to hear it, that must still hurt very much. All the best as you figure out the way forward.

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