It is 9 p.m. and Elisa D’Amico has scrambled home from work, dined with her family, tucked her children in bed and begun answering a client’s email on her smartphone. Beside her on the couch is her attorney husband, Brian — iPad in hand, plowing through his inbox, ready to review a legal matter that needs attention.
This type of scenario — with the prominent role played by smartphones, tablets and other devices — has become so common that researchers now have a name for it: “technoference.” Penn State family researcher Brandon McDaniel has defined the term as intrusions or interruptions by technology in couple relationships.
It turns out that the lure of romance and a desire to lavish attention on our partner is no match for devices that promise instant access to, and responses from, everyone and everything, including our jobs and our social networks. Now researchers are studying whether “technoference” and the feeling of exclusion it can create for a partner has more than just an in-the-moment effect.
As we head further into the digital era, the question becomes increasingly relevant: Will checking our mobile devices en route to date night and the ensuing “put down that damn phone and talk to me” diminish the quality of our relationships over time, or will partners accept the intrusion as a fact of life in the digital era?
South Miami relationship coach Roberta Gallagher says technology has become a significant issue for couples over the past five years. The ability to finish work at home, fear of not responding instantly to a boss and the habit of checking social-media sites has driven people to use mobile devices in the bedroom, at the dinner table and sometimes even during intimacy with partners. “It takes uninterrupted time to connect,” Gallagher says, noting that not enough couples are attaching enough importance to tech-free time.
The research to date shows that technoference does have repercussions: In a 2014 study by researchers at Penn State and Brigham Young of 143 married women, 70 percent reported that face-to-face conversations were suddenly stopped by a partner’s phone use. Overall, participants said technoference in their relationships has led to conflict, lower relationship satisfaction and lower life satisfaction. Yet research also documents that couples actually are spending more time together than they did 50 years ago, including parents of young children in dual-earner households. Of course, even while spending time together, partners are often also engaged in an activity on a mobile device.
University of Minnesota researcher Katie Genadek, who co-authored the 2015 report “Trends in Spouses’ Shared Time in the United States, 1965-2012,” says the way couples are using their devices in the presence of each other during shared time may be increasingly more acceptable. “Last night, my husband and I were snuggled on the couch watching television, and he is on his work email and I’m texting, and we’re still talking with each other about what’s on TV. This kind of multitasking might change relationships, or it might not,” she says.
Relationship researcher John Gottman has found that the unstructured moments that partners spend in each other’s company — the banter about a TV show, say, or an observation that invites laughter — hold the most potential for building a deeper connection. He believes it is hard to spark that banter with someone who is entranced with a screen. “The real danger is that people are checking their devices so often, they’re not noticing a partner’s bids for connection,” Gottman told Psychology Today.
Couples like the D’Amicos are trying to control technoference. On most nights, they cook and eat dinner together and keep their phones out of the kitchen. After dinner, one or both may need to resume work, but not always: “Sometimes when the relationship needs it, we know we have to push work away to the next day,” says Elisa, a prominent partner at K&L Gates in Miami who specializes in internet law and online privacy. A delayed response or lack of eye contact can make a partner feel unimportant.
Most importantly, the couple relies on communication. “If I am on my phone and get a message and need to look up something up for work, I communicate to him what I’m doing and how much time it will take,” Elisa says. “If I don’t tell him what’s happening, he thinks I’m on Twitter or Instagramming, and it is easy to become frustrated. It seems simple, but it can be difficult to do in the moment.”
Gallagher tells couples to make rules about together time. “People get into bad habits with their iPads [and] cellphones because either they don’t care or they think it is OK because everyone is doing it. But once you slide into marital disconnection, it’s a lonely place to be.” To take back control, she advises couples to agree on times when mobile-device use is prohibited — while in bed, during date night, while eating meals — and use that time together wisely. “Who wants to free time up to hear your partner complain?” Gallagher says. “Make a plan for how you will fill your shared time.”
It helps when you and your partner have the same view of tech use. Danny Mendoza of Miami says he appreciates when his girlfriend understands why he would answer a work text on an evening out. An independent TV and film producer and director, Mendoza says, “My work is my passion. … I don’t just clock in and out.” When he’s the recipient of technoference, Mendoza tries to be supportive of his girlfriend, too: “I have the choice to be annoyed or not. We all do.”
Mendoza believes couples now peruse their devices in the presence of each other the way couples used to read books alongside each other. “Of course the connection is stronger when you have times that you are fully focused on each other,” he says. “We are still working on that. It takes working on it every day, like anything else that is worthwhile.”
Cindy Krischer Goodman writes about work life and workplace issues. Suggestions? Comments? Connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org or @balancegal.