The Silent Relationship Killer Lurking In Your Pocket

This could be damaging romantic relationships and leading to depression.

This could be damaging romantic relationships and leading to depression.

Over 70 percent of married couples report that mobile phones frequently interfere with their relationship, psychological research concludes.

The divided attention they create can easily lead to relationship conflict.

Here are some common examples of irritating behaviour:

  • My partner places his or her phone where they can see it when we are together.
  • My partner keeps his or her phone in their hand when he or she is with me.
  • My partner glances at his/her phone when talking to me.

Professor David Sbarra, who has reviewed the research, said:

“When you are distracted into or by the device, then your attention is divided, and being responsive to our partners — an essential ingredient for building intimacy — requires attention in the here and now.”

However, phones can be very difficult to resist because of the way our brains work.

Professor Sbarra explained:

“The draw or pull of a smartphone is connected to very old modules in the brain that were critical to our survival, and central to the ways we connect with others are self-disclosure and responsiveness.

Evolution shaped self-disclosure and responsiveness in the context of small kin networks, and we now see these behaviors being cued more or less constantly by social networking sites and through our phones.

We now have the outer-most edges of our social network cue us for responsiveness.

Look no further than the next person you see scrolling through Facebook and mindlessly hitting the ‘like’ button while his kid is trying to tell him a story.”

However, technology is not necessarily good or bad in itself, said Professor Sbarra:

“We stay away from the question of whether social networking sites and smartphone use are good or bad, per se.

Technology is everywhere, and it’s not going away, nor should it.

Humans are still trying to cope with a huge social change, said Professor Sbarra:

“Between 2000 and 2018, we’ve seen the largest technological advances, arguably, at any point in the last 100 years.

We are interested in understanding the role of social relationships in human well-being.

We can understand this from the level of what individuals do in relationships, but we can also understand it at the level of societal changes and societal forces that may push on relationships.”


The study was published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science (Sbarra et al., 2019).

Author: Dr Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004.

Get free email updates

Join the free PsyBlog mailing list. No spam, ever.