How phubbing is ruining your relationship

Phubbing can make a partner feel ignored.

Phubbing can make a partner feel ignored.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

What you need to know:

  • Snubbing your romantic partner by looking at your phone may be destructive for your relationship.
  • When someone’s eyes wander, we intuitively know what brain studies also show, that their mind is also wandering. We feel unheard, disrespected, and disregarded.
  • Over a third of all people who know that they are phubbed see this behaviour as the trigger for their depression.


Pretending to look at your phone in order to snub your partner is common in relationships. It may happen during boring dinner dates or irritating conversations.

According to Dr. Emma Seppala, a Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, and the author of The Happiness Track, phubbing has become so common in modern-day relations that you may no longer even notice when you are being phubbed or when you’re phubbing others.  However, snubbing your romantic partner by looking at your phone may be destructive for your relationship. It could also harm your personal well-being. Dr. Seppala says that when one is phubbed, they get a biological reaction that stirs their brain into a negative reaction and perception of the person phubbing. “We are extremely attuned to other people. When someone’s eyes wander, we intuitively know what brain studies also show, that their mind is also wandering. We feel unheard, disrespected, and disregarded,” she says. “In as much as mobile technology has become a critical component of daily living, social connection and social belongingness are equally critical to your emotional and physical well-being.”

The behaviours

Phone snubbing or ‘phubbing’ your partner could cause them depression. “When someone thinks they are being phubbed by their partner, the reaction is downgraded lower levels of satisfaction,” said Professor James A. Roberts, who conducted research on the impact of phubbing with the Hankamer School of Business at Baylor University US. In this research, Professor Roberts and his colleagues found that the phone behaviours most people consider as snubbing include one partner placing their mobile phone where they can see it when they are with their significant other, one partner keeping their mobile phone in their hands when they are together, one partner looking at their mobile phone regularly when talking, and, one partner checking their mobile phone when there is a lull in a conversation. The results of this research showed that over a third of all people who know that they are phubbed see this behaviour as the trigger for their depression. “Momentary distractions by one’s mobile phone during time spent with a significant other likely lowers the significant other’s satisfaction with their relationship and could lead to enhanced feelings of depression and lower well-being of that individual,” Professor Meredith David, a researcher who also took part in the research said. The findings of this research appeared in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour.

This is echoed by psychologist Dr. Chris Hart. “How often have you sat at the same table - but miles apart mentally?” he poses.  “Those few seconds on your smartphone checking emails quickly adds up in the eyes of your spouse. Whenever a conversation, meal or romantic moment is disrupted by a notification, that’s really saying, ‘My phone means more to me than you'. This results in endless irritation, resentment, conflict - and gradually rising relationship dissatisfaction.”

The remedy

According to Dr. Joanne Davila, a professor of psychology and the author of The Thinking Girl's Guide to the Right Guy, getting rid of the phubbing behaviour starts with the phubber doing self-examination on why they’re compelled to behave in a certain manner when conversing with their partner. “If you’re the phubber, you would want to develop insight into yourself. For example, why do you need to be looking at your phone so much? What are you getting from it? What function does it serve for you?” she says. It will be critical for you to develop insights into your partner by becoming aware of their needs and how your phubbing might be blocking needs. “It is extremely important to take a mutual approach by taking your partner’s perspective and seeing what that might feel like. How would it feel if you were the one being phubbed? Or, better yet, how would it feel if your partner was doing something that resulted in you feeling insecure and not valued?” she says.

If you have been taking your mobile phones to your bedroom, Dr. Davila recommends leaving them in your living room instead. “There is generally more satisfaction when the bedroom is technology-free. Quality of life is enhanced, and so is the quality of sleep,” she says. Also, Dr. Hart says refusing to compromise will have one spouse wanting to stay up late reading the news or checking messages, while the other will be feeling that bedtime is an important moment to spend together. “If couples don’t actually prepare for bed together, then they’re unlikely to be anywhere close to being in a loving mood. All the verbal foreplay, eye-to-eye contact, teasing, laughter, and smiling are lost when someone’s buried in a screen,” he says. Dr. Hart recommends that you sit down with your partner and decide whether your screen time’s essential or mutual, or whether it’s become disruptive. “Create technology-free zones. Agree on places, like the bedroom. And times, like during meals or after 9:30 PM. Set your phones or tablets aside and spend the time together, being emotionally close. And before you know it, you’ll be having a lot more fun!” he says.

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