Want to save your relationship from digital distraction? Make sure you understand the psychology of how online media really works.
Americans now spend an average of 3-4 hours a day on their mobile phones. For most of us, that includes almost 2 hours a day on Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter.
That’s bad news for intimate partner relationships, as just about everyone has noticed by now. There’s even a new word—“phubbing”—which is a mashup between “phone” and “snubbing.” Phubbing is what happens when someone you’re with gets so involved with their smartphone that you feel they’re no longer really paying attention.
If you’re like most people these days, you’ve probably endured a fair amount of phubbing by people close to you. You’ve probably done your share of it, too.
Why Does Using Social Media Feel Good?
Social media consumes lots of time. But there’s something even more important that makes Facebook and other sites particularly hazardous to intimate relationships. It’s that social media is so narcissistically rewarding.
I’m not talking about pathological narcissism—you know, people who are really over-the-top in their need for power and control. I’m talking about healthy narcissism—the natural human drive, which we all have, to feel special and important.
Before social media, the main way most of us got to feel special and important was through our relationships—especially intimate partner relationships. Good relationships make you feel good about yourself. That’s a big part of what keeps a relationship going.
If you’re like many people these days, you’re probably getting more of your healthy narcissistic needs satisfied by your electronic devices than by the people in your life.
But unfortunately, if you’re like many people these days, you’re probably getting more of your healthy narcissistic needs satisfied by your electronic devices than by the people in your life. The makers of consumer products have always been good at making you feel special. But electronics and social media take this to a whole new level.
What’s the solution? It’s not enough just to say, “Put down your phone.” The problem is deeper than that. To really solve the problem, you have to understand the psychology of how digital media really works.
There are three things that all really successful apps and social media platforms do to get you hooked. They give you lots of attention, they give you a sense of accomplishment, and they make you feel loved.
Accordingly, there are three things to do if you want to save your relationship from technology. Let’s go through them, one by one.
1. Reclaim Attention in Your Relationship
As infants, we need lots of attention to thrive. That means we’re built to crave it as a matter of survival.
You start out as a very young child, receiving a tremendous amount of attention. Later, as you get older, you learn to make do with a lot less. That’s just part of growing up. But none of us ever stop missing the total attention we received as very young children.
As an adult, when you first fall in love, you again suddenly get this really powerful hit of attention, in a way that probably hasn’t happened to you since early childhood. That's one of the best parts of being in love.
But in a long-term relationship, that eventually fades. Other things start to make demands on your partner's time and energy, and you have to go back to being satisfied with less of their attention.
Your smartphone, on the other hand, is engineered to give you all the attention you could ever want. It lights up whenever you touch it. And it never has anything else on its mind. As opposed to your intimate partner, who has all sorts of other things on their mind.
Your smartphone exists to make you happy. Your partner doesn't. It's not even a fair competition.
Your smartphone is engineered to give you all the attention you could ever want. It lights up whenever you touch it. And it never has anything else on its mind.
But here’s a secret. There's one thing your partner can do that your smartphone can't. Your smartphone can't enjoy you.
Being enjoyed is the best kind of attention in the world. Did you ever see a mother enjoying her baby’s feet and toes? She’s not doing it for the baby's benefit. It's purely selfish. But the baby is getting something really important: They’re getting to experience, on some pre-verbal level, that someone feels joy in the simple fact that they exist.
There's no reason two adults who are intimate partners can't do exactly the same thing. All you have to do is to selfishly enjoy each other. It could be anything. The scent of your partner’s hair. The color of their eyes. The way they laugh or move. Spend a minute or two enjoying your partner in that way and see what happens. Chances are, they'll be so happy about this that they’ll start enjoying you, too.
Your capacity to enjoy each other is the one secret advantage you have over your smartphones. It’s a potent weapon against technology ruining your relationship.
Now let’s talk about the second thing you need to do if you want to save your relationship from technology.
2. Stop Doing and Start Being
The human mind is naturally restless. It loves a challenge, as anyone who’s wasted an hour trying to get to the next level in a video game can tell you. Most of us crave that sense of mastery that comes from meeting a new obstacle and conquering it.
The beginning of a new intimate relationship ordinarily involves lots of challenges. Conflicts, disagreements, and misunderstandings are inevitable—and for a while, they can keep you pretty occupied. Eventually, if all goes well, you settle down as a couple. But that can spell trouble for that restless part of your mind that’s always craving new obstacles.
These days, technology rushes in to fill that void. Your electronic devices are engineered to keep your restless mind fully occupied by giving it a series of challenges. Not too hard, and not too easy. Just the right level to engage you.
Your intimate partner is not designed that way at all. Which is why so many couples these days just end up lying next to each other at night, each focused like a laser beam on their mobile device.
The best solution to this problem, strange as this may sound, is to spend a few minutes together with your partner doing absolutely nothing at all.
Let me explain:
When you stop solving problems, and instead commit to just doing nothing at all, this naturally leads to a state we call mindfulness—which simply means paying attention to the present moment without judgment. There’s nothing esoteric about mindfulness. It doesn’t require you to sit cross-legged or eat vegan. Any couple can practice mindfulness together in the privacy of their own home. Here’s how:
First, of course, turn off your devices. Next, you’ll each take an inventory of what it feels like at that moment to be you. Notice your breath, the temperature of your body, the weight of your body in bed. Then, if you can, direct your attention to your own thoughts and emotions. Just notice them, without getting too involved with any of them.
Afterward, you can talk to each other, if you like. But don’t get into any deep, heavy discussions. See if you can listen to your partner without formulating a response. Just listen. Remember, your goal is to do nothing.
Cultivating mindfulness together can be a welcome break from all the problem-solving you're doing the rest of the day.
Cultivating mindfulness together can be a welcome break from all the problem-solving you're doing the rest of the day. It can be challenging at first, but trust me -- it gets easier the more you do it.
Now let’s get to the final thing you need to do in order to save your relationship from technology.
3. Realize the Internet is Never Going to Love You Back
When you’re a baby, there are only two people in the universe that matter: You, and the person taking care of you. Same thing when you fall in love. Just like when you were an infant, you want to be rocked, held, and told that you’re the most wonderful person in the world. Hey, that’s probably why so many love songs use the word “baby.”
Traditionally the only way to feel that intense kind of specialness and importance was in a romantic relationship. Unless you were famous, of course. In which case you could get that special feeling, or something resembling it, from all your fans.
But you’ve seen what being famous does to intimate relationships, right? One of the reasons those Hollywood marriages tend not to last is that they’re each getting so much narcissistic gratification from the public, that they end up not needing it from each other.
Nowadays, though, you don’t even have to be famous to get just as messed up in your marriage as a Hollywood movie star. Anyone with a smartphone and a social media account can start craving so much attention online—“likes,” “faves,” follows,” and so on—that your real relationships can wither from lack of interest.
Your smartphone never stops thinking of you as the most important person in the world. So it’s not surprising that most married couples these days, when they wake up in the morning, first reach for their smartphones, rather than for each other.
Your smartphone never stops thinking of you as the most important person in the world.
In my opinion, the best way to fix the situation is to let yourself burn out on social media.
Let yourself get tired of it. Bored with it. Admit that the moment to moment experience isn’t usually that great. As I’m sure you know by now, there's really no end to it. No matter how many likes you get, there’s always someone who has more.
Your smartphone will never really know you. Neither will most of the people who like you on Facebook. But somewhere across the bed from you tonight, there’s someone who wants to know you again.
So go ahead, pay them some attention. You’ll be glad you did.
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Please note that all content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.