“If I see you check your phone one more time when I’m trying to have a conversation with you, I’m going to throw it out the window!”
Now, this might not be the best way to start a conversation about the amount of time your husband spends glued to technology – but it’s definitely an understandable sentiment.
When a husband’s phone or computer use is excessive, the wife often feels lonely, unimportant, disconnected, and isolated. However, the real reason men are stuck on devices may be to avoid the vulnerability that comes with connecting to their wives in a meaningful way.
Recent studies show that, on average, Americans spend 3hrs and 15 minutes each day on their phones – that’s a total of 50 days every year. And that’s just time spent on phones. This doesn’t even account for the time spent on computers, ipads, or watching TV.
That’s 50 days a year you could spend having meaningful conversations with your spouse, playing with your kids, going to the beach, and making memories.
But here’s the thing.
As much as it might feel it’s an intentional snub when your husband won’t get off his phone or quit playing video games, that’s not necessarily the case. It’s easy to say that the constant phone time is due to boredom or busyness… but the reality is that the incessant phone time may be his way of avoiding vulnerability.
Your Husband Uses The Phone to Avoid Discomfort
As our love affair with technology has grown, we’ve learned more about the science behind exactly why we love our phones so much – why the dopamine hits we get from the “ping” of an incoming message are so very hard to resist.
We’ve all heard the advice to leave our phones out of the bedroom, set them on silent during meals, and delete the apps we don’t need. Granted, this is valuable advice (and I’ll touch on this more later), but what’s not often talked about is the idea that technology is so often used as a way to numb difficult emotions.
The truth is, a partner who is often on the phone or computer may be using technology as a way to mask discomfort and avoid vulnerability.
Many of us aren’t raised with the skills and emotional practice needed to lean into discomfort. Instead of allowing ourselves to sit and experience difficult emotions, we rush to find whatever will take the edge off. So although it may seem like we’re “addicted” to our devices, that’s likely not the full story.
Put Down Your Phone and Tolerate Discomfort
Interestingly, even the anticipation of a difficult emotion can trigger the desire to numb. And instead of leaning into the discomfort, we shield ourselves with whatever gives us the quickest relief – like scrolling through Instagram, or doing a marathon of our favorite video game.
Instead of seeing these habits as a way that your partner is intentionally ignoring you, consider seeing the habits as a way your partner is trying to take the edge off of their vulnerability and pain.
Brené Brown, a leading researcher on shame and vulnerability, found that those who embrace wholehearted living aren’t immune to wanting to numb their difficult emotions. The difference seems to be that they are aware of the dangers and have learned how to feel their way through high-vulnerability situations.
While it may sound counter-intuitive, one of the main goals of therapy is to increase your tolerance for discomfort. When you’re faced with depression, anxiety, or anger – address it, don’t mask it. Living wholeheartedly requires the courage to experience life fully – both the ups and the downs.
Take It From Me: Wives Numb Out Too
It’s not just husbands who are always on the phone, trying to escape discomfort with technology. I hear husbands in my practice all the time complain about their wives doing the same.
I remember one time in particular that I used technology as a shield from vulnerability in my own marriage. One of my kids was being bullied in school, and if you’re a parent you know how much this hurts. I was so worried, and every time those anxious thoughts started to creep in… I pulled out my phone.
Online shopping, Facebook, Pinterest – anything to distract myself. And when that got boring, I found myself raiding the fridge for snacks. It was almost an out-of-body experience. I knew exactly what I was doing, but I couldn’t seem to stop.
I was doing anything but processing my pain.
And while all these distractions did take the edge off the pain, numbing myself also meant I was disengaging from the opportunity to connect and support my child.
When I found myself standing in the garage with a glass of wine, that’s what finally snapped me out of it. I picked up the phone and called a trusted friend who had been in this situation before. I cried and felt better. I was then able to talk and work through the feelings of my child who was hurting.
You see, the problem with numbing is that you can’t selectively numb your emotions. You just end up finding a tolerable level of misery, without ever fixing the real problems.
When we don’t want to face something in our lives, technology is usually what we turn to. It’s a prop. It takes courage to let go of that prop, to turn around and face your partner, to risk destabilizing your relationship in order to truly repair it.
Technology is a Misery Stabilizer
In his book The New Rules of Marriage: What You Need to Know to Make Love Work, world-renowned relationship counselor Terry Real calls these types of emotional props “misery stabilizers.” As he explains:
“Misery stabilizers are the things people turn to instead of turning to each other, staying engaged, and facing their issues. Like steam valves, they bleed off your discontent, staving off a crisis but cementing your lack of fulfilment as well.”
Technology gives us plenty of misery stabilizers to choose from – everything from binging Netflix shows, to online shopping, scrolling through Facebook, or playing candy crush. But technology isn’t the only way we choose to numb out.
Other misery stabilizers could be:
- Substance abuse
- Staying busy
- Over-involvement in our children’s lives
The problem is, when you turn to misery stabilizers, you lose the motivation to make a change or improvement in your life. They make you just comfortable enough that you don’t challenge the status quo.
If you’re looking to revitalize your relationship – to get out of mediocrity — learning to embrace and experience difficult emotions is one of the first steps.
How Do I Get My Husband Off His Phone?
So your husband has left you for his phone or another device? Let’s talk about ways to help him kick the habit and be more present in your relationship. In particular, let’s take a look at emotional solutions and practical solutions.
- Ask him to address his vulnerabilities and learn to sit in discomfort. Gently suggest that it’s more beneficial for your relationship if you both tolerate the ups and downs, rather than numb to the bland middle.
- When you’re talking with your partner about how much time he spends on his phone or computer, remember that it’s a negotiation. Both partners get a say. (For many more tips about how to negotiate effectively with your significant other, read this blog.)
As an example, a negotiation around how much time is spent on your phone could go something like:
Partner #1: “I’d love to go for a walk with you without our phones to distract us.”
Partner #2: “I don’t want to leave my phone right now because I’m expecting an important call from my boss. Could we go for a walk in an hour instead, once I’m done with that call?”
If you commit to less phone time, but then are caught being on your phone more than you’d agreed to, try not to get defensive. Try not to say, “Well, you’re always on your phone too!” Instead, own it.
Yesterday, I saw a couple for therapy. The husband complained that his wife was always on her phone. Instead of getting defensive, she replied, “I know, it’s a real problem, and I want to be better at putting my phone down.”
What a difference that made to the conversation moving forward!
They came up with the solution of friendly reminders, including a gentle tap and a simple, “Hey, I miss you. Can we connect?”
In addition to the emotional and relationship work that goes into giving up technology as a misery stabilizer, there are also practical ways you can make tangible changes. I usually ask my clients to:
- Only use the bedroom for sleep, sex, and connection. Leave laptops and tablets out of the room. Plug cell phones into the kitchen instead of the nightstand. If you still need your phone in the room, put it on it’s charger and leave it alone.
- Spend time in nature. Walking outside makes for some of the best conversation and connection.
- Delete the apps you don’t NEED. I’m looking at you, Facebook!
- Track your phone usage time. Use an app like Moment. When you see just how much time you spend on your phone, you’ll be more motivated to get this habit under control. You’ll also be able to track your progress and celebrate your wins along the way.
- Put your phones face down. Practice doing this when you’re at the table for dinner. Inform each other if necessary, “I need to check my phone really quickly to see if my boss responded to my message.” Pick it up quickly and put it back down.
- “Come home” from work, even if you’re working from home. Try shutting down your work each day at a certain point and truly shut it down. Pro tip: out-of-office emails are great for this.
Remember, progress doesn’t happen overnight, and this will feel uncomfortable at first – but I promise you it’s worth it.
Leave Technology: Reconnect With Your Partner
It’s understandable to want quality time with your husband – to want him to be engaged in your life together. And a husband who is always on his phone or computer is certainly not giving his full self to the relationship. (Of course, the same can be said of a technology-addicted wife.)
Looking at technology use as a way to numb vulnerability instead of intentionally disconnecting can help you get to the root of the problem. Be brave. Help your partner rip off the bandaid, and risk destabilizing your relationship to make it more fulfilling in the end.
Take two minutes right now to reflect on what emotions and experiences you, yourself, use technology to numb. Then this week, challenge yourself to take one practical step in reclaiming your full experience of wholehearted living.
One last thing: as you know, relationships take work, and you might as well work smart. Sign up for the newsletter below and I’ll deliver great relationship tips proven to work straight to your inbox.
Note: I now offer two online, video-based courses that might help you move your relationship to a better place.
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