Check out the latest podcast episode Listen
Family Focus

Unplug and Reconnect

Holding hands instead of handhelds can reduce relationship static.

Pam and Jake (names changed) had been married more than 20 years when they both got cell phones. Pam loved being able to reach her husband at any time. And then came texting and always-on smartphones with their pings announcing the arrival of every e-mail. Jake began texting and checking his e-mail constantly, says Pam, including while driving. Conflict ensued.

An embracing couple is distracted by cell phones.

If couples allow technology to trump time spent together, it can lead to annoyance, hurt feelings, even serious conflict. BYU researchers suggest couples candidly discuss technology use and whether it is interfering with closeness in their relationship. Photo by Mark Philbrick.

“Since I’m not one to bite my tongue and suffer silently, I would say something every time the phone irritated me, which meant we were having those uncomfortable kinds of conversations often,” she says. At one point she told him if he got killed in a car accident because he was talking or texting, she would not hold a funeral for him.

Pam and Jake experienced what Brandon T. McDaniel (BS ’10) and Sarah M. Coyne call “technoference”—technology interfering with relationships. In a recent study of 143 women in a committed relationship, McDaniel, now a PhD candidate at Penn State, and Coyne, a BYU family life professor, found that the majority of the women in the sample reported frequent technoference in their relationships and experienced significant conflict over it. They also reported lower relationship satisfaction, higher depression, and lower life satisfaction.

“If you feel like your partner is choosing technology over you—that’s the message it sends—it doesn’t make you feel valued or wanted or important,” says Coyne, who collaborated with McDaniel on the study appearing in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture.

She and McDaniel recommend that couples and families take a hard look at how technology is hindering their relationships and take steps to reduce relationship interference.

Ramp Up Your Awareness

At first Melinda Orton Preisler (’02) didn’t realize the toll that electronic devices were taking on her relationship with her husband, Ben Preisler. A few years ago she began to feel some distance in her marriage, which was unusual, but couldn’t say why. It took some introspection, she says, to see that their tablets, phones, and computers were a big part of the problem. They had agreed when they first married that they would never have a television in their bedroom, but they didn’t anticipate that TV shows and other distractions would soon become available on handheld devices. “Late at night in bed, my husband would be watching some show on his iPad, and I would be looking at Facebook on my phone or shopping online. We were in our own spheres. Our devices were replacing our pillow talk—the time we used to spend at the end of the day reconnecting with each other.”

McDaniel says this pattern is common: couples allow technology to interfere with normal marital functioning, which leads to annoyance and eventually to conflict, and the quality of the relationship begins to slowly erode. Husbands and wives in this pattern say they feel less satisfied with their marriage and even with their lives overall.

“They may not even realize this is happening. I don’t think people sit down and think, ‘I am going to get on my phone right now and that is going to tick my spouse off,’” says McDaniel. But if a spouse gets on a device enough times when his or her partner wants to talk—or simply wants time together—the relationship suffers, he says.

Coyne and McDaniel recommend that couples candidly discuss how they use electronic devices and whether their use interferes with closeness. One spouse might not be aware that the other is feeling technoference, which was the case for the Preislers. “My husband didn’t know I was bothered by him so often watching a TV show on his iPad at bedtime. Before iPads and smartphones, we had to go downstairs, turn on the TV, snuggle up to each other, and enjoy the show together. The more that didn’t happen, the more disconnected I started to feel.”

Strategize Tech Time

Once Preisler was able to pin down her discontent about technoference, she talked to her husband about it. He was receptive and then disclosed that he likewise felt neglected when she spent a lot of time on her smartphone. They now talk about technoference regularly. “We’ve agreed to tell each other when we feel hurt or neglected by the other’s electronics use. Communication is key. We’re back to watching TV shows together on the big TV. I took Facebook off my phone so that I would physically have to go to the computer to browse through it if I wanted to.”



Coyne, too, has regular conversations with her husband about technoference, and they’ve come up with several strategies to reduce it. When they’re on a date, for example, they turn their cell phones off and keep them out of sight. “We’re more focused on each other,” she says. “We upped our dating game.”

“Late at night in bed, my husband would be watching some show on his iPad, and I would be looking at Facebook on my phone or shopping online. We were in our own spheres. Our devices were replacing our pillow talk—the time we used to spend at the end of the day reconnecting with each other.”
—Melinda Preisler

Coyne and her husband also have agreed to be receptive rather than defensive if either one expresses discomfort about technoference. “My husband will call me on it, and I’ll say, ‘You’re absolutely right, I’m putting it away.’ It’s so easy to let it slip in. If it’s just the two of us, we try to self-regulate and just put it away from the start.”

Pam and Jake agreed that Jake talking on his phone or checking e-mail while in the car with Pam was both rude and dangerous. They also agreed Jake would choose family time over
his phone.

“He no longer checks his phone while driving, and he puts it away at mealtimes and on Sundays,” says Pam.

Reduce Benevolent Technoference

But what about technoference that occurs when a spouse uses electronic devices for altruistic purposes? It can be tough for one spouse to object when the other spouse is spending hours each day working on family history or communicating with family or serving ward members in need.

Jody England Hansen (’87) and her husband, Michael Hansen (’87) have recently become empty nesters, and both now spend many hours each day on their devices—focused on harnessing the power of technology for good. Mike works from home some of the time and finds it challenging to keep work from spilling over beyond regular work hours. He’s also a bishop and believes it’s important to be available to his ward members by phone calls, texts, and e-mails. Jody provides support for both Latter-day Saints struggling with faith questions and LDS parents of LGBTQ children through blogs and Facebook groups. “I’ve been trying to prioritize the information that pours into my Facebook feed. Even though very little of my time is used on fluff, it can still take over my life,” she says.

The Hansens says they have spoken “very candidly” with each other about their concerns. They know they can’t sustain their compassionate endeavors without the foundation of a strong relationship beneath them. “Right now I’m trying to set a specific time to check for messages and Facebook tags,” says Jody. “I’m gradually shifting away from feeling like I need to answer every concern of people who are going through doubts and questions. I’m limiting my apps on my phone—no e-mail and no Facebook messaging.”

Mike is careful to limit his work time to specific hours, and he and Jody have set hours each day when they don’t respond to their devices except for a “very few, specific people,” says Jody.

The Hansens have noticed that they’ve gone through a similar cycle each time a new technology has emerged, beginning with their first computer. When computer games became too time consuming, they talked and decided to delete the games. When cell phones became a burden rather than a benefit, they stopped answering every call. When the ping of e-mail notices became constant, they set limits
on e-mail checks. They’re now scrutinizing their use of Facebook, smart phones, and tablets by evaluating where and when the devices are burdens rather than benefits and determining how they can use them to enrich rather than damage their relationships.

“We both love technology and see it as a possible powerful tool, as long as it is used for good and doesn’t get out of balance. We’ve hit some bumps along the way, but overall, we’ve learned to communicate clearly and choose our relationship over the technology.”

Sue Bergin is a hospice chaplain and writer.