Dear Carolyn: My wife of 20 years has become obsessed with her phone. She is constantly checking Facebook, texts and email, while seeming to ignore me and our three kids at home and in the car. While I drive, her head is always down, staring at her phone, unaware of what the rest of us are seeing or talking about. I try to start conversations, but she usually responds with one or two words then is back to her screen.
Several times, I have politely asked her to put the phone down, but she responds defensively by saying, “I just have to finish looking at this,” or she rolls her eyes and scoffs as she puts it down. Am I out of line to think she should be more engaged with our family, or am I the one who needs to adapt to the new norm of socialization?
A: You had me at the eye roll.
Phone-gazing, and navel-gazing about our societal phone-gazing, is nearly impossible to escape for anyone in the relationship-gazing business. That means I’ve thought and read extensively on this topic. So pardon me while I take a long, me-centric path to my point: Yes, I’ve often done this reading on my phone. Sometimes when the whole family is driving somewhere, though carsickness often saves me from myself.
Sometimes, I go all monosyllabic on my family when I do this.
But that’s nothing new, because I also “respond with one or two words then am back to my” … bound-paper book, dead-tree newspaper, NPR report on the radio or Sunday magazine crossword puzzle – that is, it’s not unusual for me to be absorbed enough by something interesting that it’s hard to get my attention.
And I don’t know about you, but my news feed isn’t teeming with dramatically scored videos of people sitting in parks and cafes doing crosswords as proof of the death of human interaction. Have you judged a mommy at a playground lately for staring at her phone? What about an actual book? What if the thing in her phone is an e-book?
We can be absorbed occasionally by the life of the mind and still be good family people, and we can read something on our phones versus on paper and still be good family people.
It’s not possible, though, to be openly contemptuous of others’ feelings and still be a good family person.
That’s what your wife’s scoffing and eye rolling are: contempt.
And the way to address this is by talking with her about the emotional implications directly – when she doesn’t have a faceful of phone.
Pick that good moment, then state your observations clearly: “I don’t think you realize how distant you have become. I’d like to talk about the amount of time you spend on your phone.” Have a reasonable “we” boundary ready: “Of course, everyone checks phones – but I think we need to be more present with the kids.”
Then address her attitude as a separate and more serious issue: “When I ask you to put the phone down, it means I’d like to spend time with you, or I’ve noticed the kids want your attention. When you blow it off or roll your eyes at me, that hurts.”
You also need to be ready for the phone not to be the issue, but instead a symptom of it. This craving for – addiction to? – her social media feed can be an unhealthy escape from the more complicated social exchanges going on inside the room. Partner + three kids = a lot to manage emotionally.
It might be a matter for counseling – go alone if she eye-rolls that idea, too. But start by building more alone time into your family’s routine, including just for her, for you as a couple, and for her with one child at a time.
Give her less exhausting ways to remain engaged, and see if that lessens the touch-screen temptation.