Relationships require work, no matter how great the distractions out there, and sometimes the distractions are pretty great, like any site where you can make your own avatar. But know this: If your phone is destroying your relationship, the only person you have to blame is yourself.
This runs slightly counter to contemporary wisdom, which likes to pin timeless universal problems on recent technological changes, as well as to a recent study, in which 13,000 people surveyed in China were happy to report—probably because they did so via their electronic companions—that their phones are wrecking everything beautiful in their love lives. As you might expect, I’d like to suggest that these smartphones are only wrecking all that is mediocre, because if your phone killed your relationship, it was probably not that great to begin with.
In a piece at the Washington Post, Simon Denyer and Xu Yangjingjing report:
A survey has just come out in China though, clearly saying that the explosion in smartphone use is ruining marriages in the country and driving families apart. The survey by the All China Women’s Federation (ACWF) found that 60 percent of married respondents complained about intrusion from smartphone use in their relationship.
“Mobile electronic devices have become the ‘electronic enemy of love,’” the survey said. Overuse of the devices has become a “a major enemy to spousal relations, parental relations and personal health.”
The enemy of love? Or perhaps, the revealer of all that is unfortunate but true? Such as: Humans are boring, and easily bored. People in general are bad at relationships. We barely ever know what to say.
In January, a woman in the city of Wuhan smashed her husband’s $500 smartphone because he had been so engrossed in social media after coming home from work that he had ignored their three-year-old daughter, local media reported. Burying his head in his smartphone, he barely exchanged ten words with his daughter on some days, she complained.
In Beijing, Zhang Meng, a 33-year-old online games analyst, told the China Daily newspaper that his girlfriend gets angry with him if he doesn’t stop playing games on his iPhone. “But it is true, I can’t put my phone away,” he was reported as saying.
In the first example that guy is being a shitty dad, sure, but replace “his smartphone” with “sports,” “mowing the lawn,” “working in the garage,” or “reorganizing his belt collection,” and you have the exact same behavioral issue but a less obvious scapegoat. In the second example, I have two questions. One: If he works as an online games analyst, doesn’t that necessitate him playing online games a lot? Two: He can totally put his phone away. He’s just being a dick.
Anyway, this smartphone creep is happening stateside, too:
In the United States, a Pew Research Center study found that 25 percent of cell phone owners in a marriage or partnership have felt their partner was distracted by their cell phone when they were together. Eight percent have had an argument with their partner about the amount of time one of them was spending online.
To be fair, eight percent is a tiny fraction of people, all said. Only eight percent of people achieve their New Year’s resolutions! That’s basically nobody. But sure, I’ll bite: The thing about phones is they are distracting, sure. But reading a book is distracting. Watching movies is distracting. Working out a lot, being a foodie, practicing Tarot cards, all of these things are utterly absorbing and take you away from a mate, but people don’t seem to find these pastimes as threatening as “being on your phone.” Saying that someone reads too much is not a typical complaint on surveys about marital distraction. Plus, no one seems to expect you to be able to track the plot of Crime and Punishment while being witty and attentive to your spouse, but if you’re on your phone reading an article, or god forbid, something you found on Facebook? Suddenly you’re headed to divorce court.
And still, I’m not really defending people who are on their phones all the time. While I think phone use is much like all the other pastimes we’re more comfortable with, I do think that any pastime taken to excess causes problems no matter what. I’m making a twofold argument:
1. People on their phones should not be expected to be witty and attentive; they are on their phones; YET
2. Anyone on their phone all the time is kind of a dick.
You can use your phone regularly and not be a terrible person. Some people manage to be a phone person and a real life person both. They might check it every now and again to “stay connected,” but by and large they’re with you when they’re with you.
The people who can’t even do that—who stay on their phone the whole time, who don’t really join the conversation, who don’t even seem to get that they are being dicks—are not just phone dicks. I would venture that they they are dicks who were also dicks long before ubiquitous phones were an easy out. Before the life of ubiquitous phone use, they checked out of conversations and were still thoughtless; it was just easier to fake paying attention before the smartphone. If you’re on your phone instead of engaging with a real, actual person you claim to love, something is wrong—not with phones, which are pretty awesome—but you.
These phone dicks either don’t appreciate what they have, or do—but for some reason don’t understand how to act like a human who appreciates things. Either way: dick. I can think of a lot of people we could blame for this, a long trail of people in the phone dick’s life who probably never helped or made him or her act right.
But at the end of that trail is not a phone. It’s you, being bad at being a person. Being an easily distracted person. A person who is bored. A person who is selfish. A person who takes people for granted. A person with an addictive personality. A person in the wrong relationship.
Which brings me to my real point: Don’t shoot the messenger. The worst thing you can say about a smartphone in this context is that it is the most visible and obvious proof that you’re escaping humanity under the guise of being totally connected to it. In a way, we’ve just all been found out: We are bad at being real people. We were always pretty bad. Human history is nothing if not a long timeline of people coming up with literally anything else to do—songs, poems, stories, food, war, pop stars, cross stitch—just so we didn’t have to sit there and listen to other people talk about their day.
But it’s not all terrible. A smartphone might rob you of (what you thought incorrectly) was a great relationship, but a.) that’s a good thing ultimately, because you needed to cut bait, and b.) your phone might also lead to a better person. A third of married couples in the U.S. say they met online. Probably while they weren’t paying attention to you!
Viewed in this blue, self-dimming light, the smartphone is still a godsend. At least it will be there to help you find another relationship once you’ve destroyed this one. Can your current boyfriend or girlfriend put down their phone long enough to promise you that? Didn’t think so. Just another reason you’re bad for each other.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.