Dear Neil: My girlfriend is on her iPhone almost all the time when we’re together. When we’re in a restaurant, she checks her Facebook account; in a movie theater, she texts her friends; at a social gathering or party, she repeatedly checks her emails; at her family dinner she is on Twitter while everyone else is talking or eating (it’s in her lap, so nobody else sees it except me). And this is not because she is expecting an urgent message. This is every day, not just some days.
This is the same woman who tells me she wants to marry me and who is insanely passionate about me, so I don’t think she is bored with me or otherwise disinterested in being close to me. And this doesn’t just happen around me. At work, she is constantly checking Facebook, emails, voice mails, Skype or texts as well.
It’s not like we’re from different generations, either, although she is 7 years younger than I am. I check my emails and texts also, but I’m not immersed in them all day, every day. Why is she doing this, and what would you recommend that I do about it?
Annoyed in Canada
Dear Annoyed: Your girlfriend sounds as if she has become addicted to social media, and you sound as if you are feeling alone and isolated in her presence. This gives you the unmistakable feeling that although she is right next to you, she isn’t really there in mind and spirit—and her attention isn’t with you either.
When we’re constantly scanning the environment, as your girlfriend is doing, we are partly there with others and partly focused on not missing anything, whether it be news, social interaction, alerts, phone calls, emails, texts or something else. This partial attention we use to scan our environment means that we aren’t giving our full attention to the person (or the people) next to us, which can lead you to feel that although she might be right next to you, she’s actually not there.
She may be checking for emails, texts and social news countless times a day because she is afraid that if she misses anything big, that will prove that she is dispensable, unnecessary and unimportant—and that the world can function without her. Or she may think that she can almost will other people to text, email, call or Skype her if she checks her cell phone (or computer) often enough. Either way, when she is on hyper-alert to her cell phone, nothing else is receiving her full attention.
I would recommend that you tell your girlfriend what you’re feeling about her all-day cell phone surveillance, and ask her to limit the times she’s available for others to contact her, especially when the two of you are alone together, or you’re out in a social situation. She may not be aware how often she’s scanning for information, or may not understand how her behavior is affecting you (and probably others). And if she is doing this at work, her employment may be at risk without her even being aware of it.
Social media may be a useful and engaging tool for staying in contact with lots of other people, groups, organizations and news outlets, but it doesn’t replace face-to-face human contact that give relationships their touch and feel—and it doesn’t replace good old-fashioned ways of attaching, connecting, romancing or being affectionate. Ask your girlfriend for an agreement about having alone uninterrupted time together, where the two of you can give your full attention and presence to each other, and ask her to do the same at social events that feel important to you.
You might also ask her what helps her to feel that the two of you are close and connected. You can then tell her what assists you in feeling closest to her, and what you feel detracts from the connection. Then make an agreement with each other about what each of you are willing to do differently in order to keep your connection vital and intimate. If she knows that shutting off her phone will help bring the two of you closer, hopefully she will respond accordingly. If she doesn’t, take her to an addictions counselor.
On pages 242-3 of my #1 international bestselling book Love, Sex, and Staying Warm, I go more in depth on this subject, and provide additional recommendations to address this issue.