How Has the SmartPhone Impacted Intimate Relationships?

The majority of couples in longer term relationships use their smart phones primarily to ‘keep base’ with the partners during periods when they are not together, and manage to successfully negotiate rules to minimise the use of their phones when they are together.

However, for a minority of couples excessive Smart Phone usage when together can drive the couple apart due to jealously with one partner not knowing what the other person is doing when they are on their phone.

This is according to Mark McCormack, Professor of Sociology at the University of Roehampton, who recently completed some research on this topic based on In-depth interviews with 30 people all of whom had been in heterosexual relationships for at least one year.

The sample included a wide range of ages, social class backgrounds and ethnicities. 

Below I summarise this research which is most relevant to the Families and Households module.

Keeping Couples Together when Apart and Driving them Apart when Together

Smartphones are an integral part of contemporary relationships – especially at the start of relationships. 

Private messaging on apps such as WhatsApp was especially important in the early stages of relationships (the ‘dating phase’) when someone’s chat skills were one of the factors that determined whether or not there would be a second, third, or fourth (and so on) date… 

Later on in relationships smartphones were essential for ’keeping base’ with couples who either weren’t living together or who just had long work days. 

The idea that smart phones prevent intimate couple conversations because both partners are hunched independently over their phones when in at home or in a restaurant (for example) emerged as something of a myth… 

Rather, one participant said that she didn’t know what couples used to talk about before SmartPhones seeing them as essential to keeping conversations going by checking in on what was going on elsewhere (keeping up with the gossip, maybe, for example). 

One third of respondents had done flirtatious texting, fewer had sent over more explicit material such as videos – but a significant minority said their phones helped them keep intimate when apart and helped them view sex in a different (enhancing) way. 

For a minority of participants phones had the potential for undermining trust, especially among younger females. 

Some felt that the  the phone sometimes got in the way of face to face conversations with their partners and there was some feelings of jealousy and worrying about what partners were doing online when they weren’t speaking to them. 

A few of these respondents expressed concern about the fact that the delete button is so easy, easy to hide one’s tracks online, but very few people spoke of their partners actually cheating as a result of being online.  

McCormac developed the concept of ‘Technoference’ to describe one further negative impact of phones on relationships – when phones disrupt face to face intimate conversations. 

One respondent talked of being so into Candy Crush at times that she wasn’t following conversations properly.  Another talked of playing games on hist phone behind his girlfriend’s heads while giving her a hug. 

A further downside was the experience of sitting in bed together but living in different worlds – her on FaceBook and him on a Sports App. 

Over time messages got less exciting in nature, and less frequent, and more about mundane things such as reminders about what to pick up from the supermarket, but ‘checking-in’ quickly remained constant. 

One respondent saw these quick and infrequent check-ins as sad given that in the early days of the relationship her and her partner had been exchanging a lot more texts and images 

Some respondents also talked of sex having been interrupted to answer a phone call – or using their smartphones as a strategy to delay or avoid sex. 

Many respondents had developed strategies to manage their smartphone use when together. A couple of examples of rules included buying alarms for the bedroom so phones couldn’t come up less drastic was the no phones at candle lit dinners rule.

A minority of respondents felt the conversation about management had itself caused tensions – with one partner feeling the other was trying to be more controlling. 

Ultimately, communication was seen as they key for successfully negotiating smartphone usage in intimate relationships.

Find out More:

The full research article is here: Keeping couples together when they’re apart and driving them apart when they’re together, but thanks to the totally unreasonable accessibility limitations you often get with academic articles, you have to request access so this isn’t freely available.

However you can listen to a summary of the research on this excellent Thinking Allowed Podcast, which I listened to and summarised in the form of this blog post.

Relevance to A-level sociology 

This is most relevant to the families and households module, and is a good example of how relationships are changing in a postmodern world due to technology. 

This is also a good example of in-depth micro-level research and the results demonstrate how we can’t understand the impact of technology on couples and relationships without asking people.

It also shows how couples are active agents I their lives – most seem to have been able to use smartphones to positively enhance their relationships, and to have negotiated strategies to avoid the potential negative impacts. 

So this study is a good-fit with perspectives which argue that postmodern family life is complex, diverse, negotiated – such as the late modernist Ulrich Beck and his idea of the negotiated family as the norm, and also the Personal Life Perspective

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