Carole and her husband Henry have a routine every night. After getting ready for bed, both settle into bed, hunkering down with a book.
They read, snuggled together, and then talk about their plans, their worries, what they think and feel about the various events in their life. And then they kiss one another good night and turn out the lights.
But lately a new interloper threatens their cozy little domestic ritual. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the warmth and intimacy of their marriage is ebbing away.
No, neither Carole or Henry are having an affair. But one has found a new object of affection, which has become a new companion and inspires a surprising amount of jealousy among spouses.
“It’s my fault,” Carole, a Minnesota-based landscape architect, tells me. “I should’ve said something earlier. And now I’m too embarrassed to admit that I’m jealous…of an iPhone.”
The change, Carole says, started simply. Their oldest son was going away to college abroad, and Carole and Henry were looking for a way to keep in touch with him.
The family settled on Skype, but their computer wasn’t robust enough to handle the app. So they decided to upgrade to smartphones instead.
As middle-aged adults, Henry and Carole wouldn’t call themselves tech-savvy. But they took to their iPhones with ease. They found their devices easy to use, intuitive and convenient. Like others, they took their phones everywhere they went.
Then, one night, it happened. Henry and Carole were settling in for the night, following their usual routine. Carole padded out of the bathroom in her pajamas, and found Henry laying in bed, phone in hand.
“Did you get a message from work?” Carole asked as she settled into bed with her book. Henry’s job as a bank manager was usually strictly 9-5. Checking his work e-mail past operating hours was out of the ordinary.
Henry shook his head. “Everything’s fine,” he said. “I’m just reading an article.” He kept his eyes on the screen the entire time he spoke to her, his attention absorbed in the story.
They sat together in what felt like a companionable silence for awhile. Carole shut her book. “Well, I’m going to turn in, hon,” she said. She reached over to their bedside lamp.
She expected Henry to put his phone down, but he didn’t. “You going to bed, too?” she asked, surprised.
“Go on and turn off the light, dear,” he said. “I can keep reading.” He gestured with the glowing touchscreen.
Carole flicked the light off and snuggled under the sheets, but she still felt vaguely dissatisfied. “Oh, well,” she thought.”It’s just for a night.” She drifted off to sleep, as Henry continued to read next to her, the glow of the phone teasing at the side of her eye.
It wasn’t just for a night, though. Soon, reading on the phone became Henry’s new modus operandi. Every night, he was absorbed with whatever he was reading and watching on his touchscreen.
Carole at first was nonplussed by the shift, though it made conversations in bed less satisfying. Their bedside chats ebbed away.
Sometimes Carole felt vaguely jealous as her husband lay in bed next to her, attention rapt on his phone instead of on her.
But she felt she was being irrational. “Who gets jealous of an iPhone?” she says.
Carole isn’t the only wife who is jealous of her husband’s roving attention. Three-out-of-four women in a 2014 study reported that they felt they had to compete with their loved ones’ smartphones for attention from their loved ones, according to The Daily Mail.
The women in the study reported that husbands and boyfriends often looked at their phones while talking to their partners, and took phone calls or answered texts in the middle of conversations as well. In other words, their attention was focused not on their partners, but their phones. The researchers of the study called it “technoference” — when our attachment to our devices interferes with making or solidifying bonds with our loved ones.
Carole at first thought she was being too sensitive, and she tried to let it go. “I always think you should pick your battles in a marriage,” she says. “You don’t want to nag over every little thing.”
But then she noticed Henry’s fixation on his phone began to seep into his daytime behavior as well. “I knew I had to say something when we were having lunch together and he spent most of it on his phone, looking at sports scores or whatever. I know that in a longtime marriage, you start to take each other for granted — but this was a little ridiculous, not to mention rude!”
The conversation didn’t go well at first, though. Henry at first denied he was on his phone all that much, just cramming a moment in here or there in between idylls of boredom or downtime. “This made me even more mad,” Carole says. “I mean, is lunch with me an occasion of boredom or downtime?”
And then Henry got defensive, saying he thought he and Carole actually communicated more now that they had their iPhones. They texted more often, he said, and talked on the phone more.
But Henry made a mistake common to many who think having a smartphone and keeping in constant contact all the time improves relationships.
The opposite can actually hold true: according to an Oxford University study from 2012, couples that lean too heavily on tech to communicate are less satisfied in their relationships. Couples who used five or more tech-dependent ways of communication were 14 percent less satisfied in their relationships than couples who were less tech-savvy.
You would think being more connected via text, social media and more would lead to more closeness, but that often isn’t the case, especially if you use electronic media is a neutral or negative way. Quality matters in our communications with our mates, and positive comments and statements are important.
Sure, you can use your phone to text your spouse throughout the day, but if all you’re using it for is “Can you pick up milk on the way home” instead of “Thinking of you, darling,” then it almost can have a negative effect on your relationship.
Phones can also affect relationships in other ways. Technology, for example, makes it easier for couples to fight dirty in relationships — think passive-aggressive comments on Facebook, or refusing to answer someone’s calls or texts because you’re angry at them.
It often creates miscommunications as well. Texts, for example, often don’t communicate valuable cues such as tone of voice — what linguistics experts call “prosody” — and so a matter-of-fact text can be interpreted to be colder than they were intended.
Leaning too much on phones for communication also sap away opportunities for physical affection, as well. It’s too easy to replace communicating over text or social media for hugs and kisses.
But holding hands, staring in one another’s eyes, hugging, holding each other and kissing are all ways of building and solidifying romantic bonds with loved ones — they produce the important bonding hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin just can’t be generated electronically — it requires physical contact and presence, which is compromised when we hold onto our phones instead of our loved ones.
Carole could see all the ways phones compromised the quality of her marriage with Henry. He was more distracted with his phone and conversation suffered. He held her less when they were in bed at night because he held his phone instead.
Soon she began to find other points of dissatisfaction with Henry. He sometimes forgot their anniversary. He didn’t do his share of the housework. They never held hands or kissed much anymore.
Yet Henry stubbornly kept up his habit of reading on his phone at night and while out with Carole. Carole kept feeling ignored and neglected. She would stare resentfully at the phone in Henry’s hand and wish they’d never gotten on the iPhone train in the first place.
Henry, too, felt attacked, and began to feel dissatisfied with Carole. She was boring — too caught up in domestic affairs and rarely interested in the same things he was. She didn’t initiate affection, which made Henry feel undesired. He didn’t feel appreciated for the things he did do.
Soon these longtime partners of over twenty years took to sleeping further apart in their bed, one on his phone, the other with her back turned away from him. But both lay awake at night, wondering if their choice of marriage partner had been a mistake.
Marriage is hard work — or so the truism goes. And it’s even harder now, with more to do, less time to do it within and more distractions to deal with while doing it.
Carole often grumbled to herself that she was busy enough — why did the task of saving her marriage fall to her, while Henry did nothing but read the news on his phone? Life was so unfair.
But trying to be the bigger person, she decided to go to her pastor at church with her thoughts and quandaries.
“He mentioned something like this often happened with couples in later middle-age, as well as those coping with aspects of modern life,” she reports. “But he still felt we were a solid couple; we still shared the same basic values and were highly compatible in other ways. We just needed a refresher course, not just with each other, but on love and romance in general.”
He recommended Carole become familiar with the concept of “love languages.” According to this theory, expounded by relationship counselor Gary Chapman in his book “The Five Love Languages,” we express love and affection in relationships in five major ways: physical touch, quality time, acts of service, words of affection and gifts.
Successful intimate relationships very much needs all five at some point or another in order to work, but most individuals have one or two primary love languages they use and value over others.
Love languages can explain why two people can have very different perceptions of a relationship, especially if their primary love languages are different. A man who values acts of service and quality time may think it’s enough that he picks up his partner’s dry cleaning and spends all his evenings with her.
But if she values physical affection and words of affirmation — and doesn’t get them — she can feel neglected. She’s also blind to the ways her partner expresses his love, and likely doesn’t give him credit for the ways he does show devotion.
Smartphones can interrupt or compromise most love languages. They eke away at the quality of the time you spend together — quality time involves paying attention to one another and focusing on reconnecting, but it’s hard to do that when you’re focused instead on reading your latest messages on the phone.
People also become so absorbed with their phones that they forget to show physical affection for their loved ones. And it’s all too easy to let communication devolve into banal back-and-forth, instead of expressing heartfelt affection and appreciation.
In fact, without mindful use, phones might only be good for gift giving — and that works only one time, at the beginning.
By taking a quiz on Chapman’s site, Carole discovered her love languages were quality time and physical affection. She cajoled Henry into taking the quiz, and discovered he valued acts of service and words of affirmation.
The revelation proved insightful for Carole and Henry. They realized they had been blind to the ways the other had expressed love. Henry often told Carole she looked pretty in the morning, for example, and he always brewed her morning coffee for her so it was ready when she woke.
And Carole often gave Henry little caresses and hugs, and gladly attended the sporting events and lectures Henry liked to go to, just to spend time together.
“It wasn’t that the love wasn’t there anymore,” Carole says. “It’s just that we took each other’s way of expressing it for granted and became blind to how we showed we cared to each other. And then we became resentful. And we stopped expressing it in ways that were meaningful to the other person. It was like a downward spiral.”
Once Carole realized what her and Henry’s different love languages were, she was better able to ask for what she needed — and better able to meet Henry’s needs as well. She knew Henry craved affirmation, so she made sure to tell him what she appreciated him for, as well as use their affectionate nicknames for each other. She also went out of her way to do the small kindnesses and favors that often fall to the wayside in long-term partnerships.
She also decided to address the smartphone issue in a different way. Instead of confronting Henry and demanding that he stop, she began to model the behavior she wanted to see for herself. “We went out to dinner, and instead of both of us placing our phones on the table like we do, I put mine in my bag and said we both had such a busy week and I just wanted to focus on him,” she says. Henry was surprised, but did the same.
Carole continued to make a point to put her phone away each time they were out together, saying she wanted to focus on him and not be distracted. “I kept pointing out what I was doing and why, and soon it became more of a habit,” she says. “We let ourselves have a moment near the end of a meal to look at our phones, but then we put them away again.” Soon neither of them needed reminding — the habit became automatic.
Then Carole addressed the smartphones in bed at night. At first she attempted to bring up studies that say smartphones in the bedroom often detract from sleep and intimacy, but Henry argued that he had no problems sleeping.
Finally Carole was honest with him. “Even though i felt ridiculous admitting it, I told him that I was getting jealous that he was looking at his phone more than me when we were in bed together,” she says. “I tried to remember what our pastor counseled about using statements that focused more on how I felt and not be accusing, so I said I felt hurt and invisible when he did that.”
Henry was surprised at the depth and sensitivity of Carole’s feelings — he had no idea that Carole was that hurt by the behavior. “It helped that I spoke from the heart, and not tried to attack or blame,” Carole said. “And that I also admitted the ways I’d fallen short and was trying to do better.”
What followed was a longer, more relaxed dialogue about what they wanted from their marriage, especially now that their children had left home and they had more time together. But regardless of the solutions they come with, Carole is more confident in her bond with Henry — and excited that she and Henry are in it together as a team in creating their happiness.
Smartphones in the bedroom may have created a temporary rift between her and Henry, but Carole believes the conflict ultimately made her marriage stronger, and taught the twenty-years-married wife a fundamental shift in attitude about partnership that made her marriage stronger.
“We too often focus on what the other person is giving or not giving us,” Carole reflects. “It’s more challenging to think of a partnership as something that we create together with the other person. You want to create something great, with a great partner who’s as invested as you. It’s more work — more discussion, more self-growth, more willingness to take full responsibility for our part in any situation — but the result is something better than you could’ve imagined on your own.” ♦