The other night, I couldn’t find my phone. It was time for bed, and my phone was nowhere to be found. I tried calling it from my ostensibly obsolete landline, but since I always have my ringer on vibrate, that didn’t help.
I began to panic.
My smart phone not only wakes me up in the morning, it tucks me in at night. It plays soothing music. It’s reliably responsive and dependably dedicated. It’s comforting knowing it’s by my side. My smart phone has become my constant companion.
I needed to find it.
A recent article in the New York Times, The Phones We Love Too Much, reports that our love for our phones interferes with our relationships. We snub our loved ones by pulling out our phones instead of staying present (referred to as “phubbing:” phone + snubbing). We’re losing the ability to engage with each other, to negative effect. Data shows that 76% of women and 40% of men in relationships complain that their partner’s phone and technology use interferes with the relationship; the higher the phubbing, the higher the levels of conflict.
But what about those of us who are not currently in an intimate relationship? Is there a danger of virtually replacing the need for a partner with our smart phone? As Leslie Alderman writes in her New York Times article, “We have an intimate relationship with our phones. We sleep with them, eat with them and carry them in our pockets […] And we love them for good reason: They tell the weather, the time of day and the steps we’ve taken. They find us dates (and sex), entertain us with music and connect us to friends and family. They answer our questions and quell feelings of loneliness and anxiety.”
Yes, yes, and yes, I think as I read this. I know it’s terrible to admit, but my smart phone offers me greater comfort, engagement, entertainment, and overall relationship satisfaction than my marriage did. (And I’m certain my ex feels the same way). People disengage. Partners disappoint. Spouses disappear. My smart phone endures. My phone is faithful and trustworthy. It is abundant in its availability; as my needs arise, my smart phone provides.
I am a single mother who works full time outside the home. I’m fortunate in that the work I do requires me to connect with others. Unlike so many of us, I don’t sit with a computer all day; I sit with my clients and interact with my college students.
As a therapist, I connect deeply with myself and my clients, as I’ve come to understand connection itself as the predominant healing agent in therapy. As my clients progress and improve within the context of a connected relationship, so do I benefit from our work.
As a professor, I notice and find connection with those students who stay present during class, whose faces express their interest or confusion in the lessons I try to impart. I’m moved and heartened by those who learn and are changed by their newfound perspectives.
As a mother, I value quality time with my still-young children. Our time together during the week is brief, given our busy schedules, so we limit device use. No smart phones at the breakfast or dinner table, no tablets in the car. Simple human connection with my kids, lots of snuggling and cuddling; these are the interactions that sustain me. When we’re apart, I stay connected with them through our phones. I don’t know how I would ever be comfortable letting my 12 year old daughter discover her freedom and autonomy in New York City without also knowing she can call or text me if she ever ran into trouble or needed help.
But when I’m by myself at night, and the kids are safe in bed and my clients and students are no longer held in mind, I turn to my smart phone. Through it, I reach out to my family and friends. I check into the news of the day. I listen to the podcast I’ve been eager to hear that will offer me financial, spiritual, or relationship advice. I read on my Kindle app the book I downloaded that morning on my commute. I set my alarm and check the weather for the next day. My smart phone emits a gentle lullaby and I know I’m not alone.
Or so it seems.
The greatest gift my smart phone gives me, I realize as I write this, is a diversion from reality. While it’s true I find gratification in my connections with my clients, students and children, these relationships are, by their nature, uneven. They are real relationships, but in them I remain safe in my role as therapist, teacher, parent. I’m undoubtedly emotionally, intellectually and physically available to those with whom I relate, but simultaneously I remain somewhat hidden. I give in these relationships, and through witnessing the positive effects of my efforts on others, I receive.
Yet in these relationships, I, as a subjective self, deserving of mutual, reciprocal love, am missing. My friendships are closer to mutual and reciprocal, but I don’t see friends face-to-face as often as I’d like to. I relate to my phone, which relates to their phones, which relates to them, and vice versa. It’s weird, when I really think about it. Am I relating to other people I care about, or am I relating to my phone? Or both?
Am I fooling myself, I wonder? As available and responsive as my smart phone is, is it a worthy replacement for an intimate and loving relationship I deserve with another adult human? That any of us deserves?
I finally find my phone; it’s been hiding under my covers! It’s even playful, I think, instantaneously relieved of my separation anxiety and soothed by it’s smooth, glass surface. I set my alarm and drift off to sleep.
Find out if you’re in love with your phone. Take the New York Times quiz, and let us know how you did.