"Phone snubbing" your partner can lead to a vicious cycle of resentment and retaliation, study suggests

Smartphones have become an integral part of daily life. They are often thought of as a positive tool used to increase communication, but they can also be detrimental to relationships by drawing attention away from one’s partner. A study published in Computers in Human Behavior explores how “phubbing,” or phone snubbing, can negatively impact relationship satisfaction, and cause the partner who feels snubbed to retaliate.

The rise of technology has brought many significant challenges along with its plethora of advancements. Communication has been streamlined but also depersonalized by the popularity of smartphones and social media apps. This can harm in-person communication, especially when one person is perceiving that their partner is ignoring them for or being distracted by their cellphone while they are together.

This phenomenon is called “phubbing” and has been shown to be linked to negative relationship and personal outcomes. The new study sought to better understand the effect phubbing has on the partner who feels they are being phubbed, as well as how the phubbed partner responds behaviorally.

In their study, Tessa Thejas Thomas and colleagues utilized a sample of 75 participants recruited through social media and word of mouth to serve as their sample. All participants were required to be in a romantic relationship of 6 months or longer and living with their significant other. The sample was predominantly female and heterosexual.

All participants were asked to complete ten daily diaries, with measures including demographics, daily perceived phubbing, daily relationship satisfaction, daily self-esteem, daily depressed/anxious mood, daily anger/frustration, daily responses to being phubbed, and daily motivations for retaliation.

Results showed that partners who felt they were being phubbed in their relationships had lower levels of wellbeing, were less satisfied with their relationship, and reported more feelings of anger, jealousy, and frustration. Despite this, feeling phubbed by a partner did not lead to lower self-esteems or higher rates of anxiety and depression, with the exception of phubbing being correlated with depression in couples who have been married over 7 years.

Results also showed that phubbing was related to curiosity and resentment in the partner who felt ignored. When participants felt phubbed, they were more likely to pick up their own phones to engage in retaliatory behavior. This was motivated most strongly by boredom, rather than revenge, although there was no significant relationship.

“Although there may be various motivators for retaliatory phubbing, findings suggest partner phubbing operates as a vicious cycle,” the researchers wrote. “This may explain why, over time, phubbing is associated with several negative outcomes (i.e., relationship dissatisfaction, increased anger, resentment and tit-for-tat retaliation).”

“It is important to note, however, that several outcomes of perceived partner phubbing were not detrimental to the phubbee. There was no significant effect on phubbees’ personal well-being. Similarly, some individuals responded to partner phubbing by simply asking their partner what they were looking at. By doing so, they may have mitigated any conflict from occurring.”

This study made significant progress with better understanding the relatively new concept of phubbing as its relational effects. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that all measures were self-report, which can cause bias in answers and does not allow us to extrapolate causation from results. Additionally, only the partner feeling phubbed in the relationship answered questions; future research could focus on the perceptions and effects on both partners.

The study, “Phubbing in romantic relationships and retaliation: A daily diary study“, was authored by Tessa Thejas Thomas, Katherine B. Carnelley, and Claire M. Hart.

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