Is “Digital Shunning” Undermining Your Marriage?

Can you imagine a week without your cell phone, tablet, or computer? I recently grappled with this question in a rather personal way when my smart phone stopped functioning as I was starting a long road trip with our three boys. We were already on the road when the screen suddenly went black… and stayed that way. I frantically worked to resuscitate it, but to no avail. Then the rush of panicky questions: “Can I even navigate where I need to go without the GPS? What if we have a break down – how will I get help? How am I going to stay awake without my audio book?”

Now, I was traveling alone with the boys – it was a guys’ outing. That made everything feel bigger. Without Timi (and HER cell phone), I really felt the loss. I felt isolated. Interesting isn’t it – given the fact that there were three (very talkative) other human beings in the car with me?

We live in an era where new technologies are becoming part of our every day lives at such a rapid pace that we literally incorporate them with very little if any reflection on their impact to our holistic experience. But now, social science is beginning to ask some important questions about the new “tools” that have become standard in most of our lives. How are these devices affecting our relationships?

An article in the March 2015 edition of Psychology Today cites a study done by Brigham Young University where the majority of 143 participating women, “married or cohabitating… reported that phones, computers, and other devices were significantly disrupting their relationships and family lives.” The study actually found that “excessive phone use by loved ones can lower overall well-being”.

Digital use has become the new “shunning”. How is that? Imagine the scene… we’re at dinner with our family, the chatter of conversation is flowing around the table with playful banter and sharing. Then, your phone ting-a-lings, you have a new text or Facebook message. Instinctively, you reach for your phone to answer its siren call. You have just left the table without moving your chair.

Consider the messages you send in that reflexive action. “What just came in on my phone is more important to me than all of you.” “This person matters more to me than you do.” Or worse yet, “I actually don’t care about what any of you are saying.” Ouch.

Conversation lags around the table as each person processes the impact of the message they just received from you.

“It was just a text message. It took only seconds.” You may protest.

True. But consider how many times in a day, week, or month that happens and you can begin to sense the gravity of these mini messages being repeated to your loved ones over and over again. After a while they can add up to a mega-phone enhanced shout yelling, “YOU DON’T MATTER TO ME!” Shunning.

So how do we make peace with these digital portals that bring so much value to our lives?

  1.  Let’s begin by recognizing how much of our daily existence they actually own. To do this you may want to keep a daily log for a couple randomly selected days. Be brutally precise in measuring your use and distraction. You could (and probably should) also ask those you are in close relationship with to share how they experience your device usage and it’s impact on connection.
  1. A next step suggested by Dr. Winch in his Psychology Today article, is to “Acknowledge usage that is valid.” These are powerful tools that DO have beneficial usage for most of us. Get clear on what those are – time sensitive work use, or staying in touch with an emergent family situation would fall in this category. This leads naturally into a useful conversation about how to balance between being digitally connected and relationally present.
  1. Likely, you’ll want to build in some “digital down time” In our family, Timi recently removed Facebook from her phone because she concluded that it had become too much of a distraction to have access to it all the time. Note that she didn’t delete her account, just removed it from her phone. Another idea that we are talking about is making Sabbath – the day our family observes weekly as a time for rest, reflection, worship, and relational connection – a “no fly zone” for digital devices of any kind. This would mean devoting one day a week to real relationships only… no virtual relationships invited.

I have made it a habit to ignore prompts from my various devices when I am in conversation with someone in person. It’s my way of communicating non-verbally, “This conversation with you is the most important thing I’m doing right now.”

I certainly wouldn’t recommend that you drop your device in the trash, but I DO think it’s time for all of us to take a close look at how these tools are affecting our relationships. Some “Digital Dragon” taming may need to be done.


What steps have you taken to tame your digital dragons? Share in the comments below.


Resource links:

“Harm from a Handheld” by Guy Winch, Psychology Today, March 2015

photo credit: Traverse City via photopin (license)

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Leave A Reply (3 comments so far)


  1. Jerry Myers
    8 years ago

    I agree, it has been hard for me as a former practicing physician – and in the habit of instantly responding to the phone (even before cell). I now often press ignore to incoming calls if I am with someone else. I find that I can usually get them when I call back, if not I can leave a message – and I haven’t disrupted the relationship with the person I was with.

    • Richie
      8 years ago

      Thanks Jerry – I think you were trained reflexively before the rest of us! It takes determined effort to keep these tools in their place. I too have learned that “re-dial” works just as well as the answer button and is much more honoring to those I am with.

  2. Marcus Lopez
    7 years ago

    I’ve chosen to leave my phone on during meetings, but I do use the ignore option unless it is an important communication that I am expecting and in that case, I let the other people in the meeting know ahead of time that I may have to step out if the communication comes.
    During meals we as a family have simply decided to eliminate phone use. We agree that the unspoken messages are invariably negative and its better that those messages never get sent.