Carolyn Hax: Family man wishes spouse would dial down her smartphone fixation

DEAR CAROLYN: My wife of 20 years has become obsessed with her phone. She is constantly checking Facebook, texts and email, while seeming to ignore me and our three kids at home and in the car. While I drive, her head is always down, staring at her phone, unaware of what the rest of us are seeing or talking about. I try to start conversations, but she usually responds with one or two words then is back to her screen.

I have politely asked her to put the phone down, but she responds defensively by saying, “I just have to finish looking at this,” or she rolls her eyes and scoffs as she puts it down. Am I out of line to think she should be more engaged with our family, or am I the one who needs to adapt to the new norm of socialization?


DEAR S.D.: You had me at the eye-roll.

Phone-gazing, and navel-gazing about our societal phone-gazing, is nearly impossible to escape for anyone in the relationship-gazing business. That means I’ve thought and read extensively on this topic. So pardon me while I take a long, me-centric path to my point: Yes, I’ve often done this reading on my phone. Sometimes when the whole family is driving somewhere, though carsickness often saves me from myself.

Sometimes I go all monosyllabic on my family when I do this.

But that’s nothing new, because I also “respond with one or two words then am back to my” … bound-paper book, dead-tree newspaper, NPR report on the radio or crossword puzzle – that is, it’s not unusual for me to be absorbed enough by something interesting that it’s hard to get my attention.

We can be absorbed occasionally by the life of the mind and still be good family people. It’s not possible, though, to be openly contemptuous of others’ feelings and still be a good family person.

That’s what your wife’s scoffing and eye-rolling are: contempt.

And so the way to address that is by talking to her about the emotional implications directly – when she happens not to have a face-full of phone. Pick that good moment, then state your observations clearly: “I don’t think you realize how distant you have become. I’d like to talk about the amount of time you spend on your phone.” Have a reasonable “we” boundary ready: “Of course everyone checks phones – but I think we need to be more present with the kids.”

Then address her attitude as a separate and more serious issue: “When I ask you to put the phone down, it means I’d like to spend time with you, or I’ve noticed the kids want your attention. When you blow it off or roll your eyes at me, that hurts.”

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