Do you spend more time on your phone than with your partner? You might be a phubber - and it's a major red flag.
For Amy*, it was a distance that gnawed away at her relationship slowly, then ate it whole.
"I'd get home from work and go to talk to him, but he'd always be on his phone scrolling Reddit or Instagram, barely looking up to register my presence or what I was saying."
Amy, a 31-year-old account manager from London, was with her partner for six years before things broke down in 2021, in part due to his lack of communication and focus on his phone.
"Whenever I'd raise how I felt about it, he'd be dismissive. It was a small thing that grew huge in my head and added to my feelings of being ignored in the relationship."
Increasingly prevalent in the age of smartphones, this relationship red flag has a name: “Phubbing”, meaning snubbing your partner to spend time on your phone.
A Turkish study, conducted by Niğde Ömer Halisdemir University, found that phubbing negatively impacts long-term romantic partners in particular, leading to “increased conflict and reduced intimacy in relationships.”
The scientists examined 712 married individuals, with an average age of 37, measuring their marriage satisfaction, communication skills and phubbing habits. In conclusion, those that felt more phubbed reported feeling less satisfaction in their marriage.
“Conflicts due to phubbing may lead to disagreements between couples and may harm the sense of belonging,” says Izzet Parmaksiz, lead author of the study, which was published in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour.
“Since we cannot eliminate the use of telephone and internet from our lives, it is important for married individuals to be aware of how they can use these technologies correctly in terms of relationship satisfaction,” Parmaksiz explains.
Phubbing also isn't confined to long-term couples - it can happen, bizarrely, on first dates too.
"The conversation was flowing well, but all of a sudden they just whip their phone out and start texting while I'm talking," says 27-year-old Dan*, a tech worker from France and recent phubbee.
"I was willing to give the benefit of the doubt, but it kept happening, and after the third or fourth time I made a point to just stop talking and not continue the conversation until they stopped."
While the reasons for phubbing are complex and varied, a study by Yeslam Al-Saggaf, associate professor at Charles Sturt University and author of The Psychology Of Phubbing, suggests that addiction to smartphones was the highest predictor, closely followed by a fear of missing out.
In general, we're all probably on our phones too much: People between the ages of 16 to 64 spend an average of 6 hours 37 minutes per day looking at screens, according to online reference library DataReportal.
Whether distracted on a date or lost in a TikTok algo-haze before bed, we’ve become so accustomed to staring into our screens that it’s easy to dismiss - or even just accept - the negative effects, despite being conscious of them.
How do we fix a problem like phubbing?
After being with a partner for a long time, a comfortableness sets in that can allow bad habits to flower.
“What makes a relationship successful is to notice something is happening and then to name it,” says Psychotherapist Susie Masterson.
“Then what we're trying to do is strengthen it through a repair, because successful relationships are full of ruptures and repairs.”
One strategy for doing this is to create contract negotiations with one another, scheduling time each week to spend with your partner and put phones away, actively listening to concerns.
“I think you have to understand what might be going on for both parties, because actually the phubber is potentially just as vulnerable and feeling as disconnected, but for different reasons as the phubbee,” explains Masterson.
When we start scrolling through social media, we’re looking for an escape of sorts from the chaos, uncertainty and general stresses of life around us. If a partner who’s feeling rejected by phubbing points it out, it’s usually as a complaint, which can lead to defensiveness on both sides.
“What I suggest to people is to actually look, not just at the content of what [your partner] is saying, but pay attention to their tone of voice, how they're moving in their bodies when they're speaking to you, and then play back what you think you've heard, but using all the other [physical] cues to help make emotional sense of what they're saying,” advises Masterson.
“When we do that, we feel connected, we feel heard, we feel like we matter.”