Is Phubbing Ruining Your Relationships? Here’s What You Need To Know About the Connection-Killing Phone Habit

Photo: Getty Images/ AleksandarGeorgiev
There's no overstating the benefits of social connection and the IRL gatherings that facilitate it. Spending quality time with a partner, loved one, or friend isn't just a boon for your emotional health and mental state; it can support your physical well-being, too, contributing to the kind of social support that's been shown to boost cardiovascular health and even ward off chronic disease1. But sometimes, it can feel like a one-on-one hangout involves a third party—except this one isn't welcome nor is it even made of flesh and blood because, well, it's a smartphone. If someone in your life is always making their phone the third wheel, they may have the bad habit of phubbing, an unfortunate portmanteau of "phone" and "snubbing."

Experts In This Article

Like the name implies, phubbing is a form of snubbing or ignoring someone in your present company to pay attention to your phone instead. While it might not seem particularly harmful to use your phone in the presence of others, particularly when our phones are the portals to so many elements of our lives, relationship experts say that phubbing can turn into a sticky habit with the potential to weaken your relationships over time.

When we talk about someone who phubs, we’re really talking about someone who compulsively uses their phone to the point where they sour their interactions with others—not the person who occasionally scrolls through a social-media feed or catches up on the news over breakfast. “From a therapeutic and clinical lens, I consider phubbing to be when someone is actively ignoring the people around them,” says therapist Willow McGinty, LMHC, lead clinician at Thriveworks. “If putting the phone down creates a sense of anxiety where you have to pick it back up and keep checking it while spending time with someone, or if you feel the need to pick your phone up during conflicts, [that's phubbing].”

6 signs that you may be a phubber

1. You take your phone everywhere

Many people are guilty of watching the occasional TikTok on the toilet or taking a peak at Instagram during a meeting, but you may have an issue with phubbing if your phone is an extension of your hand—in that you go nowhere without it.

If you can’t get through dinner, or a trip to the restroom, or, well, an IRL conversation without some dedicated scroll time, you're probably a phubber, says McGinty.

2. You prioritize your phone over IRL interactions

If you emerge from conversations not really remembering what was said, or you find yourself losing track of a conversation in the moment because of phone usage, you're likely phubbing, says therapist Claudia de Llano, LMFT. Also note if you choose to skip time with others to be alone on your phone.

 3. You feel anxious when you’re not on your phone

Smartphone and social media addiction2 go hand-in-hand with phubbing: If you feel irritable, unsettled, anxious, or annoyed when you're not on your phone or you're separated from your phone, there's a good chance you tend to use your phone while in the presence of others who deserve your full attention, says de Llano.

4. You need to check your phone to process your feelings

When you’re having an IRL conversation with someone, various emotions can crop up. If you find yourself turning to your phone as a means of soothing when you’re sad, angry, or excited, de Llano says this can signal an unhealthy relationship with your phone that can lead to phubbing.

5. You feel worse while using your phone

Getting sucked into your phone at the expense of present social interactions can satisfy a compulsion—but not necessarily in a feel-good way. People who phub often feel like they can't look away from or put down their phone even if they wanted to give their full focus to the people in their physical vicinity. Watch out for the feeling that you tend to lose track of time when you're on your phone, says McGinty, or for feeling helpless or out of control while on your phone, says de Llano.

6. You are often asked to put your phone away

The most surefire sign of phubbing? Someone taking you to task over your phone usage. If you find that the people around you (whether partners, friends, or loved ones) often have to remind you to put your phone away and be present with them, you may have an issue with phubbing, says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of Date Smart.

How phubbing can damage relationships

The main reason phubbing is harmful to relationships is that it reads as a lack of care for or interest in the person being phubbed—regardless of whether the phubber intends to convey this message. Think about it: If you're speaking to someone, and they're engrossed in their phone, you're bound to feel like what you're saying isn't important or interesting to them (or at least, not so much as whatever they're doing on their device).

This behavior has both in-the-moment and longer-term effects. “In the short term, the partner being phubbed will likely feel unseen, dismissed, lonely, and deprioritized. In the long term, phubbing behavior creates an emotional wedge between partners,” says Dr. Manly. “The person being phubbed may also experience ongoing feelings of anger, resentment, and sadness due to the partner’s thoughtless behavior.”

"In the long term, phubbing behavior creates an emotional wedge between partners." —Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist

These consequences of phubbing are borne out in data: Multiple recent studies have shown a connection between phubbing and lower levels of perceived relationship satisfaction in the context of marriage3 and one-on-one social interactions4, and in one 2017 study of more than 200 married couples, researchers found that phubbing was a significant risk factor for depression5.

It’s also a behavior that can stop new connections from forming. Indeed, excessive phone use is often cited as a first date mistake because daters who phub are demonstrating a lack of interest and consideration in their prospective partner, says Dr. Manly. In a 2023 survey conducted by dating app Hinge, 78 percent of respondents said they assume their date isn't interested in them if they're on their phone during a date, and more than 80 percent said they prefer dates where phones are put away for this reason. (The app even launched an entire “Distraction-Free Dating” guide to keep phubbing out of dating.)

Even the mere presence of a phone during a conversation, say placed on the table, has been found to negatively impact closeness, connection, and conversation quality6, all of which are important ingredients for healthy romantic ties7.

And the impact doesn't just extend to the victim of phubbing; the phubber can suffer, too. A 2015 study found that both people involved in an in-person conversation reported lower levels of perceived conversation quality when they were texting8 during the interaction. Plus, a growing body of research has tied increased smartphone usage to low mood9, anxiety, and stress10 in the smartphone user, all of which can certainly have trickle-down effects on the quality of a relationship, too.

Why someone might engage in phubbing

Phubbing has been connected to a lack of self-control, internet addiction, and fear of missing out (FOMO)11. According to Dr. Manly, someone who is passive aggressive could purposely phub their partner as a power play or bid for control. Whereas, someone with low emotional intelligence might just not know the impact their phone use has on the people around them.

Others may turn to a phone out of anxiety or avoidance. “In general, a person who always feels the need to be on their phone—even when spending time with a partner or friend—is evidencing a devaluation of interpersonal connection in favor of the 'safer' world of technology,” says Dr. Manly. Translation: They're passing off the heftier mental and emotional investment required of in-person relationships for the easy escape (and quick dopamine hit) of digital connection.

"We've created an environment of anxiety whereby we are all becoming metaphoric first responders." —Claudia de Llano, LMFT, therapist

Because of the ways in which our phones have become so fully integrated into our lives, "we often just feel the need to be within reach of [them] in any number of circumstances," says de Llano. (Yes, even the circumstances where there's not really any good reason to have a phone nearby, like during an in-person conversation or date.) "We've created an environment of anxiety whereby we are all becoming metaphoric first responders," she says, of our tendency to keep a phone always in sight.

Phones also provide instant gratification and access to a vast amount of information via social media and the internet, making them tempting tools for dealing with any moment of uncertainty, confusion, or discomfort. “Before we had this kind of immediate access, we had to deal with the unknown and learn to tolerate the emotions that came with that,” says de Llano.

How to stop yourself from phubbing

1. Ask yourself why you’re always on your phone

If you've determined that you may be a phubber, disconnecting yourself from the habit requires understanding why you've fallen into it in the first place. Dr. Manly suggests pinpointing what purpose your phone is serving when you reach for it in the presence of others: Is it a means of comfort, avoidance, power, or something else? Engage in some self-reflection, and take note of your mental and emotional state whenever you catch yourself reaching for your phone in a social setting. Simply understanding your instinctive motivation can help you move onto the step of setting digital boundaries.

2. Set boundaries for yourself (and your partner, if applicable)

Decide what using your phone in a healthy way would look like. Get specific: How often and in which situations would it be appropriate to use your phone? When and where would it not be a good idea? Outlining these scenarios can help you come up with a reasonable time limit for phone usage per day and rules surrounding phone usage around others, says de Llano. Maybe you decide to place your phone in a different room for certain periods of time or during particular interactions, or you make an agreement with your partner that shared meals and important conversations will be off-limits for phones.

If you find that you feel anxious during your new no-phone time, de Llano suggests working more time in nature into your schedule to both disconnect and ground yourself.

3. Go “cold turkey” to honor your agreement

The toughest part of breaking a habit is getting started—which is why Dr. Manly suggests going all-in on curbing your phone usage, so as not to be tempted to phub every now and then. That means leaving your phone in your bag if you're out (or in another room if you're home) during any conversations with a friend or partner, and sticking by your time limits for usage. “Unless you need your phone for work issues, it’s ideal to not let phone use ever interrupt your interpersonal time,” says Dr. Manly.

Need some more ideas to lessen your phone usage? McGinty recommends setting “mindfulness breaks” during the day to make sure you have some phone-free time. Find a moment to breathe deeply, or engage in the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique. You can also try this practice within the first few minutes of waking up, so you're not tempted to immediately fall into a doom-scroll hole.

“Normalizing being alone in public spaces can also help,” adds McGinty, so that scrolling doesn't get reinforced as a go-to habit for passing the time. To that end, it's also a good idea to plan activities for romantic dates and friend dates that require you to move your body and use your hands—meaning not just dinner or drinks dates—so that it's more difficult to phub in the first place, says de Llano.

All the while, it's also important to practice patience with yourself, says McGinty, because changing ingrained behaviors takes time and effort. That said, if you find that the steps above aren't working and that phubbing is getting in the way of your ability to maintain relationships or get things done, Dr. Manly says a mental health issue could be at play. “If you can’t conquer phubbing on your own, don’t blame or shame yourself, and instead, reach out to a psychotherapist who can support you in fostering healthy habits.”

How to help a partner stop phubbing

If a partner's phubbing is getting in the way of your closeness and connection, start by having an honest conversation about how their phone use makes you feel, and what you would need them to do to repair the damage. From there, Dr. Manly suggests talking through the steps above to understand their motivations for phubbing, set digital boundaries, and move forward with a plan in place for phone usage when you're together.

Remember that change takes time, and it's natural for your partner to have slip-ups—so you might need to redirect their attention. “I like to start with a question, such as, 'What’s been going on with you today?'” says McGinty. “Then you could say, ‘I noticed you’ve been on your phone a lot, and I’d really like to talk with you and connect with you.’” Calling out the phubbing in this way might be the only reminder they need to return to the conversation at hand.

If they continue to phub or you’re met with irritation, you could say something like, “Is there something really important on your phone that you need to get done, or can we take a walk to decompress?” suggests McGinty. You can also note what you’re enjoying about your current time together—perhaps you’re at dinner and really loving a certain dish—to help distract them from their phone and re-engage them with the present moment.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
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