By Esther Mann, LCSW
I think my wife is addicted to her iPhone. She is on it around the clock. You could say that as a society we are all somewhat addicted, but her usage is questionable. I am guilty of loving my phone a little too much, but I can disconnect from it and enjoy a beautiful sunset without needing a picture. I can hear the ding of a text and still complete a task before rushing to check it.
As time goes on, I am getting more and more annoyed with her and her phone. Here is why I think she has an addiction:
1. She checks her phone at least 20 times during a movie, and that is probably a low estimate. Let me be clear that she is not doing work or dealing with kid emergencies. She is commenting on her friend’s picture of her kugel from Shabbos. I’m not kidding.
2. As soon as Shabbos is over she turns it on and stays on it for about an hour.
3. If she says she is showering before a wedding at 4:00 p.m., she ends up showering at 5:00 p.m. because of the phone, and we are perpetually late to everything!
4. Every time we go out, we end up fighting about her phone. She keeps it on the table and checks it throughout the meal. She doesn’t take her calls, but she needs to know who is calling and will text them, “Out with David.” She can’t let the phone go to voicemail and get to it later. I explain to her all the time how rude her behavior is but she brushes it off. She does it when the kids are around, and I’ve seen her do it with her friends. One of her friends once bluntly told her how rude it is to be on social media and texting while she comes to visit. My wife made it like it was no big deal and apologized.
5. While we are speaking, she is scrolling through her phone. She can’t talk to me for more than two minutes without looking down and scrolling.
6. That phone is also her nighttime companion. She falls asleep to it, playing her mindless games with her headphones in.
I am angry having to compete for her attention. Do you know how stupid I feel? I am jealous of an inanimate object! I can’t talk to anyone about it because I feel like a loser. “Woe is me; my wife loves her phone more than she loves me.” I’m not looking to start a war with her or to have her view me as the bad guy who took away her connection to the world, something she accused me of years ago when I asked her to cut back. I want my wife back, sans iPhone. We used to watch a show together or talk in the evening after work. She used to nag me like a normal wife. Now I could go to work looking like an ape with holes in my shoes and she’d kiss me on the cheek and tell me I look great. Or even better, during the minute she looks up from the phone she’ll show me a great men’s outfit she found on Nordstrom online and buy it for me. Seriously, what should I do?
Dear Second Fiddle,
As technology continues to spread, this issue is becoming more prevalent in relationships, with spouses feeling neglected and frustrated. Boundaries are becoming blurrier as everything we need (except people, relationships, love, and everything truly important) can be found on our phones. You can decorate your house, schedule your appointments, book a vacation, organize playdates, answer the boss, see pictures of your friends’ kids, and get directions—all from this magical tiny rectangle. But how much is too much? Though the data on this social phenomenon is somewhat new, one telltale sign someone has crossed the line into obsession is when relationships begin to suffer.
Addiction isn’t limited to substances; people can become addicted to behaviors, as we see with addictions to shopping and gambling. A person addicted to his phone needs to get his fix in much the same way an alcoholic needs a drink or a gambler makes a bet. Feeling down, feeling happy, need an escape? Check for new texts, listen to a nice saved voicemail, play a game. As with other addictions, people begin to use their phones more and more to get the same “high” they used to get from answering one text or checking just one social-media outlet.
From your report, it seems that your wife is exhibiting signs of cellphone addiction—using it during social time with friends and family, sleeping with it, etc. Interestingly, as I read your e-mail, I noticed the thoughts and feelings of playing “second fiddle” are similar to those expressed by spouses of addicts. For example, they say, She would choose the addiction over me. Friends are noticing. I’m embarrassed. I am angry. I am jealous. And, last but not least, it is destroying the fabric of your relationship. You are no longer having meaningful, fulfilling time together.
This seems unhealthy for her, and certainly unhealthy for you and your relationship. There is nothing shameful or pathetic about your feelings. You have every right to your feelings and every right to want things to change. No one wants to play second fiddle. You value your marriage and real interpersonal connection, not a barrage of information and seconds-long validations from distant acquaintances and strangers. Understandably, you don’t want to share this with everyone, but it needs to be shared with one person—your wife. Letting go of feeling like a loser will increase your chances of speaking about this with her, thereby increasing the odds of improving the situation.
Think about specific circumstances you would like to see change. What do you need to be more content with her phone usage? Asking her to get rid of it altogether is probably not realistic, and she may shut down immediately. Be specific. Perhaps every Monday and Wednesday night you spend one hour together watching a TV show with your phones off, in another room. Maybe you want the guarantee that she will only check her phone once during a movie. Think about feelings you have noticed over the years as the issue has been growing. Perhaps included in that list are feelings of loneliness and isolation, anger, frustration, or missing her.
Once you have measurable requests and have identified your feelings, calmly approach your wife about scheduling a time to chat sans technology. If she agrees to the conversation, though you may be tempted to launch your laundry list of complaints, be sarcastic, or outright attack her, refrain from doing so. Use the examples you shared to shed light on how you have felt during those moments. Use this time to talk about your concerns for your marriage, i.e., growing apart, missing her, feeling isolated in your marriage. Open this up to dialogue, asking her if she shares any of these feelings. Ask her if she notices the lack of quality time spent together. And make your requests.
I am hopeful that this conversation will go smoothly, that she can validate your feelings, and that the two of you can create compromise. If it doesn’t work out that way, ask your wife to see a therapist with you. You will both need support as you work through this. These feelings you have aren’t going to go away if ignored. Just as with any addiction, your wife may be using her phone to avoid a larger issue either within or outside of your marriage. Go into this conversation with the knowledge that she may throw you a curveball and the conversation may take an unexpected turn.
Cellphone usage affects so many couples, friendships, and relationships of all kinds. I am hopeful that your e-mail and this column will launch a dialogue in the homes of our readers. I have begun thinking about my cellphone usage as well as my own feelings of “second fiddle” when I’m trying to spend time with someone I care about but they are glued to their phone.
Ultimately, we have no control over another person’s decisions and behaviors. However, we do have a right to speak up for our needs. When something is a problem for one spouse, it behooves the other to listen, validate, and compromise.
Jennifer Mann is presently working as a psychotherapist at Ohel. She also works as a relationship coach and can be reached at 718-908-0512.