Cell Phones and Relationship Distress: The Missing Link
Technology is more harmful to some romantic relationships than others. Why?
Posted Jun 29, 2017
The last two postings in this series described research on cell phone-related stress arising in romantic relationships. Whether this is excessive monitoring, continual intrusions or interruptions by the technology, or, as some propose is a real disorder, cell phone addiction, many couples are finding that cell phones and texting are insidiously impacting relationship satisfaction. Still, not all couples are equally impacted, and researchers have been searching for moderating factors that explain this discrepancy. One factor that has been explored is attachment style.
Attachment refers to the relationship developed between an infant and a parent or primary caregiver during the first two to three years of life and is based on how a parent responds to the child’s needs for care, comfort, and security. When parents consistently meet these needs, a child develops a secure attachment style; this is a lifelong pattern of feeling comfortable in close relationships without chronic concerns of abandonment or fear of intimacy. Unfortunately, when a caregiver is not reliable in meeting the needs of a child, the latter may develop a less salubrious attachment style. Whether secure or insecure, the attachment style formed in childhood becomes a template for future adult romantic relationships.
Several problematic attachment styles have been elucidated, including:
- Avoidant – These individuals find it difficult to trust others and are reluctant to allow anybody to become too close or intimate. They prize autonomy and distance from relationship partners. When an argument with a partner occurs, they are likely to pull away.
- Anxious – These individuals want to get so close to others that they can become overwhelming. They are in a constant state of fear that their partner will end the relationship and are hypersensitive to signs of rejection. When an argument with a partner occurs, they are likely to become even more clinging and seek reassurance.
Every one of us has an attachment style, and research indicates 30 to 40% of individuals do not have a secure attachment style. For interested readers, the Authentic Happiness website of the University of Pennsylvania offers a free opportunity to identify one’s attachment style. A link to the site follows this posting. Decades of research conclude adult attachment style affects romantic relationships, friendships, sexual behavior, group dynamics, and leadership style.[i] It is now becoming clear it also impacts cell phone use and texting.
Weisskirch and Delevi (2011) found those with an anxious attachment style are more likely to send sexual texts (“sexting”) to romantic partners. Attachment anxiety also predicted positive attitudes towards sexting, including beliefs that it enhances relationships and that partners expect sexting.[ii] Weisskirch (2012) found anxious attachment was related to more frequent text messaging sent to and received from romantic partners; this is likely because text messaging typically solicits a quick response, which provides reassurance.[iii] Morey et al. (2013) examined the association between attachment style and communication technology in romantic relationships. They found avoidant attachment was correlated with less frequent phone and text messaging and more frequent email use; the authors surmised avoidant individuals are less likely to use communication tools that foster intimacy.[iv] Roberts and David (2016) found cell phone conflict was moderated by attachment anxiety. Those with anxious attachment styles reported higher levels of conflict than those with less anxious attachment styles when their romantic partner engaged in cell phone use that intruded upon their relationship.[v] Finally, Konok et al. (2016) ascertained anxiously attached people report the availability of constant contact with others is the most important aspect of cell phone use.[vi]
In summary, research indicates anxious attachment style influences cell phone use; secure and avoidant styles show less consistency. Aforementioned Konok and colleagues questioned whether that availability of constant contact via cell phone is beneficial or detrimental to those with an anxious attachment style and suggested the latter is the more likely outcome.[vii] In my clinical work I work with anxiously attached teens who excessively monitor their romantic partner’s whereabouts and spend hours into night talking to a partner. I also work with anxiously attached adults who text their partners innumerable times per day for simple reassurance. These practices unfortunately prevent anxiously attached individuals from learning to live with doubt, tension, and uncertainty, characteristics that are a part of the human experience. They also tends to suffocate relationships in the long-term.
To take an Adult Attachment Assessment:
- Link to: https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/
- Scroll to “Questionnaires.”
- Scroll to “Close Relationships Questionnaire”
- You will be asked to create a user account but nothing too personal is asked.
[i] Mario Mikulincer and Phillip R. Shaver, Adult Attachment: Structure, Dynamics, and Change (New York: Guilford, 2007).
[ii] Robert S. Weisskirch and Raquel Delevi, "“Sexting” and Adult Romantic Attachment," Computers in Human Behavior 27, no. 5 (2011): 1697-1701.
[iii] Robert S. Weisskirch, "Women's Adult Romantic Attachment Style and Communication by Cell Phone with Romantic Partners," Psychological Reports 111, no. 1 (2012): 281-288.
[iv] Jennifer N. Morey, Amy L. Gentzler, Brian Creasy, Ann M. Oberhauser, and David Westerman, "Young Adults’ Use of Communication Technology within Their Romantic Relationships and Associations with Attachment Style," Computers in Human Behavior 29, no. 4 (2013): 1771-1778.
[v] James A. Roberts and Meredith E. David, "My Life has Become a Major Distraction from my Cell Phone: Partner Phubbing and Relationship Satisfaction among Romantic Partners," Computers in Human Behavior 54 (2016): 134-141.
[vi] Veronika Konok, Dóra Gigler, Boróka Mária Bereczky, and Ádám Miklósi, "Humans' Attachment to Their Mobile Phones and Its Relationship with Interpersonal Attachment Style," Computers in Human Behavior 61 (2016): 537-547.
[vii] Konok et al., “’Humans' Attachment to Their Mobile Phones,” 537-547.