Ask Anna: How Can I Pry My Husband Away from Social Media?

husband at table looking at smartphone ignoring wife

Talkspace is pleased to continue Ask Anna, a Question & Answer column featuring Anna Akbari, sociologist and author of “Startup Your Life: Hustle and Hack Your Way To Happiness.” Send your mental health questions for Anna to [email protected].

Dear Anna,

Before I start, I’d like to share that overall I am happy with my life. I love my husband and our two beautiful children. We have a wonderful life together, which makes this all the more confusing and difficult.

I feel like my marriage is strong for the most part. We love each other very much and respect one another. But there is a small problem (or at least what I perceive to be a problem). My husband spends most of his time on his phone. He’s constantly flipping through social media. I know he’s not doing anything wrong or dishonest on it; he will often sit right next to me and show me what he’s doing and who he’s speaking with!

Even still, I can’t help but feel angry because he is choosing to spend his spare time on his phone instead of being present and enjoying time with me and our children. Even when we sit down to a meal, he will keep his phone on the table to check his Facebook page.

I know social media is part of everyday life, so I don’t know if I am over-reacting or have a right to feel this way. I don’t want this to drive us apart! Is this a real problem or do I need to do something to change my point of view?

– Sick of Social

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Dear Sick of Social,

You’ve come to the right place, because our relationships with technology and how they affect socialization is one of my favorite topics!

Let’s clear one thing up from the start: You have a “right” to feel however you feel. That is not in question. And not speaking up about how you feel will drive you apart far more than speaking up (in a loving, positive way — more on that in a minute). Plus, studies show that couples who don’t ever openly disagree or constructively argue are at greater risk for divorce than those who do — so let’s not just sweep this under the marital rug.

So, technology. It may come as no surprise that it’s addictive. The pings we receive via “likes,” follows, and other social media-related notifications activate the pleasure center in our brain — so, yes, social media operates like a drug. Once you look at it that way, it becomes a bit easier to understand how challenging it can be to actively prioritize the people we love over someone like — oh, let’s call him Richard: a guy you went to grade school with but never really talked to and haven’t seen for 30 years, but who always seems to comment on your Facebook posts. You don’t REALLY care about Richard, and he isn’t personally a threat to your marriage, and yet, there he is, making his way to your dinner table.

So then why does it feel so invasive and threatening when Richard shows up uninvited? And why is it so hard to ignore him?

Because we have shifted our priorities: we now value virtual communication over in-person connection. We feel especially flattered when those exchanges happen publicly on social media — a performance of connection and social affirmation. Regardless of strength of ties, digital pixels often win our attention over the 3D bodies in our presence. It’s a problem — and your relationship isn’t the first (or the last) to suffer as a result.

So how do you combat the tug-of-war between technology and being present? Rules. I know, no one likes rules, and it’s no more fun to follow them than it is to suggest them, but technology, and social media in particular, are too seductive for some people to use without rules — at least not without their relationships eroding.

I’m not suggesting you be some kind of strict social media police, but if your relationship is as loving and respectful as you say, then your husband should be open and receptive to a conversation about how you feel when he prioritizes “Richard” over you. Open the dialogue by affirming what you’ve already acknowledged: that you’re generally happy in your marriage and know he respects and loves you. It’s precisely because you enjoy each other so much that you want to be conscious about being fully present with each other when you’re together, lest that bond start to crumble.

No technology at meals is an easy place to start and is a rule few would argue with. Outside of the dinner table, go beyond rule enforcement and consider suggesting some conjugal activities that leave little room for scrolling Facebook: hikes, movies, even playing a video game together — whatever it is you enjoy as a couple, start doing it together regularly (and suggest turning your phones on “do not disturb” or airplane mode during that time).

Not only will this strategy strengthen your relationship, it will also keep your children from feeling like they’re competing with an army of virtual “Richards” for their parents’ attention. Being truly present via ritualized unplugging is one of the greatest gifts you can give your loved ones in the age of technology.

Good luck with the digital detox!

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