Will offering my full attention to my loved ones get them to reciprocate?
January 4, 2012 7:50 AM   Subscribe

Will offering my full attention to my loved ones get them to reciprocate?

Some Background:

My wife and I are currently attending couples counseling and one of the things we’ve uncovered that’s negatively affecting our relationship is her compulsion to check her cell phone. The counselor calls these behaviors “exits” and we all have them even if they aren’t centered around mobile devices. The counselor has advised us to become aware of our exiting behaviors and think of possible solutions, and it’s been very interesting. For example during Thanksgiving (which we hosted) my wife’s sister and her boyfriend came to stay with us, and I was shocked at how much time they spent sitting in silence glued to their phones. Playing Words with Friends, checking Facebook, etc. These are people in their 30’s, not teenagers.

This got me realizing how damaging these cell phone habits could ultimately be to our relationships, and left me craving actual “real” time with my friends and family in a way I haven’t felt in quite a while. There are tons of articles about cell phone “addictions” that address what chemically happens in the brain (similar to a drug, or gambling) from these behaviors, and the inability of people to actually “unplug” but I feel like we haven’t seen the worst yet.

Have you ever been in a situation where you were with a spouse or a loved one, lets say watching tv, and they were messing with their phone the whole time? It doesn’t even feel like they’re there with you. This makes me sad.

These cell phone commercials even reinforce the mentality to detach! For example:

(This one really hits home)


(These guys are at a freaking football game, just sitting on their cellphones while everyone else around them is doing shit)


I think you get my point :)

My Actual question:

What are you guys doing to help set boundaries in your life or relationships to help you really “be here now” with your loved ones? Do you think it’s ever appropriate to tell someone you feel like you’re competing for their attention from their phone?

When at home with my wife I’ve started leaving my cell phone in one spot, with the ringer on and the text alert set to silent. If someone needs me, they can call me. I’ll spot check it a couple times a night at most. I’m also implementing a game night where we cell phones aren’t permitted to create some additional “real” interaction for us.
posted by Hellafiles to Human Relations (45 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Have you ever been in a situation where you were with a spouse or a loved one, lets say watching tv, and they were messing with their phone the whole time? It doesn’t even feel like they’re there with you. This makes me sad.

That's your interpretation of the behaviour. It doesn't feel to you like she is there with you. You may want to find out what she feels this behaviour indicates. What does she say about it?
posted by DarlingBri at 7:56 AM on January 4, 2012 [10 favorites]

I had this discussion with my mom over Christmas. She wanted everyone to stop playing Words with Friends and watch a movie with her.

To me, watching TV in a group isn't real interaction either because you're just sitting around staring at a screen in that scenario as well. But I knew that what my mom really meant was that she wanted some direct interaction, so I put down my phone and we played games.

I was confused that she didn't just say what she wanted, though, and told her that I found it frustrating. So my advice to you is to not expect others to simply follow your lead, but to ask them to spend quality time with you.
posted by runningwithscissors at 8:00 AM on January 4, 2012 [17 favorites]

Best answer: When I'm at home, more often than not, I actually switch off my cell phone before putting it on the corner of a cabinet. My home phone no is all over my contact info, and people can just as well call me there. It may be helpful to realize that calling real phone numbers was standard until the early nineties, so there's really nothing to lose, for anyone.
posted by Namlit at 8:04 AM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I had this discussion with my mom over Christmas. She wanted everyone to stop playing Words with Friends and watch a movie with her.


Poor mom. I'm having trouble understanding why or when spending quality time with loved ones took second place and how to establish some healthy boundaries in my personal life. One day you'll be glad you watched that movie with her and maybe slightly sorry she even had to ask :)
posted by Hellafiles at 8:06 AM on January 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Do you think it’s ever appropriate to tell someone you feel like you’re competing for their attention from their phone?

Of course it is! Look, you don't have to make any sort of moral call about whether cell phones are Good or Bad or whatever. Your spouse has a behavior you find hurtful, it is your duty to start up a conversation about it. Otherwise, you end up feeling hurt and resentful and they don't even know they're doing something wrong.

However, you need to know when and where to compromise. Watching TV, for instance, might not be the best place. Unlike an intimate dinner or an interactive game or just laying in bed and talking (or even a special movie), the priority of one (shared) glowing rectangle over another (personal) glowing rectangle is a lot more arbitrary than it seems. Especially considering constant commercial interruptions and so on.
posted by griphus at 8:06 AM on January 4, 2012 [10 favorites]

Response by poster: That's your interpretation of the behaviour. It doesn't feel to you like she is there with you.

I'm not sure I understand this. Are you suggesting that someone on their phone isn't at the bare minimum distracted?

In my mind I feel like she isn't there because she mentally isn't.
posted by Hellafiles at 8:08 AM on January 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Hellafiles, I think you're putting more significance on some things than other folks do, like the tv watching example above. I personally would find it irritating if my husband asked me to not use my phone while we were watching tv, which I do not consider to be quality time in any shape or form. It would be a different thing if we were having a serious conversation about something and I whipped out my iPhone, which I do consider to be quality time.

Would it be possible to find a compromise and do things you both consider to be quality time together, so that you both feel loved instead of pressured?
posted by crankylex at 8:10 AM on January 4, 2012 [22 favorites]

The short answer to your question is that no, your behavior should not be expected to change her behavior in any way. In most ways, this is really out of your hands. Explain to her in a nice way that you end up feeling alienated when she's otherwise distracted, and that might make her at least try to remember not to do this. In all likelihood, she probably doesn't even realize it's bothering you. I had a friend over for dinner once who spent all their time fussing with their phone and sending and receiving texts. To me, it was extremely rude, and I made a note not to invite this person over any more. Word from the friend was that they had a great time.
posted by Gilbert at 8:11 AM on January 4, 2012

Hellafiles: "One day you'll be glad you watched that movie with her and maybe slightly sorry she even had to ask :)"

I doubt it, since they didn't actually watch that movie, they played games instead. I think the difference here is that to a lot of people, using your cellphone to play words with friends while sitting next to your loved ones is exactly the same as watching a TV show or movie while sitting next to your loved ones. Why is cell phone use being less interactive than mindlessly watching a tv screen? Asking someone to stop playing on their phone so you can sit there and watch TV instead seems to me like asking someone to change their preferred method of vegging out to match your preferred method, instead of actually interacting with them through a conversation or something.
posted by Grither at 8:11 AM on January 4, 2012 [33 favorites]

Response by poster: Why is cell phone use being less interactive than mindlessly watching a tv screen?

Because the TV is something we are watching together, and the phone is something she's doing by herself. It's taking one person away from the shared activity regardless if it's some you perceive to be mindless to begin with or not.

Yes, watching tv can actually be considered quality time if its something you both enjoy watching and are engaged in or cuddling, etc.
posted by Hellafiles at 8:17 AM on January 4, 2012 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I understand where you are coming from, if you are both watching the same movie you are sharing the same experience, how ever mindless, you can talk about plot or lack of plot or Hey is that Chicago remember when we went to Chicago or whatever. If you are watching the movie and she's on the phone and you go "Hey is that Chicago." and she goes I dunno I was was playing Word it feel less of a shared activity with you and more of a shared activity with someone else.

Maybe asking her to stop while watching a show she's not interested in isn't the best idea, but I'd try and carve out some you and her time each night. Maybe have an hour or 2 phone free time each night and do stuff together. I would talk to her about it instead of just hoping your behaviour will alter hers. Basically tell her what you've said here, tell her you miss spending time with her just you and her, let her know you like feeling close to her.

BTW that stupid football phone add annoys the crap out of me too, who the heck goes tailgating or to a football match and just sits and looks at their phones it seems so sad.
posted by wwax at 8:19 AM on January 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

Also, I can offer an example from my private life.

For instance, if my girlfriend and I are sitting around and just blasting through one episode after another of some sitcom or procedural drama or reality show, she doesn't really mind if I flip open my laptop and check MetaFilter or play a casual video game on my phone or laptop while doing so. However, if she says that she really wants to watch a particular movie or a premium-network drama or something with depth and nuance, then being distracted isn't cool. Because it's the movies and premium shows that we end up talking about later, rather than the fifteen nearly-identical episode of Law and Order.
posted by griphus at 8:19 AM on January 4, 2012 [19 favorites]

Nope. Treating others the way you want to be treated with the expectation that they will comply and treat you that way is at best wishful thinking. People who do not respond to non-verbal cues are not going to respond to what you're doing by treating you the way you're treating them. (Note: this is an extension of the "golden rule" versus "platinum rule.")

If you want someone to change their behavior towards you, and they are not responding to your nonverbal cues, you need to ask them to change their behavior. Full stop. Your wife clearly does not have the same expectations you do on attention and how it is distributed, so stop frustrating yourself by trying to get her to play by your rules when they aren't really even rules, just your preferences.
posted by juniperesque at 8:20 AM on January 4, 2012 [16 favorites]

Yes, watching tv can actually be considered quality time if its something you both enjoy watching and are engaged in or cuddling, etc.

You know how someone above mentioned that you should find out how she feels about what she's doing? This is the context in which you need to bring it up. Maybe for her, the quality-ness of TV time is a lot lower than it is for you. As the responses here make clear, everyone has a different value assigned to screen-time, and its possible that you're just assuming your wife's matches your own.
posted by griphus at 8:22 AM on January 4, 2012 [9 favorites]

Hellafiles I think you missed runningwithscissors's point. It's not "poor mom" because she wanted interaction and nobody else did. She wanted the same kind of interaction, just with a different screen.

There's no difference in interaction between two people sitting next to each other playing flashfriday games and two people sitting next to each other watching a movie. Mom suggested an old-school passive-stare-at-the-screen activity instead of a current passive-stare-at-the-screen activity.

Hellafiles said let's put away all the screens instead. And that's the solution you're looking for.

When I was growing up, my dad insisted on dinnertime being no-phone time. We'd take the phone off the hook and dial our own number; you could leave it off the hook as long as you wanted that way.

When my partner moved in with me, we designated the bedroom as off-limits to screens and electronics. This is no longer the case, but it was fun while it lasted.

You and your partner may have differing views of what "attention" is, but there's nothing wrong with setting certain times/places as distraction-free zones. If your partner is "exiting" it might not just be a mindless compulstion to check facebook, it might be a direct response to what's going on around her. So it's not just that she *is* on the phone when she's with you, it's *why* she's on the phone when she's with you.
posted by headnsouth at 8:22 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I meant runningwithscissors, not hellafiles, said let's put all the screens away instead.
posted by headnsouth at 8:23 AM on January 4, 2012

I agree with griphus - if my husband and I sit down to watch a movie together, one that we've agreed we want to watch, which also means we'll discuss later - then that's in the "quality time" category and I would not want him on his cell, and I wouldn't pick mine up either. But if we're just watching Chelsea Lately to wind down before bed, it's basically "zoning out" time and neither of us would mind the other doing a Words With Friends move.

Talk with your wife, see where she's coming from on this. Also understand that it's a hard addiction to break, so if you do ask her to put it away for whatever you designate to be quality time, make it small increments at first.

The other thing is to get your quality time in a place that doesn't facilitate cell phone use. Can you both fit in your bathtub? :)
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:25 AM on January 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: We struggle with this sometimes too, so I get where you are coming from, but just not being on the computer or phone around her probably isn't going to get you the attention you want. You need to have an actual discussion with her (either alone or at couples counseling) about how you want more quality time away from the phones/computers. Use this time to discuss with her whether she feels the same way about TV time as you do (i.e. that it can be quality together time), because as this questions has shown opinions on that varies. Spell out times that are ok for that sort of activity because it might be a time for her to decompress from the day and get some nice alone time (similar to if she went off and read a book), but also say times that aren't. Like dinner, or certain nights a week. And for the times when you are doing a phone/computer free time, plan out something to do, a games night, a dinner out, making dinner together, cleaning the house, watching some movie, whatever, just make it a plan so that you aren't both tempted to slide back into the ease of computer/phones. This worked for us until we had a kid and time to just sit and not have to do anything became more important than quality together time (adorable toddler I love you but you are incredibly exhausting!). We do still have a no distractions at dinner time (no phone, no computer, no reading material) rule though, mostly because that's how I grew up and so I insist on it. It gives us a time to talk every day as a family, though conversation tends to be dominated by aforementioned toddler at this point.
posted by katers890 at 8:34 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Assuming that your wife is on the same page that more quality time together would be a good thing, I suggest asking her what kind of things would be quality time for her. What would she like to do together?

In our house, most TV is not-quality-time and we sit in our separate places fiddling with our separate gadgets. When one of us wants quality time, we say "Come and watch this on the sofa!", which means both of us on the same sofa, with cuddling, but without electronics of any kind.
posted by emilyw at 8:36 AM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

My partner and I just sort of dealt with something similar to this -- I'm the device addict, and it had gotten to the point where I was missing huge chunks of whatever show we were watching due to reading the internet on my iPod touch on the couch. Mind you, partner didn't actually complain about this (aside from teasing me a bit about how much I used the device) -- I just started to feel of my own accord that I was missing out on partner's company due to being disengaged with shared activity, and started putting the iPod across the room when we sat down.

So far my "detox" is going pretty well and I've definitely started realizing what I was missing -- not to mention that now whenever I do get back to Reading All Of The Websites there are more tasty updates to consume, because I'm not checking them every 5 seconds for new stuff. I don't think devices are evil per se, and there are times when the iPod or whatnot can actually enhance the viewing experience / interpersonal interaction by allowing for the Settling of the Arguments As To What Other Movie That Guy Was In. But there is nonetheless something to be said for actually paying attention to other people you're actually in the room with (and sharing in the experience of whatever Primary Activity you've agreed to participate in).

It doesn't have to be all the time, especially if you live with someone, and frankly I've always felt that "parallel play" is one of the highest forms of being with another person, as you're together even if not constantly doing the same exact thing. But if your partner's (or your own) device-staring is starting to bug either of you, it seems likely that both parties are likely bugged. In my case I probably would have been annoyed if my partner had started taking my iPod away or whatnot -- would have seemed very patronizing. But he didn't, and ultimately I came to realize on my own I needed to cut down, and things are definitely better for it.
posted by aecorwin at 8:57 AM on January 4, 2012

Best answer: There's no difference in interaction between two people sitting next to each other playing flashfriday games and two people sitting next to each other watching a movie.

This is not true, and I don't understand the pushback against the OP on this.

Obviously there are degrees of interaction when when people are spending downtime together. But to say that a couple watching a movie together is functionally the same as a couple sitting on the couch while texting other people is a load of crock. If I invited my girlfriend over to watch a movie and she spent the whole time playing on her cell phone I would be pissed. Watching a movie together (or eating dinner together, etc) is a shared experience, and it is lessened by one of the people being distracted by their device.

OP, I would tell your wife that even when you're doing passive things together like watching a movie, you want to feel like you're doing them together; not just being in the same room. Maybe you need to be more clear about what you see as a "couple" activity as opposed to a "two people who live in the same house" activity. I suspect that you'll both have to compromise a bit on this, but I think being really, explicitly clear about what's couple time and what isn't is the way to go here.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 9:03 AM on January 4, 2012 [9 favorites]

We had a struggle with this too. Is the phone new? The attraction may wear off. Is she an inveterate multitasker? Does she have ADD? If so, it may unintuitively help her to pay attention.

Also, this is likely a difference in upbringing. In my household, you would never, ever turn on the TV during a family gathering unless there was a football game. It would be incredibly rude. I just got an iPhone and I was admonished for looking at it when no one was talking to me anyway. Conversely, we went to my in-laws for Christmas, and the TV was on the entire time. People were playing with their phones and tablets. No one thought it was weird or rude.

You need to have a conversation along the lines of "When you're looking at your phone, I feel rejected because it seems like you're not paying attention during our shared time. I would like you to put it away while we eat dinner/watch a movie/talk." Mr. desjardins was initially grumpy about this, but he's almost entirely stopped because he knows it really bothers me (and because the newness has worn off). I check my phone only during credits/commercials/when he goes to the bathroom. TV is a shared experience because you can talk about the show, make fun of the stupid plot, etc. You're not wrong in wanting her to share it with you; if she didn't want to watch it in the first place, that's a separate conversation.

Also consider if you feel rejected in other areas of the relationship, and this is just a symptom.
posted by desjardins at 9:11 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Maybe you need to be more clear about what you see as a "couple" activity as opposed to a "two people who live in the same house" activity. I suspect that you'll both have to compromise a bit on this, but I think being really, explicitly clear about what's couple time and what isn't is the way to go here.

Seconding this. My parents and I have gotten into the habit of seeing a movie the day after Christmas; sometimes if nothing's at the local cineplex, we just rent something. Sometimes, during the same visit, I'll find myself idly watching TV with Dad while we're waiting for Mom to freshen up before the rest of the family comes or we go out to church or whatever.

Now, during the "idly watching TV" moments, sometimes I'll also be on my computer and it's not a problem. But during the "annual post-christmas movie," it'd probably get me a grumble if I turned on my computer. So why is it okay sometimes and not okay other times? I think it's because in the former situation, it's not really a planned activity -- the TV happens to be on, and we both happen to be in the same room. In the latter, it is a specifically planned activity.

Maybe that's the disconnect-- you're seeing these watching a movie together as a planned together activity, but she's seeing them as just "we're just relaxing and a movie happens to be on". If there are times when it's just "we're relaxing and a movie happens to be on," then I don't fault your wife for a couple of low-grade checking the computer moments, if she's not invested in the movie itself and it's not been specifically set up as "we're doing this as a couple". If you are envisioning the watching the movie as something you do TOGETHER, she may need to know that. (Although -- if you do that, give her some more agency in selecting the movie -- maybe another reason she is checking out is that she just plain doesn't like the movie.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:15 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I assume you have identified your own exiting behaviours too? Were / are they more to do with what you might call "internal" distractions - being wrapped up in work, or staying out of the home for periods of time etc? If so, and if you've addressed them, it might take a while for others to "catch up" - I suppose what I'm trying to say is that if for example you've been in the habit of neglecting the interests and needs of other members of your family they may have evolved coping strategies that will mean not relying on you so much for that degree of social interaction, communication and closeness that you are now wishing to rekindle. Not saying you have, of course, but if you're in counselling then there is clearly some issue around differing expectations / means of communicating, I would assume.

I suppose the thing about phones is that they represent (in a lot of cases, not so much with the game playing) people's attention being drawn away from us and towards other people - texting, e-mailing, Twittering etc. I can understand how if you are sitting with someone in silence but they are actively communicating with another person how that may feel as if you are being excluded, and in some cases it will be just plain bad manners (former boss sitting in meetings, head down and texting while people are talking and contributing around him, I'm looking at you). I would agree that there is nothing wrong with asking for someone's attention, or for them to share something with you, especially if it's important to you or you feel the need to be close to them.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 9:18 AM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Data point(s) for your consideration:

Scenario A: My mom, dad, and I used to hang out in the family room. Mom would be sewing, Dad would be watching a ball game, and I would be reading. I would call that being alone together, emphasis on the alone. It was fine with me because, as an only child, I needed my parents' focus NOT to be on me all the time. There's nothing wrong with that as long as that's not what happens every time, and the whole time, people are physically present in the same place.

Scenario B: Contrast that with playing a game of checkers with Dad or Mom showing me how to bake, which also happened in our house with some frequency. Even going to the movies with my parents was somehow more of a group experience, whether or not we were chatting during the movie. The fact that I saw "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" with my parents, who liked it as much as I did, means that for me it was a shared experience.

Now, we can cart our distractions with us all over the house, even into the john if we so choose. The potential for unlimited Scenario A time is just about boundless.

I've heard of people choosing deliberately to limit themselves on the computer/TV to spend more undistracted time with their loved ones, even if it's just sitting on the porch and not saying anything. I think it's a good idea. Phones at shared meals? I don't think so, unless it really is an emergency. Not busying oneself constantly with some "activity" means that you are open to conversation, should it come up.
posted by Currer Belfry at 9:25 AM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

I definitely agree that watching tv or a movie together is very different from sitting in front of the TV staring at phones, laptops, iPads, or whatever.

I'm a big offender in this regard; we'll be "watching TV" and I'll be on my laptop reading email, playing scrabble, or reading Metafilter and my husband will react to something on the screen, and I'll be like, "Hmmm, what?" and he'll either have to rewind it for me or pause and explain (and then sometimes have to explain the whole plot because I haven't really been paying attention at all.) I know it's irritating to him, and I wish I could kick the habit. I have from time to time instituted a no-laptop-in-the-evening rule, but then I'll have a really important email I have to send or some little bit of work I need to get done before the morning, and before you know it I'm back to my old surfing ways. :( I do try to put it away for brand-new non-sitcom TV shows and for movies that we've chosen together to watch.

If we're really both watching, then we can have share all kinds of very subtle communications (a brief snort, elbowing each other, a soft gasp) and we can understand what the other person is reacting to. You can't share the experience in this way if you're giving the majority of your attention to another device.

As far as asking people to give you their full attention, well, I'm accustomed to telling students, "I don't think you need your phone for this activity," so I'm habituated to regard a person fiddling with their phone while supposedly doing something with a group as a disruptive and negative influence. While I use the slightly less condescending / patronizing, "Hey, guys, do you think we can turn phones off while we eat dinner / play this game / have this conversation?" when dealing with other grown-ups, it's still a little awkward, but I think people sometimes need a quick, non-judgmental reminder that what they're doing is affecting the group dynamic.

With your wife, I think you really need her buy-in. Ask her if she's willing to experiment for a week or a month or whatever with turning off her phone or leaving it in another room while you guys are home. Then your gentle reminders are helping her to do something that she wants to do. Hopefully she'll see the value in it.
posted by BrashTech at 9:28 AM on January 4, 2012

The short answer to your title question is no; as someone else stated, doing things in the expectation that other people will notice, care, or reciprocate is passive aggressive at worst and an exercise in frustration at best. There's nothing wrong with letting someone know that you feel that their attachment to their phone is hurtful to you, and why... but modeling is not the answer. Communication is.

I also think that really strictly defining what you consider to be "quality time" with your loved ones, especially in comparison to what they consider or feel (and actually, being a bit condescending about it) is pretty much just as unhelpful. There has to be some sort of compromise or middle ground where both people are being fulfilled.

I guess that I have gotten lucky that this is not an issue I've had to deal with in a long time. I think that much of it is that in my relationships we usually have a good sense of when we're zoning out separately (but together - one is watching tv, the other is reading a book... we're sitting on the same couch) and when we're spending time together (talking while watching sports). There are, I guess, some circumstances where I think it is okay to be having a somewhat not-shared experience, but both people have to be on the same page with it.
posted by sm1tten at 9:37 AM on January 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

Make sure that you're working WITH your wife to arrive at compromises and at-home phone habits that work for both of you. I agree that it's important to give people you care about your full attention for it to count as "quality time," but I also feel irritable and patronized to when my husband polices my phone use too closely. I try not to check it compulsively when I'm actually talking to him, but if we're watching some random movie on Netflix I want to be able to briefly check my email without him making me feel guilty about it.

The more you can make this into something the two of you are working on together, as opposed to a policy you're enforcing, the happier you'll be with the result.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 9:44 AM on January 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

The only way to get someone to change their behavior is to ask them to. Changing your own behavior and then getting upset when they do not do the same is a recipe for resentment, and has generated countless AskMe questions.

When you do ask them to put away the phone, you need to be careful how you do it. You mostly come off as reasonable in your contributions to this thread, but you occasionally lapse into a moralizing tone that accounts for a lot of the pushback you're getting here - that kind of approach will almost always make people defensive. Remember: people aren't doing something wrong by checking their phones, you're asking them to do you a favor and indulge you.
posted by Ragged Richard at 9:47 AM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

There is no reason to target phones specifically. I remember a time before cell phones when people would (surprise surprise) still go off and do their own thing until a request for personal interaction was made. Smart phones may have made it easier to entertain yourself as opposed to talking to others, but neglecting personal interaction is not a Big New Thing. Exit strategies existed long before the digital revolution.

I say this because even if you decided to, say, be drastic and institute a "no cell phones in the house rule", you will find that people will still tend to drift of and find private entertainment. This is your craving for personal interaction, not necessarily theirs.

That being said, you can just say "hey, I love talking with you, can we have a chat about (insert topic here)?" or "hey, lets play a board game together. What would you like to play?". It is perfectly acceptable to request quality time with your family. Don't think that removing cell phones will magically make the family come together for quality time; ask for what you need.
posted by Shouraku at 9:51 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can see why some people here are ambivalent about whether something like a cell phone is a distraction; it depends entirely on the person who is being distracted.

I have two friends who have complete opposite tendencies when it comes to being distracted. Friend A will be listening to my story, completely absorbed, and still be able to do other things like wash dishes or check a cell phone. If she suddenly needs to start washing the dishes, she'll say, "go on, I'm listening." And she'll show that she's listening by asking questions about the story. If something comes up that means she can't listen for a minute, like turning on the disposal, or listening to an important message, she'll hold up a finger and say, "Just a second." And then completely resume listening when she's done. And again, I know this because she'll say, "ok, now, where were we, you were describing his reaction about the concert..." We've known each other long enough so that I KNOW she'll be listening, and that she'll tell me when she can't.

On the other hand, Friend B will do similar things and completely forget that I'm there. He'll check a cell phone, or start seeing what's on TV, right when I'm in the middle of talking and it's suddenly as if I don't exist. When I first met him, I would talk for 5 minutes and it wouldn't dawn on me that he wasn't listening until he'd mumble "Yeah," when the question I asked him did not have a yes or no answer. I would then get mad and say "you weren't listening!!" But then I realized that that's how he is, and I've known him long enough now that if I want to tell him a story, I just have to say "Hey, this is an important story, please pay attention" or just stop talking when he gets distracted and wait until he's not distracted anymore. (He moved, so we're not great friends anymore; if he were still around, this would annoy me a heck of a lot more.)

I guess what I'm saying is that Friend A is capable of doing two things at once, and Friend B isn't. Which type is your wife? Is she A? If so, then there's nothing to worry about, it's just her style of communication, and she's still paying attention to you. If B, then you may need to find some workarounds that people have mentioned above. You may have to content yourself with the fact that she's easily distracted by other things, and you have my sympathies.
posted by Melismata at 9:52 AM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

My family just experienced a lot of this over Christmas. My Dad was annoyed that we were sitting around playing games on our various iDevices while he was watching TV. He would have been happy if we were in the other room playing cards, or if we were watching TV with him.

But what he didn't seem to grasp was that we were more engaged with each other playing those games than we would have been watching TV -- we were either playing Ticket to Ride on Local with each other, or we were all playing Tomb Runner and comparing our results.

We were, perhaps, less engaged than we would be if we were playing cards, but he wouldn't have played cards with us either, so he'd have just been in the living room all alone if that happened.

All that background is to say -- your idea of what constitutes being engaged has to actually offer her something better than what she's doing if you want her to switch her attention to that. Sitting down and watching a movie or special TV show that you've chosen to watch might do that (or might not, depending on how she feels about TV in general), but it's clear that just general TV watching isn't engaging her attention.

So look for alternative activities that you both want to do and both find engaging. This isn't a "her" problem just because she doesn't want to do what you want to do. It's up to both of you to find something you both want to do if you want to do things together.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:54 AM on January 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

to another room and text her and ask when you two can get together.
posted by Postroad at 9:55 AM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Bananagrams is the answer. It's the only thing that got my kids to put their cell phones down and interact with us these past holidays ;)
posted by zomg at 9:56 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When at home with my wife I’ve started leaving my cell phone in one spot, with the ringer on and the text alert set to silent. If someone needs me, they can call me. I’ll spot check it a couple times a night at most. I’m also implementing a game night where we cell phones aren’t permitted to create some additional “real” interaction for us.

You're entirely within your rights to set your own guidelines for your activities. Your opening line is "Will offering my full attention to my loved ones get them to reciprocate?" and it's the one I will answer, because based on some early thread-sitting I think it's the one you most need to hear:

Maybe, or maybe not. But it's how you should address this thing that you have identified as a problem because it is only your own behavior and your responses to the behavior of others that you can change. You cannot force others to behave exactly how you like and you can't force them to have your priorities.

Perfect example: the above dispute about whether there's a functional difference between watching a movie together in silence and sitting together but fiddling with electronics separately. I think the real answer is "it depends" - no regrets, coyote calls it a shared experience, but clearly it's possible to have a near-identical experience with someone and yet garner no emotional connection from it. Is there interaction other than sitting there in silence? Is there discussion about the shared viewing afterwards? If all we do is meet our feeling of obligation about seeing episode 275 of some series but we never talk about it then what difference does it make if we paid attention identically?

Personally I think there's a distinction to be found, depending, and consequently there's disputes worth having and not worth having. My wife simply does not like to devote her full attention to a tv show; it's not how she consumes television. She fiddles with a computing device or does some sort of crafts with her hands.

But I can't control how she wants to watch television. We can use judgment words and say one way is right and another wrong, but what would be the point? Instead I make it clear that I am not going to help her play catch-up if she misses something visual. I don't take it personally when she doesn't respond to something the way I do.

Instead we make our connection moments ones that are more direct interaction. Conversations. Projects where we create things together. Trips. But I worry that you're drawing this hard line in the sand about Right and Wrong that is counter-productive. You can identify disconnection behaviors and express your concerns when they're deployed inappropriately, but I think you need to allow for differences in methods of interaction and engagement and enthusiasm, and a statement like "It's taking one person away from the shared activity regardless if it's some you perceive to be mindless to begin with or not" concerns me.

Because if the person disconnecting feels what is happening is mindless and that's why they're disconnecting, are you achieving your end goal of increased communication and intimacy if you get them to re-connect by demand? I think you risk (at best) winning the battle but losing the war if you don't lead by example and simply create circumstances that maximize engagement.

But if you're going to draw a hard line with those activity guidelines, recognize that you can't force others to share your priorities. I have a friend who invites me over to watch hockey and I am never going to go. Their rule is no booze in the house. I like a beer with my sporting events. So I don't watch games in their home.

Neither of us condemns the other for this, but that comes from respect. They have their reasons, I have mine. We do other things together where this doesn't conflict. But we accept this divide and the repercussions, and part of how we do it is by leaving judgment aside and accepting that our limitations on things may cause others to choose which activities they undertake with us.
posted by phearlez at 10:00 AM on January 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

I think you're right, it's not quality time. But if the TV is on 24 hours a day then it's not fair to expect her to be honed in on it all the time. Especially if you control the remote and are always watching some other show during commercials. Females tend to zone out and turn their attention to something less frenetic when this behavior happens. People need downtime and they do it often as not in front of the TV while playing with phones.

If you want a date-like atmosphere with the TV, then turn off the TV sometimes so it's not just reflexively on. Ask her, would you like to watch Show We Both Love together at 9? Make some popcorn, bring out a throw rug, and rub her shoulders or brush her hair. It's a date. Dates require preparation to make them special.

OR just accept that the TV is part of downtime, and create other "datelike scenarios". Take her to the dollar theater, I bet she won't play with her phone then!
posted by powerbumpkin at 10:01 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So many great and different responses here! I'm getting a little something from all of them!

Per our counselor, we're working on feeding each others "Love Languages" a technique in Chapman's 5 Languages of Love. (Amazing book btw, and if you google it and visit the website you can find out which 'languages' u respond to most, totally worth doing)


She knows the 2 biggest ways I feel loved are from 'Physical Touch' and 'Quality Time'..It was no surprise that we discovered 'Quality Time' was nearly at the bottom of her list of ways she felt "loved".. Hers were "acts of service" and "affirmations"..

I agree with the previous post about "exits" being a coping mechanism if left unchecked.. This is stuff we are working on :)
posted by Hellafiles at 10:19 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Huh. You sound exactly like me and mr. desjardins - that is, I'm a Quality Time/Physical Touch person, and he's a Acts of Service/Affirmations person. I'm sure the book says this, but it's been crucial to accept that he isn't speaking his own language to hurt me or piss me off. It took probably five years for me to really get that. OTOH, I can easily make his day by folding his laundry, and he can make mine by holding my hand as we watch a movie.
posted by desjardins at 11:08 AM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

I doubt that just because you're using your cell phone less it'll make a significant difference in what she does. Seems like instead it just makes sense for you guys to talk about how you can make sure you get enough quality time together that's satisfying for you, and still allows her enough time to herself/on her phone/whatever to feel happy and healthy. And then you can let her have her time to disconnect (which is not necessarily "sad" or wrong in moderation-- some people need more "me" time than others, and they have the right to spend that time mindlessly on their phones if they want) and she can make the effort to ensure you're spending some real quality time together too and ignoring the phone during those times.
posted by EmilyClimbs at 11:49 AM on January 4, 2012

When I start using my cell phone like your wife does, it's because the person I'm talking to does not make me feel like I'm being listened to or valued. I'd rather retreat to my phone and keep that person company than challenge their rude behavior, especially if it's a battle I've tried to fight before.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 11:53 AM on January 4, 2012

Response by poster: When I start using my cell phone like your wife does, it's because the person I'm talking to does not make me feel like I'm being listened to or valued. I'd rather retreat to my phone and keep that person company than challenge their rude behavior, especially if it's a battle I've tried to fight before.

I'm not sure what this even means, but thanks.
posted by Hellafiles at 12:13 PM on January 4, 2012

What I'm saying is that perhaps your wife developed her "exit" behavior to cope with feeling unheard by you. Is that passive aggressive on her part? Totally. I didn't notice I was doing it to a close friend until I realized that whenever I tried to contribute to the conversation, I got shut down, and that's when I started retreating to my phone. That may be why "quality time" doesn't do anything for her. Just a thought. YMMV.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 1:24 PM on January 4, 2012

This Atlantic article has an interesting little game you can play with a group of friends who all want to hit the same goal (or take their chance at winning a free dinner) which came from here.

1) The game starts after everyone has ordered.

2) Everybody places their phone on the table face down.

3) The first person to flip over their phone loses the game.

4) Loser of the game pays for the bill.

5) If the bill comes before anyone has flipped over their phone everybody is declared a winner and pays for their own meal.
I don't see any reason you couldn't use a similar strategy for pizza night; these would be high stakes for a pricey restaurant or large group.

Maybe a variation for board games or other interactive activities? Everyone puts $1 in the pot if they check their phone, or they lose their next turn? I like the idea because it works best with activities that have a high interactive quotient to begin with. Hard to make this work with tv watching, for example, but if you're already doing something with game-like components it seems easier.
posted by phearlez at 2:51 PM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Do you think it’s ever appropriate to tell someone you feel like you’re competing for their attention from their phone?

Of course. But I agree with Ragged Richard that changing your own behaviour and hoping that will lead other people to change theirs is a recipe for simmering resentment at best. If someone using a device in front of you makes you feel neglected or ignored, you need to let them know that clearly, and to tell them what it is you prefer, and talk it over rather than just hoping they will reciprocate.

Also, time spent checking phones does not necessarily equal aloofness or lack of sharing. I spent New Year's Eve with my partner and another couple who are close friends. At several points during the evening we all pulled out our various devices and checked Twitter or email for a little while. But that led to interaction just as much as watching TV together might have. One person read out something funny on Twitter, another pointed to a greeting from a mutual friend on Facebook, another found a good YouTube video we all watched, etc. All those things were conversation starters or points of interest - they fed into our "quality time" together.

Now perhaps that was because we were all doing it together - all in sync, rather than one person feeling left out. So, another example: My partner watches a lot of TV I'm not interested in. I could either be out of the room doing something else that interests me, or I could spend time in the same room with him using my device - reading ebooks or the web on my iPad. We still talk during the breaks, and if he wants to talk something over, all he has to do is ask. He knows that.

I think if that's not the case with you and your wife, you need to talk about compromise and come to an arrangement. Maybe there's a certain period of time where she puts the phone down and spends time with you. Maybe you agree to do something you both enjoy for a certain period of time. But there has to be compromise both ways - so she'll need to have time to pursue her own interests as well. Talk about it, but leave out the stuff about addiction and brain chemistry, because that can so easily come across as moralising.
posted by andraste at 5:11 PM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think I'm a little surprised that so many people see TV/a movie as a completely passive experience in which the two of you don't engage at all. My husband and I find it very possible to engage quite thoroughly in abject trash (you don't want to know what a huge part of our lives Neighbours is), but that's because we're both interested in it (worryingly, perhaps): there are programmes he likes that I really couldn't be bothered with, and I don't even try to engage in them on any level, I'll just do something else altogether. (Not so much the other way round, because I don't really like watching TV unless I can talk about it with someone else anyway.) I think it may just be a case of separating activities like watching TV very clearly into Things You Are Definitely Doing Together and Things You Are Doing Apart, rather than Things You Do Together But One of You Isn't Actually That Into.

However, I wonder if there is any kind of introvert/extrovert component to this. I'm not a big phone/Facebook checker because being an extreme introvert I'm not that fascinated by what everyone else is getting up to all the time and I'm not that interested in telling other people what I'm doing either. All the people I know who check their phones/Facebook a lot are extroverts - people who want to know what others are doing regularly and who like to tell others what they're doing too. Could that be a part of it? (It makes less sense when in the context of playing games on a phone rather than messaging, admittedly...)
posted by raspberry-ripple at 4:17 AM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

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