When your “affair” partner is your phone, is indifference a form of passive betrayal or just benign neglect?

We don’t start out feeling indifferent or distant to our partners, even if we’re more prone to being avoidant introverted. When you fall in love, the desire to connect is not only at it’s peak but feels unmatched in intensity. However, over time we naturally become acclimated to each other and anticipate their responses through what’s called predictive memory. This cooling off period, which includes a tempering around curiosity and interest happens during the companionate, familiar, and more stable phase of love.

But it’s also a phase where complacency can set it in. You may not even notice the reversion back to old habits and behaviors, and start ignoring or acting indifferently toward your partner. I refer to this syndrome as being present but absent—present physically but absent emotionally. In other words— you’re not truly showing up in the moment. Engagement exists on a spectrum and we all need downtime —time to decompress, to be alone, to have solitude. It’s also okay to have time when you’re together in the same room while engaged in other things.

Where it becomes problematic is if it’s the norm, when we stop responding to bids for connection when our partner is trying to actively engage us. Or do what many of us do to mindlessly fill our time every single day—reflexively retreat to our phones. I often ask couples that come into my practice to share how much focused time they spend together a week with each other versus how much time they spend on their I-phones. It’s astonishing.

Many people report spending upwards of 18-20 hours on their phones and less than a half hour with their partners. It’s a real window into where their attention is. It’s a common complaint among many women in my couples that the “affair” partner is their husband’s phone.

Our addictive relationship to and consumption of digital media has become an intrusive third element in virtually all modern relationships. But extensive digital media use also leads to depression, anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, increased stress levels and a reduced capacity for empathy and social connection.

You could argue being on your phone constantly is not intentional indifference. It’s habitual. And it’s often easier to distract yourself with your phone instead of trying to actually connect.

But while it’s not a passive form betrayal, it is passive form of neglect that is NOT benign. Disengagement and indifference are also forms of empathic failure. You’re you’re choosing to look away, you’re choosing to disengage, you’re choosing not to relate.

Eventually, the implicit belief begins to take root—-that your partner probably don’t mind when you’re not present, which is a false assumption. You can also start to feel invisible to your partner and resentful, even if you’re doing the exact same thing to them. This spells disaster not only for your intimacy and sex life, but erodes the basic physical and emotional sense of trust and security in each other as “there for you” even if you’re not explicitly betraying your partner in another relationship.

Our cultural over focus on individual freedom and the pursuit of our own happiness has obscured the power and function of healthy intimate relationships. Why be intentional about preserving our relationships in real time? Study after study shows, that healthy intimate relationships are one of the primary indicators of our overall quality of life. The phone can distract you when you’re feeling angry or sad, but it can’t replace a hug or someone authentically and compassionately holding space with you when you’re down.

If you’re aware that you either check out continuously or your partner does—instead of blaming and shaming, it’s important to be mindful and take ownership of this. You’re fighting the collective addiction we’re all in. The antidote is not to throw your cell phone away, but to be intentional about when you do connect. Small steps add up. Set limits on your phone for usage. Make sustained eye contact when you’re talking to each other. By carving out dedicated time in your busy lives, you are privileging the relationship as you seek new ways to re-discover each other—-through novelty and new experiences.

And most importantly, when you do—-try to attune to your partner. Notice what it feels lie to be more fully present and engaged. If this is hard to do initially, then consider it an invitation to keep practicing because love isn’t just something that happens to you—-love is a practice that requires our attention and can be more fulfilling and enduring than spending hours and hours on social media every day.