Young man mad at his disinterested wife

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Swipe This! Can looking at my phone over dinner actually hurt my relationship?

A quick scroll through Instagram might not be as harmless as you think.


Nayomi Reghay


Posted on May 5, 2017   Updated on May 24, 2021, 3:29 pm CDT

Swipe This!” is a new advice column about how to navigate human relationships and connections in an age when we depend so heavily on technology. Have a question? Email

. . .

Dear Swipe This!

My husband hates how much I use my phone.

Like most people I know, I spend a ton of time on my phone. I use it for work and play, but I also use it for one of my passions, which is comedy. I’m often promoting shows, emailing back and forth with other performers, ironing out logistics, and so on. Let’s just say, I’m on my phone so much that more than once I’ve had a dream about scrolling through Instagram.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not very good at knowing when to put my phone down. But I hate when my husband calls me out for it. I’ll be at home with him and will pick it up while we’re eating a meal together or watching TV. He gets annoyed and makes this clear, and then I get annoyed because it feels like I’m being punished for having a busy social life or a busy career, which are things I’m actually proud of!

On one hand, I would love advice on how to limit my phone time to come in measured increments so I don’t have this technological tension affecting my marriage. On the other, I feel like my behavior is pretty standard and harmless. Am I worried about nothing?


I Dream of Instagram

. . .

Dear I Dream of Instagram,

You are perfectly normal—and your behavior is absolutely harmful.

Like you, I love me a good scroll through my social feeds before bed. I love the sweet ding of a group text firing off. And my heart sings just a little when my Instagram blows up with likes and comments.

You know what else I love? Spicy Cheetos. Spicy Cheetos are absolute garbage and they are totally delicious. Recently, I was at some hot springs outside of Denver with a few pals and I saw the fiery orange bag in a vending machine. I purchased them without hesitation and passed them around to my friends as we drove to a nearby bar. I have zero regrets about purchasing those Spicy Cheetos. I would purchase them again in a heartbeat and savor every last bite.

But I don’t bring Spicy Cheetos to the dinner table.

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Social media is the junk food of human connection. It’s tasty, it’s fun, and it’s generally pretty darn empty. Especially if you’re mistaking it as sustenance when the real, fulfilling thing is right in front of you.

That doesn’t mean it’s completely worthless, though, or that you should chuck it altogether. Fun for fun’s sake has its own special value. And I’d say in the moments you do use social media, you should enjoy it. But for your own sake, and for the sake of those who love you, you’ve got to put it down when a real, IRL connection is on the table. Especially when that connection is with one of the people you value most.

You say you are hooked into your phone use because you have a busy social life and career. These are wonderful things that you have every right to be proud of and you should absolutely enjoy them to the fullest. But, especially in your situation, those two things exist more purposefully in the flesh, rather than in your phone.

If you are passionate about comedy, you know that making people laugh requires a certain presence. I have never attended a comedy show where the liveliest performer paused mid-joke to take a quick peek at her phone. And I imagine you’ve never been plugged into a scene or an audience and thought, “Damn. I’d rather be with my phone.” If you have, that was a bad show.

The other thing is, no one likes to be told what to do. So of course when your husband asks you to put down your phone you want to clutch it tighter.

But when your husband asks you for your attention, he isn’t punishing you. He is asking you to be present. He is saying he doesn’t like being dismissed (I mean, do you like being dismissed?). He is telling you he wants more of you.

So what’s the answer?

Personally, I don’t believe in accountability systems where you track minutes and keep tallies. They might help you to focus temporarily, but they are rarely sustainable. And they won’t solve the real underlying issue: Why is being present so difficult?

If you really want to change the way you interact with your phone and your husband, you need to first want to practice mindfulness.

Before you pick your phone up, ask yourself if someone or something truly needs your attention in that moment. Or are you chasing a feeling or a high that technology can give you, if only briefly? Is there a real connection sitting in front of you that needs you more? Is it actually harder to do all the intimacy and active-listening that a real connection requires, and that’s why you’re avoiding it?

I’m sure there will be times when you do need to pick up your phone. But I guarantee you, most things happening in your digital life can wait. Whether it’s planning a show, responding to a text, or checking what your pals have posted since you’ve been away, none of what you described is so urgent that it needs to interrupt real time with your loved ones. It can definitely wait 10 minutes. Or 30. Or an hour. Sometimes it can wait a whole day.

And don’t worry. Those Spicy Cheetos will still be there on the shelf when you’re ready to indulge again. But if you keep pushing loved ones away, they might not always be so accessible. 

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*First Published: May 5, 2017, 5:30 am CDT