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Heavy Meddle: Help! I Feel Like I'm In A Threesome With My Wife And Her Phone

A man writes to lament that his wife is more interested in her phone than her family. (freemagebank)
A man writes to lament that his wife is more interested in her phone than her family. (freemagebank)
This article is more than 3 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions via email. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

My wife has an intense, high-stress job. She works long hours, and when she is home or otherwise away from the office, there’s an expectation that she always be reachable. This translates into her having her phone at her fingertips, pretty much 24/7— when we're eating meals together at the kitchen table, lounging together on the couch, lying in bed, driving, on vacation, you name it.

And though a lot of her phone time is work, much of it is not. I often “catch” her scrolling through Facebook or Instagram or Googling some inane factoid when I wish she was content to just be present with me in the moment. It really bothers me, and in turn it bothers her that I am policing her down time.

It's like the more connected she is, the more disconnected we become.

When I bring it up, she is quick to remind me how much pressure she’s under, and how she is the primary breadwinner. It's true, and I empathize, and I appreciate the sacrifices she makes for our young family (we have two little kids—I work part-time and take on the lion's share of the domestic responsibilities), but I am feeling increasingly resentful. Whenever I ask her to and she does put her phone away, I can sense her discomfort and her sense of her urgency to get it back the first chance she gets.

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I feel like I'm in a threesome: me, her and the damned phone. I didn't sign up for this, and neither did our kids. They're too young to know the difference now, but it won't be long. It's like the more connected she is, the more disconnected we become.

What should I do?

Yours,
Alone Together

Dear Alone Together,

You should talk to your wife. You should tell her that you love her and understand how much pressure she’s under at work and appreciate all she is doing for the family and all she is trying to balance. You should tell her that you understand her job requires her to be accessible by phone and/or email, and that there are times when the stress she’s under — both in the office and at home — makes her want to hit up her phone for a little social media or web surfing distraction.

She needs to hear all of this because you also need to tell her that right now she often seems more interested in her phone than her family.

And that’s going to be a tough thing for her to hear, because — based on what you’re describing — she’s an addict. That may sound melodramatic, until you replace the word “phone” with “booze” or “cocaine” in this sentence: Whenever I ask her to and she does put her phone away, I can sense her discomfort and her sense of her urgency to get it back the first chance she gets.

you need to make it clear that her compulsive behavior toward her phone is pushing you away...

I am not suggesting that you accuse your wife of being a junkie. But I do think you need to make it clear that her compulsive behavior toward her phone is pushing you away and that the status quo — wherein you have to police her phone use and get guilt-tripped in the process — is not acceptable. You should tell her what you’ve told me, in other words.

But what’s even more important is to talk with her about the phone’s meaning in her life. I say this because excessive phone use — like excessive drinking or drug use — is symptomatic of more fundamental issues. And her behaviors aren’t going to change until both of you get a better handle on the precise feelings that lead her to turn away from you and the kids and toward her device.

My own hunch is that your wife, like a lot of folks (me included!), has trouble disconnecting from the frenetic pace of her workplace, and the phone has become the conveyance by which she brings the constant zing of deadlines and duties and distraction into your home. She probably also uses the phone as a false cure for all that stress she’s carrying around. After a long day at the office, some part of her doesn’t want to have to face the additional pressures of relating to you and the kids. And so she turns to her phone. It’s a narrative she can control.

Obviously, I’m just guessing. The point is that anytime someone becomes so dependent on something there are deep and complex reasons. And until those get exposed and discussed and forgiven, changing the dependent behavior is nearly impossible.

there’s nothing more depressing than teaching your kids to disconnect from the world around them by plugging into a device.

The real question is whether your wife will be able to hear your concerns. And this is why I’d avoid bringing them up in the heat of the moment. I’d schedule some time that you’re both feeling relatively relaxed and, as noted above, begin by emphasizing the love and respect and gratitude you have for your wife. Don’t let the discussion devolve into an argument about her work duties. It should remain about the human duties you both have, as partners and parents.

Let me add one other observation, as the father of three young children: your kids watch everything you do and understand a lot more than you think. A few months ago, we realized that our 2-year-old was becoming frantic every time we brought our cell phones out. She wanted desperately to hold them. Why? Because she saw that these shiny talismans were so important to us, her parents.

We have since tried to limit how much we use the phones in front of the kids. After all, there’s nothing more depressing than teaching your kids to disconnect from the world around them by plugging into a device.

I wish you good luck.

Steve

Author's note: Wow did this one hit home. Both my wife and I have struggled with the call of our devices. And each of us has talked with the other about excessive use. I’m curious how readers have dealt with this dilemma. Please offer a comment below. And by all means send a letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but as I always stress, someone in the comments section probably will. Thanks.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

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