Are Our Devices Affecting Our Relationships?

By Caroline Fleck, Clinical Psychologist

Relationships are in many ways defined by how we respond to each other's bids for attention.

What's a bid? According to John Gottman PhD, who popularized the term, a bid is any attempt by one person to get another person's attention. Comments like "we've had good weather," or "I'm exhausted today," all constitute bids. When presented with a bid, we can do one of three things: "turn towards" the bid by giving it our attention and expressing interest, "turn against" the bid by responding negatively or with hostility, or "turn away" from the bid by ignoring it or giving a vacant grunt or "uh huh."

Gottman explored bids in the context of marriages. He observed couples interacting at one point and then checked on the status of their relationship six years later. Those who divorced after six years had turned towards each other's bids only 33 percent of the time at that initial observation point; those still married had turned toward bids 86 percent of the time.

Although bids have mostly been talked about and researched in the context of marital relationships, my experience has been that becoming more skillful in noticing and responding to bids affects all types of relationships, not just marriages. In fact, I would argue that becoming more aware and responsive to bids for attention often benefits parent-child relationships as much, if not more, than it does marriages.

Each day our children attempt to engage with us in obvious, and sometimes subtle, ways. Most of us are pretty well intentioned when it comes to turning towards their bids for attention. But in a culture that has become increasingly absorbed by tablets and laptops, we have to ask ourselves, are our kids ever competing against our screens for our attention? Or, to use Gottman's terms, in turning towards our screens are we inadvertently turning away from our children?

We've all had the experience of being at a child's performance and seeing a sea of video cameras in the audience. As parents, we are often so preoccupied with capturing moments on film and camera, that we sometimes appear distracted from the moments themselves.

On the one hand, it's great to be able to check emails and read the news while our kids play in the park with their friends. On the other, they're only children once, and perhaps challenging ourselves to cultivate patience and appreciation in the face of boredom might sometimes be worth the effort.

Like so many things, I think the issue of how screen time factors into our lives is about awareness and balance. I don't believe throwing our cell phones and iPads out the window is necessary or even necessarily helpful when it comes to improving our relationships with our children or our partners. But making an effort to be more aware and intentional about when we use our devices might go a long way towards increasing the rate at which we notice and respond to bids for attention from those we love. And if the marriage research has taught us anything, it's that in the absence of quality attention, relationships are unlikely to thrive.

So for those of you who are up for a challenge, perhaps experiment this week with leaving your phones, tablets, and laptops at the door when you come home from work or when spending time with your children. Notice the moments in which you feel the urge to turn to your devices, and consider what triggered you: Did a notification go off? Did boredom set in? Perhaps there's an app for something you've encountered, or maybe checking your device has become a habit associated with eating or some other activity. Whatever the trigger, simply be mindful of it. And, when possible, try to resist the urge to reflexively turn towards your screen.

I personally found this "experiment" to be much more challenging than I had anticipated. But, for what it's worth, I also found turning off the screens and tuning into the moment to be rewarding in ways I hadn't anticipated. I've since attempted to make this experiment more of a practice. I won't say it's been easy, but I do think it's been worth the effort. Best of luck to those of you who undertake this challenge!


I am a clinical psychologist in Mountain View, CA. I blog frequently on topics related to my areas of expertise and look forward to contributing to, and learning from, the LTD community!

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