It’s impossible to separate the digital world from the one you build with your partner. Americans check their smartphones about 46 times a day — which can make the devices feel like a third party in a relationship.
But your phone and laptop habits can threaten your love life without you even realizing. Here are four ways to ensure that the digital part of your relationship is healthy.
Cut the cord sometimes
Lots of research supports the idea that some distance from your phone is healthy, and that habit may be particularly important for your romantic relationships.
Phubbing — or snubbing the person you’re physically with to look at your cell phone — isn’t just annoying. One 2017 study of married couples found that phubbing your spouse is linked to depression in the other person and worse relationship satisfaction.
Another study recently published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture found that feeling dependent on your smartphone — even when you’re not actually using it — is linked to lower relationship satisfaction. That may be because feeling tied to a phone is related to loneliness and distraction, researchers say. Recent research also suggested that constant tech use (measured by work email habits) can impair the mental health of the emailer and the happiness of the significant other.
But it’s not all bad news. Robert Weiss, a California-based psychotherapist and digital intimacy and relationships expert, says strategic phone use can actually strengthen your relationship. Playing app-based games against your partner can give you a fun excuse to chat throughout the day, while steamier activities, such as sexting, can keep your physical relationship exciting, Weiss says. “Play in the digital world, but play with your partner,” he says.
Post carefully on social media
If you’ve ever assumed that couples who constantly post photos of their relationship are overcompensating for something, science is on your side. A study published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture found that “excessive” social media PDA is actually associated with lower levels of relationship satisfaction.
“People who are unhappy…think, ‘Oh, look, Facebook’s helping my relationship,'” says study co-author Gwendolyn Seidman, an associate professor of psychology at Pennsylvania’s Albright College. “I would say they’re probably wrong.” That finding is consistent with past research, which shows that having a differently posting style from your partner can lead to conflict.
That doesn’t mean all couple-based social media activity is bad, though. One 2013 study found that posting content that shows couple unity, like a Facebook profile picture, can increase feelings of closeness and relationship satisfaction.
The key is simply to get on the same page as your partner, Weiss says. “You’ve got to understand what to put where. Don’t set your partner up to be embarrassed,” he says. “Take a social media inventory with your partner and say to them, ‘What’s important to you? Is it important to you that a picture of us goes up?'” Then, post accordingly.
Set expectations around texting
Some couples like to be in constant contact, while others rarely text. Weiss says both are fine, as long as partners are both on the same page.
“It’s very much up to the couple, and what works for them,” he says. “But your commitments are important, and you should follow them. If you say you’re going to be in touch once a day, you should do it.” And whatever you do, don’t miss a special occasion, Weiss says. “You have 15 calendars,” he says. “There is no reason, in the digital age, to miss an anniversary or a birthday.”
While Weiss says you should generally not read too much into texting habits — unless it’s habitual, an unanswered text probably just means your partner is busy — he says you also shouldn’t underestimate the power of sending a nice message. “You have no idea how meaningful it can be when they’re stressed out to hear from someone they love,” he says. “It takes so little; it doesn’t have to be deep.”
Science backs that up: A recent study published in the journal Psychophysiology found that people could better handle a stressful situation when they simply thought of their significant other.
Beware of micro-cheating
Micro-cheating refers to behaviors that flirt with infidelity. These actions are tricky to define since people draw their boundaries in different places — and digital communication only makes it harder. “Boundaries can be much more easily crossed digitally than in the IRL world,” Weiss says.
Here, too, Weiss says the best strategy is open communication and a shared understanding of what’s acceptable online, from texting with exes to looking at porn. “Gaining your partner’s trust by helping them understand that you’re not going to do anything online that would make them uncomfortable without them knowing is the most important thing you can do,” Weiss says. “Within the boundaries of what that couple has agreed to, they need to run their decision-making and their interests by each other.”
If you find yourself purposefully concealing online activity from your partner, Weiss says, it should be a red flag that you’re violating this agreement.
“It’s more than any particular digital experience,” Weiss says. “It’s secrecy that breaks couples up.”