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My husband is addicted to his iPhone. Really. Within less than five minutes of walking through the door he’s scrolling through his phone, and there’s rarely breaks longer than 15 minutes between scrolls after that. I’ve tried ignoring it, having serious conversations about it, casually reminding him, and no goal has ever lasted longer than 12 hours. It’s difficult to feel like he has any interest in spending time with us or in taking part in home responsibilities. I have long, detailed fantasies about throwing his phone out the window and watching it shatter on the concrete.
He does struggle with some mild anxiety and I think his phone becomes a source of relief when he’s stressed which exacerbates the problem. When I bring it up he’s quickly apologetic and sets it down, but just can’t leave it alone. I don’t mean to be unfair—if I ask him to set down his phone to spend time with the kids or help with the dishes he does—but I’m tired of having to ask my husband to be present, especially when it’s often multiple times an hour. When I choose to ignore it I feel like he’s not home.
I know in the end it has to be his own decision, but meanwhile how do I learn to live with and appreciate a husband who’s only half-present?
You’re right that it has to be his decision. This is painful because his decisions are causing you and your family tremendous pain. It’s unfortunate that he’s allowing his smartphone to replace actual relationships with his family. That’s one of the hallmarks of addiction, as you already know. Craig Nakken described this truth when he wrote:
“No one ever escapes their need for satisfying relationships, and the degree to which we are unable to form healthy interpersonal intimacy determines the degree to which we are vulnerable to substitutes for human closeness. Addiction is an emotional relationship with an object or event, through which addicts try to meet their needs for intimacy.”[i]
I don’t know why your husband needs his phone more than he needs his family. It could be anxiety. Whatever the reason, he doesn’t find comfort and connection in relationships with people. You can’t force this, and it could lead to serious relational consequences as you and the children make a life without him.
It’s important that you stop carrying the responsibility for monitoring or managing his screen time. Even reminding him, paying attention to it, or caring about it are ways that keep you tied to it. When you do this, it takes the responsibility from him and puts it on you. Even though it’s actually his responsibility, you’re the one who feels burdened by it. He’s only feeling burdened by your ongoing reminders. He doesn’t see the bigger picture that you constantly experience as he’s checked out on his device.
You’ve done all of the extremes of confronting and ignoring the issue (well, except for giving into your fantasy of destroying it). To confront or ignore it requires you to pay attention to it, so I’m going to recommend something that takes the focus completely off of the device.
I recommend you carry on in your personal and family life and stop reminding him completely. This may sound like ignoring, but it’s different. Instead, you are getting in the way of managing it at all, including the consequences that will most certainly follow. This isn’t passive aggressive. It’s truth. It’s allowing him to live in the world he seems to want. It allows him to move ahead with the full expression of living a life addicted to a screen. He’ll be able to truly see what life will be like married to his screen instead of to his wife. The choice has to be his.
So, move ahead with dinner, outings, certain decisions, and make a life with the kids. You’re not going to pull him off of his phone. If he’s on his phone while you need to make certain decisions, then you’ll have to make the unilaterally. You can’t continue to pull him into your world, where he clearly doesn’t want to be. He has to feel the full weight of the impact this phone is having on him.
This is not enabling. This is not ignoring. This is allowing him to have the full measure of the reality he’s choosing. Your life will look very separate. You may have meals alone without him. He may blame you for not reminding him or notifying him. You don’t need to lecture him, remind him, or point anything out. He can wake up and realize the life he’s creating in his home.
This will be very lonely and difficult for you, but less stressful than spending your life fighting for his attention and involvement. If he stays in this slumber, it could lead to more distance between you and him to the point where you need to make personal decisions about the relationship.
I know this will be terribly difficult for you and your children. However, you and your children can’t protect him from the law of the harvest. In Mosiah 7:30, we are taught, “If my people shall sow filthiness they shall reap the chaff therof in the whirlwind; and the effect thereof is poison.” President Dieter F. Uchtdorf also emphasized that, “God will not force us to embrace His light. If we become comfortable with darkness, it is unlikely that our hearts will change. For change to take place, we need to actively let the light in.”[ii] Your husband has to decide that he wants something different than a lonely life with screens.
There are principles in honoring another’s agency, especially another adult. You can attend LDS ARP 12-step meetings for family members of addicts so you can continue to learn principles for how to surrender and move forward in your life.
Again, this may or may not be a marital dealbreaker, but it will certainly break your connection. If you don’t feel close enough to share yourself sexually, emotionally, or spiritually with him, then this is something he’ll need to accept or change.
Each of you is creating the world you want to live in. His is a world of disconnection and screens. Yours is one with people and connections. You will feel a loss if he continues to go down this road, so make sure you get ongoing support to help strengthen you and your children if he disappears even more from the family. Hopefully he’ll decide that his world is empty and vacant and look to join your world. Until then, please make sure you fill your life with the things that lift, inspire, and connect you to others in meaningful ways.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.geoffsteurer.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[i] Nakken, C. (1996). The Addictive Personality: Understanding the Addictive Process and Compulsive Behavior (2nd Ed). p. 8.