A young man in his early 20’s was exploring why he had a tough week after he had been internally withdrawn and cut off from his partner and later, with just a little help talking in session, felt completely reconnected to her. Then he said something quite fascinating. He said it was just like the feeling of losing his phone and later finding it again, right where he’d left it!
Now this is a particularly astute observation showing insight into his own internal process but also might lead us to consider something else… our attachment relationship with our mobile phones. Stay with me for a second… just think about it, when you are separated from your phone how does it feel? I don’t know about you, but if I can’t find my phone, I’m truly out of sorts even though I know perfectly well that the world is going on, my kids have probably not suddenly had an accident and I don’t urgently need to make a call.
And it’s not just me, there is even a word for this now… nomophobia. No joke, it was coined from a study in 2010 in the UK looking at anxiety related to phone use and has made it to Wikipedia! No-more-phone fear – whether it’s a drained battery, no service available or the separation from the physical device. Get this – there is even a suggestion to list this form of anxiety in the DSM-V under specific phobias!
Whoa now, let’s just slow down here, most of us aren’t phobic about this, right? Indeed but apparently it’s typical of most smart phone users to experience significant distress if we are involuntarily disconnected from our phone, and we actively seek proximity to our device and feel notably relieved upon reunion. Therefore, some might hear in that echoes of safe haven and separation distress. If you think I’m exaggerating, research shows that young adults are separated from their phones for an average of only a few hours per day, keeping it turned on non-stop, checking it frequently and often sleeping with it or very near it (Pew, 2012).
Our new blankie. Umbilical cord. Comfort object.
How we relate to our mobile phones is an expression of and extension of our attachment styles to people in the world. It’s possibly even a two-fold object of security. First, there is the attachment to our network of people that the mobile device so effectively serves, and perhaps there is also a secondary attachment to the device of the phone itself.
We are already familiar with powerful attachments to pets and non-specific human entities – example, the time of day of the sessions, the specific seat in group, the noises and smells of a safe space, personal rituals. The thinking is that our evolutionally driven biologically-based attachment system co-opts objects to facilitate a sense of security (Bereczky 2016 et al), exactly what transitional objects are all about.
Attachment versus addiction.
I am referring specifically to attachment, but let’s face it, the dopamine rush of searching and seeking and checking for that new hit of information is part of this picture of course. We check it even when we know it hasn’t vibrated or dinged or tweeted that there is a new message, and sometimes that seeking system goes haywire. You see, our opioid system is what provides satiation, or relief from the seeking and the pleasure of getting what we seek. However the dopamine-seeking system trumps the opioid-pleasure system because from an evolutionary stance, seeking is more likely to keep us alive than sitting around in a satisfied stupor. So looking for the next text or twitter feed or google search on your phone can cause a dopamine loop that turns in on itself, ever looking for that new information “hit” yet not feeling satisfied, and continuing to search until you look up, sometimes hours later, feeling exhausted perhaps, guilty and indulgent maybe, but probably not very satiated.
Interesting indeed, but this part of the mobile phone puzzle is not the attachment piece to which I’m referring.
Before we leave this part however, and setting aside straight full-blown genetically-driven compulsive addiction, it’s very possible that the repeated relational experiences that form the representational constructs of attachment profoundly affect the dopamine and opioid systems, as well as all other structures that eventually make up the hardware of the mind.
Oh good heavens, what did you just say, Sue? More simply early attachment changes the brain… which changes the mind…so even these biological systems may be at least in part an expression of early relational experiences.
But let’s simplify shall we? Our relationship with our phones can be an extension of our attachment histories – and because of this because this we can harness their power for Good.
By using a relational stance lens we can utilize the powerful features of our mobile communication devices to enhance personal and relational security, rather than just let them simply be an enactment of it.
So to be clear, without much reflection we’ve oriented ourselves around our phones, especially smart phones, in a relationally significant manner. We check them when they haven’t buzzed and keep them at arm’s length. And it’s not just the kids that are dependent and attached to their phones – mobile communication both shapes the process and context of adult partnering. Texting for example is used for everything from finding a partner, vetting and dating, falling in love and maintaining sexiness and affection, fighting and breaking up (Weisskirch, 2011). The overall communication device of mobile phones serves to deeply imbed and connect us by serving as storage for memories, solving problems, answering questions, entertaining us, navigating us towards wherever we mean to go and creating various versions of our self (avatars) on social media. One study showed one third of users would rather go a week without sex than be separated from their device for the same length of time, and 43 % of iphone users specifically said they would rather go without shoes for a week than be separated from their phone for a week (Telenav, 2011)!
Attachment and mobile devices:
These ideas are confirmed by a new and growing body of research on mobile phones use and attachment. One study found anxiously-attached individuals show heightened distress upon separation from their phones and more actively use them to stay connected to their networks –rather than primarily using them for playing games or looking up information (Bereczky 2016). This can backfire, though, because the same thing that makes us feel part of things and reassured by the attention a post gets – the instant access feature whereby we share our feelings as they occur and document rather than be in social interactions – is the same features that ensures you know when you are left out or when your photo is just not that interesting. The latter experience can trigger profound preoccupation in someone predisposed to anxious attachment.
And consistent with our intuition, another study showed that dismissively-oriented adults call and text their partners less, and get fewer calls and texts from significant others (Vincent, 2006). No surprise there, of course.
Insecure relational patterns get manifested in our relationships with our phones.
Using interpersonal neurobiology terms, we may be seeking to regulate ourselves more and more with technology. Fitness bands, health apps, social media… I am having to stop myself from documenting here these burgeoning industries just so I stay on point.
While mindfulness is taking off in popular culture, and becoming more aware in the moment is trending, the question is – what do we do with all that “information” technology brings us? Once you know you’re niece has a new boyfriend, number of steps or calories consumed, hours slept or how many likes on your last photo, what does that do for us regarding self-regulation?
How to use our devices to enhance security:
We want to always be nudging toward more and more security in ourselves and in our relationships, and listening to a client’s relationship with their mobile devices may be a way to understand and most importantly, to intervene on their behalf. Oh I can hear it now, Sue said we should increase attachment security by relating clients to their inanimate object of affection, as if they aren’t already addicted to the damn thing!
Build security by using their (ahem, our!) favored communication device.
Yes, I am kinda saying that – it’s a tai-chi move, or the “if you can’t beat them join them” technique. It’s not a solve, but a tool.
When working with someone tilting towards the avoidance side of insecurity, it helps to get them in touch with their needs and vulnerability, right? As many of you know, that is not an easy task. A practical and to the point exercise of rewriting mobile phone use “best practices” is often intriguing to them and is important because what is so-far internalized will be rather flat communication, at best. Paint by numbers here. Teach them that a text that says “On my way,” isn’t too needy, clingy or irrelevant. A “yay” in response – even if they don’t yet feel it – will go a long way in warming up their relationship. Connecting before desire is correct here just as it can be with starting sexual activity in order to get desire for romantic contact.
Same for using it more often during the day to stay connected, actually using voicemail to leave a sweet message, or sending a photo of what’s up. It won’t feel natural but if the goal is to move towards security, then improving mobile interpersonal communication is a low-investment, high-payoff endeavor for those of us on the avoidant side of insecurity.
Another good example for our more avoidant folks is saving key communications (text, email, perhaps a meaningful favorite photo) to remind them that they actually need and want their partners. Example, grab an email they sent after a fight that contains some genuine affect and even better, fear – that is gold! This needs to be memorized and reviewed often because the whole nature of this problem is losing connection to exactly those feelings of vulnerability and need. I know this sounds strange but it’s highly effective because you are connecting them to their own feelings, so they are less likely to feel invaded, trapped or manipulated.
Reverse course for the other side of insecurity – increasing the ability to self soothe and stay grounded is typically our tact for anxiously-oriented clients. Taking themselves more seriously, staying within the window of tolerance and throwing soft balls that are easy to catch for the other rather than hitting them with a hardball are all part of the journey to be safer and feel safer in relationships. So, practicing ever widening periods of not checking their device is a way to sneak up on a mindfulness practice, which is just the ticket to learn more self-soothing for folks that are highly anxious about relationships. If continued, they are forced to access and develop their internalized relationships to know there is nothing on that phone of importance that can’t wait. It’ll be right there for them whenever they do get around to looking. In that space there is room to work on self-soothing, healthy distractions, engaging in self compassion and the other needed skills to grow security.
They could also benefit from the same technique above, saving key communications in order to better hold their partner when they aren’t there. However, this time it may work better if the communication is from their partner rather than written by themselves to remind them they are important, valued and loved by the other even when the other isn’t right there.
Remember the guy at the beginning of this article? He’d lost contact with his feelings of attachment to his partner, felt worse, connected with himself again by opening up and talking, and then easily reconnected to his warm feelings for his partner, thus feeling notably relieved. It was an internal process of being reminded that the love is right there where you left it, you just have to call it back up (bad pun intended). Like the moon – it’s not gone when it isn’t visible, we just can’t see it from the angle we are at in the moment… but it is right there, where it supposed to be, and will soon return if we look for it. Or as he said more colloquially, like the missing phone that wasn’t actually lost to begin with.
This post appeared in Therapy Matters on Medium.com
Bereczky, B M; Gigler, D; Konok, V; Miklosi, A. 2016. “Humans' attachment to their mobile phones and its relationship with interpersonal attachment style,” Computers in Human Behavior 61 537e547.
Vincent, J.2006, “Emotional attachment and mobile phones.” Knowledge, Technology & Policy 19(1), 39-44
Weisskirch, RS, 2012. “Women’s adult romantic style and communication by cell phone with romantic partners,” Psychological Reports, 111(1), 281-8.