Each night, away from the din of 24 feeds and news cycles and the idle chatter that surrounds us, my husband and I are working to rediscover some piece of the sacred and not yet lost art of communicating with each other without interruption.
For a while now, we have been trying to enforce a pretty simple rule we established for each other: no phones in the bedroom. There is all kinds of science and data that reinforces why this makes sense in terms of falling and landing in a generally more substantial and satisfying mode of REM. But even if we didn’t know about all of those studies, there are all of the more obvious reasons why we should: because even if we silence all notifications, it is nearly impossible to resist the lure of possible work emails; because it is a rabbit hole time suck; or because it inevitably places me in the same physical space with my husband even though he and I are mentally in vastly different circles with at least 400 to 1,000 of our not-so-close friends parked right between us on the bed.
We know it makes sense for them to go.
It came up because we were having one of those conversations that you need to have from time to time in a committed relationship. I swear if I close my eyes we are still in our now long-gone 20s and just meeting for the first time. We were flirty and giddy, with almost no actual responsibilities. And then it felt like we blinked and there were four moves, a mortgage, three kids, two jobs. Somewhere along the way, our idle chit-chat became more Western Union-style updates—Cub Scouts on Wednesday, bring home dinner, meeting before school, don’t forget the flu shots. Stop.
And in between was life and none of that was bad. We were focused on the house and our kids and careers. We were focused on not getting swallowed up by the tsunami of logistics that comprise the very nature of day-to-day life. And at night, sapped of physical and emotional strength, we would fall into bed with often one or both of us staring into those tiny little phones looking for false hope, for the promise of a way to unwind, somehow forgetting that was what the other person was there for.
Back when we were first married, when our first was still an infant, things seemed slightly less auto-pilot-y. Maybe it’s because back then, we did not realize how desperately we would come to crave silence and the opportunity to not answer to anyone else’s needs. Maybe back then we didn’t remember how satisfying and comforting it actually was, more than the glow of our gadgets, to lean in to each other each night. Back then we didn’t have smart phones. It would never have occurred to us to bring anything like that into our evening hours together. It wasn’t an option, so we didn’t seek it out as a distraction.
We would unwind together.
So why is it so complicated now to choose each other over our devices? We stare into them seeking so many things: someone who accepts us as worn, relishing the opportunity to lurk and peep through life rather than participate. We bathe in the less complicated glow of online affection. I know we could call each other out on our flagrant violations of arbitrary rules we imposed on ourselves, but it feels like it would be more meaningful to have each of us model it and choose it. To choose the intoxication of real human warmth and compassion, to choose each other. To consciously decide to switch off the autopilot and feel the exhilaration and terror, the weight of our feet on the pedal. Deciding to go nowhere or somewhere, but to do so as we decided all those years ago one incredibly sticky July night: together.
Finally, I just asked: “Why aren’t we doing this? We said we were going to and we didn’t. Why not?”
And we both came up with lots of mostly inadequate excuses for why we needed to keep the phones close, but not check them. What if there is a work emergency? What if we need an alarm clock? What if we need to know the weather? For each reason we ultimately concluded, albeit reluctantly, that none of that stuff constituted anything worth prioritizing and that there were legitimate ways of retrieving most of this information without smart devices (hello, old-school alarm clock!). Then we talked about a podcast I’d listened to recently featuring Sherry Turkle, the author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age. In it, she talks about how even when silenced, phones can still create real problems when it comes to human engagement and emotional intimacy.
To be honest, there were many times that our phones were there, and we were not on them. But what Turkle argues is that this detail doesn’t matter. The very presence of the phone suggests to the other person, I am ready at any moment to opt out of being here with you for something better. Subsequently, we never fully engage with each other in a way that is particularly meaningful. I know she’s right. Even when we’re not on them, we feel them. They had to go.
So we agreed to it. And my phone now sleeps with the fishes—literally. It sleeps next to the fish tanks in the kitchen. My husband’s phone lives downstairs by the printer. And the other night, we spent our first full night in a while completely phone-free. Not surprisingly, we literally missed absolutely nothing of vital importance. We lay in bed together, and Phil watched the Mets game and I read my book with my head on his chest, and honestly, I’m not just saying this. It was nice. And weirdly, I was way less anxious. Because I completely lacked the impulse to turn over and check something. Maybe that’s my own issue with self-control. But honestly, ask yourself, how many times do you check that thing each day, each hour, each minute? How much time is there in your day for white space, the opportunity to just let your mind wander or, of equal importance, to let your heart wander, without fear of getting interrupted or overshadowed by an unsuspecting ping?
It occurred to me the other day that right now, my husband and I are truly in the middle. Ten years ago we were planning our wedding. And 10 years from now, we’ll be planning our son’s graduation from high school. And right here, at these sacred crossroads, is the middle, where things can sometimes feel monotonous in a way that is equal parts comforting and unsettling. We need these precious evening hours together. Here in this autumn of our lives, we are grateful for the opportunity to remind ourselves of the vibrancy and randomness of our own thoughts and hearts, and to find a soft place to land in each other.