I didn’t think I needed to stop using my phone. But as my boyfriend Luke and I sat at a restaurant, talking about our upcoming vacation in Malaysia over bowls of mango sticky rice, we were interrupted by the incessant sounds of our phones buzzing in the background. It seemed as if my messenger and email notifications and his business inquiries and texts from colleagues were dining with us.
I had known this feeling before. In my previous long-term relationship, which had been long-distance at times, the romance had fizzled partly because we were so preoccupied with the pursuit of visas that we quit pursuing each other.
Now, I found myself in a different relationship with that familiar problem looming. Although this time I was in the same physical place as my partner, I felt like there might as well be an ocean between us. It seemed to me that our careers dominated our relationship. Getting my foot in the door as a freelance writer means I'm constantly emailing editors and monitoring my inbox so as not to lose my chance at getting published. While I'm glued to my computer, my boyfriend is just as tech-dependent as a new business owner. We've kept ourselves so busy with our professional goals that our personal conversations turned shallow. In other words, our relationship had gotten lazy.
We left the restaurant and made it back home, answering emails the entire way. Slouching on the bed, legs akimbo, I realized that something had to change if we wanted this relationship to survive. I never considered myself addicted to my phone — I’ve never struggled to turn off my phone when spending time with friends or watching a movie — but I had become all too comfortable with my phone, as if it were an extension of my own body. It just so happened that my trip to Malaysia took place at a time when I was all caught up on work. So, with no new deadlines to be met, our couple's getaway could be a perfectly phone-free vacation.
The next morning, as we zipped our packed bags and headed to the airport, I told Luke I was leaving my phone behind. His shocked expression was soon replaced with a look of excitement. He knew I had professional obligations to write about our hotel stay and experiences in Malaysia. We hatched a plan: I'd use his phone to fulfill my work duties, but everything else would have to wait until we had returned from our trip.
I didn't bother setting an "out of office" message or alerting my friends that I'd be going MIA before heading to the airport. I was ready for eight days in Malaysia without mindlessly scrolling through Instagram, dodging WhatsApp messages from exes, and receiving urgent work emails. I hoped that by leaving my phone behind, I could recharge my creative batteries, and most importantly, re-energize my relationship.
After a few days in Malaysia, I slept better. Without my phone lighting up on my nightstand, I could get through the night without worrying about my inbox imploding. My eyesight improved drastically. I didn’t need to wear my glasses to ward off headaches from the blue light of my devices. I also felt the professional perks of zero screen time. I was more focused than I had been in ages. I felt like my brain had more space to be creative when I wasn’t bombarded with the images and ideas of other people. Ideas for articles flowed more freely. I was creating more content than I was consuming, and that felt like a breath of fresh air.
One night, when Luke and I wrapped ourselves in white, fuzzy bathrobes to sit on our hotel balcony and chat, it hit me how deep our conversations had become. We were fully listening to every word the other was saying. I explained my anxieties about writing full-time. He detailed his fears about his business failing. I unpacked my past relationship history. With each discussion, I felt lighter, more relaxed. I felt seen and understood. My boyfriend said he fell in love all over again, because he felt like I was more emotionally open without my phone nearby. He told me that he noticed when I was upset or sad, I’d grab my phone, pop on a podcast, and go for a walk, never explaining to him what had hurt my heart in the first place. I never realized that I had been hiding behind my phone.
Without phone notifications interrupting our trains of thought, we were speaking on a more intimate level. I had more energy to give my boyfriend. I showed up more in the moment. We shared stories from our childhoods and discussed religion, politics, and children. It felt like we were a new couple again, flirting with each other over dinner and sneaking frisks as we walked along the beach.
That trip transformed my relationships with both my boyfriend and technology. Now, taking long breaks from my phone is a regular part of my routine. Every few weeks, I ditch my phone and work exclusively from . my laptop. I’m as intentional with my time online as I am with my time offline — no more mindless scrolling through photos on Instagram or constant sports updates on Twitter. I limit the amount of time I’m online (unless it’s for work), so that when I am on those apps, it’s a treat and not a habit. My phone isn’t the first thing I reach for in the morning, nor is it the last thing I look at before bed.
I rang in this New Year in England with my boyfriend, his sister, and her partner over board games and prosecco. I stepped in 2019 happily phone-free, grateful for the understanding I gained on my Malaysian journey. I finally learned that the best way to reconnect with what matters is to disconnect from what doesn't.