Woman reading book in bed, setting boundaries with phone.

Are we breaking up? Setting relationship boundaries with your phone

Most of us would agree that relationships are important. But what about our relationships with our phones? Though we acknowledge that a digital connection is certainly not the same as connecting in person, our phones have the potential to offer us many of the things we seek in human relationships. 

Our phones provide apps and inspiration for personal growth. They drag us out of bed when it’s time to wake up, they kick us in the butts when we’re supposed to drink more water or get work done, and they prompt us to rekindle fond memories. Our phones help us bond with like-minded others through email, social media and video calls. Through connections made the world over, our beliefs are validated and our spirits strengthened. Feeling a part of something bigger gives us a sense of purpose. All good things!

Yet, as in almost every relationship, things can feel off-kilter when we lose sight of our own needs, when we let someone else call the shots, or when we stop doing the things that truly light us up. If the emotional turmoil in our digital relationship outweighs the joy we get from it, we may even enter the scary territory of toxic dysfunction. 

So—what exactly is your relationship status with your beloved phone? Read the following list to see if any of these sound like you:

  • I love my phone but often I feel anxious, drained and overwhelmed after spending too much time with it.
  • My phone is an extension of me…I’m constantly plugged in and I feel vulnerable without it.
  • My phone is a portal to an avalanche of email, information and the dramas of others that can leave me feeling de-stabilized.
  • My phone distracts me from things that are important to me (and I miss those things!).
  • I really have a problem saying “no” to my phone. When a notification arrives, I am triggered like one of Pavlov’s dogs.
  • My phone gives me a lot of information and I’ve just learned that some of it is not true. My phone lies to me? I feel betrayed and overwhelmed.
  • When I spend time surfing on my phone, I compare myself to others and start feeling resentful, guilty and generally bad about myself.

If you can relate to any of the above items, it might be time to put some healthy boundaries in place between you and your phone. 

Feeling unsettled or even alarmed at the thought of setting boundaries? It’s normal. Relationship boundaries may sound radical (does this mean I have to break up with my phone?) or scary (our relationship is going to change!), or really hard (this is going to be such a difficult conversation)…but it doesn’t have to be a daunting process.

The good news is that setting boundaries will only make your relationship better and stronger. Establishing boundaries will protect your sense of self and your energy. When that happens, the time you choose to spend with your phone will shift from overwhelming and draining to enjoyable and nourishing. 

You will still connect in ways that are meaningful to you, plus you’ll have time to do the things you love (and need to do) in the non-digital world. Balance is in sight!

You can start the process of setting phone boundaries in small, manageable steps over time. Here’s how:

  1. Acknowledge the importance of your phone and all the ways it supports you

You love your phone and your phone loves you. You want to keep that!

  1. Identify the areas of phone use that make you feel bad

To start, pinpoint just one challenging area that stands out for you—you can add more as you gain experience with setting boundaries. 

  • Maybe you get anxious after an hour of scrolling on social media. 
  • Perhaps you feel guilty when you read about the DIY projects people are doing at home. 
  • Could it be that using your phone helps you avoid challenging feelings, situations, or something else? 
  • Do you feel pressured to comment on everyone’s posts and it’s pushing you into overwhelm? 

Whatever the reason, discomfort  is your faithful guide to defining a boundary that will be right for you.

  1. Set one realistic boundary

Once you have identified your “one-thing-for-now” that saps your life force, decide on a realistic boundary you want to set around it. 

Your boundary will be manageable and specific so there is no doubt about how to follow it. 

Do: I will limit my screen time to 20 minutes in the morning.
Avoid: I will reduce screen time. 

Make your boundary flexible, so you can tweak it along the way.

  1. Practice your boundary until it feels like part of your routine

It will feel weird to make rules about your phone use, and uncomfortable at first, but  that is normal. Keep practicing until your shift becomes a regular part of your day. Give it all the time it needs. 

Once you have a new normal, you can set another boundary. Practice it. Set another. And so on, until you reach the balance that feels right for you.

  1. Observe the impact of your boundary 

Make note of what each new boundary offers in your day-to-day. Focusing on the positives will motivate you to keep going.

If your boundary feels too difficult to follow, you can scale back. Remember, this is not a race to the finish. When embracing a new boundary, you will find yourself ebbing and flowing over the days.

What will you set for your first boundary? Here are a few suggestions to get you started. Choose the one that feels right for you and customize it to fit your particular situation.

  • Limit phone use. Take a 5-minute phone rest every hour. If 5 minutes is too difficult, start with 3 minutes.
  • Designate areas of your home as “no phone zones.” The bathroom might be a great place to start!
  • Delete one time-sucking (and maybe even soul-sucking) app from your phone.
  • Turn off notifications. You can start with just one type of notification and build from there.
  • IRL swap! Make note of one or two real-life activities that nourish you. When your phone beckons and boredom is weakening your resolve, do one of your IRL activities instead.
  • Consider muting or unfriending people who post things that upset you (if you mute them, you are still friends and they won’t know you are not getting updates from them).
  • Go on a mini-date with yourself—without your phone. I know…this is a hard one. It could be a short walk or out for a coffee. You aren’t being unfaithful, you’re carving out quality time for yourself. You can totally do it!

By integrating these practices, you will start making intentional decisions about when, where and how long you use your phone. You get to decide how you spend your time and energy. That’s the magic of relationship boundaries. They empower you to transform your toxic relationship into a safe, nurturing and joyful one.

The bottom line is that you don’t have to break up! You can still have long, meaningful scrolls on the beach and beautiful sunset screensavers. With healthy boundaries in place, you and your phone can be very happy together.

And hey…once you’ve mastered setting boundaries with your phone, imagine applying some of these principles to the humans in your life! 😉

Kate Strickland
Kate Strickland
I’m a life coach, literacy educator and art-maker, and I love the simple joys of assembling IKEA furniture, photographing the veins of leaves, and sorting stuff (any stuff!). Beauty and connection are fundamental to me and at the heart of sparkfinder.ca, where I bring together coaching and art to help people re-ignite their sparks.

Leave a Comment