Print Post
  • "If you can't survive a minute or two of quiet time without getting on TikTok at the table, that's offensive, not just distracting." Tweet This
  • "The phone is not the only threat to connection, but it's a growing, addictive, and potent threat to marriage." Tweet This
  • "I encourage couples to come up with a list of the things that bring them joy and things they want out of life that get them off technology." Tweet This

After careers in journalism, public affairs in the State Department, and his own non-profit, it was his brother's divorce that prompted Peter McFadden to reconsider his theory of marriage and pivot to the profession of marriage counseling. He has practiced for 20 years with more than 5,500 couples all over the world. He gives particular attention to couples' social interactions and helps them to develop daily shared habits that save their marriages and strengthen their relationships. IFS sat down with him recently to learn from his experience in marital communication, particularly when it comes to smartphone use.

Elizabeth Self: What are some stories you’ve heard that illustrate the kinds of problems many married couples are facing?

 Peter McFadden: Recently, I met a [young] married couple—21 years old and 23 years old. And I was downright alarmed after meeting them. TikTok is a relatively recent invention, and this husband, who is 21, essentially grew up with it. The wife’s complaint was, “I’ll get up from the dining room table to get ketchup, and I'll be gone for no more than two minutes, and [when I come back], he's on TikTok.”  Her husband responded, “But I was bored!” 

If you can't survive a minute or two of quiet time without getting on TikTok at the table, that's offensive, not just distracting.

In the case of one of my couples over in France, they argued in French in front of me for 10 minutes each, accusing the other of looking at their Blackberries first, before saying good morning. It would be a YouTube sensation if I could have just recorded and posted it. 

I have a client who is not in one fantasy football league but three. His poor girlfriend told me, “I had to start my own fantasy football team to be able to connect with him.”

And once I worked with an amazing couple, but five years later, the wife had an emotional affair. Of course, the guy was distraught, but in a way, it was his fault because he was so over-committed to work and not a good listener.

Self: Describe the couples that you counsel and the type of counseling you do?

McFadden: My program is based in the heart of New York City. Most of my couples are making over $150,000 a year, both of them. I would say at least 90% have at least a college degree, if not a graduate degree or more. But I do have 10% that never went to college. Even if 90% of my couples are highly educated, that's still leaves about 500 couples I've worked with that are in that low-income group.

Most, or 60-70%, of my work now is pre-marriage. So, I had a couple from Mexico that lived in New York at the time I taught marriage prep 13 years ago. They now live in Mexico City. Via WhatsApp, they called me up: “Peter. We need help.” And they flew all the way from Mexico City to meet with me in New York for counseling all these years later. A lot of my practice is supporting the couples I taught in the past. 

In my program, we start out with a practical look at marriage. It's really based on research, and my highly-educated clients respond well to numbers.

My favorite program was stopped by COVID, and I haven't been able to restart it. I would meet with a small group of couples over 6-8 weeks, give a talk on one topic at a time, and have a discussion. I met with one of the couples after each session for a one-on-one.

I have couples do reading and take this exercise with over 150 questions in advance so I can see what we need to focus on in session. “Are you worried about the parents interfering in your marriage?” “Have you discussed how many children you want?” “Do you agree on pets?” “Are you concerned that your partner is on the phone too much?” That is a very frequently checked answer. 

Self: Are phones a problem for many couples?

McFadden: I tell my couples: believe it or not, my wife and I got married before there were smartphones. We didn't have this potential addiction then. People used to sit on their front porches, and there was a lot more social interaction. 

With the advance of the smartphone, now the temptation to isolate is so much stronger. I absolutely think phones are more entertainment than useful tools. My clients will say, “I need to look at it for my job,” and, of course, that's true. But one thing I hate, just to share, is that I would love to use basic phones so that I don't even have those temptations, but I have two girls in school, and the school uses an app to tell me what my kids’ grades are and if they showed up late for class. And their teachers will email me. So, there is a lot of stuff that you have to do on your phone. But then you're on your phone, and you stay on it. 

Phone use can definitely limit connection, and when that happens, the door opens to all kinds of negative thinking. One of the standard questions I ask couples is when was the last time you had a meaningful conversation, and the most common answer I get is, “We can't remember, it was years ago.” 

Here are interesting people who do not have a meaningful conversation for years! No wonder we might be vulnerable to emotional affairs. Man cannot live without love. When a couple is connected, there's no reason to be jealous. In Dr. John Gottman's terminology, there is positive and negative sentiment override. When the positivity is high in marriage and the frustrations are relatively low, you tend to positively interpret everything the other person does. For example, my wife thinks of me as her hard-working husband, as opposed to accusing, “You love your work more than you love me.” The phone is not the only threat to connection, but it's a growing, addictive, and potent threat to marriage.

The phone is not the only threat to connection, but it's a growing, addictive, and potent threat to marriage.

Self: How do the habits of one spouse affect his or her spouse and their children?

McFadden: According to Dr. Gottman, couples who connect every morning feel closer to each other and more positive throughout the day. They are also more likely to spontaneously connect more often.

Bad habits can drag each other down, and that happens too often. I often hear, “If he's going to be on his phone, I might as well do something.”

No one likes to be told to get off their phone, even though they know they should, and kids are very justice oriented. You can’t expect your kids to have good habits if yours are bad.

I cannot tell my kids to get off their phones without them complaining. But if expectations are set in advance, my kids are happy. They never complain about not being on their phones if they know the plan.

There was this low-income couple that I met, with two teenage children, from the Bronx. I encouraged them to have one night a week that was technology-free and included dinner with their kids. They thought their kids would complain. They were surprised that the kids were more enthusiastic about that technology-free night than they were. They wanted that family connection. So the good news is there are couples who embrace this advice, and they find joy in it.

Self: What are other specific rules and practices that you recommend for couples to adopt?

McFadden: I've summarized my advice for marriage on the back of one business card. So, number one: have small daily rituals where you are distraction free. The importance of undistracted communication is the biggest theme of the research. Emotional connection is the most important thing in marriage, and to get emotional connection you need undistracted communication. Start, reunite, and end every day with a positive connection.

This is how I discovered I was married to my phone and not my wife: I woke up and looked at my phone. We're not allowed to look at our phones within 15 minutes of waking up. When we do this, we’re less obsessed with the phone for the rest of the day.

I remember my wife, early in marriage, begging me for one night per week of no technology. My wife also asked me for four weekends a year—once every three months—without technology. Back then, we learned how to do two dates a week tech free.

One daily ritual my wife and I adopted as a rule is you greet each other well. We're not allowed to walk into our home holding a phone in our hands. You must finish the phone call, put it away, and come in ready to connect…Just being committed to greeting each other well transforms a lot of marriages.

Number two is set a time to talk. It's one of the most common complaints I hear: “Whenever I talk to him, he's on his phone.” But it turns out, you started the conversation when he was already on his phone. So, you can't complain that he's on his phone when you're talking. I urge couples to set a time to talk, as opposed to just randomly bringing things up.

Number three is to have a shared calendar and put your marriage on the calendar. If my wife and I are going to have a phone-free night every week, it has to be scheduled.

One of the exercises I give couples I call creating a shared vision. If my wife has this vision and I have that vision of how to raise our kids, we're going to be arguing potentially every single day. So set a time to talk. I'll never forget the time my wife texted me, “Peter, what's our TikTok policy?”

In addition, the greatest invention, after the wheel, is Screen Time. From my phone, I can control how much my kids are on their apps. They can't get on it after a certain hour. They can't wake up and look at their phones. A lot of parents are completely unaware of this tool. For us adults, sleeping with your phones is still a bad idea. So, you know, I urge couples to make their bed phone-free, meaning no phones within arm’s reach. The bed should be a sacred space for marriage.

One last thing: I encourage couples to come up with a list of the things that bring them joy and things they want out of life that get them off technology. The first night that we had technology free, we didn't know what to do. We were sitting there for 30 minutes, as if our creativity had shrunk. Couples need to be educated in ways to destress without TVs and phones. 

You not only need discipline; you also need a plan.