Your cell phone or our cell phone? The negotiation of cell phone usage rules in romantic relationships

By Mthobeli Ngcongo

We often take for granted both the importance of cell phones in affording us to stay connected with our partners. It is as it here an extension of ourselves that allows us to be within reach of those we love. However, the mobile phone often presents a double-edged sword in romantic relationships. While the mobile phone can enhance the quality of communication, it can simultaneously become a source of conflict. In romantic relationships, mobiles may be used inappropriately to ‘keep tabs’ on partners. Such forms of monitoring may invariably present opportunities of conflict in romantic relationships. Yet there remains little evidence on how the tensions that come with mobile communication and surveillance in romantic relationships are negotiated by romantic partners.

I was particularly interested to find out if mobile phone usage rules are indeed usefully negotiated by young people in their romantic relationships to specifically regulate the tension that come with this technology. If this negotiation process was an important part of cell phone use in romantic relationships, then it would point to evidence of agency in shaping how technologies are used in relationships. Therefore, if this is valid, managing the relational tensions that arise from misappropriation of cell phones through negotiated rules becomes a prominent feature of emerging adult romantic relationships.

Relational tensions and cell phones: understanding the theory

There exists of tensions in relationships, inter alia inherent tensions between impulses, or dialectics regarding integration/separation, stability/change and expression/privacy. The theory of Communication Privacy Management (CPM), which is deeply rooted in the relational dialectic framework, can be used to conceptualize how misuses of the cell phone in romantic relationships are managed. CPM suggests that people feel forces pushing and pulling them to either reveal private information or conceal it from others. This is because CPM theory shows that romantic partners are fundamentally challenged to enact and coordinate often complex communication boundaries through the enactment of rules. CPM theory suggests that romantic partners establish and manage rules to manage boundaries by setting parameters on privacy. The negotiation of mobile phone usage rules therefore cannot be simply argued to be etiquette, since the process is ultimately an explicit agreement on set dos and don’ts rather than being polite preferences that have no repercussions.

How tensions play out in actual romantic relationships?

If we take 215 South African undergraduate university students in romantic relationships and ask them about their cell phone privacy management patterns the picture we come away with interesting conclusions. Findings from survey data indicated that the negotiation of cell phone usage rules is a crucial part of the health of young adult relationships. The invasion of privacy through asymmetrical monitoring of a romantic partner’s phone was, however, also seen as an important way of maintaining relational wellbeing by warding off any potential extra dyadic threats. The desire to accommodate privacy was also evident in the negotiation of rules surrounding the monitoring of cell phone usage patterns and in the desire to not set call times in order to enhance perpetual closeness through perpetual contact. This attests to the dialectic nature of the contradictions that permeate many romantic relationships, where competing needs must be simultaneously negotiated. The awareness by the respondents that the rules needed to change as the relationship progressed attests that they are savvy mobile phone users and skilled negotiators of their own privacy and disclosure needs. Partners are not victims of mobile technology. Thus, the negotiated rules not only focused on privacy disclosure but also on maintaining the health of the relationships as a whole.

Although there was no correlation between gender and culture with the negotiation of mobile phone rules, the same was not true for length of relationship. Cell phone usage in romantic relationships were not stagnant as the relationship progresses, but changed according to varying circumstances. What this may ultimately indicate is that rules for cell phone usage may not necessarily be stagnant as the romantic relationship grows. Therefore, as much as the mobile phone can be intrusive and a source of conflict in the relationship through misappropriation, the negotiation of rules for appropriate mobile phone usage can minimize this conflict. How the conflict is negotiated when it arises seems to be the fulcrum on which the future of the relationship management process in a mobile environment pivots.

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