The Phone as M(other)

by Brid Maguire

I don’t know about you but recently I’ve become thoughtful about what is happening to us in our relationship with the phone and other devices. Last autumn I ended up without a phone for five days and found it a very informative experience. I was surprised by how disabled I felt within the experience. At times, there were periods of intense anxiety as I grappled with feeling out of contact. I wondered at how having the phone has become a way of feeling connected to the world and to life outside of myself. The relief I experienced when I was back in touch with ‘everyone’ was immense. It gave me an opportunity to think about what has happened to me and to wonder about the intensity of relationship I have with this object.

I witnessed recently a mother hand her young child/baby (about a year old) her phone to ‘play with’. After some minutes, the mother needed the phone to use as a phone. She tried to take it back from him. It was as if she was trying to take back a bag of heroin! He screamed, he kicked, he spat, he hit continuously – it was quite a disturbing experience.

The best test of an attachment bond is to observe the response to separation. Bowlby identified protest as the primary response produced in children by separation from their parents. Crying, screaming, shouting, biting, kicking – this ‘bad’ behaviour is the normal response to the threat to an attachment bond and presumably has the function of trying to restore it, and by punishing the care-giver of preventing further separation.
(Holmes, 1993: 72)

The ‘I’ phone, not the ‘we’ phone, the ‘smart’ phone or the plain old mobile phone, has inserted itself securely into our lives.

Sitting in public places, I am taken aback by how acceptable it has become for an individual to talk aloud, seemingly to no-one in particular and then to slowly realise what is happening. Oh, they must be on the phone. To see someone else Skyping or ‘Face-timing’ (catch the words here) seems to have become run of the mill. Hearing conversations loudly, with no privacy seemingly required, mystifies me. The thump, thump, thump sound emanating from the person sitting beside me within a confined space has become intolerable to me. Often I find myself seeking to leave whatever space I am in just to escape the noise.

The phone has come into the therapy space much more in recent times. While I don’t find myself reacting to this, I do find myself curious about it. ‘I don’t have any power left’ is a phrase several clients have used in greeting me – ‘Can I charge up while I am here?’ Clearly, it is their devices they are speaking about but I can’t but hear their words at a deeper level. ‘Do you get a good connection here?’, I am asked. All this language has developed around our attachment to these electronic devices. The type of attachment and the kinds of feelings aroused can be useful to explore.

Texting has become a more ordinary form of communication in my experience with clients. Clients can now text that they will be late, or not coming to their session. In many ways, while it is good to hear from them, I feel that texting can be an easier way to let someone know what you are feeling or thinking or planning to do. The voice-to-voice contact which is present in a phone call demands something more from us, it requires more relating I suppose. Texting, whilst it is very useful, is also rife to misinterpretation in my experience. Nuance is absent and words can hold many different meanings for us.

It could be interesting to wonder about our phone as some kind of Mother Object – what kind of mother is it? Persecutory…I never get around to doing what I ought to do. I have calls and texts that I can’t get around to responding to. It’s always intruding in my life. In other words, your relationship to your phone is that it is a hassle and you are falling short always of what you imagine it expects of you.

Another kind of mother could be the one that evokes from us a reaction like: ‘I want to please her’. I always respond to all my texts immediately – I never keep her/it waiting! I am good to it! Maybe your own mind will take you to associate to this idea and you can draw it out a bit more for yourself.

I saw a film last year now that you may have seen yourself. It is called ‘Her’ (Miramax, 2013). It received the Oscar for best original screenplay in 2014. A disturbing film at many levels showing us, the viewers, how a relationship develops for this man between himself and his ‘voice assistant’ on his phone – he develops an erotic attachment to ‘her’ and she clearly provides deep soothing and comfort to him. I think it was seeing a world where the replacement of real human relationship with a machine being realised that chilled me to my core.

Professor Clifford Nass was walking through a dorm in Stanford University when he saw a girl texting her friend who was sitting nearby. He asked her why she wouldn’t just go over to speak with her friend. She replied that ‘texting was more efficient and that it really doesn’t make any difference if you see the other person or not’. Nass, who tragically died too young, had dedicated his life to understanding the effect computers were having on us. He discovered that people who had heavy use of the computer were more likely to be depressed, have low self-esteem and to have poor sleep quality (Greenwood, 2013).

Within object relations theory, the mind and the psychic structures that comprise it are thought to evolve out of human interactions rather than out of biologically derived tensions. Instead of being motivated by tension reduction, human beings are motivated by the need to establish and maintain relationships. It is the need for human contact, in other words, that constitutes the primary motive within an object relations perspective.
(Cashdan, 1988: xi)

It may be stating the obvious that the phone has become a ‘transitional object’ to us. I am not sure though if that is all it has become. Winnicott (1971) states that:

Playing has a place and a time… It is not inside…nor is it outside, that is to say it is not a part of the repudiated world, the not-me, that which the individual has decided to recognize as truly external, which is outside magical control. To control what is outside one has to do things, not simply to think or to wish, and doing things takes time. Playing is doing (41).

I have also had the sense that the transitional object has a smell and a sense of warmth about it. Perhaps idealistically, I see that transitional phenomena also seem more creative and productive than the hours spent idling away with my electronic device.

I heard recently the Cyber Psychologist Dr. Mary Aiken speaking about the internet and online bullying (O’Rourke, 2015). She was saying that the place we go to online is considered an actual real place – another reality. Virtual reality is a phrase we began to hear some years ago. This place that we visit when we go online or ‘connect’ to our device/phone, I wonder where it takes us. Have we lost our sense of self? Are we conscious of our self at all when we are playing a particular game or facebooking or whatever activity we are doing?

I often feel that when I see myself take to the computer, or when I see rooms filled with people connected to devices, that we are all trying to escape from this reality which can be unrelenting in its demands and pressure. I play a game called ‘Words with friends’ similar to Scrabble and it lures me as I begin to play it with the enticement ‘May the Best Friend win’! I can assure you that I have won this game many times but I am not sure if it has increased my capacity to be a best friend or the best friend to my opponent!

Lavina Gomez (1997), in her book An Introduction to Object Relations, describes the schizoid state:

Many people in a schizoid state express this feeling unreal and cut- off, as though separated from the world and their own feelings by a glass screen. The sense of futility arises from the poverty of their human relationships, which in Object Relations theory are the centre of human life (66).

It comes to mind that the screen we all use nowadays is called ‘a touch screen’. Touch evokes warmth to me. The touch on glass that I make as I choose which app to use is cold and impersonal. When I choose to use my phone in this way I feel I am opting out of relatedness and moving into a state of mind where I don’t want thought or feeling to be present.

Of course we need technology; I am not adverse to that at all. A lot of the current developments taking place are helpful and progressive. However, I want to engage in thinking about what I am doing, what we are doing, and I would appreciate a beginning dialogue to develop. Our professional field of psychotherapy is a place, hopefully, where we can think about the emotional effects and dynamics of what may be happening to us and our clients.

I think it can only help us all in our personal lives, and most particularly in our work, to really reflect on our relationships with the technology in our lives and in the lives of those of our clients.

I think what may be useful is to reflect on what power we have with our phone. I know that I need to take control of my experience of it. I actively put it in silent mode when I want to focus on something else. I have begun a practice of not answering the phone unless I recognise the telephone number. I have fallen foul of being caught out too many times by answering the phone and not realising what the other person may be seeking – a new referral, often when I could be at the supermarket. I have also made a decision some time ago now that I want an old-fashioned dinosaur phone as I call it. I got myself a device for playing…an I-Touch, and my phone is by-and-large a work tool.

Whilst I want a phone in my life, I want to be able to feel like I am using it rather than feeling manipulated by it.

The phone, the computer; technology is an area which is vast in its breadth. I realise that there are many vantage points from which to explore it. I feel a bit overwhelmed as I study different areas and angles. So this piece is limited. I could say more. I would be delighted if anyone is inspired to take up a perspective and develop it further for our common education and development.

Brid Maguire is an Integrative Psychotherapist accredited with IAHIP in private practice in Dublin City Centre. Since receiving her first accreditation in 2000, she has been working with clients. She is currently working toward her Supervisor accreditation. She can be contacted by phone (yes!): 087 6197317, or email:

Cashdan, S. (1988). Object Relations therapy: Using the relationship. Ontario: Penguin Books.

Ellison, M., Jonze, S. & Landay, S. (Producers) & Jonze S. (Director). (2013). Her. [Motion Picture]. United States: Miramax.

Gomez, L. (1997). An introduction to Object Relations. London: Free Association Books.

Greenwood, F. K. (2013). Look me in the eye: Clifford Nass ’81 ’86. Princeton Alumni Weekly, 113(10). Retrieved 29 June 2015 from

Holmes, J. (1993). John Bowlby and attachment theory. London: Routledge.

O’Rourke, Sean. (Presenter). April 15, 2015. Interview with Dr. Mary Aiken, Cyber Psychologist [Radio Broadcast Episode]. In Today with Sean O’Rourke. Radio Telefis Eireann, Radio 1. Retrieved 1 July 2015

Winnicott, D.W. (1971). Playing and reality. London: Tavistock/Routledge.