What the Death of the Landline Has Meant for Relationships

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One of the most memorable scenes in Tom Wolfe’s class-warfare-in-’80s-New-York tome The Bonfire of the Vanities is also, in retrospect, one of the most dated.

Protagonist Sherman McCoy is a Wall Street millionaire living on the Upper East Side, and yet — as was the custom in the ‘80s — his penthouse had only one phone line. To speak to the woman he’s sleeping with (not his wife), Sherman has to walk down the block to call her on a payphone, meaning he needs to make an exit in the guise of taking the family dachshund for a walk. The fact that it’s pouring rain and the dachshund flatly refuses to go outside makes for ample comic relief — not to mention foreshadowing the fact that Sherman, a bond-trading “Master of the Universe,” actually isn’t in control of a darned thing in his life.

But this is 2013, not 1986, so we’ll focus on the landline. The landline! The idea that a home telephone would be so representative of the connection between a couple — something that would have to be meticulously skirted around if that relationship were to be breached — is something that’s been completely upended by the mainstream ownership of cell phones. Now, if a couple shares a landline at all (over half of American homes either don’t have a landline or don’t use it), its connecting value has been diluted, since each half of that couple likely has a cell phone of their own. And those cell phones don’t even necessarily have the same area code.

The phone is now what separates priorities in a couple’s joint life rather than brings them together. It’s what differentiates them as individuals.

The fact is, the landline used to be a silent (ironically) but major player in dating and relationships. For couples, long-distance communication is no longer something that inevitably needs to be bargained and split up and compromised, creating both a point of shared property and mandatory negotiation within a relationship. We have our own cell phones now. We password-protect them. And there’s no clear consensus yet as to whether sharing phone or email passwords between couples is healthy or even legally responsible.

Granted, no longer being tied to the landline allows for a new kind of spontaneity, accessibility, and independence in relationships. Singles no longer have to wait by the phone for that call. Couples don’t have to fight about who’s racking up the bill with long-distance calls. The phone is now something that separates priorities in a couple’s joint life, rather than brings them together. It’s what differentiates them as individuals. That’s good if you’re an obsessive multitasker or constantly on the move. It’s bad if someone’s cheating on you.

Tom Wolfe apparently has seen this change, too — in his most recent novel, Back to Blood, Chapter 1 features yet another awkward integration of a telephone into a tense situation. Except it’s about an iPhone’s rap ringtone going off noisily in the back pocket of the phone’s owner, a young Miami cop, as he is attempting to apprehend an alleged criminal. (Go with it. It’s Tom Wolfe. He’s a little weird.) What we think of as a telephone has gone from to highly personal and accessible even at the most awkward of moments. How times do change.