There was a time, I’m told, when the closest that two lovers came to text messaging was written love letters, sent through the snail mail. Perhaps they were from a soldier to his sweetheart back home, or, that’s how I’d like to imagine it. And then, slowly but surely, a period of textual radio silence commenced, driven by the adoption of the telephone.
Until email and SMS popped into our lives, there was no reason for a couple to talk through text. Now, it may very well be the primary mode of communication for two people in love.
Of course, most couples spend time together IRL*, and talk on the phone a little bit, but the majority of young people prefer text to any other type of communication. It makes sense that this would extend itself into our romantic lives.
But is it for better or worse?
Research suggests that the way we text our partners may be a great indicator of the stability of the relationship.
Brigham Young University researchers found that people who text their sweeties regularly for “relationship maintenance” have increased satisfaction and stability in their partnership. Relationship maintenance ranges from sweet reminders that you’re thinking of the other person to making dinner plans. It is the most basic form of communication on text, and it’s not necessarily the content that makes these conversations so beneficial; it’s the consistency.
When you’re in a lull at work and hear your phone chirp out an alert, it feels nice to see your sweetheart’s random message about something weird they saw on the street at lunch. And when you text back, you get a response.
This kind of accessibility and engagement contributes to a growing attachment between two people. Obviously, more goes into this attachment than mere texting frequency, but it’s a piece of the modern world that didn’t exist before. A mode of communication that connects us in a short, staccato, yet relatively constant way. And that’s powerful.
“It’s just so easy to show affection that way,” said my friend Leanne. “You can send a few emojis or a cute picture of something you see that reminds you of them and just send it off like that.”
Before text messaging and email, you were far more limited by time in a relationship. You were either in person or on the phone, meaning that your full attention was on your boyfriend or girlfriend. Today, you can multitask that other person right into your daily flow.
Today, you can multitask that other person right into your daily flow.
“It’s almost like you’re dividing it up throughout the day, or spreading it out to last longer,” said my friend James on the phone. “It’s weird to make it sound like there’s some finite amount of love or attention you can give someone, but I think it probably takes some of the pressure off of interacting with someone when you can text them regularly.”
Across the board, research confirmed that text messages showing affection were a sign of a healthy relationship.
But there are traps to beware when texting your boo. The more you talk to someone, and the closer you are with them, the more likely it is that the conversation will shift from something light like “maintenance” to something more meaningful.
Women, in particular, are reported to send long-winded, emotional text messages far more often than men.
When something negative is being expressed, or a point of contention is being worked out, text is one of the worst places to be.
Research shows that people in relationships, ranging from marriages to more casual twosomes, tend to show less satisfaction, stability, and attachment when they have these heavyweight conversations via text. And it only makes sense. The breadth of what you express during a serious conversation can not be conveyed during text messages. They say that more than half of what we communicate comes from non-verbal cues, such as facial expression and body language. In some studies, that number goes as high as 90 percent.
In a sensitive situation, these visual cues are crucial, and ultimately lost in a text.
Not only are you more likely to have these serious, perhaps contentious conversations with your lover, but they’re more difficult to have with a partner than anyone else.
As we get older, more and more of our friendships are facilitated online. That’s not to say that Twitter is where the party’s at, but texting and G-chatting to keep up with friends becomes more standard. The pressures of life, work, and the time spent fostering romantic relationships makes friendship management easier in the digital realm.
But we don’t physically disconnect from our significant others. We still spend the majority of our time with them in person, looking at each other and growing accustomed to what is expressed without words. Most couples see this unspoken language as a point of pride. Yet, the more you learn to communicate in person, the more likely it is that serious conversations will go awry via text.
When you’re sitting at dinner, and you tell your honey you’ve had a hard day, you see that empathetic smile cross their face and the love behind their eyes, and it doesn’t really matter what they say. You know they feel for you, and plan to make the evening better.
When you send that same message in a text, there isn’t even the assurance of a speedy response. People get busy, and perhaps that leads to a sub-standard reply. The context for whatever is happening in their life, at that very moment, is lost. And even if the response is acceptably empathetic or encouraging or whatever you’d like it to be, you may not necessarily perceive it that way. Without the puppy dog eyes and the crooked, heartfelt smile, that response may feel empty in comparison. And this is but one reason why text fighting is a horrible idea.
For one, it’s much easier to emotionally detach in a text fight. This stems from a lack of context of the here and now, and only devolves further.
When someone starts shit over text messages, you’re in an entirely different world. Maybe you’re having a terrible day, and can’t be empathetic enough to show any real support. Or maybe you’re having a blast with your friends and you’re really peeved that your SO wants to start something now. Whatever the context of your life, the only thing you can know for sure is that it’s not the same context your boyfriend or girlfriend is experiencing. You aren’t seeing their pained expression, or hearing the sadness in their voice. You don’t see the anger in their gestures. Texts give you no way of gauging how serious this is, nor do they encourage you to find out.
Just as you’d have trouble expressing anything helpful to your SO through text, it’s also quite easy to detach a bit. When you can’t see their physical reaction, it’s easy to take it less seriously or blow it off. Which usually leads to even more friction.
“It’s almost as if you say and do things you wouldn’t normally do,” said Leanne. “It’s easier to just press send on a thought when the other person isn’t standing in front of you waiting to receive it.”
“It’s easier to just press send on a thought when the other person isn’t standing in front of you waiting to receive it.”
But the opposite can play just as much of a role.
There’s a special piece of text conversation that, despite the fact that it was implemented to make text chat more similar to real life, doesn’t actually exist in in-person conversation. It’s the typing status indicator, or that little bubble that tells you when the other person is typing you a message.
“That little thing adds so much drama to a conversation,” said my friend Charles.
But it’s not always bad drama.
The typing status indicator was a catalyst in one of my best romantic relationships. Before anything had become official, we had begun chatting online pretty regularly throughout the day. But true feelings hadn’t yet revealed. More and more I noticed that she would type, delete, and type again. Eventually, I called her out on it.
“What were you going to say?” I asked. “Before you deleted it. What did you type?”
Slowly but surely, each time I called her out on “drafting” it resulted in an admission of feelings. Until one day we were together.
But what starts as a compliment can quickly change to insult. When the relationship was just blossoming, it was flattering to know she was spending a little extra time and effort on her communications with me.
But once we’re attached, it’s hard to know that the person you share the most with is editing what they’re saying to you.
It’s not crazy to edit a message, but it’s slightly crazy to watch it happen as the recipient. It’s not something we experience in real life. If we were standing at a bar chatting, you’d have no idea whether or not what I said to you was the first, second, or fifth draft. And I wouldn’t actually have enough time to craft that many drafts.
That whole piece of the conversation, which is so obvious in text messages, doesn’t exist in the real world. But when you see that person deleting and typing again, it’s hard not to wonder what they didn’t say, what they could’ve said.
During a fight, it’s almost more likely that someone would edit their message to make sure it has the correct tone, etc. But this is precisely when “drafting” is being closely monitored. It’s also not something you can really escape. How do you stop editing your own text messages? Luckily, there are some things you can to ensure your texting relationship is healthy and happy.
According to research, overdoing it on texts is nearly as bad as fighting all the time on texts.
High frequency texting from men led to lower relationship satisfaction on both sides. Or rather, both women and men are less into relationships where the man is texting too frequently. Oddly enough, the reverse is not true. When women text their male counterparts often, it leads to higher stability and attachment on both sides.
The idea is that women who are frequently texting their men show that same accessibility and engagement that makes men more connected, even through a form of communication that is so inherently disconnected.
The researchers didn’t have a clear conclusion as to why this is true. They speculate that women perceive texts as a smaller investment out of the man, and feel disconnected when their boyfriend only wants to talk on text. They also suggest that men who are always texting are choosing to do so because text is less intimate, and that they are using text as an easier way to slowly pull away from the relationship.
This seems slightly convenient.
For one, men are somewhat expected to take SMS less “seriously” than their female counterparts. According to separate research, women between the ages of 18-26 are far more likely to send long-winded emotional messages than men are. Men also have fewer expectations around response time, and are less likely to care about a formal end to text conversations. Saying that relationships in which young men text frequently are less stable because men are disconnected is like saying that grass is green because it’s green.
When I told my investor friend Wayne about this research, he instantly jumped to the same conclusion I did: when men text more frequently in a relationship than a woman, they are seen as more needy or co-dependent, which isn’t what is expected of them. Obviously, these are generalizations and we’re all different, but whatever the reason, it’s worth noting that men who over-text tend to be in less successful or stable relationships.
The important thing to remember is that the people you love are the ones who are most likely to care about the way you text. They’re also the ones you text most frequently. And though these people know you well, and can probably sense the tone of your texts to some degree, words on a screen only show a small fraction of where you’re at in the world.
So keep it light, keep it tight.
Couples who text together continue to have sex together.
The names of most of the people cited in this article have been changed for their protection.
#Love is a new column on TechCrunch dealing with digital matters of the heart. It explores our relationships, their relationship with technology, and all the gory details that come with it. I will be leading the charge, and am looking for guest writers to tell their own stories each week. Maybe you found your soul mate on Tinder, or got dumped on Facebook, or have an outrageously interesting sext life. We all have our stories. If you’re interested in contributing, send an email to email@example.com with the subject line #Love for more details.