With certain modes of communication, less is actually more.
When it comes to relationships, communication is key. The more clearly we’re able to convey our needs and desires to the people we care about, the healthier our connections will be. That’s just textbook: Relationships 101. So it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that any mode of communication has the potential to improve our relationships. The more communication, the better, right?
Wrong. In fact, certain types of communication are best kept to a minimum. I’m talking, of course, about texting.
Think about it: when’s the last time you had a text exchange go sideways on you? I bet you don’t have to ponder for too long. Me? I got worried when my boyfriend texted me a simple “yup” in response to my asking something, sans his usual “xoxo,” heart emoji, or other schmoopy term of endearment. I was convinced he was mad about something, and I had a knot in my stomach until he called and assured me all was okay, explaining that he’d just been in the middle of something at work.
Still, I wondered – how long does it take to send an emoji? If he had time to text “yup,” he had time to add an “xo.” When he confessed later that he had, indeed, been upset, I wasn’t surprised. I knew there was a reason for that terse text.
I’m old enough that when I started dating my (now ex) husband, texting wasn’t yet a thing. I had to make my friends listen to his voicemails in order to pick apart every word and analyze exactly what he might be thinking and feeling. Now we can screenshot text message exchanges and send them to friends in order to perform this sort of in-depth relationship analysis – or we can stay awake late into the night, scrolling through our text messages over and over again, desperately trying to figure out exactly what a given emoji choice means. (Why a blue heart instead of a red one? And what exactly is that upside-down smilie supposed to represent, anyway?)
It’s tempting to think crowdsourcing opinions on your text message exchanges is something that only happens in the early days, before you’ve had that “define the relationship” talk, and that only insecure teenagers obsess over the meaning of an emoji (or lack of one). If you’re a healthy adult in a committed relationship, texting might seem innocuous: just another avenue for exchanging information, sending silly selfies, or saying “I love you.” But even within an established relationship, texting can lead to problems.
What does that mean?
I’m not the only person who gets anxious about the meaning of my boyfriend’s texts. Amy McManus, a licensed marriage and family therapist with a practice in Los Angeles, says her clients frequently come to her with issues touched off by texting. “Because texting is so much more ambiguous than other forms of communication, we tend to spend a lot of time ruminating about our partner’s latest text,” says McManus. “‘Is he mad at me?,’ ‘What did I say wrong?,’ ‘What did that just mean?,’ etc. Studies show that rumination – thinking over and over about something – leads to decreased feelings of well-being.”
The best way to avoid this obsessive thinking and the resulting drop in happiness? McManus recommends keeping texts short and to the point. “I tell [my clients] the best thing for your relationship is to use texting for logistical questions only – where are we meeting for dinner, what can I pick up at the store for you, what time will you be home, etc.” This doesn’t mean you can never send a sweet text to your sweetheart – “simple things like ‘I love you’ or ‘just thinking about you right now’ are nice,” she says. But anything else, “especially anything with any sort of emotional content,” is better to talk about on the phone or in person.
I’m not so sure, though. For one thing, if my partner has a habit of sending me texts to say he loves me and is thinking about me (which he does), then when he doesn’t send one on a given day, I’ll wonder why not (which I do). For another thing, sometimes it’s easier for me to say something via text than it is to say it in person. An emotionally charged subject might feel too scary to bring up when I’m with my partner, but typing into my phone and hitting “send”? So much easier.
It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it
The problem with this, says women’s psychotherapist Lauren Drago, is that while I might believe that I’m having a genuine discussion with my partner by text, in reality, the exchange is missing multiple elements of true communication. “What I see in my practice is that women refer to ‘talking’ to their partner, or a conversation with their partner, all of which happened over text. They describe what went wrong, or the negative response they received, or perhaps how the interaction did not meet their expectations.” However, she explains, in a text exchange, we have no way of hearing our partner’s tone. “This is a recipe for disaster,” she says. “Tone is everything in how we communicate – hence the saying, ‘it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.’ When we text our partners, we have no control over how we say it.”
This is probably why last week, at the end of a long, difficult day, when I texted my partner to let him know I was having a hard time and really needed to talk to him, he reacted with uncharacteristic anger and defensiveness, first ignoring me and then lashing out. I’d thought I was doing the right and healthy thing, reaching out to tell him I needed him, rather than expecting him to be a mind-reader and then getting mad when he failed to intuit what I wanted.
But because our partners can’t read our tone in a text, they interpret it through the veil of their own psychological and emotional state, explains Drago. “If the receiving party’s emotional or mental state is angry, upset, tense, suspecting, resentful, and so on, then I guarantee that the text will be read and interpreted in a way that will further support their own emotional and mental status.” My boyfriend was having a bad night, so he read my texts as angry, though I hadn’t been angry when I sent them.
Don’t take that tone with me
“I’ve sat in many therapy sessions where one person is upset and reading a text exchange they had earlier with their partner, and as they read their part it’s a calm and reassuring tone; whereas, when they read their partner’s reply, their tone is expressed harshly,” says therapist and life coach Dr. Dana Avey. “I can take their phone and read the same messages back to them in a way that completely reverses the assumed tone. How can we know how it was intended? It’s incredible how we decipher between the line meaning from written word and then run with those assumptions. This is where couples run into trouble.”
Normally, when you have a misunderstanding with your partner, you can instantly tell that something has landed wrong, and it’s possible to ward off hurt feelings before they happen, with an explanation (and an apology if necessary). But once a text-fight has been sparked, it can be very difficult to backpedal. “In person, you can much better determine if you are being misunderstood, and you can self-correct so that the communication moves forward smoothly,” explains McManus. “Via text, it is almost impossible to do this until the other person is already upset.”
Drago sums up the problem with texting: “At the bottom of it, two people are failing to connect emotionally because tone conveys emotion, and emotion determines the quality of communication.”
Stick to business
The bottom line? “I rarely discuss positive text interactions in therapy with my clients,” says Drago. “I only see how texting continues to let people down in their communication with significant others.”
But what if there are subjects that feel more comfortable to broach via text? Can’t I hide behind my phone when I’m laying my heart on the line? Or at least let off a little steam with my screen as a shield? Nope, says Drago. “If texting is costing you your relationship, then it’s worth reconsidering the modality in which you approach important topics – as well as why you choose that modality. If texting is helping you hide behind your own hesitancy to talk face to face about difficult things due to a fear of confrontation or asserting your needs, then that’s a whole other topic to work on.”
All the experts I consulted make the same rule for their clients as McManus stated above: absolutely no texting about emotionally loaded topics. “Save it for a face-to-face conversation or text back, ‘can we talk about this tonight when we see each other?’” says Drago. And Dr. Avey adds, “My recommendation to couples is to keep texting limited to relationship operations. Think business. In other words, ‘Can you pick up dinner on your way home?’ or ‘Do we have anything planned for Saturday?’ Otherwise, if you have something more meaningful to express, let it be done verbally. This will save you so much heartache and finger cramping.”
Comment: Do you feel that you and your partner have a healthy texting relationship, or does texting cause more problems than it solves?