Psychologists explain why texting in relationships is so complicated

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Christian
Perner/Unsplash


  • New studies show that similarity in texting styles is
    linked to relationship satisfaction.
  • People with either ‘anxious’ or ‘avoidant’ tendencies
    have different styles — the former prefers regular contact,
    whereas the latter can be put off by excessive
    messaging.
  • Addressing the texting frequency you prefer early-on in
    a relationship will help to predict future romantic
    compatibility. 

As she does for so many affairs of the heart, Lorde speaks for
all of us when she sings about the intricacies of texting: “I
overthink your punctuation use,” she confesses on “The Louvre,”
maybe the best song on her new record. “Not my fault,” she adds;
it’s just something her mind does.

In one sense, it’s reassuring to think of a pop star fretting
over her iMessage in the same way that anyone who’s dated anyone
in our smartphone era may do. There is, according to both
psychological research and clinical practice, good reason for
that concern: Last week I was shocked to learn something that
later made perfect sense, when a new study in the journal ‘Computers in Human
Behavior’ found that perceived similarity in texting styles was
linked to relationship satisfaction. Among the 205 young
Americans recruited for a survey, the more someone felt that they
and their partner had symmetrical rhythms of texting — messaging
to say “hey, what’s up” and the like at similar intervals — the
better they felt about how the partnership was going.

Texting has become the way that we keep in touch:
between WhatsApp and SMS, some 77
billion messages
are sent per day globally. Texting is
weirdly intimate yet distant: like a call, it shows up right
there on your phone, which is likely on you, yet it’s also what
communications scholar call “asynchronous” — like email, you can
choose to view and reply to message at your own convenience.


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Approximately
77 billion messages are sent per day globally.


Luke
Porter/Unsplash



It’s also low in “richness”: you have body language when you’re
face-to-face, facial expressions over video messages, and tone of
voice on a call, but over text, it’s just typing and a smattering
of emoji, meaning
there’s (perilously) lots to interpret
in length of messages,
speediness of replies, and like. This quicksilver combination
means that texting in relationships can be convenient but
baffling. Especially when you just started seeing someone.

Humans are constantly sizing up one another’s behavior, and
texting is a primary one through which we start making
evaluations early in a relationship, says Katherine Hertlein, a
psychologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Did they
respond, did they not? How many texts? Did they check in?” says
Hertlein, who has a couples’ therapy practice and also studies
technology’s impact on relationships. “Once that dance has gotten
started, if you slow down to a pace where you’re comfortable,
that change is going to be interpreted as a lack of interest,”
she tells Thrive Global.

If it speeds up there might be questions around why, too: “Is
this person all of a sudden interested,” she asks, or are they
getting a little overbearing? “You have to make sure that
whatever cadence you start with is a cadence that you can be
comfortable with and that feels authentic for you in the moment,”
she says.

One of the blessings — or burdens, depending on your perspective
— of technology is that it allows for what psychologists call
“social presence,” or a feeling of closeness, from afar. Key to
this, Hertlein says, is immediacy. That’s one reason it’s easy to
get miffed at a partner who doesn’t respond promptly. “You’re
supposed to be immediate, and now you have a device that makes
you so,” she says of the logic of the aggrieved. “Couples have
problems when a partner doesn’t respond because you have now
violated the contract in the relationship.”


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Happy couples often have
similar texting styles.


Jacob
Ufkes/Unsplash



There’s good reason to believe that we treat our texts — and the
phones that contain them — like we treat our relationships in
general. Leora Trub, who runs the Digital Media and Psychology
Lab at Pace University, has sketched this out under the framework
of attachment theory, which is perhaps
psychology’s best model for understanding what’s really
driving our relationship dynamics.

In short, people learn how to love from their primary
caregivers, most often their mother, and those patterns then
transfer into their romantic relationships in adulthood.

If their mom was dismissive of their emotions as a child, they’re
liable to become disconnected from their own (and their possible partner’s)
feelings in adulthood
, in what’s called avoidant
attachment
. If they needed to act up or stay close to mom to
get the care they needed, they’re likely to bring anxious
attachment
into their grown-up relationships, meaning
they’ll be what’s tactfully called “proximity seeking” in the
literature and better known as clingy with potential partners.
And guess what: we treat our phones much the same way.

A 2015 Pew study found that 70 percent of
smartphone users surveyed thought their phone offered them
freedom, while 30 percent thought it felt like a “leash.” And in
a paper published last year, also
in ‘Computers in Human Behavior,’ Trub found
that people tend to see their phones as both a refuge — they felt
safer with it and distressed without it — and as a burden — an
obligation to communication that they carried with them wherever
they went.


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If
a person prefers to text very frequently, it might indicate
anxious attachment tendencies.


rawpixel.com/Unsplash


Respondents scoring highly on anxious attachment measures were
more likely to endorse statements like “I feel naked without my
phone” or “I need my phone with me at all times,” meaning the
phone was something of a security blanket keeping you close to the
reassurances of the social world. People high on avoidance were
more likely to agree with statements like “I feel burdened by my
phone.” It’s almost as if the phone is “this intrusive entity
that’s taking away from their capacity to enjoy things,” Trub
says. “They need to feel free of it.”

The attachment is happening with the device, as well as the
people behind them. “Am I attached to my phone because I’m
attached to the people on the other side of it? Or am I attached
to my phone for what it is?” Trub asks. “It’s a great question.
Of course, it’s a both/and question.”

This reveals something of the deeper mechanics at work for why
matching texting styles signal a more general compatibility:
someone with avoidant attachment might be alarmed by lots of
messages (hence the dangers of “double texting,” or sending consecutive texts
without a reply), while someone more proximity-seeking will be
made nervous by not getting a reply all day.

In her practice, Hertlein will see couples who have problems when
one texts the other with an urgent message, saying they want to
talk, and their partner doesn’t reply right away. “You have now
violated the contract in the relationship,” she says, expressing
that vexed viewpoint. “You didn’t respond. You’re supposed to be
immediate, and now you have a device that makes you immediately
available.”


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Making
a phone call instead of sending a text can suggest more of a
‘social presence.’


Matthew
Kane/Unsplash



Put into media studies language, the aggrieved party was in a
synchronous mode, while the other was acting more asynchronously.
Hence why texting style can be so important: “If both people have
a more asynchronous style then that would be a fit,” she says.
“And if both people have a really proximate synced up style that
would be a fit.” The opposite will sometimes come to a head in
her therapy practice: Hertlein recalls a client who would text
her husband, who was in meetings all the time, and he wouldn’t
respond.” But that wouldn’t stop her from keeping texting him
going, ‘Where are you, where are you, where are you?'” she says.
Clearly, attachment issues were getting inflamed.

To Hertlein, who’s working on a book about smartphones and
dating, all of it comes down to suiting the medium that works
with the task at hand. Asynchronous methods are better for
problem solving, she says, since they give you more time to
digest the information you’ve received from other people and
compose your thoughts. (In her practice, she’s had a couple who,
if they got into a fight, would go into separate rooms and start
writing emails to each other — she lauds that as a way of getting
the problem solving going.)

Synchronous methods, like a voice or video call, or a dedicated
couple of minutes for back and forth texting, are better for
providing support — that “social presence” of instantaneous
interaction provides a virtual shoulder to lean on.

And while you wouldn’t want to have the conversation on the first
date, Hertlein encourages couples and couples to be to articulate
what their preferred messaging style would be, given workloads,
preference for alone time, and other needs. “Part of what creates
satisfaction is when you use the technology well without knowing
you’re using it well, and part of what creates dissatisfaction is
when you don’t know what you’re doing with it,” she says. “Just
because you have a phone and you know how to navigate the phone
doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to do anything with
technology in your relationship.”

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