Let’s be honest, texting is a seductive medium. It offers immediacy, and the promise of connection without commitment or, frankly, much consciousness. Your thumbs do the walking, and the talking. And before you know it, you’ve gone one text (or more) too far. You’re stuck misconstrued, or exposed, or both, or worse.
Texting problems can happen with anyone, anywhere. Maybe it was with a potential date (oops the ill-advised text dooms the possibility of a real life meet-up in the fickle, swipe-happy app world); or a friend (you didn’t mean to be that honest); or your spouse (why didn’t you just wait and take it up in person when you can see his eyes?). It can happen with a colleague, or a virtual stranger. You find yourself irritated and sparring stupidly because impulse control and texting are hardly chocolate and peanut butter. As easy as it is to connect by text, it can be just as easy to become disconnected. Fast.
How do our relationships—burgeoning or developed—wind up compromised by something as innocuous as texting?
Why Texting is Dangerous
Texting can be risky in relationships because it lulls people into a false sense of security. It doesn’t feel like it’s of any consequence because it can be used so casually, so thoughtlessly, but remember: it is still the written word. There’s a record. What there isn’t is inflection. And in communication, inflection is becoming a lost art.
It would be one thing if people were becoming better, clearer and more proficient writers, since they’re getting so much practice. But how many people edit their texts for content and clarity? Self-censorship is another lost art.
Now, I’m not anti-texting, or anti-technology. But I’m for recognizing the impact it has on our communication, which is at the heart of our relationships. Texting has become so integral and so automatic that we don’t even notice when it’s supplanting other valuable means of connection.
How Texting Can Jeopardize Intimacy
The downside of texting is worth considering when you’re in the early stages of dating. Sometimes people are doing more of their interacting by text than they are in person. There’s not only the false sense of security, but there’s also the false sense of intimacy. You can sit with a glass of wine (or two) and text all night, becoming increasingly confessional. You might be revealing things that you would normally wait until date five—in person—to tell someone.
There’s a reason that intimacy takes time to develop, and that it’s aided by seeing people’s expressions which let you know whether you should go on, or should stop. With texting, you’re missing all those valuable cues. You might be presuming trustworthiness where you shouldn’t.
I had a client who talked to me about her long-distance relationship with someone she’d met through an app, and it took three sessions for me to suspect, “Have you ever spoken to him?” She told me no, their relationship had entirely been by text. And within a few weeks, he was ghosting her—by text.
“This isn’t like him!” she said, as hurt as if she’d, well, really known him. She did know a version of him, but much is revealed by hearing the sincerity (or lack thereof) in someone’s voice, and even more by in-person contact, by facial expressions and mannerisms. The intimacy that can be generated is limited by the medium of contact.
People’s tolerance for intimacy is also being limited, and that’s part of why they choose texting over other forms of communication. Texting is not ideal for getting across complicated ideas, and it makes it far easier to express negative emotions without any cool-down period. People can simply stop responding to someone by text, leaving the other person feeling hurt and rejected, whereas if they were speaking on the phone or in-person, there would have to be some sort of closure.
If you find that texting is your predominant means of communicating with the people closest to you, ask why that is. Are you avoiding closeness, or conflict, or any of the messy interactions that are a necessary part of intimate relationships? Or are you able to be more confrontational by text than you would be otherwise? In that case, texting might be stunting the development of other skills, like assertiveness.
The Upside of Texting
But texting can also be a good tool for assertiveness. Some people find it difficult to express themselves when they are looking at their spouses or their friends; they tend to back down and want to appease. Texting makes them braver, and more able to express themselves, to say, “It hurt me when you did…” A follow-up conversation in person is key but sometimes it’s effective to get the ball rolling by text.
Texting is here to stay, and it has plenty of good uses and advantages. We should all ask ourselves whether our relationships are made better or worse by the substitution of texting for other means of communication. Is texting making us more connected to those we care about, or less, and in which situations? It’s just a tool, and we decide how best to use it.
Holly Brown lives with her husband and daughter in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she’s a practicing marriage and family therapist and the author of psychological thrillers that are truly psychological. Her new novel, THIS IS NOT OVER, is the story of two very different women who become embroiled in an escalating war of words (and much worse) after one stays at the other’s vacation home rental. They wish they’d read this article.