Texting has become one of the most popular forms of instant communication today. And because intimate partners are likely to save these messages, they form a valuable archived written history of their relationship’s “story”.
This ongoing record provides a unique opportunity for men and women to evaluate the types of text messages they send, whether or not their communication skills are helping or hindering their relationships, and the extent to which the quality of their texts synchronizes with the quality of their typical face-to-face interactions.
Most of the couples I work with haven’t yet realized the rich opportunities their archives of text messages offer for teaching them about how effectively they are — or are not — communicating with each other.
But, by using the following tool, they learn how to evaluate the state of their relationship vis-à-vis the things they’ve texted to each other in the past, as well as how to use this data to strengthen the overall intimacy and connection they share.
If you have a partner, read each item below out loud in each other’s presence.
If you are currently single, you can still get a better idea of how your text messaging style has helped or hindered you in your past relationships, and how you can use that data to things differently in the future.
Important note: The point isn’t to judge yourselves or each other, but to compare and contrast for the sake of gather information about and understanding of one another.
Here are 5 of the most common reasons texting causes problems in healthy relationships, and how to text the person you love using more effective communication skills.
1. Message length
In my discussions with couples I work with, most couples believe women are “wordier” than men, but the actual data shows that whichever gender is the most talkative depends on the subject and situation in question. Typically, women use more words when talking about personal relationships, while men use more words when talking about business, battles, or sports.
These couples also unanimously tell me that men like to hear the bottom line first, then work up to the detailed back-story (and only if necessary), whereas women like to “set the stage” before coming to a conclusion. This means women experience many men’s messages as being too short and direct, while men are likely to pay attention to only the first part of a long message.
What to do about the issue: Review as many text messages as you need to in order to evaluate whether this dynamic rings true in your relationship. Count the number of lines you or your partner use in your texts on average and how those figures change depending on the subject discussed. Ignore those that are simply about logistics like where you’re going to meet or what you might need picked up for dinner. Just pay attention to those that are important emotional interchanges.
- If you are a more typical male in a traditional male/female relationship, ask yourself how much of each long, emotional message you actually read before you respond, as well as if your responses tend to be much shorter than the messages you receive.
- If you are a more typical female in a traditional male/female duo, ask yourself if you write a lengthy back-story at the beginning of emotionally expressive texts, and how long you take before getting to the point.
2. Response time
When either partner in an intimate relationship sends out an emotional message, he or she may have a different expectation of how soon the other partner should respond. Many painful altercations arise two people have different expectations of a reasonable response time.
Again, this has a lot to do with the subject matter.
Typically, in a traditional male/female partnership, men are more often loathe to respond to an angry, complaining, or demanding text than women are, and as a result, will put off a response in hopes that partner will calm down. In response, their female partners may misunderstand that lag time as caused by men’s indifference, or as them not viewing the issue as a priority. Alternately, many men say they feel totally frustrated when their partner doesn’t respond to requests for logistical information within a reasonable period of time.
Because text messages are often sent and received at different times, they can be misinterpreted for that reason alone.
Often, the person texting has no idea what the person on the other end is doing, feeling, or thinking before that text comes in. If the person on the receiving end is rushed, pre-occupied, or upset about something completely unrelated to the text, he or she may respond differently than they would at another time.
And sometimes, arguments over response time become heated because they are actually the tip of iceberg built on deeper frustrations about availability in other areas of the relationship.
What to do about the issue: When couples have clear understandings of where their partner is, what they are doing, and there they are likely to be available to communicate, the timing of responses becomes less important. Ask yourself and your partner how you handle disappointments about expected response time to a text message.
- Do you frequently argue about how or when such responses should happen?
- Do you and your partner ask one another what your emotional receptivity and logistical availability is before you begin writing what you view as an text?
3. Misperceptions and misinterpretation
Accurate, effective, and welcomed communication is one of the core elements in any successful, healthy relationship. Because communicating is only ten percent words and ninety percent nonverbal communication in the form of facial expressions, body language, vocal intonation, rhythm, and touch, it is totally understandable that misunderstandings occur when couples rely on words by text alone rather than face-to-face connections.
Even using emojis to clue someone in to your intention doesn’t always help. People may misunderstand what the emoticon’s facial expression is meant to convey, and in some cases, the graphics may not even be delivered to the other person’s phone.
Similarly, words that are emphasized in a phrase can significantly change the meaning of a text, so the inability to hear what your partner is saying is often the culprit when it comes to misinterpretation.
For example, if you text the question, “What are you doing?”, you might be asking a casual, friendly question.
- If emphasis is placed on the act — “What are you doing?” — you might be challenging someone
- If emphasis is placed on the question — “What are you doing?” — you might be asking for a justification
- If emphasis is placed on the person — “What are you doing?” — you might be demanding a response
As another example, let’s use a word that can easily be understood to have different meanings.
If you text the phrase, “I’m so upset,” it could mean:
- “I’m incredibly agitated”
- “I’m totally psyched out”
- “I’m coming unglued”
- “I’m so worried”
And those are just four of forty-six meanings for that one word!
Additionally, the same text could mean various things depending on the emotions someone is experiencing while composing and sending a text. So if a text conveys anger or hurt, it might mean several things.
- Is that sender emotionally upset?
- Are they continuing to engage about a past conflict?
- Are they threatening to take actions?
- Are they just venting in the moment?
- Are they in need of nurturing?
- Are they truly falling apart?
If the recipient doesn’t know which of the above, if any, is corrects, he or she may misconstrue the message and worsen things, or even potentially create a non-existent issue.
When people share important emotional exchanges face-to-face, they are capable of correctly intuiting an experience within the correct context. When text messages are neither shared nor received in real time, or are sent without knowing the availability of the recipient to respond, or are sent in haste, the chances of unwanted outcomes increase exponentially.
Over the years, I’ve observed the way many couples’ shared vocabularies shrink as they rely more and more on texting and emojis as their primary means of communication.
They sacrifice the poetry of clear adjectives and carefully chosen emotional visuals in service of immediacy and convenience. What gets lost is the heart-and-soul hand-crafted messages designed to expand each other’s awareness of themselves and the other.
What to do about the issue: Ask yourself and each other if either of you unintentionally or unconsciously dumbed-down or abbreviated your communication style by texting in ways that don’t communicate as effectively as you know you can?
4. Mismatched preferences
Some people, independent of gender, are better at writing than they are at speaking. Whether they use email, direct messaging on social media like Facebook and Instagram, or texting, they simply think better when they’re not facing their partners, preferring to read over what they’ve written before finally pushing send.
Others are much better at communicating when facing their partners so they have the added benefit of non-verbal communication combined with their words. They can express their thoughts and feelings more accurately when they can see and hear their partner respond in real time. For them, texting is an inadequate method for getting across what it is they need to say.
What to do about the issue: Try reading your most recent text messages out loud to each other. Compare how your partner hears and reacts to what you said in your texts when they listen now in your presence.
5. Unconscious overloading
When intimate partners are in each other’s presence, they are more likely to be aware of nuances that cause them to pause or change the manner in which they are expressing themselves if they notice a problem.
When you’re texting, you are unable to see the effects your messages may be having, and therefore, you might keep going, not realizing the recipient may be overloaded or unable to respond effectively.
A partner experiencing this on the receiving end may choose to skim through the message, respond erratically, or focus on one random word or sentence that stands out, firing back a response to that one section, isolated from the rest of the message. In turn, the partner who sent the original text will have no idea why the return message seems so urgent, upset, or dramatic.
What to do about the issue: Look at your texts and evaluate whether or not they might be overloading your partner.
Do you allow enough time between texts to make certain your partner is getting what you mean to say by the way he or she responds?
Hopefully, sharing and discussing these issues with each other will help your text messages better convey what you want to get across.
They will also be more congruent with how you communicate when you’re in each other’s presence. The more closely these two types of communication are aligned, the less you will end up misunderstanding each other.
Intimate partners choose to communicate through texting because it’s such a convenient way to stay connected at any time and in any place.
But taking the time to understand the ways texts can influence your communication can make sure that texting actually aids and abets quality conversation, and erases the need for damage control.