Psychologists Explain Why Texting In Relationships Is So Amazingly Complicated
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 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: a call, it shows up right there on your phone, which is ly on you, yet it’s also what communications scholar call “asynchronous”— email, you can choose to view and reply to message at your own convenience.
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 . 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.”
There’s good reason to believe that we treat our texts—and the phones that contain them— 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 ly 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 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.
Respondents scoring highly on anxious attachment measures were more ly to endorse statements “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 ly to agree with statements “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.” 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, 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.”
Texting Do’s and Don’ts in Relationships
Written by Writer’s Corps member Cara Mackler
We’ve all been there: we get that text that says “k” and enter into a full-blown panic. Why does this one letter give us so much anxiety? That letter, especially paired with the abrupt punctuation, says more than an entire paragraph. It is the universal code for ‘pissed
Seven Ways Texting Defines Your Relationship
Texting has become the most prominent form of instant communication. Because intimate partners are ly to save these messages, they form a valuable, archived, written history of a relationship’s “story.”
This ongoing “relationship novel” provides a unique opportunity for partners to evaluate how texting may be helping or hindering the way they communicate. It can also help them to see if their texting synchronizes with their face-to-face relationship.
Most of my couples haven’t realized the opportunities that their text archives offer to teach them about how well they are actually communicating with each other.
Using the following criteria, they could not only evaluate their relationship vis-a-vis the things they have texted in the past, but also better understand how they use that data to improve their relationship connections in the future.
If you have a partner, read the seven criteria 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 your past relationships and how you can use that data in the future.
1. Do Men and Women Read Texts Differently?
Most of my patients believe that females are “wordier” than males. The actual data shows that whichever gender is the most talkative actually depends on the subject being shared.
Most often, women do use more words when talking about relationships, and men when talking about business, battle, or sports.
They also unanimously tell me that men to hear the bottom line first and work up to the backstory details only if they need them, and that women to “set the stage” before coming to the conclusion.
If that is indeed true, then women are ly to experience many men as too laconic and direct, and men are more ly to hear or read only the first part of a long message.
Though those assumptions have understandable exceptions, most of the literally hundreds of patients I’ve explored these thoughts with over my 40-plus years' career do agree on them.
So, do your text messages bear that out as well?
Go back over as many text messages as you need to evaluate this. Count the amount of lines you or your partner use on average to send a text and how those figures change depending on the subject discussed. Ignore those that are simply logistics, 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 a long, emotional text message you actually read from your female partner before you respond, and if your responses are typically shorter than the message you receive. If you are a more typical female in a traditional male/female duo, do you take time at the beginning of your emotionally expressive text to create a backstory before you get to the point?
The point here is not to judge, but to compare and contrast, just for information and understanding.
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. I’ve witnessed many painful altercations between partners when their expectation of response time is different.
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 their partner will “calm down” before an altercation is necessary.
Their female partners may misunderstand that lag time as indifference or a lack
of priority. Alternately, many men have told me that they are totally frustrated when their partners do not respond to logistical requests within a reasonable period of time.
When couples have clear understandings of when and where they are more ly to be available, the timing of the response becomes less important. Sometimes, arguments over response time may actually be the tip of icebergs that reflect a deeper frustration about availability in other areas of the relationship.
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 those priorities should happen?
Accurate, effective, and welcomed communication is one of the core elements in any successful relationship. Because communicating is only 10 percent words and 90 percent facial expression, body language, voice intonation, rhythm, and touch, it is totally understandable that misunderstandings have mushroomed when relationship partners rely on words alone rather than face-to-face connections.
Even emojis don’t always help, because people can misunderstand what that facial expression is meant to convey.
In January of 2016, I posted an article on Psychology Today entitled “Text Alert – Is Your Intimate Communication Inadequate?” I invite you to read that article for a more expanded view on this subject.
4. How Words Alone Can Be Easily Misinterpreted
The words that are emphasized in a phrase can significantly change the meaning of that phrase — and the absence of voice intonation is the culprit.
Here is an example. Let’s change the emphasis on just one word in the following phrase as it might be interpreted differently by the recipient.
The texted phrase: “What are you doing?”
“What are you doing?” Emphasis is on the act.
“What are you doing?” Emphasis is heard as challenge.
“What are you doing?” Emphasis is on the person.
“What are you doing?” Emphasis could be asking for justification.
Okay. Now let’s add another complication, and change the possible definition of just one word and see how easily it can be misunderstood:
The texted phrase “I’m so upset” 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 46 meanings for just the word “upset.”
One more to add to the mix. What emotions is the texter feeling when sending the text? If the text conveys an angry or hurt message, it can mean many things.
Is that sender emotionally upset, continuing a past conflict, ready to follow with more threats or actions, just venting in the moment, needing nurturing, or truly falling apart? If the recipient doesn’t know, he or she may feel very differently than the sender as its read.
When people are face-to-face sharing important emotional exchanges, they are much more able to intuit a current experience and put it into its correct context. When messages are not shared in real time, are offered without knowing the availability of the recipient, and often hastily sent, the chances of unwanted outcomes mushroom.
I have known many patients over a long period of time and have watched their vocabularies shrink as they relied more and more on texting and emojis to communicate.
They have sacrificed the poetry of clear adjectives and carefully chosen emotional visuals in service of immediacy and convenience.
What has been lost are the heart-and-soul hand-crafted messages designed to expand each other’s awareness of themselves and the other.
Have either of you unintentionally or unconsciously “dumbed down” or abbreviated your communication style by texting in ways that do not communicate the best you can?
5. When Text Messages Are Different From Face-to-Face Interactions
Some people, independent of gender, are better at writing than they are at speaking. Whether they use email, instant messenger, or texting, they can think better when they are not facing their partners, preferring to read what they’ve written before they push that send button.
Others are much better communicating when facing their partners, so that they can add their nonverbal communication to their words. They believe that their thoughts and feelings come across much more effectively when they can see their partner’s responses in real time. They feel that texting is too inadequate to get across what they need to say.
Try reading your text messages of the day out loud to each other when you are together. Compare how your partner heard and reacted to what you said in your texts to what he or she would have if you were in each other’s presence.
6. Staggered Connections
Because text messages are often sent and received at different times, they can be misinterpreted by that process alone. Unless there is an agreement beforehand, a person texting has no idea what the person on the other end is doing, feeling, or thinking before that text comes in.
If that person is rushed, preoccupied, or upset about something that may be unrelated in any way to the texter, he or she may respond to the text differently than at another time.
The time lapse between getting the message and responding can result in a total change in mood or availability, which in turn changes the causality or intensity of what the recipient expects or needs in the return text.
Do you and your partner ask one another what your emotional receptivity is before you begin the body of your text?
7. Unconscious Overloading
When intimate partners are in each other’s presence, they are more ly to be aware of nuances that change the way they continue expressing themselves. If texting, those same partners are unable to see the effects of the text message on the other. He or she might keep going, not realizing that the recipient may be overloaded and unable to respond effectively.
A partner experiencing that overload via text may just skim through the message, respond erratically, or focus on a word or sentence that stands out and fire back a response that is isolated from the rest of the text. The texter may have no idea why the return message is urgent or dramatic.
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 you partner is getting what you mean to say by the way he or she responds?
* * * * *
Hopefully, sharing and discussing these seven criteria with your partner will help your text messages convey what you want to get across, and will be more congruent with how you communicate when you’re in each other’s presence. The closer you are aligned, the less you will end up misunderstanding each other.
Intimate partners choose to communicate through texting because it is such a convenient way to stay connected at any time and in any place. Understanding the above criteria can make sure that texting actually aids and abets quality communication and erases the need for damage control.
How to Text in a Healthy Way
We've all heard the saying, “a watched clock never moves.” But, a more accurate statement might be, “a watched smartphone never pings.
” Seriously, there is nothing more anxiety-provoking than being “left on read” when you text someone—unless maybe it's seeing the text bubble that someone is typing and then never actually get a response.
In fact, countless studies have shown that texting can create a great deal of anxiety.
Research also suggests that texting has the power to both help and hinder your relationships. Whether you use texting to keep in touch or you use it to avoid difficult situations, texting is both a good thing and a bad thing. In other words, texting has the power to bring people closer together or to create distance depending on the underlying motivations of the people doing the texting.
When it comes to relationships, researchers have discovered that it's not how often people text one another that matters, but how “text compatible” they are.
Scientists also have discovered that aside from being a functional way to communicate, texting allows people to escape their present situation. People text because they are bored or because they feel it's a better way to express themselves rather than talking on the phone or in person.
But, there's a risk that texting could become a crutch too. And, when this happens it becomes a barrier to creating meaningful relationships with other people. Additionally, texting frequently can come from a place of loneliness, which only exacerbates the issue by further alienating and isolating the texter.
As mentioned previously, texting has the power to be a good thing. But, issues crop up when it becomes your main mode of communication. Too many times there is a lot of miscommunication that takes place. When this happens, it can alter the entire course of the relationship. Here are some ways in which texting impacts relationships.
Texting a compliment, a funny meme, or a positive comment, will make the person on the other end feel closer to you and more satisfied with the relationship. Consequently, be sure you're regularly sending encouraging notes to your partner and limiting texts about picking up milk and other mundane tasks.
Anytime one partner texts the other excessively, this is a warning sign. For instance, texting non-stop could indicate that one partner is clingy and needy and feeling insecure in the relationship.
While this is usually only harmful to the person doing the excessive texting, it can be smothering to the person on the receiving end.
Additionally, you want to link yourself with someone who is secure and doesn't need you to give them worth or meaning.
Other times, excessive texting is an early warning sign of digital dating abuse. Excessive texting—especially when it involves demanding to know where someone is, who they are with, and what they are doing—is controlling and abusive.
If you're in a relationship with someone who texts excessively or aggressively, you may want to distance yourself from them.
While you might think that sending sexy messages, nude photos, or sexts in a relationship helps spice it up and keep things interesting, research has shown that relationships involving excessive sexting usually experience more conflict.
Partners also were more ly to be ambivalent about the relationship's long-term potential and report lower levels of commitment and attachment. A sexy picture or note every now and then is totally fine if it's consensually sent and received; but avoid sending these types of messages in excess. In-person intimacy is always a better option.
People are constantly sizing up one another's behavior, and texting is a primary way in which people begin making evaluations about the relationship early on. When you just start seeing someone, their texting habits can be both intriguing and baffling at the same time. Here are some common mistakes people make when texting in relationships.
If there's a problem in the relationship, you should never try to resolve it through text messaging. Texting is not a conflict resolution tool. Instead, arrange a time to talk to one another in person.
By doing so, you'll have a much more meaningful conversation because you can see each other's expressions and hear each other's tone of voice.
These things are vital parts of healthy communication.
When using text messages to communicate about sensitive issues, it's risky that things will be misinterpreted.
One or two questions shows that you have interest in a person. But asking too many questions can start to feel an interrogation. And when this happens, the person on the receiving end can start to feel defensive. Limit your questions to just one or two. There will be plenty of time to ask questions in person as the relationship progresses.
Generally speaking, your texts shouldn't be too long. Ideally, you want to keep their length to about that of a tweet. Sending long texts can be annoying to the people on the receiving end, especially if they're busy at work or trying to complete a project.
That being said, there are circumstances in which more in-depth conversations can be had over text. Just make sure you aren't relying on text messaging as your primary form of communication.
Not texting when you're angry should go without saying. Yet, many people still make this mistake. If you're angry or you just had a disagreement, put your phone down.
Not only will you probably regret what you type, but there's also no way your text is going to be interpreted the way you want it to be.
So, take some time to cool off and then speak to one another in person to resolve the issue.
When it comes to texting friends and partners, it's important to be respectful of their schedules. Refrain from sending text messages super early in the morning or late at night. While many people keep their phones on silent while they sleep, it's more considerate to wait until regular hours to send someone a text.
It's your “texting compatibility” that actually predicts relationship satisfaction. In other words, when both partners approach texting in the same way, they make for a happier couple.
Not surprisingly, text messages from someone who texts at the same rate and pace you do will be welcomed in your inbox. But if you're partnered with someone who texts too much, or even too little, you'll eventually become annoyed. Here are three telltale signs that you and your partner are text compatible.
It doesn't matter whether you type long paragraphs to one another or you type a few short sentences, as long as they are roughly the same, you are compatible. Meanwhile, there's nothing worse than pouring your heart out in text and only getting a one or two-word reply in response. wise, if you prefer short text messages, receiving a long text can be annoying.
In the beginning stages of a relationship, couples are hyper-aware of who initiates each text. So, as the relationship progresses, if one person initiates all the contact it signals that there's some texting incompatibility present. Ideally, both partners are initiating contact with equal frequency. It's when they are unbalanced that there's a problem.
This type of texting is equivalent to small talk. You text each other just to say hello or to check-in. Or, maybe you text one another funny memes or links to interesting articles. When this type of texting occurs in a relationship, it's actually a positive sign and a good indicator of overall relationship satisfaction.
If you're frequently disappointed in the way your partner responds to you via text, then take some time to talk about it.
Although discussing your concerns won't necessarily bring about changes, you'll at least gain a better understanding of where your partner is coming from.
This way, the next time you get a text that irritates you, you'll understand the motivation behind it and not take it too personally.
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