In the good-old days, dating was defined by a series of face-to-face encounters. People met, they spent time in each other’s company, they got to know each others’ friends and family, and they evaluated the quality of their connection and their overall compatibility in person. Sure, they talked on the phone or maybe sent the occasional letter, but the core of their relationship centered on face-to-face interactions.
A subtle shift seems to be occurring in today’s dating relationships and it warrants our attention. The technology that once supplemented relationship development is now, it seems, taking on a larger role in the relationship formation and maintenance process. What is this role? How healthy is a reliance on technology for the creation and sustainment ofromantic relationships?
The Rise of Texting
For many people, texting is a major source of relationship communication. Individuals 17-25 years of age tend to text message their romantic interests more than older individuals do (Coyne, Stockdale, Busby, Iverson, & Grant, 2011). In one sample, over 90% reported texting to connect with their partners at least once a day (Schade, Sandberg, Bean, Busby, & Coyne, 2013). These habits may form early:teenagers (ages 13-18) report an impressively high rate of text-based communications with their boyfriends and girlfriends, with roughly 20% of dating teens texting their dating partner at least 30 times per hour in the after-school hours, the early evening, and/or the late evening (10-midnight; Teenage Research Unlimited, 2007). For Millennials, who comprise the now- and next-generation of men and women navigating the dating game, texting is a socially-acceptable way to flirt, check-in, ask questions, gossip, make plans, or otherwise connect with potential or current romantic partners.
In addition to younger people, people in newer relationships (less than one year) also tend use technology like texting with greater frequency than people in more established relationships (Coyne et al., 2011). Is texting simply supplementing regular face-to-face conversations? Or, is texting strategic, having its own advantages and consequences? Understanding why people use texting is a first step to considering its role in healthy relationship development.
The Texting Advantage
Texting removes some of the barriers that make face-to-face conversations, or even phone calls, tricky to navigate. Applying Walther’s (1996) hyperpersonal model to text messaging reveals three key advantages. First, texting does not require spontaneous wit; texters have some time to think and carefully craft clever messages. Second, text messages are void of nonverbal signals, allowing texters to communicate the message they wish to send without concern that unintended nonverbal signals (e.g., sweaty hands; shaky voice) are polluting their message. Finally, text messaging is easy, but in-person conversations can be complex. Some people find it complicated to manage the simultaneous demands of an in-person conversation (e.g., saying hello while deciding whether to hug, kiss or just shake someone’s hand, smiling, maintaining good eye contact, and not spilling one’s drink), preferring instead to text. Texting helps those who are nervous or those who have fewer interpersonal skills avoid potentially socially-awkward encounters. Flirting can be tremendously awkward, why not text to make it a bit easier?
Texting not only helps the nervous and socially-awkward, it can also help the status-uncertain. Testing the waters (“does she like me? Is he interested?”) is much easier through an electronic medium; its casual approach helps protect individuals from rejection. Texting can be a safe way to figure out if someone is interested.
In fact, texting usually begins very early in relationships. Fox and Warber (2013) mapped out the typical sequence for today’s dating relationships. First, two people meet in person and then they check out each other’s Facebook profiles and become Facebook friends. Next, one requests the other’s phone number and they begin texting. Texting continues and at some point one invites the other to a social events in a group setting; at this point they might engage in Facebook messaging as well. Eventually, a phone call and/or in person date will be arranged (Fox & Warber, 2013). Texting is used early and often in dating relationships, and while it might be easier, it does have its downsides.
Frustrations with Texting
Once texting begins, it might not stop. The more texts people receive, the more they feel obligated to text back, creating a cycle of mobile relationship maintenance (Hall & Baym, 2012). This can be a healthy pattern if it creates a balanced sense of connection and dependence, but if instead individuals begin to feel an overdependence, such that the texting is preventing them from other activities (e.g., seeing each other in person; attending to other relationships; completing responsibilities), the outcome is dissatisfaction (Hall & Baym, 2012).
Further, texting is often fraught with confusion. Without non-verbal signals, messages can be misinterpreted or misconstrued leading to uncertainty. (“He just texted, “Hi.” What does that mean?”) Further, because the communication is not face-to-face, it adds a psychological distance that allows for words to be said that might be hard to say in person. Maybe this is why texting is often used by people in newer relationships to broach difficult topics, to intentionally hurt their partners, or to apologize (Coyne et al., 2011). The distance that texting offers may make it easier to say what one may not wish to say in person.
In fact, about a fifth of people (according to one sample; Weisskirch & Delevi, 2012), have received the dreaded break-up text. This is despite the fact that people think this is an unacceptable and inappropriate way to break-up with people. People who receive these texts more and send these texts more tend to have greater attachment anxiety, meaning they tend to have a deep-seated fear of rejection and abandonment, and a low sense of self-worth (Weisskirch & Delevi, 2012). While technology makes it easier to avoid having difficult face-to-face conversations, those conversations are often worth having in person, despite the discomfort they can bring. If nothing else, they are growth opportunities and adhere better to the social expectations for how a break-up should occur.
Texting and Relationship Well-being
In the end, is it healthy to text? Certain patterns suggest that relationship satisfaction and stability are linked to texting. In heterosexual relationships, women who text more frequently tend to feel happier in their relationships and their partners do as well (Schade et al., 2013). Interestingly, the more men text, the less happy they tend to be, the less happy their romantic partners tend to be, and the more their partners tend to have considered breaking-up with them (Schade et al., 2013). These relations are a bit complex, as men who text to express affection tend to have partners who feel more attached to them. For both men and women, the more they use texting to hurt the other (e.g., making themjealousy; expressing anger) the less attached their romantic partner.