New research finds real benefits but also crucial red flags.
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 other’s friends and family, and they evaluated the quality of their connection and 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. Technology that once supplemented relationship development is now, it seems, taking on a larger role in relationship formation and maintenance. What is this role, and how healthy is a reliance on technology for the creation and sustainment of romantic relationships?
The Rise of Texting
For many people, texting is a major source of relationship communication. People age 17 to 25 tend to text their romantic interests more than older individuals do (Coyne, Stockdale, Busby, Iverson, & Grant, 2011). In one sample, over 90 percent reported texting to connect with a partner at least once a day (Schade, Sandberg, Bean, Busby, & Coyne, 2013).
These habits form early. Teenagers report an impressively high rate of text-based communications with their boyfriends and girlfriends, with roughly 20 percent of teens who date texting their dating partner 30 times per hour or more during after-school hours or the early or late evening (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. People of all ages in newer relationships (less than one year old) also tend to text with greater frequency than people in more established relationships (Coyne et al., 2011).
Does texting simply supplement regular face-to-face conversations, or is it strategic, with its own advantages and consequences? Understanding why people text their partners is a first step to considering its role in healthy relationship development.
The Texting Advantage
Texting removes some of the barriers that can 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:
- Texting does not require spontaneous wit; texters have some time to think and carefully craft clever messages.
- Text messages are void of nonverbal signals, allowing texters to communicate the message they wish to send without concern that unintended nonverbal signals (sweaty hands, shaky voice, etc.) are polluting their message.
- Texting is easy; in-person conversations can be complex.
- Some people find it complicated to manage the simultaneous demands of an in-person conversation (saying hello while deciding whether to hug, kiss or just shake hands; maintaining a smile and eye contact; not spilling one’s drink) and understandably prefer to text. Texting does help those who are nervous, or who have shakier interpersonal skills, avoid potentially stressful encounters. We know 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 benefit the status-uncertain. Testing the waters (Does she like me? Is he interested?) is easier in an electronic medium; the casual approach helps shield individuals from rejection. It 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 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 until at some point one invites the other to a social event in a group setting; at this point they might begin engaging in Facebook messaging as well.
Eventually, a phone call or in-person date will be arranged (Fox & Warber, 2013).
Frustrations with Texting
Texting is used early and often in dating relationships, and while it might be easier, it does have downsides:
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—like attending to other relationships; meeting academic or career responsibilities, or even seeing each other in person—the outcome is dissatisfaction (Hall & Baym, 2012).
Texting is often fraught with confusion. Without our non-verbal signals, messages can be misinterpreted or misconstrued, leading to uncertainty and anxiety. (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 a partner, 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 one in five texters say they have received the dreaded “breakup text,” according to one sample (Weisskirch & Delevi, 2012). This despite the fact that most people think this is an unacceptable and inappropriate way to end a relationship. People who send (and receive) these texts tend to have greater attachment anxiety, meaning they may have a deep-seated fear of rejection and abandonment, as well as 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 breakup 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, though, the more men text with a partner, the less happy they tend to be, the less happy their romantic partners tend to be, and the more their partners tend to report considering breaking-up with them (Schade et al., 2013). These relations are 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 a partner (inciting jealousy, expressing anger, etc.) the less attached their romantic partner.
Whether a relationship is just beginning or well-established, having clear rules or norms for how texting will occur may prevent some of the frustrations that technology can introduce into the mix. Evidence suggests that satisfaction with how people use their phones within the relationship and relationship satisfaction itself are related (Miller-Ott, Kelly, & Duran, 2012).