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Reading Between the Lines of Your Partner's Texting

You can learn a great deal about someone from his or her approach to texting.

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A recent study by psychologists at the University of North Carolina surveyed young men and women who identified themselves as being in a romantic relationship. The team recruited 395 students—175 male and 220 female—with an average age of just over 19. The participants had been in the relationship they described for an average of 15 months.

First, the researchers wanted to get a picture of exactly how these partners communicated, so they asked about their texting habits with each other, as well as how often they communicated by phone, email, Internet chat, Skype, and actual face-to-face conversation.

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The first finding of significance was the variation in how much partners relied on texting versus other ways of communicating. While some partners virtually never communicated via text, others sent as many as 500 texts a day to their partner, which accounted for more than 90% of their communication.

A second important finding was that as texting increased, other forms of communication decreased. This ran counter to what is called the “stimulation hypothesis,” which would predict that as texting increased other means of communication would as well. The opposite turned out to be true: Texting appears to have the effect, for most couples, of replacing other forms of communication.

When the researchers asked these couples how satisfied they were, overall, with their relationship, they discovered was that to the extent that more texting was the dominant form of communication in a romantic relationship, the less satisfied the couple was. Texting proved to be the preferred mode of communication when were less committed to the relationship.

The Role of Childhood Attachment

The next thing the researchers were interested in was something called attachment style, and how it related to the role texting plays in relationships. Attachment theory has a long history in developmental and clinical psychology. It is most closely associated with the work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, who collaborated at England's Tavistock Clinic. Ainsworth was noted for having developed something called the strange situation procedure, in which a young child’s behavior would be observed in a variety of situations. For example, the child might first be in a room with its mother; then a stranger might enter the room; then the mother might leave. And so on. What emerged from the research was a sense of how children “attached” to their mothers.

What was called secure attachment, for example, was associated with a child being mildly anxious when its mother left the room, and avoidant of the stranger when alone but friendly when mother was present. In contrast, two forms of what Ainsworth regarded as dysfunctional attachment were identified—excessive distress when the mother was absent; and its opposite, no distress at all when the mother leaves. The former was labeled insecure attachment, the latter avoidant attachment.

Why It Matters to Texting

Clinical psychologists later applied these findings to adults. Indeed, researchers have since developed mechanisms that allow us to identify and measure adult attachment styles. One such measure was developed by Kim Bartholomew and reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. For the texting-in-relationships study, researchers used a similar scale to place participants in one of three categories:

  • Secure attachment style. These people have a healthy self-image. They are neither overly insecure nor narcissistic. They feel that they are lovable. They are able to enter into committed relationships and do not require excessive reassurance that they are loved.
  • Insecure attachment style. These people seek frequent reassurance that they are loved; are highly conflict avoidant; are prone to feel inferior; and often experience anxiety when separated from a partner.
  • Avoidant attachment style. These people value independence, prefer to maintain some emotional distance, and usually seek to be in control in a relationship.

In the study, young men and women whose personality placed them into either the insecure or avoidant attachment styles texted texting significantly more with partners than those with secure attachment styles. The researchers propose two explanations for their findings:

  1. Men and women who are more avoidant are uncomfortable with emotional intimacy. They are less likely to both seek and offer emotional support. Given that attachment style, texting provides a way for them to maintain some distance in relationships and to control how much communication takes place.
  2. Insecure individuals may also turn to texting frequently, but for different reasons. They are, the authors suggest, more or less constantly bothered by vague fears of abandonment; consequently they have a strong desire to keep partners close. While texting may be less intimate and emotionally satisfying than face-to-face contact, it may serve to reduce the insecure individual’s anxiety.

Lessons Learned

There are some important lessons to can be culled from this groundbreaking research into texting, romance, and intimacy.

Here is some food for thought:

  • Are you satisfied with the role that texting, as opposed to other forms of communication, plays in your romantic relationship? If you had your choice, would you prefer that you or your partner texted less or more often, or would you keep things the way they are?
  • How committed do you feel in your relationship? Do you believe that one of you is more committed than the other? Does the extent to which texting is the primary way you communicate with one another reflect in some way how committed you or your partner feels about your relationship?
  • Do you ever get the sense that your partner uses texting as a way of maintaining some emotional distance between you? In other words, are there are other, more direct forms of communication that you—but not necessarily your partner—would prefer?
  • Do you have any sense that you or your partner rely on texting, perhaps to excess, because one or both of you is insecure and uses texting to ease your anxiety?

Based on your answers to the above, you might consider altering the way you and your partner communicate to shift texting into a context you feel more comfortable with. In other words, you have a choice: Take control of texting, or let it control your relationship.

Issues of avoidance (emotional distance) and insecurity (anxiety) will be more complicated if partners are mismatched with respect to attachment styles. It can also become an issue when one partner is essentially a secure individual but his or her partner is not. In that case relying on texting to excess can be a tip-off that you may want to look beyond the habit itself and into what personal issues may lie behind it.

 

Joseph Nowinski’s new book, Hard to Love: Understanding and Overcoming Male Borderline Personality Disorder, is available at Amazon.com.

@2014 by Joseph Nowinski

Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D., is the supervising psychologist at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

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