It's still the stuff of bad sitcoms, and an offense that will gift its victim an automatic round of tequila shots from a sympathetic audience-- ending a romantic relationship by text message. But as much as it is universally regarded as an insensitive move, it appears, in my practice at least, to be growing more frequent all the time. Convinced that your relationship would never succumb to such an ignoble ending? Don't be so sure. Here are a few characteristics that broken-by-a-measly-text-message relationships seem to have in common:
1) You've had intense or emotional discussions by text before. For some couples, revealing that difficult aspect of your past, or asserting yourself about the fact that he needs to stop being so rude to your dog, is easier when brought up over pixels, rather than in person. And certainly, this can help some important conversations get started that never might have been brought up otherwise. But couples that have gotten into patterns of having tough discussions over text, rather than in person or by phone, may start to lean on texting as a crutch. If texts have been the mode of communication all throughout a fight or rocky patch, it might even seem unnecessarily jarring to suddenly announce "It's not you, it's me" over a cappucino.
2) You text more often than you talk on the phone. A relationship need not even be long distance for texting to become the norm in communication. And every year across the U.S., the number of text messages sent increases dramatically while the number of minutes spent on the phone decreases. This means there are an awful lot of romantic partners who are more used to their partner's spelling idiosyncracies (it's "definite," not "definate!") than the sound of their voice. Believing that your mate would automatically call to end a relationship when you haven't actually talked on the phone since Arbor Day is an increasingly unrealistic expectation.
3) Even when together, you've gotten into a pattern of retreating to your devices when you feel you have nothing to say to each other. Sitting side by side while you're enveloped in your own worlds is not necessarily a new phenomenon; the stereotype of the newspaper-devouring businessman or the romance-novel-obsessed housewife dates back decades. But whipping out your smartphone at every lull in conversation-- or even during conversation itself-- can become so habitual that you don't even notice it anymore. And the more that the phone feels like an appendage-- an extension of your actual being-- the more it feels like a true representation of yourself, and the less likely you (or your mate!) are to stop yourself from using it as the conduit of an ending of a relationship.
4) You tend to respond to text messages as soon as they come in, even when you're spending time with your significant other. One of the originally-conceived problems with the breakup text message is that it seems so flighty, so superficial-- it could perhaps be missed or ignored, leaving the person being dumped ignorant of the fact that their relationship is over. Not so anymore, as the ding of the text message can often send someone flying across the room (if they dared be separated from their phone in the first place.) Sometimes, people may even think that the only way to get their partner's attention is to text them. Suddenly, it's not so wild an idea that they'd send the worst of all messages by smartphone.
5) Your significant other sometimes articulates himself or herself better by text message. Like a Cyrano de Bergerac for the Internet age, the smartphone or the laptop can sometimes help crystallize people's swirling thoughts into more coherent soundbytes. As hard as this is to believe with what passes for grammar on phones (your Aunt Freida would be horrified, kwim?) there are some people who simply compose themselves better when they've got technology as their conduit. While a soon-to-be-ex might be horribly intimidated to string his breakup speech into an oratory (at what point should he make eye contact? What should he do with his hands?), he might find it all too comfortable to let his fingers to the talking, as they've done so many times before.
6) Your significant other is uncomfortable with displays of emotion or conflict. Breakup conversations, by their very nature, can be awkward, conflictual and sad. There could be everything from angry teeth-gnashing to screaming to eyes and noses that are erupting like Vesuvius. If your partner has always seemed to shy away from any displays of emotion-- yours or theirs-- then there's an increasing chance they'll take any opportunity to shield themselves from it in your final conversation as a couple. It might not be sensitive, but the path of least resistance, paved so easily by a shiny smartphone, can be irresistably attractive.
Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is the author of The Friendship Fix: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Losing, and Keeping Up with Your Friends and the Washington Post Express's long-time advice column Baggage Check.