Most people today are communicating primarily via texting. Though that process can be remarkably efficient for business interactions and logistical arrangements, it is often more problematic for connection between intimate partners. The benefits of texting are the convenience and speed with which you can connect to someone that is not bound by time or location. The problems arise from the very same positives. Messages that are received and responded to hastily are not heard as they were intended.

Many of the single daters and committed partners I work with in my practice have validated that these common misinterpretations and misunderstandings are happening frequently between them, especially when their relationships are under stress. Because texts are often comprised of shortened and coded messages, they have too often replaced the romantic poetry that only carefully chosen words can convey. Without context or face-to-face shared simultaneous experiences, rapidly delivered messages communicated by texting make it too easy for both sender and receiver to mistake what emotions or thoughts are behind the words, even with emoji’s and pictures accompanying them.

When people are together in real time, spoken words and gestures are far more likely to be understood because they are being shared within a similar context and environment. So many factors affect that context. Culture, age, gender, history, biases, anxieties, religious beliefs, philosophies, vulnerabilities, or prior meanings, can all alter even the meaning of one spoken word. The more people have shared those experiences, the better they can discern what each means to the other in those moments. When people grew up in the same town, knew the same people for all of their lives, attended the same church, and learned the same attitudes towards life, they had a reasonable chance of correctly interpreting what each person’s words meant. In the dating world today, people often have little or no access to these historical cues, but may believe they understand. They are forced to using whatever words or phrases would personally mean to them, too often making inaccurate assumptions.

For example, it may be culturally typical for one partner to become passionately responsive to a verbal or physical expression that the other sees as inappropriately explosive. Or, a sexual cue that is obvious in some social circles may be seen as violating or crude in another. In some families, holding one’s emotions in check is considered a virtue, while in others it may be thought of as an impediment to authentic communication. If one person feels that direct eye contact is part of intimate communication and the other feels violated by that focus, the connection can damage the interaction and, repeated, potentially scar the relationship.

Even when emojis and pictures accompany the words, they are not always helpful and can also be hurtful. What a specific cartoon expression means to one partner may mean something very different to another. When I’m facing a patient in distress, I may see dozens of expressions cross their face within seconds. There is not enough space for the amount of emojis that would be necessary to convey what is obvious when one is witnessed. Also, in real time, intimate partners can look at each other’s faces, hear the sound of their voices, touch them in ways that speech cannot, adjust to each other’s rhythms, and notice subtle changes in body language.

For instance, is the recipient likely to be in a receptive mood? Does he or she have privacy and time to accurately understand the message? Is it a convenient time for the message to be received? Some of my patients, for example, have had their phones go off when they are being intimate with a different partner. Or, a painful or urgent message delivered while the recipient is in an important business meeting may have a delayed response, leading the sender to feel abandoned and anxious until that message is returned. Every couple I know has their own multiple examples of these communication mishaps.

Given that texting and instant messaging are here to say, what can be done to bring depth, meaning, and consensual reality back into important intimate communication via these channels? Here are some of the guidelines I share with my patients.

1) It may seem so obvious, but it is a good idea to text someone first to find out where that person is geographically, emotionally, availability-wise, alone or with others, preoccupied with a higher priority, or just not in the mood to respond. A simple, “You available?” can make a huge difference in the text exchanges that follow.

2) Start your text with some easy clues. “This is important.” “I’m in trouble.” “I’m just missing you.” “I’m wondering how you feel about last night?” “I just had a fight with my boss and need to talk.” Then wait until you get a response before you launch into the core of your text. It tells your partner a little of what you need.

3) Keep your texts more similar to conversation. That means text just enough for the person to be able to internalize it, think about it, and answer you, as if you were together. After each text, tell the person what you think he or she said and how you feel about it before you respond. Make sure that what you said is what the other person heard and vice versa. The rules of great communication apply whether texting or in person.

4) Most words have many meanings and are often not heard as they are meant. Just one simple example can illustrate. Take the word “upset.” There are forty-eight synonyms and twenty-four antonyms for that one word. If you text someone, “I’m so upset,” how will your partner know exactly what you mean unless you are more exact? You could be just a bit unhappy about something or you could be totally distressed. Every word can be perceived differently than it is intended and, without context or explanation, can affect one partner very differently than the other.

5) Please, slow down. Make a promise to yourself and your partner to carefully read and think about your responses before you instantly text back. When I’m with someone and he or she receives an important text, all concentration on what we were saying or doing diminishes. Even if both of us try, we just can’t effectively continue our present conversation until that text is read and handled. Sometimes that takes only a minute to handle it. But, at other times, the text is more meaningful and commands a thoughtful and immediate response. I’m certain that is a common conflict in most relationships if the person texted is preoccupied when they receive the message.

6) When you and your partner reconnect after being apart, read some of the text messages you sent each other during your absence. Double check to see if there were any misunderstandings or mis-assumptions. You are likely to be surprised at the differences between what was said, meant, and experienced, even when you thought your communications were accurate. If you practice this often enough, you’ll get closer to experiencing the same thing at the same time, even when you’re not together.

7) Most important, make it a commitment to each other to use more adjectives, metaphors, and examples in your important texts. Because typing words into a machine takes more time than speaking them, most people use shortcuts and abbreviated cues to get their messages out as quickly as they can. As a result, many messages lack depth and clarity. I can actually see the difference in the way my couples interact after they have done a lot of compromised texting. When they are together in session with me, they continue to talk in the same manner as they text, limiting the way they once used words and phrases to share their inner thoughts and emotions. Though they may still believe that they have a deeper connection, it is clear that they are not exchanging their thoughts and feelings as they might once have when love was new.

It appears that words and phrases out of context, spoken without adequate reference points, are here to stay. Until technology is able to connect our minds to each other in some kind of shared extra-sensory perception, we would do well to make sure we’re actually hearing what is true.

Things are bound to change in the future. It can’t be long before technology will allow us to “read” the true emotions, thoughts, and feelings that our partners are experiencing. If we don’t “get” the other person correctly and immediately, we’ll feel a cozy vibration or hear a small beep that tells us we’re off target. For certain, there will someday soon be apps that can help us practice saying what we really mean and letting us know whether what we said came across as it was intended.

Until then, if we really want to communicate our intended thoughts and feelings accurately and effectively, we’ll need to put more energy into the process. It may seem like a daunting task but my patients tell me that the results are totally worth it. They also tell me that these skills also transfer to other relationships, improving them as well.

It only takes a few minutes to make your text messages more representative of who you really are and what you truly feel towards your partner. If you decide to try it, please feel free to comment on how it works for you.

Dr. Randi’s free advice e-newsletter, Heroic Love, shows you how to avoid the common pitfalls that keep people from finding and keeping romantic love.  Based on over 100,000 face-to-face hours counseling singles and couples over her 40-year career, you’ll learn how to zero in on the right partner, avoid the dreaded “honeymoon is over” phenomenon, and make sure your relationship never gets boring.  www.heroiclove.com 

You are reading

Rediscovering Love

Pull In-Push Away Intimacy

Learn about your partner’s definitions of intimacy.

En Guarde—How Defensiveness Can Destroy Love

The six most common defensive behaviors

10 True Gifts of Love

Can we do anything now to turn things around?