Textual Relationships, Explained
A research-based guide to text messaging relationships.
Posted Dec 06, 2019
Over the past few decades, text messaging has evolved into a staple of contemporary dating relationships. Yet, while many of today’s relationships are initiated and developed via text, some never move off the phone and into the realm of face-to-face (FtF) interaction. Instead, these textual relationships continue to rely on texting and exist almost (if not entirely) within the confines of a cellphone or mobile device. In this way, textual relationships draw on the capabilities of the digital age by emphasizing emotional intimacy without the expectation of physical contact.
In a recent study, we took a closer look at textual relationships and how they compare to communicating “in real life” (IRL). Below are answers to a few general questions about what it means to be in a primarily text-based relationship.
1. Are textual relationships common?
Probably. Although our data cannot tell us how common textual relationships are in the total population, it wasn’t difficult to find young adults who had experienced this type of relationship. These days, most Americans have a cellphone, and text messaging is one function they report utilizing the most frequently. Texting is also an increasingly normative part of the relationship initiation process for many young people. However, if for one reason or another communication stagnates at the texting stage instead of progressing to other channels, the relationship could become textual.
2. Why do relationships become textual?
Lots of reasons. Participants had different motivations for initiating and maintaining a textual relationship. Some of the most common reasons were the physical distance between partners, the situation, the desire for relational maintenance, and the convenience afforded by texting messaging. Other explanations included:
- Relationship distancing: “He texts me all the time but I really have no desire to meet up.”
- Preference for texting: “I was able to talk comfortably without having to worry about feeling awkward in person.”
- Secrecy: “It was a secret from someone else in our circle of friends.”
- Difficulty transitioning: “As the text messaging relationship continues, it is somehow awkward to see each other in person since we have only met once.”
- Inertia: “It is how our relationship works. We are accustomed to texting and are more comfortable talking over text.”
- Just because: “Honestly, I don’t know. I guess I like the attention.”
- Being there without being there: “We both like having a running conversation in order to feel like we see each other more often than we are able to.”
3. Are textual relationships inferior to FtF relationships?
Not necessarily. Participants reported greater relational quality in their FtF relationships than in their textual relationships. However, the quality of their textual relationships wasn’t low. These differences were also less evident in long-term textual relationships.
Some of this may also depend on people’s reasons for keeping the relationship textual in the first place. For instance, texting because of distance, convenience, enjoyment, the casual nature of the relationship, or a sense of being there without being there was associated with higher-quality relationships. However, those who attributed their use of texting to the situation, shared social networks, relationship distancing, inertia, difficulty transitioning, or just because they enjoyed the attention tended to have relationships that were lower in quality.
In short, textual relationships aren’t all bad—in fact, they can actually be quite good, especially for overcoming distance or maintaining a sense of connection with your partner. However, if you start to feel “stuck” in texting or find that you’re choosing the phone when you could be together in person, it might be time to clarify your expectations for the relationship.
Pew Research Center. (2019). Mobile fact sheet. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/mobile/.
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Sharabi, L. L., Roaché, D. J., & Pusateri, K. B. (2019). Texting toward intimacy: Relational quality, length, and motivations in textual relationships. Communication Studies, 70, 601-619. doi:10.1080/10510974.2019.1634117.
Smith, A. (2011). Americans and Text Messaging. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2011/09/19/americans-and-text-messaging/.