Texting has become the most prominent form of instant communication. Because intimate partners are likely to save these messages, they form a valuable, archived, written history of a relationship’s “story.”
This ongoing “relationship novel” provides a unique opportunity for partners to evaluate how texting may be helping or hindering the way they communicate. It can also help them to see if their texting synchronizes with their face-to-face relationship.
Most of my couples haven’t realized the opportunities that their text archives offer to teach them about how well they are actually communicating with each other.
Using the following criteria, they could not only evaluate their relationship vis-a-vis the things they have texted in the past, but also better understand how they use that data to improve their relationship connections in the future.
If you have a partner, read the seven criteria in each other’s presence. If you are currently single, you can still get a better idea of how your text messaging style has helped or hindered your past relationships and how you can use that data in the future.
1. Do Men and Women Read Texts Differently?
Most of my patients believe that females are “wordier” than males. The actual data shows that whichever gender is the most talkative actually depends on the subject being shared.
Most often, women do use more words when talking about relationships, and men when talking about business, battle, or sports.
They also unanimously tell me that men like to hear the bottom line first and work up to the backstory details only if they need them, and that women like to “set the stage” before coming to the conclusion.
If that is indeed true, then women are likely to experience many men as too laconic and direct, and men are more likely to hear or read only the first part of a long message.
Though those assumptions have understandable exceptions, most of the literally hundreds of patients I’ve explored these thoughts with over my 40-plus years' career do agree on them.
So, do your text messages bear that out as well?
Go back over as many text messages as you need to evaluate this. Count the amount of lines you or your partner use on average to send a text and how those figures change depending on the subject discussed. Ignore those that are simply logistics, like where you’re going to meet, or what you might need picked up for dinner. Just pay attention to those that are important emotional interchanges.
If you are a more typical male in a traditional male/female relationship, ask yourself how much of a long, emotional text message you actually read from your female partner before you respond, and if your responses are typically shorter than the message you receive. If you are a more typical female in a traditional male/female duo, do you take time at the beginning of your emotionally expressive text to create a backstory before you get to the point?
The point here is not to judge, but to compare and contrast, just for information and understanding.
2. Response Time
When either partner in an intimate relationship sends out an emotional message, he or she may have a different expectation of how soon the other partner should respond. I’ve witnessed many painful altercations between partners when their expectation of response time is different.
Again, this has a lot to do with the subject matter. Typically in a traditional male/female partnership, men are more often loathe to respond to an angry, complaining, or demanding text than women are and, as a result, will put off a response in hopes that their partner will “calm down” before an altercation is necessary.
Their female partners may misunderstand that lag time as indifference or a lack
of priority. Alternately, many men have told me that they are totally frustrated when their partners do not respond to logistical requests within a reasonable period of time.
When couples have clear understandings of when and where they are more likely to be available, the timing of the response becomes less important. Sometimes, arguments over response time may actually be the tip of icebergs that reflect a deeper frustration about availability in other areas of the relationship.
Ask yourself and your partner how you handle disappointments about expected response time to a text message. Do you frequently argue about how or when those priorities should happen?
Accurate, effective, and welcomed communication is one of the core elements in any successful relationship. Because communicating is only 10 percent words and 90 percent facial expression, body language, voice intonation, rhythm, and touch, it is totally understandable that misunderstandings have mushroomed when relationship partners rely on words alone rather than face-to-face connections.
Even emojis don’t always help, because people can misunderstand what that facial expression is meant to convey.
In January of 2016, I posted an article on Psychology Today entitled “Text Alert – Is Your Intimate Communication Inadequate?” I invite you to read that article for a more expanded view on this subject.
4. How Words Alone Can Be Easily Misinterpreted
The words that are emphasized in a phrase can significantly change the meaning of that phrase — and the absence of voice intonation is the culprit.
Here is an example. Let’s change the emphasis on just one word in the following phrase as it might be interpreted differently by the recipient.
The texted phrase: “What are you doing?”
“What are you doing?” Emphasis is on the act.
“What are you doing?” Emphasis is heard as challenge.
“What are you doing?” Emphasis is on the person.
“What are you doing?” Emphasis could be asking for justification.
Okay. Now let’s add another complication, and change the possible definition of just one word and see how easily it can be misunderstood:
The texted phrase “I’m so upset” could mean:
“I’m incredibly agitated.”
“I’m totally psyched out.”
“I’m coming unglued.”
“I’m so worried.”
And those are just four of 46 meanings for just the word “upset.”
One more to add to the mix. What emotions is the texter feeling when sending the text? If the text conveys an angry or hurt message, it can mean many things. Is that sender emotionally upset, continuing a past conflict, ready to follow with more threats or actions, just venting in the moment, needing nurturing, or truly falling apart? If the recipient doesn’t know, he or she may feel very differently than the sender as its read.
When people are face-to-face sharing important emotional exchanges, they are much more able to intuit a current experience and put it into its correct context. When messages are not shared in real time, are offered without knowing the availability of the recipient, and often hastily sent, the chances of unwanted outcomes mushroom.
I have known many patients over a long period of time and have watched their vocabularies shrink as they relied more and more on texting and emojis to communicate. They have sacrificed the poetry of clear adjectives and carefully chosen emotional visuals in service of immediacy and convenience. What has been lost are the heart-and-soul hand-crafted messages designed to expand each other’s awareness of themselves and the other.
Have either of you unintentionally or unconsciously “dumbed down” or abbreviated your communication style by texting in ways that do not communicate the best you can?
5. When Text Messages Are Different From Face-to-Face Interactions
Some people, independent of gender, are better at writing than they are at speaking. Whether they use email, instant messenger, or texting, they can think better when they are not facing their partners, preferring to read what they’ve written before they push that send button.
Others are much better communicating when facing their partners, so that they can add their nonverbal communication to their words. They believe that their thoughts and feelings come across much more effectively when they can see their partner’s responses in real time. They feel that texting is too inadequate to get across what they need to say.
Try reading your text messages of the day out loud to each other when you are together. Compare how your partner heard and reacted to what you said in your texts to what he or she would have if you were in each other’s presence.
6. Staggered Connections
Because text messages are often sent and received at different times, they can be misinterpreted by that process alone. Unless there is an agreement beforehand, a person texting has no idea what the person on the other end is doing, feeling, or thinking before that text comes in.
If that person is rushed, preoccupied, or upset about something that may be unrelated in any way to the texter, he or she may respond to the text differently than at another time. The time lapse between getting the message and responding can result in a total change in mood or availability, which in turn changes the causality or intensity of what the recipient expects or needs in the return text.
Do you and your partner ask one another what your emotional receptivity is before you begin the body of your text?
7. Unconscious Overloading
When intimate partners are in each other’s presence, they are more likely to be aware of nuances that change the way they continue expressing themselves. If texting, those same partners are unable to see the effects of the text message on the other. He or she might keep going, not realizing that the recipient may be overloaded and unable to respond effectively.
A partner experiencing that overload via text may just skim through the message, respond erratically, or focus on a word or sentence that stands out and fire back a response that is isolated from the rest of the text. The texter may have no idea why the return message is urgent or dramatic.
Look at your texts and evaluate whether or not they might be overloading your partner. Do you allow enough time between texts to make certain you partner is getting what you mean to say by the way he or she responds?
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Hopefully, sharing and discussing these seven criteria with your partner will help your text messages convey what you want to get across, and will be more congruent with how you communicate when you’re in each other’s presence. The closer you are aligned, the less you will end up misunderstanding each other.
Intimate partners choose to communicate through texting because it is such a convenient way to stay connected at any time and in any place. Understanding the above criteria can make sure that texting actually aids and abets quality communication and erases the need for damage control.