Smartphones have made it far easier for us to stay in touch with relationship partners, even when we are geographically distant. Further, they have enabled us to convey messages which are sexual in nature—sexting.
Lenhart (2009) defined sexting as sending ‘‘sexually suggestive, nude, or nearly nude photos or videos of yourself’’ (p. 16). Its significance as a form of romantic communication is evidenced by the fact that around 75 percent of young adults claim to have engaged in sexting. Having said that, they are more likely to send sexually explicit texts than to send nude pictures. However, the definition covers sending both photos and messages.
Questions therefore arise as to how the way in which we communicate by phone can affect our relationships: What does the way in which we use our phones to stay in touch say about us?
Is There an Association Between Sexting and Attachment Style?
One possibility is that there is a relationship between sexting and the way in which we become attached to or interact with our relationship partners. Hazan & Shaver (1987) identified three broad ways in which we may become attached.
- Securely attached people describe their relationships as involving happiness, friendship, and trust. "I find it relatively easy to get close to others, and I am comfortable depending on them, and having them depend on me. I don’t often worry about being abandoned, or about someone getting close to me."
- Avoidant individuals describe a fear of closeness. "I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others. I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often love partners want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being."
- Anxious ambivalent people describe a love life full of emotional extremes, obsessive preoccupations, the desire for union with the partner, desire for reciprocation with the partner, and love at first sight. "I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or want to stay with me. I want to merge completely with another person, and this desire sometimes scares people away."
The research on sexting and attachment style has indicated that those who send sexually explicit messages and attempt to initiate sex through texting also tend to display either avoidant or anxious attachment styles with romantic partners. For example, Drouin and Langraff (2012) suggested that individuals who possess anxious attachment styles engage in sexting as a hyperactivating strategy, which means they are compulsively seeking proximity and protection. However, people with an avoidant attachment style employ sexting as a deactivating strategy—sexting meets their sexual needs, but at the same time keeps their partner at a distance.
Sexting in Established Relationships
The research on sexting in relationships has focused primarily on adolescents and younger adults, but what does sexting say about people in more established relationships? A recent study by McDaniel and Drouin (2015) investigated sexting behavior in married couples, looking specifically at:
- The frequency at which they sexted
- Attachment style and sexting
- Relationship satisfaction and sexting
In this study, the researchers measured attachment in romantic relationships using the Experiences in Close Relationships Scale—Short Form (Wei, Russell, Mallinckrodt & Vogel, 2007). The scale uses items to measure attachment anxiety (e.g., ‘‘I need a lot of reassurance that I am loved by my partner''), and attachment avoidance (e.g., ‘‘I try to avoid getting too close to my partner'').
The Prevalence of Sexting in Established Relationships
The researchers found that those in established relationships do engage in sexting, but the levels of reported sexting (messages and pictures) is lower than those for young adults. For example, only around 12 percent of people in established relationships engaged in sexting. This could be because those in established relationships are less likely to take part in risky behavior than younger adults, or are at least more likely to consider the risks of a third party seeing their sexts.
Additionally, it is possible that those in established relationships are less likely to be conversant with the phenomenon of sexting, having established their intimate relationships before its advent. Finally, it is possible that because established couples tend to have less frequent sex than younger counterparts, the fact that they send fewer sexts may be indicative of the fact that they have less sex anyway.
Sexting and Attachment Style in Established Relationships
The next step in the study was to categorize sexting behavior into either sending nude or semi-nude photos, or sending sexy text messages. They then looked at the relationship between the sending of each of these in relation to relationship attachment styles.
They found that for females, sending nude or semi-nude photos was related to higher degrees of avoidant attachment, while for males, sending nude or semi-nude photographs was related to anxious attachment. However, they found no relationship between attachment style and the sending of sexy text messages for males or females.
Is Sexting Associated with Relationship Satisfaction?
An earlier study by Parker, Blackburn, Perry, and Hawks (2013) investigated the relationship between sexting and relationship well-being in married and cohabiting couples. They found that those who reported greater relationship well-being were more likely to have sent some kind of sexual message to their partner.
Conversely, McDaniel and Drouin (2015) found no relationship between the sending of sexy messages and relationship satisfaction for either males or females. However, they did find that sending nude or semi-nude photos was related to higher levels of relationship ambivalence (i.e., uncertainty about the relationship), and that this was the case for males and females.
All in all, the way in which we send sext messages reveals more about and our relationships and ourselves than we may think.
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college students’ romantic relationships. Computers in Human Behavior, 28,
444–449. Hazan, C. & Shaver, P. (1987) Romantic Love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(3), 511-524. Lenhart, A. (2009) ‘Teens and sexting: How and why minor teens are sending sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images via text messaging’. Pew Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved from <http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/Teens-and-exting.aspx>. McDaniel, B. T. & Drouin, M. (2015) ‘Sexting among married couples: Who is doing it, and are they more satisfied?’ Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking, 18(11), 1-7. Parker, T. S., Blackburn, K. M., Perry, M. S., & Hawks. J. M. (2013) ‘Sexting as an intervention: relationship satisfaction and motivation considerations.’ American Journal of Family Therapy, 41, (1) 1–12. Wei, M., Russell, D.W., Mallinckrodt. B., & Vogel, D. L. (2007) ‘The experiences in close relationship scale (ECR)-short form: reliability, validity, and factor structure.’ Journal of Personality Assessment, 88, 187–204.