Can text messages damage intimate communication?
intimate feelings and thoughts don't translate well in text form
Posted Feb 27, 2011
In the last few years I have observed my patients struggling harder to understand each others vulnerable feelings. They seem less able to spontaneously identify what their lovers need, and much more likely to misunderstand each other.
I believe that this trend toward lessened empathy is directly linked to the increased use of technological devices to communicate vulnerable and fragile emotions. The written word alone, especially when expressed in abbreviation, cannot possibly convey the subtle nuances that accompany more fragile intimate messages. Machines cannot translate those emotions for you. They can only repeat exactly what they are programmed to do. As a result, I am convinced that more misunderstandings and miscommunications are happening, markedly lessening the potential of a relationship success.
To keep love and passion alive, couples need to empathize and identify with each other. That is hard enough when you are looking into your lover's eyes, but often much more difficult when you are looking at a machine. If you find yourself communicating to your lover more on text, email, or tweet than you do in person, you have also become adept at abbreviations, short bytes, and a limited vocabulary. When you actually face each other, you may not realize that you are carrying that same time of implied, brief, and more superficial connections into your real-time relationship.
Accurate emotional connection relies on facial expression, voice intonation, body language, and the sharing of metaphysical energy. The reading of emotions, even when face-to-face, requires practice and frequent checking to see if what your partner actually heard was you meant him or her to know. Without that feedback, misunderstandings multiply exponentially, and assumptions can become truths before they are truly examined.
Here is an example:
Michael is crazy about Ashley. They've been together over a year with no sign of trouble. At a party last weekend, he was pretty sure he saw her flirting with another guy. He's been keeping his feelings to himself, but he can't seem to let them go. They've been fighting more lately, and he doesn't want to push her farther away. He's been hoping she would just reassure him, and things would get better by themselves. Instead, she seems preoccupied and he doesn't know how to read her. So he cautiously sends her this text message.
"ive been thinking about us lately. i wndrd if u were feeling the same way as i am about the way weve been rguing. it seems as if were mr short with each othr and take longer 2 make up. how r u feeling about it?"
Since there is no facial expression to read, no voice sounds to interpret, and no body language to recognize, Ashley could interpret it as:
"I'm feeling somewhat distant from you right now. I think we're probably not as much in love as we were before. I think I know what's going on but I really should ask you how you feel before I make any decisions. I'm pretty sure you feel the same way."
On reading his message, her first reactions are fear and anticipation of loss. She immediately moves to protect her heart from potential rejection. Her returned text might sound something like:
"we r fighting mr. r u unhappy with r relatnshp? r u trying 2 tell me u want 2 take a break?"
He is clearly upset by her reply, but doesn't want to push her if she doesn't want him. So he reacts without thinking it out or asking her what's behind it.
"if thats what u want, im ok with it 2. call me if u want to see me again."
Possible Result: Unnecessary Break-up
It's a week after the party and Michael hasn't said anything yet. He's been waiting for the right time so that Ashley won't misunderstand. They've had a great evening and are lying in each others arms, watching TV. It seems like just the right moment.
"I've been thinking about us lately. I wondered if you were feeling the same as I am about arguing so much. It seems as if we're more short with each other and take longer to make up. Do you think we're okay?"
Ashley loves him just as much as ever, but has been disappointed in the relationship of late. She wants him to make more of a commitment, but knows from prior relationships that pushing can be a turn-off if a guy isn't ready. She's been holding back for awhile, hoping he will notice and come forward. She even acting as if she was interested in another guy at a party, hoping he'd feel a little jealous.
She realizes that her way of connecting is indirect but she's nervous about rejection. In relationships with other men in the past, she feels she's messed things up when she's tried to get more information. It has always ended up in an argument and eventually in a break-up. She really loves this man and doesn't want to take any chances. She is afraid that sharing her real feelings will just start another argument.
"I'm not sure what you're talking about."
(She looks away and her voice trembles a little.)
Michael: (Noticing her nervousness and feeling compassion.)
"It's not anything big, sweetheart. I've just noticed that you seem a little withdrawn and I wonder if I'm doing something wrong."
Ashley: (Feeling less scared, she smiles at him and decides to take a chance.)
"I'm so grateful that you noticed. I didn't want to upset you or make you feel pressured. I guess I'm pretty sure that you're the guy for me, but I didn't know if you felt the same way."
Michael: (With a sweet smile, he reaches out for her hand.)
"I'm crazy about you, Ash. I've never felt this way before. I can't imagine my life without you."
Ashley: (Smiles broadly and reaches out tenderly to kiss him.)
"I'm so relieved. I've been worried."
Michael: (Looking confident and speaking with a strong, caring voice.)
"We're good. Please don't worry any more. If you're nervous about anything, just talk to me. I'm really open to whatever you're feeling. Don't hold back anymore, okay?"
Ashley: (Starts to cry and leans up against him.)
"I know I'm afraid of pushing you away. I will reach out more when I'm scared. I feel so relieved, and hopeful, too."
Result: More Intimacy
Michael and Ashley might have gotten together and worked it out after their failed text messages, but too often that's not what happens. People have become so dependent on believing that what they read in a text is actually what they think is true, they don't push hard enough to see what lie beyond the words. That will be especially likely to happen when their responses are negative.
It is easy enough to misunderstand your lover when you are face-to-face even when you think you are communicating openly, but at least you can check out meanings of words or phrases in the moment to make sure you're not hearing something that isn't intended, or imagining something wrong when a facial expression doesn't match the words. Without those crucial cues, you are more likely to misinterpret your lover's message. Just imagine how much easier those miscommunications might occur without those opportunities.
Someday very soon, your personal technological device may ask you questions to determine your mood and meaning before it sends the text. It may actually have its own text conversation with you and tell you how your lover is likely to respond so you can make any necessary corrections before you are misunderstood.
Until then, unfortunately, each couple must find his or own own way to make certain their intimate communications are not being incorrectly translated. Going over their past text messages when they face each other again can really help. Once there is better congruence, they can rely more safely on abbreviated texts as they need to use them.