Communicating Emotions Online
How Intimate Partners can make Texts and Emails Match their Real Time Connection
Posted May 4, 2013
When couples spend time in each other’s presence, they have five different ways to share their thoughts and feelings: words, touch, facial expressions, body language, and sound. If any one of these modes of communication is left out, they are more likely to misunderstand each other.
When intimate partners use words-only, as they often do now through texting and email, they are only able to express less than ten percent of their range of emotion. The other ninety percent is communicated in non-verbal expression. In addition, many of those couples also rely on “net lingo”; abbreviations, codes, emoticons, short and simple sentences or repeated phrases. That combination can result in important loss for those who cherish their intimate connections.
More sparse emotional communication can also lead to greater misunderstandings. When those couples get back together, they must re-establish what was missing or incorrectly assumed behind those written symbols.
Since text communication is likely to continue to be a significant way for intimate partners to communicate, they need to use words that would not only convey thoughts and feelings, but add the four missing areas of intimate communication. Using an expanded emotional vocabulary that adds descriptions of touch, facial expression, body language, and voice intonation, can close the gap between online words-only communication and their face-to-face connection.
Let’s look at the written communication of love as an example.
Telling your partner online that you love them using the most verbally frugal way could look something like, “luv u, u 2?”
How might using words or phrases that add the rest of the five modes of communication?
“I’m sitting on the sand where we first met, wrapped in the love blanket you gave me. The sun is going down and I can feel you close to me. I’ve got a big smile on my face, but I have tears in my eyes, wishing you were here. If I were speaking now, my voice would be a little croaky because I’ve been singing too long in the cold, but I know you would still love the way I sound. I’m running the warm sand through my fingers and toes, listening to the beautiful sounds of the ocean going dark. I love you so much and I hope you miss me, too.”
Body Language: Sitting on the sand, wrapped in a love blanket.
Facial Expression: A smile. Happy tears.
Voice Intonation: Croaky, singing.
Touch: Fingers and toes in the warm sand. Closeness.
You probably could use “net lingo,” and truncate those phrases, but why would you want to?
If you and your partner would like to practice a richer online emotional vocabulary, you can use the following most-often used emotions to practice. Each is first expressed as a “net lingo” phrase and then replaced with words that add the other four modes of communications. If you learn to do this on a regular basis in your online communications, you’ll be more likely to close the gap between online connecting and your real-time relationship.
Frequently Expressed Emotions between Intimate Partners
Though dozens of emotions are expressed from one intimate partner to another, the following are the most helpful to use as examples: fear, disdain, joy, anger, sadness, desire, guilt/shame, and compassion. Some are positive and some are not, as is true for most couples. In addition, they can use their own individual examples of them to practice expressing the five modes of emotional communication. They can also use additional ones that may be more unique to their relationship. Some couples actually add on more non-verbal categories (like odor) if that helps them read each other even better.
Feelings of fear can range from mild anxiety to terror. If you can communicate your level of fear accurately, your partner is more likely to respond appropriately.
If, in an online text, a woman says say, “im worried. r u ok about last nite?” what might her partner deeply understand about what she is really feeling, or how it relates to their past evening together? If she were to use phrases that communicated all of what her partner could observe were he with her in real time, would that have helped him to respond more accurately, even when he can’t see her face or body, hear the inflection in her voice, or feel her touch?
What if she had written, instead?
“I’m so upset about our fight last night. My stomach is in knots. I’ve been terribly apprehensive all day, like something awful is going to happen between us, and it doesn’t feel like it’s going to be good. If I were with you right now, you’d hear the sorrow in my voice and I know you hate that. Honey, you know I don’t normally act this terrified, but my gut tells me that we’re not okay. I’ve been crying on and off all day and my eyes are swollen. I just looked in the mirror and I look really sad. I guess I feel insecure and anxious. I want to hold you. Please tell me how you’re feeling about me.”
All five expressions of emotion are expressed in the words she’s chosen:
Body Language: Holding her tummy. Her face is swollen.
Facial Expression: sad. Distressed. Apprehensive.
Voice Intonation: Sorrowful.
Touch: wants to hold him.
The facial expressions and voice intonations that go with feelings of disdain are clearly communicated in every culture. When they feel this kind of contempt, most people curl their lips, narrow their eyes, and speak in a sarcastic tone. This emotion is never intended to produce comfort or security in one’s partner, but has a very different feel depending on what is driving it.
A text message might just say, “u r nuts,” and be hard to evaluate in terms of what might be the actual feeling behind those words. Perhaps he is feeling frustrated with his partner’s reaction to an idea he wanted to get across, or multiple disappointments that have just added up. Unless his partner can understand what he is feeling or thinking behind those abbreviated words, she might react in ways he did not anticipate.
What if he had written, instead?
“Listen, I’ve been trying to be nice and not react to your sarcasm and petty bank shots but I’m fed up with your comebacks. They’re not even interesting. Why don’t you just tell me how the hell you’re feeling without sounding so stupid? Your whining is disgusting. I’m so frustrated with you that the veins are sticking out in my neck. I’m pounding the damn table, and I feel like shaking you, just to get you to listen once in a while. I started yelling in the car on the freeway, but I didn’t want to hurt someone so I pulled off to text you. You wouldn’t want to be in the same space with me right now. I know I sound like a stupid ass, but I really love you and I don’t know how long I can stick around if you don’t change to the way you treat me.”
Body Language: pounding the table.
Facial Expression: veins sticking out in his neck.
Voice Intonation: angry and yelling.
Touch: wanting to hold on to her to make her face him, shut up, and listen.
Positive expressions, like “joy,” are easy for most partners to experience. Even if they seem out of place at times, they can still evoke a positive effect. The facial expressions, body language, and voice intonation of joy are obvious. People smile, they reach out, they hug, and their tone of voice is encouraging and supportive.
Let’s assume a woman has just gotten together sexually for the first time with her guy and it was great. She’s texting him to let him know how she felt about the night.
On line, she might just text: “im happy, u 2?”
If she wanted her partner to know what she was really feeling in that moment, she might use more expressive words online that would be more likely to ensure her new partner would experience all of the five ways to communicate her thoughts and feelings.
What if she had written, instead?
“Last night was one of the most glorious experiences of my life. I’ve never been touched like that. I was in bliss. You are the most incredible guy. I know I’ve never felt this kind of ecstasy before. I think my face is red and I hope the people around me don’t know what I’m feeling right now. I know it’s probably weird, but I’ve been singing all day. I’m curled up on the couch, smiling from ear to ear, and I can still smell the sweetness of you.”
Body Language: curled up on the couch.
Facial Expression: blushing and smiling.
Voice Intonation: singing. Light-hearted.
Touch: Remembering his sweetness, remembering his touch.
This emotion is probably the most misunderstood of all. It can spark resentment, fear, reactive hostility, or withdrawal. Your level of anger, the way you express it, and how it is received can greatly affect the damage control you may need to do later. This emotional state causes the most misunderstandings between intimate partners. When you love someone and don’t want to spend your life healing unnecessary hurt, you need to express anger exactly at the level you feel and what you want your partner to hear.
The words, “yeah, im po d,” online could mean different things at different times.
What if this man were to first access how angry he actually is and how his expression of it is going to affect his partner when it’s this stark online? Then he could choose phrases that actually communicate exactly how he feels.
What if he had written, instead?
“I got your text and I don’t feel like answering but I know you’ll get crazy if I don’t, so here goes. I’m sitting outside on the steps in the dark, one arm holding a basketball and the other in a fist. I’m trying to let go of my rage at what you did tonight just so I can sleep. My face must look like I want to murder someone but that’s just the way I look when I can’t stand a situation I can’t fix. It’s really frustration that’s beyond healing. I’ve been screaming at the helpless moon just to be heard but it’s not doing any good. I’m glad you’re not here because you’d want to hug me and I don’t want to touch you right now. I can’t remember when I’ve been this angry at anyone, especially someone I care about as much as I do you.”
Body Language: Restless, sitting down, looking up at the moon.
Facial Expression: Angry, vindictive.
Voice Intonation: Screaming. Tight.
Touch: Pulled in. Withholding.
You can comfortably assume that when your partner is sad, he or she is reaching out to you for some kind of caring response. Your partner may have expectations of “just the right response,” and be disappointed if you don’t understand. There are probably no other emotions that are so vulnerable to using the wrong tone of voice or facial expression.
Sad feelings are hard to communicate accurately with only words online. In person, facial expressions alone are often more effective. If you are communicating in text, try saying the same thing using all five communication modes and ask your partner if those words encouraged him or her to open up more deeply.
“im so sad what hpned,” is a simple phrase that does not give the other partner what level of sorrow a person could be experiencing. Those words without facial expression, touch, voice intonation, or body language could mean almost anything. On line, it would be almost impossible to differentiate deep sorrow from a gentle wistfulness unless you use more expressive words.
What if she had written, instead?
“I must look really stupid right now. I feel like my eyes are sunk into my face. I’m terribly confused about what happened tonight. We seemed to be so close. I can still feel you in my arms. Then, you just left. No words, no explanation. I’m lying on the couch, curled up in a ball, as if I were still next to you, but I feel that, if I get up, my world will crash around me. I thought we’d made it over that terrible hump and now I’m not sure anymore. I’ve been talking to you out loud, but my voice can only come out a whisper. It’s as if you heard me, you’d disappear forever. Where are you?”
Body Language: Lying on the couch, curled up in a ball.
Facial Expression: Confused, eyes half-closed, mouth a little open.
Voice Intonation: Whisper. Sad.
Touch: Reaching out. Alone.
The expression of desire has the potential for both healing and harming a relationship and, as such, is one of the most important emotions to express accurately and effectively.
When partners openly express desires, they risk rejection. Assessing approachability online makes it difficult for any person to discern where he or she stands using words alone. Without the visual and auditory cues that let them know if their hungers are reciprocated, they are even more vulnerable to being misunderstood or embarrassed for having shared them.
Desires can run the gamut from “gently-wanted” to “intensely-urgent,” and the response can also range from welcoming to irritation. Couples must also decide in advance whether their partners feel that they deserve what they are asking for and whether they might expect some reciprocity if their desires are granted.
Because of these many potential complexities, expressions of desire are often misunderstood.
“horny?” could be construed as anything from a self-serving request to a genuine inquiry without demand. It would depend on whether the guy saying it is angry or trying to be cute.
What if he had written, instead?
“I’m sitting here on a comfortable leather couch watching the game and can’t even concentrate on it. Could be the beer pong, but I keep thinking about you with this goofy look on my face. There must be twenty guys here having a great time, and I’m yelling at all the right times, but I can’t stop remembering about how beautiful you were last night. It’s a little uncomfortable not being able to stand up without everyone here knowing it. J
Can I see you later and feel your beautiful body up against me? Actually, can I come over now? I love you, sweetheart.”
Body Language: Lounging.
Facial Expression: Grinning.
Voice Intonation: Outside, yelling. Inside, sweet.
Touch: Holding her in his imagination.
People feel guilt when they imagine or have actually disappointed someone they care about. They feel shame when an embarrassing situation is publicly observable. Both of these emotions are fragile and frightening to express. When people feel guilt or shame, they often anticipate a negative response that will require atonement and a commitment to compensate for the errant behavior.
If you can learn to express your guilt or shame in a better way, your partner may be more understanding and less damning. Partners who understand how badly you already feel are likely to respond in a way that helps you feel less terrible about what you’ve done.
“4gv me?” is a phrase that does not convey much depth or any definite intensity of emotion.
What if she had written, instead?
“You’ve told me a million times that I have to trust you, but sometimes you do things I just don’t understand. I knew I shouldn’t have looked at your phone when you were in the shower, but I was lying on the bed starting at it and when it started buzzing, I just couldn’t help myself. It’s probably because my last boyfriend cheated on me, and I know that’s not you. I’m pacing and can’t get this off my shoulders. I feel so damn guilty. I just looked in the mirror and I look like I just robbed a bank. I’m talking out loud to you and my voice is shaking. All I want is for you to take me in your arms and tell me it’s going to be okay.”
Body Language: Pacing.
Facial Expression: Fearful, scared, and insecure.
Voice Intonation: Shaky, desperate.
Touch: Holding herself close, wanting to be held.
Partners in intimate relationships can rarely go wrong by offering compassion. Yet, this emotion is still vulnerable to misunderstanding when written words online are your only vehicle. Some people are embarrassed when they are emotionally distressed, and too much compassion can make them feel uncomfortably exposed. On the other hand, a person in grief who wants love and support can feel abandoned and lost if the response is too reserved.
When compassion is expressed in a way that is accurate in the moment, your partner will feel the most loved and understood, and feel grateful for your authentic caring. When partners write online phrases that include a description of their facial expressions, touch, body language, and voice intonations, they are more likely to be successful at hitting the mark.
“u r hurting? sry 4 u,” without the visual cues of caring and the tender touch that accompanies it might feel inadequate to someone who is feeling really down.
What he had written, instead?
”I know I can’t feel exactly what you are, sweetheart, but I think I understand. Your mom’s only been gone a few months and it’s her birthday today. It’s only natural you’d feel more sad and miss her. Even though I’m in a hotel room and not close enough to comfort you the way I want to, I’m sitting on the bed looking at that wonderful picture of you and her we took last Christmas. You both look so incredibly happy. She was a wonderful mother to me and I miss her, too. I just caught a glimpse of my reflection in the bathroom mirror. I’m crying and I didn’t even realize it. My voice would probably be shaking, too. You know, you need to hear me now. I know it’s three in the morning, but I’m going to call. At least we can pretend we’re hugging and together. I love you.”
Body Language: Sitting on the bed in his hotel holding his phone.
Facial Expression: Sad, warm, compassionate.
Voice: Wobbly and soft.
Touch: Reaching out to her heart.
Some guidelines to help
Next time you send an Internet message to your loved one, think about following these steps:
1) Take a moment and listen to your inner self.
2) Ask yourself what you are genuinely feeling in that moment and what you want your partner to hear.
3) Use whatever phrases that will be aid your partner in hearing exactly as you mean, and ask your partner how you might come across differently were you together in real time.
4) Ask your partner to give you feedback as to whether what you shared was what he or she heard and felt you meant.
5) If what you wrote was different from what he or she experienced, ask your partner what words or phrases would have conveyed your feelings more accurately.
Practice these five steps with each other on a regular basis. You’ll be surprised at how quickly your Internet communication begins to line up with your face-to-face reality. Many couples start to enjoy using new words and phrases that create more curiosity, interest, and fun in their online interactions. They begin using language as it was intended, the way for hearts and minds to blend.