Can Texting Sabotage Emotional Intimacy?

Texting has the power to damage intimate relationships.

Posted Oct 30, 2015

Texting is one of the modern miracles of our time, but, despite its obvious advantages, it also has the power to damage intimate relationships. Frequent and instant texts and responses keep lovers in constant contact, but can they really communicate what true intimacy is all about through text? Words, emoticons, or even FaceTime and Skype, cannot compete with the ambiance that lovers thrive upon in their face-to-face time together.

Source: Pixabay

As a relationship therapist who began my practice long before text messaging existed, I’ve watched this phenomenon slowly evolve and have seen how it has affected intimate partners. I’ve asked many of the couples I’ve counseled to share their experiences with me. Apparently, for most couples, the logistical advantages are obvious. They count on the fact that they can check in conveniently and immediately with each other to clarify expectations and availabilities in a number of ways. Depending on their whim of the moment, they can communicate anything from sexual feelings to funny experiences as they are happening, to expressing irritation, or just connecting about whatever is going on for any reason at all.

But when it comes to intimate, deeply emotional communication, texting breaks down. Using just words, pictures, emoticons, or even Face Time skyping cannot adequately communicate the entirety of the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual information that couples need to accurately experience each other’s presence. Only face-to-face proximity can allow them to experience touch, rhythm, voice intonations, body language, and facial expressions. Without them, texting can be woefully inadequate.

Before the advent of the Internet, intimate partners had to telephone or communicate by snail mail when they were unable to be together. Those kinds of connections gave them the time to think about the relationship and what they wanted from each other in those interactions. Texting is too often immediate and rushed, expressed in reactive responses to quickly-read texts that might be sent and received within chaotic environments.

Many of the couples I see today do not even remember what relationships were like without the ability to text. Technology has moved so fast that many people rarely use hand-written communication and don’t want to take the time to set up a phone conversation. Many of my patients tell me that they actually prefer texting because they don’t have to think about what the other partner might doing at the time of the text. It allows them to be more self-serving in the moment, without needing to be overly concerned, interrupted or questioned. Partners can connect when they want to, or not respond if they don’t want to. In other words, texting allows a combination of simultaneous anonymity and spontaneous directness.

They also see the downsides. Text messages can really mess things up if the person on the other end reads that meant-to-be funny or innocent text as insensitive or dismissive, especially when he or she wanted something else. Texts can be teasing, irritating, loving, demanding, hurting, sexy, needy, urgent, or insecure, and all can be sent as one-sided monologues without any awareness of how the other person may receive them. In addition, when acronyms, emoticons, and abbreviations are included as shorthand, communication can be even more confusing. Even when skyping or Facetime is added, the partners are talking to miniature people in small picture frames and cannot see what, or who, may be surrounding them.

Here’s an example: what if your partner has just come home from a miserable day, exhausted and cranky? If the two of you were facing each other in real time, you would probably respond with a soothing voice, open body language, and caring touch. Even if you had your own needs at the time, you would likely put them aside for the moment until you understood better what was going on.

Let’s take the same scenario, but on text, where the potential for misconnection would be greater. He or she responds to your text question, “Are u home yet?” with “Yeah, a minute ago.” You have no idea of the emotional tone in the reply because you don’t have the visuals and awareness of ambiance you need to understand the depth of what is really going on. Unconscious of that environment, you might just text-launch into your day and the plans for later that evening, being light and chatty, innocently minimizing what is really going on. Your partner then feels slighted and decides to not text back right away, but doesn’t tell you why. Not getting a text back within the time you expected, you could easily take that ghostly silence as your partner’s being inattentive or uncaring. Then your next text responds accordingly with irritation and impatience, “WTF!” Your partner needs compassion, and you are feeling erased. You’re off and running in the wrong direction.

Another example: You’ve been with each other for most of a great day and looking forward to sex that night. During the last couple of hours you’ve been playfully circling each other, checking your partner out to see if he or she seems open to the idea. As you get encouraging clues, you respond by trying to make things sweeter between you in preparation. You watch for physical, emotional, and mental signs that signal welcome, and talk to your partner about how each of you are experiencing the day and each other.

If you were texting each other through the day, you could try to sense your partner’s receptivity and try to match it with intermittent texts. Or, you could just be direct and potentially off-putting, because you’ve missed all of the subtle cues you would have seen if you were together. If you’ve created a pattern that can be easily represented by words and emoticons, it might still work. But what if either of you has been in difficult or unexpected stressful situations during the day. You might be too upset to remember or recognize those established cue-patterns? You would have no way of securing the information you needed to be effective. When texting you could easily miss those moment-to-moment shifts that you would normally attend to, and disrupt that mutual heating-up process.

And what about timing? Intimate partners often text each other whenever they have the opportunity, without knowing where their partners are, who they might be with, and what they’re into at the time. There are always expectations within every attempt to communicate. They can be easily disappointing if your partner isn’t in the same emotional space as you are when you reach out. And what if your partner is in trouble, or needs consoling, and you’re in the middle of something difficult at the same time? How is your partner going to “see” and “feel” your own distress and understand why you don’t respond as expected?

The good news is that there are ways to have the best of both worlds. Couples, who have learned the skills of successful intimate communication when they are together, can use text messaging as a convenient and effective short cut that benefits their in-person relationship. The following agreements are a compilation of the guidelines many of my patients have shared with me.

  1. We don’t assume anything unless we both make sure we fully understand what the other is saying, feeling, and meaning.
  2. We don’t respond quickly if our answers deserve some time to ponder, and we always immediately let our partner know that we received the text and when we’ll be able to answer appropriately.
  3. If either of us doesn’t fully understand what our partner is saying, we ask questions to clarify before we respond.
  4. We never argue on text, because we know that our relationship is highly likely to get worse if we do.
  5. We don’t talk about delicate or fragile subjects by text.
  6. We don’t ever put anything on text that we might regret later.
  7. We don’t share our personal text messages with others without permission.

As a result of their willingness to share these successful rules with me, I’ve put together my own generic guidelines that may be helpful in their own right.   

  1. Let your partner know at the beginning of any text whether it is urgent or can wait for a later time.
  2. If the text to you requires attention and thought, tell your partner that you will answer when you can do the message justice.
  3. Don’t automatically assume that you understand what your partner is saying or asking. If you have any doubt, get more information before you respond. Ask about what your partner is involved in if that is distracting or effecting his or ability to adequately clarify.
  4. If the message seems important, be careful of speedy responses. Reacting quickly can be seen as a sign of disinterest or impatience.
  5. Don’t send long messages if they are high in emotional content. Break them up and check along the way as to how your partner is feeling about what you’ve written before you continue your monologue.
  6. Emoticons cannot sufficiently communicate important emotional information. Use them for emphasis at the end a sentence after you’ve told your partner in actual words what you are feeling.
  7. Make certain your partner knows where you are, with whom, and what is going on while you are sending the text. Expect the same in return.
  8. If the message is something you don’t want others to see, don’t send it if your partner cannot protect your privacy. If your message is urgent, use a more secure connection, or call.

Some of my couples have actually practiced texting back and forth when they are in each other’s presence. They find this technique extremely helpful because they can interrupt the exercise and immediately check on whether they are misunderstanding each other. It’s an extremely helpful interaction that can save misunderstandings when they are actually texting apart from each other’s presence. Mastering this skill greatly ensures that texting will become a successful extension of an already quality connection between intimate partners who are devoted to creating the best of both worlds.

Dr. Randi’s free advice e-newsletter, Heroic Love, shows you how to avoid the common pitfalls that keep people from finding and keeping romantic love.  Based on over 100,000 face-to-face hours counseling singles and couples over her 40-year career, you’ll learn how to zero in on the right partner, avoid the dreaded “honeymoon is over” phenomenon, and make sure your relationship never gets boring.