I listened intently as the young woman I was working with recounted the contentious discussion she had with her romantic partner the night before.
“He was so angry with me. I mean, all I said was that he didn’t listen to me and didn’t care about anything I had to say. And then he got all short with me and got really cold."
She added with great inflection, “I’m not going to put up with this much longer. He started yelling at me. And he was saying, ‘There you go again, making such a big deal about nothing. Our only problem is that you’re always so hostile.’”
She added this last part putting her hands on her hips and mimicking his voice.
This description of the argument with her boyfriend, complete with expressing both her and her boyfriend’s voice inflections and tones of voice went on for about 15 minutes. Then she got to the point where she said that he was so inconsiderate that he didn’t respond for 10 minutes.
Suddenly, it hit me. “You mean that this entire conversation happened via text?” I asked.
She looked at me like I was totally out of touch, said “yeah,” and went back to recounting the rest of her exchange with her boyfriend.
I wish this type of story was isolated to just one person or to just one situation, but it is commonplace. And one of the most common recommendations that I give my clients who are struggling with relationship issues is to “CUT DOWN ON THE TEXTING” (in text language I think I yelled that, right?).
Texting Increases Conflict and Decreases Intimacy
A recent study by Halpern and Katz, 2017, revealed that more texting is related to more conflict erupting and less intimacy in romantic relationships. Greater conflict and less intimacy then lead to a decrease in relationship quality over time.
As a means of communicating plans, details, and what you need your partner to pick up at the store, texting is great. But, as a vehicle for communicating complex and emotionally charged information where you need to go back and forth with a partner or resolve issues or misunderstandings, it is downright maladaptive and potentially damaging.
Texting and the Attachment System
Some of the issues with texting relate to attachment style differences, but some issues are common to all of us. Let’s discuss those first.
The first thing you need to bring to mind is how the attachment system works. Click here if you need a refresher.
The human attachment system balances the search for security with a drive to explore and develop mastery over the environment. The father of modern attachment theory, John Bowlby, eloquently described how the healthy personality develops through a repetitive cycle of:
- Going out from the comfort of a secure base (usually a romantic partner, parent, close friend, etc.) to explore the world
- Running into roadblocks or failures
- Retreating to the secure base for comfort and support
- Getting comfort, emotion regulation, and new strategies and encouragement to go off and try again
- Going off to explore knowing that the secure base will be there for you when you need it
The key things to note in this arguably simple description of how the system works is that it requires:
- A time of separation
- Tolerating a certain amount of distress until the person cannot comfort themselves
- Reconnecting and obtaining comfort (emotion regulation) and coaching on how to better face the environmental challenge
The problem with ongoing texting is that we are always "on" — i.e., no more than a thumb stroke away from prematurely touching base (if we are out exploring) or providing reassurance to an exploring partner (if we are acting as the base).
Look at it this way: If the system was working right to foster in you secure attachment and mental health, you would text your partner less and less, as you learned through experience that they are always there for you and that you can soothe yourself and regulate your own emotions in mild to moderately distressing circumstances. But many of us get stuck in cycles of ongoing texting. Even when we are at work, some of us endlessly send and receive texts from our loved ones.
We need to learn to let ourselves and other people explore and experience some distress without jumping in too quickly with comfort. That actually blocks learning distress and frustration tolerance.
Try having "no texting" times (like when you are at work!). Having no texting times can also preserve your secure base for when you really need it.
When we have a secure base and are confident that that base is consistently available, warm, and responsive, we are free to venture away from that base to explore our environment and autonomously develop mastery. But, what happens when we never actually separate from our base?
- We don’t learn how to regulate our own emotions.
- We don’t learn how to tolerate ambiguity.
- We keep ourselves activated.
- We can burn the base out.
In relation to this last point, someone with a dismissing style needs time to process emotionally-toned interactions. If they are pressured to give emotional support and intimacy when they are not ready, they may shut down and run away (figuratively or literally). If the romantic partner has a preoccupied or fearful style, they may text too much and actually promote the dismissing person becoming less available to them.
Research findings by Drouin and Landgraff (2012) indicate that higher levels of avoidance are associated with less texting to romantic partners.
Less texting or delayed responding can then further activate people with anxious attachment styles. People with anxious styles (fearful or preoccupied) may interpret ambiguous or neutral expressions as emotional threats. Because they tend to overly elaborate, this activation then may lead them to text even more and potentially damage the relationship.
I am not claiming to know who started all of this — the anxious person texting too much or the dismissing avoidant person not responding enough. But, it is up to all of us to know our style and how to conduct ourselves accordingly.
- For people with preoccupied or fearful attachment styles: Don’t sit by your phone waiting for a text. Put it down, don’t look at it, and learn to regulate and soothe your own painful emotions.
- For people with dismissing attachment styles: Give a response even when you don’t feel like it and invite a phone call or in-person conversation instead of texting.
When You Text, You Miss Valuable Information
Beyond what has already been discussed, texting can also be problematic because it does not account for how the human brain receives information about relationships.
When we are having a face-to-face conversation with someone, we are actually communicating on multiple channels. Obviously, there are the words we use, but a great deal is also communicated in our tone, facial expressions, and voice inflection. These are totally lost in a text exchange.
Instead, as highlighted in my opening example, people will infer each other’s tone and inflection. Our brains are wired to make sense of our environments, and even without our awareness, they fill in missing pieces of information. In a text conversation, tone, volume, and voice inflection are missing and our brains will do what they are supposed to do and compensate. But how they fill in the missing information will depend just as much on our own attachment styles as on what is really happening on the other end of our text exchange.
- If we have a preoccupied style, we may be on guard for rejection and anticipate being spoken to like we are inferior or somehow damaged and needy. Thus, we are likely to infer such attitudes in ambiguous situations such as a text exchange.
- If we are dismissing, we may ignore an inflection that we should infer. We can just tell ourselves that it doesn’t matter and that the person on the other end of our text stream should be fine with what we just said.
- If we have fearful styles, we may anticipate being attacked or falsely accused. We may then lash out with rash texted words in an effort to counterattack. In so doing, however, we may fail to anticipate how the other person is also likely to inaccurately infer our intentions and attitudes (as found in our facial expressions, tone, and volume).
When It Comes to Texting, Less Is More
People with insecure styles tend to text more as a percentage of their overall communication relative to people who are more secure (Luo, 2014) (voice, phone, face-to-face, email, webchat, among others). So, try having more face-to-face or telephone conversations and text less often. You just might start rewiring your system to be more secure.
Luo, S. (2014). Research Report: Effects of texting on satisfaction in romantic relationships: The role of attachment. Computers In Human Behavior, 33145-152. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2014.01.014
Halpern, D., & Katz, J. E. (2017). Full length article: Texting's consequences for romantic relationships: A cross-lagged analysis highlights its risks. Computers In Human Behavior, 71386-394. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2017.01.051
Bowlby, J. (1988). Developmental psychiatry comes of age. American Journal of Psychiatry, 145, 1-10.