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The Dangers of Text-Message Tennis

How to avoid playing games in a potential new relationship.

Key points

  • Getting to know someone via text messages can be difficult.
  • Inconsistent communication patterns can trigger anxiety.
  • The highs and lows of texting can be addictive and toxic, so it's important to make sure you have found the right partner.

When we were in our teens, my brother and I started playing tennis at a public park not far from our home. Raz was an incredible athlete, whereas I, on the other hand, was something of a train wreck. I had athletic ability but no real chance to practice because I grew up playing the piano.

Raz always served the ball first, not because of any agreement but because I was so happy to spend time with him that I ceded to whatever he wanted. He would bounce the ball a few times as I’d wait in nervous anticipation on the other side of the court, both hands wrapped around the racket, my body shifting from side to side, just like I’d seen John McEnroe do countless times on television.

But as I’d come to find, the only thing John and I had in common was our explosive temper. A fierce competitor, Raz would slam the ball across the net with the force of a cannon. My legs simply were not fast enough to make it to the right spot in time. “Damn it!” I would yell, “Don’t hit it so hard!”

Sometimes he would purposefully take his sweet time to serve, which only frustrated me further. Tense and anxious, I would analyze his body language, hoping to outsmart him and figure out his strategy, which never happened. I constantly ran back and forth across the court, my racket and the body holding it never able to get the ball back over the net.

On the rare occasion when I did hit the ball back, I'd get excited, fully expecting to engage in a volley. Nope. He would hit it back with ferocious intensity, and of course, I’d miss it. Eventually, I’d throw up my hands in the air and scream, “Can’t we play a normal game, like the ones we see on television?!”

We carried on this way for almost a whole summer. Never did we play a normal game, but each time he asked me to play, I’d pick up my racket and head to the park, hopeful that things would be different. As a result, both my body and my emotions took a beating. I’d go from excitement to hope to frustration to annoyance, then back to excitement to frustration to anger.

In short, I felt powerless, like nothing I did seemed to change how he played the game.

Funny that I would feel exactly the same way years later as I tried to navigate online dating and the horror of toxic text messaging, which I’ve come to regard as text-message tennis (TMT).

The ups and downs of texting while dating

New relationships can be tricky, especially when connecting with someone usually happens through some form of technology. Whether you meet someone on Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, or at a party, it is likely that your method of communication following that first connection will be via text message.

With texting, you don’t have the benefit of eye contact, body language, or the magic of sharing physical space. You have to rely on a few words that pop up on your phone screen to figure out whether or not someone’s interested.

The back and forth of text messaging in the early stages of a potential relationship can make you feel much like I did when I played tennis with my brother: powerless. You’re constantly on the other side of the court, tense and anxious, waiting for the other person to hit the ball so you can figure out which direction to go.

There’s excitement when you get that first text message: “So cool to meet you. Hope you’re having a good day.” You’re filled with hope: Maybe they’re really interested; otherwise, they wouldn’t have texted me. And you text them back right away: “I’m having a good day. How about you?”

You check the phone every few minutes to see if they’ve responded, frustration getting the best of you when you realize there’s nothing. You think: What the heck? Why would they text me and then not follow up? This is ridiculous.

You go from feeling frustrated to annoyed, and you think maybe you’ll forget about them when, alas, a new text message pops up on your phone a few days later. Excitement courses through your veins, and your heart skips a beat as you read it. “Sorry, I got busy. What are your plans this weekend?”

Now you’re beyond hopeful because clearly they’re hinting at getting together. You reply right away, thinking their initial silence was a one-off. “Don’t have much planned. What about you?”

Silence. Again.

You go right back to frustration, annoyance, and straight-up anger, as you wait for the person to “serve the ball” again, and it’s likely this pattern repeats several times. After a few weeks, you don't know them any better, and you're no closer to meeting in person. But you can’t seem to stop playing the game.

Does this sound familiar?

Text-message tennis is a toxic and mentally draining, and its impact on your mental health is real.

I’ve worked with many a client whose primary concern is not knowing how to handle the anxiety and emotional distress that comes with the inconsistent back-and-forth of text messaging in the dating world.

Playing text-message tennis can lead to unhealthy thought patterns in which you over-analyze and overthink every single message, hoping to figure out their strategy and create a new one for yourself. Why haven’t they texted me again? Maybe I should wait to text them; otherwise, they’re going to think I’m desperate. But what if they think I’m not interested? How long should I wait?

These thought patterns can trigger anxiety, which will likely interfere with your daily life. Concentration and focus can become a struggle, and, try as you might, you can’t seem to fully disconnect from your phone and resume doing all the other things that make you happy.

This toxic game can make you grumpy and irritable, and in some cases, make you doubt yourself. Maybe I’m not good enough, not smart enough, not pretty enough, not rich enough, not cool enough, not enough of something.

Studio Light and Shade/iStock
Source: Studio Light and Shade/iStock

Worse, the emotional ups and downs of inconsistent communication can be addictive and can trick you into staying in the game. With each new message, you go from feeling down in the dumps to high on excitement and hope, and you can’t help but think they’re finally ready to play a normal game, only they never do.

So what do you? Here are some practical tips.

1. Identify your goal.

Before you jump into a game, be very clear on what you want. Do you want a committed relationship, or are you OK with a casual situation-ship? Identifying what you want will help you define how you play the game.

2. Play it your way.

Send them a text message first, if you’re comfortable with that, and give them a chance to engage in a healthy back and forth. Inevitably, they will show you how they play and what they want.

3. Stay on your side of the court.

Unless you’re a mind reader, overthinking or analyzing someone else's text messages to figure out their strategy is an epic waste of time and mentally draining. If you want to avoid feeling anxious or frustrated, stay focused on your side of the court and continue to do all the things that make you happy, whatever they might be.

4. Choose experience over optimism.

If they consistently take a few days to get back to you each time you send a message, make a decision for yourself based on what you’ve experienced thus far versus what might happen.

Conclusion

Always remember that two people have to be on the court to play the game, and if you’ve realized that the other player is hell-bent on winning versus connecting, by all means, grab your racket, walk off the court, and go find the right kind of player for you.

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