As soon as a couple in my therapy office wants to explain a recent fight, I have only one question.
“Were you texting?”
More often than not, the answer is yes. After that, I can guess the rest: one of them wrote a line they thought was harmless, even loving, but the other read it as attacking. A long string of miscommunication followed, resulting in hurt feelings, a stalemate, and radio silence for the rest of the day.
Texting is killing relationships.
Actual, in-person, verbal communication is hard enough. So many conflicts in relationships are the result of one person misinterpreting what the other is trying to say. On days when couples therapy does nothing other than unpack previous fights so each side is accurately understood, I still consider it a session well spent.
Talking in person has its challenges. Skyping is one layer removed and slightly more uncomfortable. Phoning is even more distancing. And texting is kind of like trying to have a deep, difficult, nuanced interchange while one of you is on the moon.
Here are some of the reasons texting is a bad idea for couples (and friends, and family members, and coworkers, etc.):
1. You Can’t Read Tone
A friend of mine received a text from her boyfriend the other day that read, “You will leave the key on the table and be out by 11, right?” She read that as a command and felt not only annoyed but a bit bullied. When she discussed it with him, he was stunned. When he said it out loud in a warm voice—“I meant, ‘Let me get this straight, you said it was your plan to leave by 11 and you always leave the key, so I’m just checking to make sure we’re on the same page’ ”—she responded differently. She’d been mad all day, even reconsidering the relationship (“I can’t stay with someone who talks to me like I’m his servant”).
When the content of the conversation is even more important—say, a communication about a difficult topic or containing strong emotions—tone becomes even more important. We are interpreting each other constantly, so when we read a sentence on a screen we automatically imbue it with the tone and inflection we would have used to say it. This is usually very different from how our partner would say it. So half of what we read is filtered through our own lens—it’s like we’re having 50% of the conversation with ourselves.
2. You Can’t See Body Language
If you’re texting, you’re missing so much of the big picture. Particularly for people who are not very verbal, the use of the body is essential to communication.
As a therapist, I understand as much about the people I work with in therapy by what they don’t say as what they do say. By noticing how tense their body looks, how much they are avoiding eye contact, or how they twist their hands together, I can figure out anything from their stress level to the fact they aren’t telling me the whole story. Sometimes their words can say one thing (“I feel safe with my partner”) while their body says something different (turning away or folding their hands over their chest defensively). If I closed my eyes and heard only the words, I’d be getting half the information I need.
If you’re texting, you’re missing so much of the big picture. Particularly for people who are not very verbal, the use of the body is essential to communication. Think of a child who answers the question “How was your day?” by saying “Fine,” while hanging their head and picking at their shirt hem. Their words don’t matter nearly as much as all the other cues—none of which you’d see if you had texted them.
3. There Are Weird Time Lapses
Even during the most important text conversations, life happens. After texting furiously for 10 minutes, suddenly one participant disappears for an hour. These kinds of unexplained delays come up all the time in couples’ fights, and often partner 1 assumes the worst: partner 2 isn’t responding because they can’t be bothered, doesn’t care, or is prioritizing everything else. Even if there’s a reasonable excuse, partner 1 has spent an hour feeling slighted and may be triggered into escalating responses, such as jealousy or passive aggression.
Explained absences also cause problems. To have an intense dialogue constantly interrupted can make it feel oddly disjointed. Threads of arguments are lost or peter out. Conversations have rhythms, but texts are staccato.
4. There Are Weird Typos
A final, gigantic source of miscommunication in texts has to do with the very act of typing. Misspellings, acronyms, autocorrect, and a failure to re-read and edit messages before we send them can lead to all sorts of bizarre mistakes. Sometimes we can laugh at them (there are websites dedicated to poking fun at texting mistakes), but other times they lead to serious miscommunications. When “I really do care” gets changed to “I really don’t care,” watch the sparks fly.
When texting first began, now-common acronyms such as LOL were misused/misunderstood all the time, with some people thinking it meant “love you lots.” (“So sorry to hear about the death of your beloved dog. LOL.”) And don’t get me started on emojis. What looks to one person like a face sobbing with laughter looks to another like someone crying in pain. The use of a poo emoji, meant to be funny, can cause another person serious offense.
For couples who work with me, the advice is simple and straightforward: Don’t text. Use your phone only to make a call to your partner. It can be helpful to follow the rules many professionals use for texting—using it only for practical purposes such as arranging times to meet and sending last-minute updates.
Whenever possible, talk in person. But if it’s just not possible to do so, text with a lot of questions. Check in on all your negative interpretations. Ask, “Did you mean to say that?” Insist on clarification and rewording.
Finally, try to assume the best. Because you go into a text conversation knowing you can’t read the nuances clearly, tell yourself that your partner’s intent is probably positive, or at least benign, and that they want good communication and mutual respect as much as you do. Then, when you’re together, check in on any lingering doubts. Use text to increase rather than decrease your connection. And if it still doesn’t work, put the darn phone down.
© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Vicki Botnick, MA, MS, LMFT, therapist in Tarzana, California
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