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Texting Makes It Easy to Overshare. Is That a Good Thing?

Is it bringing you closer to your partner or friend, or is the intimacy all a sham?

by Gretchen Brown
January 15, 2020 | Love

Tyler has been talking to Amanda for two years, but he’s never heard her voice.

That’s the premise of an episode of the TV show “Catfish.”

“It’s incredible that you don’t even talk over the phone, it’s all through texting and messaging,” Nev Schulman, the show’s host, tells Tyler. “But there’s a real connection here.”

Spoiler alert: Amanda wasn’t who she said she was. When the two finally met up in person, that connection was gone. Zap.

But even if Tyler can be blamed for not wanting to chat over the phone, he’s far from alone.

Eighty-two percent of young adults say they text their romantic partner multiple times a day. And Americans aged 18 to 49 are now more likely to have sent or received a text message on a given day than they were to have made a phone call.

I’m 25, so I know this inclination first-hand. It’s sometimes just easier to text someone something than to call them and have a whole conversation about it.

Especially when it comes to the deep stuff, things it’s hard to say out loud. It’s easier to spit it out via text.

Licensed psychologist Wendy Habelow says texting puts a distance between you and the person you’re talking to. That’s what makes it easier.

That can be helpful at times. But it comes with a few problems.

“I think sometimes the emotional distance can embolden people to be more intimate too quickly,” Habelow said.

In other words, just because you’ve told someone your deepest feelings via text doesn’t mean you’re automatically closer to that person. You can’t expect a fast track to intimacy by dumping your biggest secrets.

A woman sends a text message with her smart phone. REWIRE PBS Love texting
Texting might encourage you to overshare things you’d never otherwise say to that person.

“True intimacy requires trust and knowing someone fully,” she said. “When you’re in a texting relationship, particularly in the beginning, you don’t know that person long enough to be able to really take the time to develop the trust that’s needed in order to have true intimacy.”

Is texting hurting your relationship?

To be fair, Tyler’s experience isn’t the norm, and most folks have met the romantic partner or friend they’re texting with.

But text messages are stripped of voice inflection and body language. You might not be getting the full picture, even if you already know they’re real.

All the things that make you a human are missing.

“Facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, volume, inflection, spontaneity, breathing, proximity to the other person,” clinical psychologist Nancy Irwin said. “None of this is present in one-dimensional texting.”

Irwin cautions that texting might be great for quick things and emergencies — like confirming a date, or saying you’re running late.

But beyond that, the medium might encourage you to overshare things you’d never otherwise say to that person. That’s particularly true for folks with a fear of intimacy, attachment issues or social anxiety.

“It is a passive way to communicate without having to face the other person's response,” she said. “You may feel in control because you are disallowing the other's response and your own spontaneous response to them.”

Research has shown that in long-term texting-only relationships, relationship quality suffers.

But even when you see each other in person, texting can complicate things. A 2013 Brigham Young University study found that texting a bunch with your partner can can hurt your relationship.

For women specifically, the study linked texted apologies and decision-making via text with lower relationship quality.

However, the study found that expressing affection via text actually helped relationship quality. Saying “I love you” is good, no matter the medium.

[ICYMI: Documenting Your Love Story in a Post-Love Letter World]

How to get comfortable saying things out loud

Remember that distance Habelow was talking about? That’s not great when it comes to working through things with your partner, she said. That’s because texting can make you more impulsive.

You might be less likely to consider their emotions.

“If you’re sitting in front of somebody, and maybe you’re angry and you want to swear at them, but because you care about them, or maybe you see something in their eyes, like they’re crying, it may give you pause,” she said.

“If you’re having an argument over text, the other person might have said something nasty to you, you don’t see them crying and you don’t see their pain.”

If you’ve made a habit of only sharing the deep and tough stuff with your partner and friends via text, turning it around is gonna take some work.

Habelow says it’s a bit like training to run a mile.

Maybe you start off by walking a mile. Then after a bit of that, you try run-walking. Once you’re used to that, you run a little more than you walk. Pretty soon, you’re running the full thing.

In the same way, you can start by sharing something small but intimate with your partner or friend in person. And once you feel comfortable doing that, you can move up to bigger things. And bigger things.

It’s normal to be nervous about this, especially if you’re someone with a history of distrust in relationships, or a history of trauma or abuse. In those cases, you might want to work with a therapist who can help you figure out the best way forward.

Even after you get more comfortable, it’s likely texting will still be part of your relationship. And that’s OK.

One study from Pace University suggests that texting problems might be due to communication style mismatch rather than the medium. When two partners have a similar texting style, they report greater relationship satisfaction, regardless of the content of the messages, according to the researchers.

Another study found that texting does not ruin intimacy, but instead could be a good tool for relationship maintenance.

Written communication as avoidance has been going on far longer than texting has even existed. People just did it via written letters.

Think about Jo writing a confessional letter to Laurie in the classic book “Little Women,” instead of telling him how she felt out loud.

It’s up to you to decide if you like how the story ended.

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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