In today’s world, we are faced with many options for connecting with the people we most care about. We can text, email, call, Face Time, Snap Chat, and utilize a whole host of other social media options to communicate with others. There are pros and cons to many of these options.
This article will focus specifically on texting. As a couples therapist, couples often bring their phones into sessions to show me their latest arguments and to demonstrate “who said what.” Individual clients will sometimes read me text messages they have received from others and how they responded. These exchanges leave me feeling very concerned that so many emotional issues are being communicated through text messaging instead of face-to-face or even phone conversations.
When we become over-reliant on text messaging to communicate difficult issues to our friends, families, and romantic partners, we don’t develop the necessary skill sets to have tough conversations in person. This may seem obvious but we don’t get to hear the other person’s tone of voice, understand the context in which they sent the message, and most importantly, there is very little ability to make immediate repair in the moment when we understand that we may have misunderstood or misread what the other person meant. This is highly detrimental to our relationships as a whole. Being able to have face-to-face conversations about tough issues is extremely important to being able to maintain healthy relationships. When we are able to do this well, our relationships are more secure and we are more likely to trust the other person to hear our thoughts and feelings as well as hearing theirs.
Most people would admit to being conflict adverse, especially when the conflict occurs in person. Many of us have a difficult time hearing that those closest to us are disappointed in us or hurt by our actions. It is also true that most people have a hard time tolerating an angry reaction from another person (especially in person). Instead of being able to listen to this feedback with an open heart and mind, we tend to deflect it or defend ourselves. This is a very human response. However, when we rely upon texting to bring up or cope with difficult issues in our relationships, it is very easy to emotionally disconnect from the other person’s feelings. We are often willing to text things that we would never say in person. Doing this means that we don’t have to face the other person or deal with their reactions in the moment. When texting about an incident that hurt us in some way, we get to be absorbed in our own perspective without having to take into account the other individual’s. When this happens, we can lose the ability to have productive conflicts, conversations, and to hear the other person as well as be heard ourselves.
Texting in itself is not harmful (unless one is driving) and can be used as a powerful tool to communicate a brief message. For example, sending a friend a message that you are running late or texting your spouse a gentle reminder to pick up some bread on his way home from work are all great uses of texting. Even sending affirming messages to another person (for example, “I am thinking of you today,” “I miss you,” or “I can’t wait to see you tonight.”) are all positive uses of texting. Trying to work out significant relationship problems, having emotional arguments, and sending character attacks via texts are extremely damaging to our relationships and ourselves, especially given that the other person can go back and read the painful words repeatedly. People tend not to forget painful words. They stick and this diminishes the opportunity to re-think our words and responses to those we care about.
Being able to work out difficult issues with those we are closest to face-to-face is a much-needed skillset. Texting can augment a face-to-face (or phone conversation) and be used as a follow up to a tough conversation (“I really appreciate us being able to talk about this issue together. It was a hard thing for me to bring up to you.”).
I am hopeful that you will consider reserving texting for brief messages and non-serious issues and remember that talking to someone face-to-face or over the phone, although often tougher, tends to communicate how important the person is to you and how much you care about your relationship with them.
Katherine Helm, PhD
Dr. Helm can be reached by telephone at 630.718.0717, ext. 219 or email at email@example.com. For immediate assistance to schedule an appointment, please connect with one of our Client Care Specialists at 630.718.0717, ext. 240.