As she does for so many affairs of the heart, Lorde speaks for all of us when she sings about the intricacies of texting: “I overthink your punctuation use,” she confesses on “The Louvre,” maybe the best song on her new record. “Not my fault,” she adds; it’s just something her mind does.
In one sense, it’s reassuring to think of a pop star fretting over her iMessage in the same way that anyone who’s dated anyone in our smartphone era may do. There is, according to both psychological research and clinical practice, good reason for that concern: Last week I was shocked to learn something that later made perfect sense, when a new study in the journal Computers in Human Behavior found that perceived similarity in texting styles was linked to relationship satisfaction. Among the 205 young Americans recruited for a survey, the more someone felt that they and their partner had symmetrical rhythms of texting—messaging to say “hey, what’s up” and the like at similar intervals—the better they felt about how the partnership was going.
Texting has become the way that we keep in touch: between WhatsApp and SMS, some 77 billion messages are sent per day globally. Texting is weirdly intimate yet distant: like a call, it shows up right there on your phone, which is likely on you, yet it’s also what communications scholar call “asynchronous”—like email, you can choose to view and reply to message at your own convenience. It’s also low in “richness”: you have body language when you’re face-to-face, facial expressions over video messages, and tone of voice on a call, but over text, it’s just typing and a smattering of emoji, meaning there’s (perilously) lots to interpret in length of messages, speediness of replies, and like. This quicksilver combination means that texting in relationships can be convenient but baffling. Especially when you just started seeing someone.
Humans are constantly sizing up one another’s behavior, and texting is a primary one through which we start making evaluations early in a relationship, says Katherine Hertlein, a psychologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Did they respond, did they not? How many texts? Did they check in?” says Hertlein, who has a couples’ therapy practice and also studies technology’s impact on relationships. “Once that dance has gotten started, if you slow down to a pace where you’re comfortable, that change is going to be interpreted as a lack of interest,” she tells Thrive Global. If it speeds up there might be questions around why, too: “Is this person all of a sudden interested,” she asks, or are they getting a little overbearing? “You have to make sure that whatever cadence you start with is a cadence that you can be comfortable with and that feels authentic for you in the moment,” she says.
One of the blessings—or burdens, depending on your perspective—of technology is that it allows for what psychologists call “social presence,” or a feeling of closeness, from afar. Key to this, Hertlein says, is immediacy. That’s one reason it’s easy to get miffed at a partner who doesn’t respond promptly. “You’re supposed to be immediate, and now you have a device that makes you so,” she says of the logic of the aggrieved. “Couples have problems when a partner doesn’t respond because you have now violated the contract in the relationship.”
There’s good reason to believe that we treat our texts—and the phones that contain them—like we treat our relationships in general. Leora Trub, who runs the Digital Media and Psychology Lab at Pace University, has sketched this out under the framework of attachment theory, which is perhaps psychology’s best model for understanding what’s really driving our relationship dynamics. In short, people learn how to love from their primary caregivers, most often their mother, and those patterns then transfer into their romantic relationships in adulthood. If their mom was dismissive of their emotions as a child, they’re liable to become disconnected from their own (and their possible partner’s) feelings in adulthood, in what’s called avoidant attachment. If they needed to act up or stay close to mom to get the care they needed, they’re likely to bring anxious attachment into their grown-up relationships, meaning they’ll be what’s tactfully called “proximity seeking” in the literature and better known as clingy with potential partners. And guess what: we treat our phones much the same way.
A 2015 Pew study found that 70 percent of smartphone users surveyed thought their phone offered them freedom, while 30 percent thought it felt like a “leash.” And in a paper published last year, also in Computers in Human Behavior, Trub found that people tend to see their phones as both a refuge—they felt safer with it and distressed without it—and as a burden—an obligation to communication that they carried with them wherever they went. Respondents scoring highly on anxious attachment measures were more likely to endorse statements like “I feel naked without my phone” or “I need my phone with me at all times,” meaning the phone was something of a security blanket keeping you close to the reassurances of the social world. People high on avoidance were more likely to agree with statements like “I feel burdened by my phone.” It’s almost as if the phone is “this intrusive entity that’s taking away from their capacity to enjoy things,” Trub says. “They need to feel free of it.”
The attachment is happening with the device, as well as the people behind them. “Am I attached to my phone because I'm attached to the people on the other side of it? Or am I attached to my phone for what it is?” Trub asks. “It's a great question. Of course, it's a both/and question.” This reveals something of the deeper mechanics at work for why matching texting styles signal a more general compatibility: someone with avoidant attachment might be alarmed by lots of messages (hence the dangers of “double texting,” or sending consecutive texts without a reply), while someone more proximity-seeking will be made nervous by not getting a reply all day.
In her practice, Hertlein will see couples who have problems when one texts the other with an urgent message, saying they want to talk, and their partner doesn’t reply right away. “You have now violated the contract in the relationship,” she says, expressing that vexed viewpoint. “You didn't respond. You're supposed to be immediate, and now you have a device that makes you immediately available.” Put into media studies language, the aggrieved party was in a synchronous mode, while the other was acting more asynchronously. Hence why texting style can be so important: “If both people have a more asynchronous style then that would be a fit,” she says. “And if both people have a really proximate synced up style that would be a fit.” The opposite will sometimes come to a head in her therapy practice: Hertlein recalls a client who would text her husband, who was in meetings all the time, and he wouldn’t respond. “ But that wouldn't stop her from keeping texting him going, ‘Where are you, where are you, where are you?’” she says. Clearly, attachment issues were getting inflamed.
To Hertlein, who’s working on a book about smartphones and dating, all of it comes down to suiting the medium that works with the task at hand. Asynchronous methods are better for problem solving, she says, since they give you more time to digest the information you’ve received from other people and compose your thoughts. (In her practice, she’s had a couple who, if they got into a fight, would go into separate rooms and start writing emails to each other—she lauds that as a way of getting the problem solving going.) Synchronous methods, like a voice or video call, or a dedicated couple of minutes for back and forth texting, are better for providing support—that “social presence” of instantaneous interaction provides a virtual shoulder to lean on.
And while you wouldn’t want to have the conversation on the first date, Hertlein encourages couples and couples to be to articulate what their preferred messaging style would be, given workloads, preference for alone time, and other needs. “Part of what creates satisfaction is when you use the technology well without knowing you’re using it well, and part of what creates dissatisfaction is when you don’t know what you’re doing with it,” she says. “Just because you have a phone and you know how to navigate the phone doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to do anything with technology in your relationship.”