November 12, 2013

Couples' Texts Can Strengthen — or Ruin — Relationships

Text messages offer lovers another way to whisper endearments. But some texts just shouldn't be sent.

Text messages can bring couples together, or they can help drive them apart. Electronic communication is a powerful tool that can have effects on relationships that partners may not appreciate.

Distinguishing Positive from Destructive Text Messages

Texts offer romantic partners an extra opportunity for intimate communication, a chance to send sweet nothings to each other, keeping the connection alive. But texts are best kept light. Save the serious topics for when you are together, face-to-face. That's the message of a new study by researchers at Brigham Young University.

It can be hard to appreciate that one kind of text can have a very positive impact on the relationship, while another exerts far more negative effects.

It is easy to underestimate the impact you have with texting, researcher Lori Schade, a licensed marriage and family therapist, tells TheDoctor. And it can be hard to appreciate that one kind of text can have a very positive impact on the relationship, while another exerts far more negative effects.

Texts can increase the feeling of connection in a relationship, says Schade. If they are used in a purposeful way, and for good, they can be a great tool for communicating. But if they are used in a negative way, they can have very damaging consequences.

The Study
Schade and her colleagues looked at the text messaging patterns of a group of men and women between the ages of 18 and 25 years old. All were in what they described as committed relationships. Participants completed questionnaires about how they communicated with their partner using technology.

Both men and women said that when they received texts expressing affection, it enhanced their relationship. Women reported that when texts were used to offer apologies, make decisions or resolve differences, it reflected less attachment, stability and happiness in the relationship. Men also said that too frequent texting was associated with lower relationship quality.

A text that is argumentative or hurtful is bound to have an impact on the recipient; but because the sender removed from it, he or she is less likely to be particularly aware of their partner's emotional response.

“We found is that there was a very real effect of using texting to express affection and relationship attachment,” Schade said. If people text to express affection, they help increase attachment, which in turn improves relationship stability and satisfaction.

If You Can't Say Something Nice, Better Not to Text at All

When texts are not affectionate, they can do real harm. All couples have disagreements and say hurtful things, but when texts are designed to expound on a disagreement or to hurt a partner, they can make things worse.

“People are not right in front of their partner when they are texting, so they are not getting real-time feedback on their emotions: they are not hearing their voice, they are not seeing their face,” Schade explains. They shoot off a text, and do not see the impact that the text is having, so they tend to think little of its consequences. The truth is that an argumentative or hurtful text certainly does have an impact on the recipient, but it is easy for the sender to be removed from that when they are just sending a text.

The Withdrawal Method
In men, the frequency of texting can reflect the quality of the relationship, according to Schade. Higher texting frequency of both the men and their partners was actually associated with lower relationship satisfaction in the study.

This is probably because it reflects what most therapists would see as a pattern of male withdrawal, says Schade. “[W]e think that men might be using texting as a way to withdraw from more interpersonal forms of conversation because its easier, ” she says. In this heterosexual relationship scenario, women become the pursuers in the relationship, and men will withdraw because they feel like it's too much, and they feel overwhelmed.

Couples should use text messages to reach out to each other in a warm, affectionate way or to spice up their time apart.

The investigators did not see that effect with women. In fact, the only significant pattern seen among women was that they reported that as the relationship grew, they might text more as a way to reach out, Schade says.

Apologizing or discussing confrontational subjects by text is not a good idea, however. Women who tried to use texts to repair relationship problems or register disagreement were less satisfied with their relationships, according to the researchers. In general, a text message is not a good way to have important relationship conversations.

As Schade says “Maybe [couples] need to be more mindful about setting those [conversations] up in person, because its not having the effect on their relationships that they intend.”

Couples should use text messages to reach out to each other in a warm, affectionate way or to spice up their time apart. For more meaningful conversations, nothing works as well as a good old-fashioned heart-to-heart, done face-to-face.

The study is published online in the Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy.

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