It was love at first sight. From across a crowded bar, Benjamin made eye contact with Dana, then walked over and “accidentally” bumped into her. After a flirty conversation, they exchanged numbers. And as Dana was getting ready for bed, he texted: “Awesome to meet you. We’ll talk soon.” She fell asleep with a smile on her face.
But he didn’t call.
The next day, he texted: “Good morning, beautiful. Hope you slept well.” That kicked off an ongoing conversation over iMessage. They chatted about the music they listened to, the TV shows they watched, even the ice cream toppings they ate. And at the end of each night, they’d share whatever bits of the day that escaped their running commentary.
“We’re already texting like we were boyfriend-girlfriend. We even have little in-jokes,” Dana told me. “He texts me more in one week than my last boyfriend did in one year.”
For Dana and Benjamin, texting went beyond gauging romantic interest. They were building a bond. So after a week of back-and-forth typing, he asked her to dinner at an Italian trattoria.
She felt Benjamin was solid relationship material. From his texts, she could tell he was funny, easygoing and attentive. But when they met up, she got a rude awakening. He wasn’t what she thought he was. It turns out, she was looking at the wrong traits, signs she could have figured out if she’d known what to look for.
Benjamin was 40 minutes late. As they waited awkwardly at the bar for a table to open up, Dana kept telling herself, “He’s probably flustered from being late. And I’m a little grumpy because I’m hungry. Things will get better once we’re eating.”
When they were seated, things did begin to warm up. They shared some in-jokes they’d developed over text. But when she asked him about family and past relationships, he shied away and mostly talked about himself.
“He didn’t ask me very much about my opinions, my experiences or talk about things that interested me,” she said. “He just wanted to talk about his work, his friends, his travels. When I tried to bring something around to my life or thoughts, he’d steer it right back his way.”
Dana got a sinking feeling of disappointment in her stomach. Over text, he seemed warm, accessible and… well, just about perfect. But here, in the flesh, she began to discover things about him that she didn’t like. Still, she rationalized, it was simply a rocky start — a case of first-date nerves. The next date would be smoother, she told herself, trying to hold onto the illusion.
But then, the bill arrived. Benjamin took one look at it and turned red. “They charged us an extra glass of wine,” he said.
“Oh, we can just get that taken off,” she said, thinking it wasn’t a big deal.
Benjamin called over the waiter. “What is this?” he demanded, showing the bill. The waiter looked at it, confused.
“You charged us extra for a glass of wine,” Benjamin chided. Then, he berate the waiter for the incompetence, the mediocrity of the food and the overall “crappiness” of the experience.
Dana couldn’t believe it. “Being rude to waitstaff is a deal-breaker. It’s inexcusable, even if the dinner was horrible,” she said. “Benjamin was pretty much being rudest person on earth to a waiter.”
They’d planned to get a drink afterwards, but she couldn’t wait to get away. So they exchanged brief hugs and went their separate ways. Later that night, Benjamin texted her to apologize for being late and for the disappointing dinner. He promised to make it up on the next date. But Dana couldn’t forgive his earlier rudeness. There would be no next date.
She went to bed, sad and disappointed at the spectacular demise of such a promising relationship. The next morning, she awoke to the ping of her iPhone. “Good morning,” Benjamin texted. “Woke up thinking how inauspicious our first date was. Maybe we should try margaritas and Mexican next?”
According to Time, four-in-five young adults in relationships text each other regularly throughout the day. Both men and women agree that texting affectionate messages is a vital ingredient to being satisfied in a relationship, and it’s used in what couples therapists call “relationship maintenance.” Whereas going on dates, trying things together and having periodic “state of the union” talks entails traditional maintenance, texting is a simple and fun way for couples to stay connected while they’re apart.
During courtship, texting plays the crucial role of running interference between meeting a romantic potential and deciding to pursue them with a call or date. Several of my male friends, for example, admit to texting a girl to gauge interest before taking the risk of asking her out.
“You don’t have to risk the embarrassment of calling them and getting nothing,” Tim told me. “It’s easier.”
But Dana was now grappling with a common turning point in relationships: the realization that the person we’ve grown attached to is more complex than we thought. We’re all made of positive and negative traits, and part of deepening a relationship means learning to accept someone’s inevitable quirks and vulnerabilities — or breaking up if we can’t.
For Dana and Benjamin, technology accelerated — and foiled — the process. “Texting gave me one sense of who he was. But in real-life, I was confronted with something else,” Dana said. “The witty, curious person I was getting to know was still there, but there was more shading and shadows in the picture now.”
She realized how little texting conveys about someone. She learned what TV shows and ice creams flavors he liked, but she couldn’t pick up meaningful information about his personality and character.
But we can actually tell basic traits, such as how extroverted someone is. According to Ball State University, extroverts, for example, text more often and use more personal pronouns and fewer negative words. They also tend to send longer messages and “expand” words, such as writing “goooooood.”
On the other end, those with neurotic tendencies often use emoticons, abbreviations like “Lol” and negative words.
Information can be gleamed by how often someone’s texts, as opposed to the content. Frequent messaging reveals what psychologists call “attachment style,” which, according to some theories, is shaped by a child’s relationship with their parents. Said in another way, our relationship with our parents is a strong sign of how we’ll bond and trust in a relationship.
We can see attachment style at work when children cope in situations with and without their mothers. Kids who feel slightly anxious when their mothers leave — but are open and friendly to strangers in their mothers’ presence — show traits of “secure” attachment, and generally grow up with more self-respect, and feel more secure in their ability to maintain a committed relationship, without needing excessive reassurances and demonstrations of love and value.
Meanwhile, children who are excessively distressed when their mothers leave show “insecure” attachment, and often grow up feeling inferior, demand assurances of being loved and experience abandonment and anxiety when not in the presence of a partner.
Lastly, children show no distress at all when left by their mother temporarily hint at “avoidant” attachment, and grow up to value independence, emotional distance and control in a relationship.
According to the University of North Carolina, those who show insecure or avoidant styles tend to send the most messages in relationships. They like texting, researchers said, because they’re able to control the tempo of the relationship, while finding it less emotionally demanding than talking, which requires active listening and focus.
Insecurely-attached people text for different reasons. According to the study, they’re needled by constant fears of abandonment, so texting allows them to feel close and lessen anxiety.
No matter what the style, however, researchers discovered frequent texting is correlated with less satisfaction in relationships, since it often replaces real conversation. If a relationship uses text as its main way of communication, overall, couples tend to be less committed to one another.
To develop a satisfying relationship, we need to look up from our screens and actually spend time with one another. That means looking at our own habits when it comes to communication, and taking a look at the deep-seated issues underlying patterns that offset an insecure or avoidant style.
Dana didn’t know if Benjamin’s love of texting came from an insecure or avoidant attachment style. She did know she didn’t want see him in a romantic context. But he continued to text her as often as he did during the courtship, sharing a running commentary of his day. Eventually, she stopped replying, hoping he’d get the hint. But he continued to message her incessantly. What she originally soaked up as attention and validation became an annoyance, and she wanted him to stop.
“Normally, if you’re sort of unresponsive to someone after a date,” she said. “They pick up the clues and you can kind of just fade away.”
Due to the intense back-and-forth texts before their first date, Dana felt obligated to confront him — a situation she found ridiculous.
“We aren’t even a relationship, and yet I feel like I actually have to break up with him,” she said. “It’s like we had a whole relationship before we even went on that date, complete with all the typical obligations. But it’s weird. Do I call him, even though we never talked on the phone? Do I have to meet him and tell him in person, like I would’ve with a real relationship? Was it even a real relationship in the first place?”
The question of whether they were in a “real” relationship conducted over text is the central, even existential, issue of a very modern dilemma. Texting felt like a real relationship — not only where they sharing bits of information, they seemed to care for one another in a romantic way. They shared experiences and got to know one another.
But courtship is more than flirting. People underestimate how powerful and unpredictable chemistry is, and often it can only be gauged by face-to-face communication. While Dana and Benjamin met briefly in person — and found one another attractive on a surface level — it wasn’t a substitute for spending time together to discover whether they were truly compatible.
Did they have the same approach to time, money and how they treated other people? Were they patient and accepting of one another? Did they make each other laugh in person like they did over text? Could they accept one another’s inevitable quirks? Did they listen to one another well? Texting can tell you if someone is running late, flirtatious and eager to please, but on finer points of compatibility, texting told Dana nothing about Benjamin.
Dana broke up with Benjamin over text. She messaged that she enjoyed getting to know him, but she didn’t think they were a long-term match. Still, as the line goes, she hoped they could be friends. He didn’t reply, so she texted again, asking if he wanted to meet over coffee to talk. But again, no response.
Dana got the hint: Benjamin was done with her. “I was a little miffed that he just went cold on me,” she admitted. “But it did give me that sense of ‘Oh, I dodged a bullet.’”
In fact, Dana told me the text-heavy nature of her brief, aborted relationship with Benjamin may have helped her get over any twinge of regret or pain. “In the end, we didn’t even kiss,” she said. “It was all just words on a screen.” ♦