Delve with me for a moment into my memory, if you don’t mind knowing some personal things about me. It’s my final year of high school and I have just entered into my first dating relationship. I’m overjoyed for many reasons, of course, one of the main reasons being that I am the main topic of conversation of my 400-person senior class (this has never happened before). I have no idea what I’m doing in this relationship, so I go to my main source of wisdom for how to conduct myself toward my girlfriend: my best friend. He tells me to do what most other people in the school are doing, one thing of which is to send her text messages to hold conversations with her. Well, I quickly found out that “conversations” was not quite the correct word; he should have told me we would have “a conversation.” That’s how it turned out: we texted day after day, replying to the last message we received. (Of course we also spent time in each other’s company, but whenever we were absent from each other, our messages went flying consistently back and forth.) After a while, however, I noticed that I felt drained by sending so many text messages to her without a break. I didn’t think much about it, though, so I continued texting her and feeling a little more drained than normal at the end of each day. Then, even after that relationship came to a close, I continued using text messaging to hold conversations with other people, and the drained feeling persisted.
Now, four years and countless text message conversations later, I have found myself there a few other times: in a relationship in which texting is the main method we use to communicate. I am perplexed as to why this drains me so much. There are a few answers that are specific to me, of course: I regain energy by spending time either alone or in the company of small groups of close friends (commonly known as an introvert), and I like to focus on doing one task at a time (I consider holding a text conversation a task). But I also have a feeling of unease when I have an ongoing text conversation with someone. And I don’t like it.
I am trying to identify this feeling, as I doubt I am the only one who tends to feel it. More specifically, I am wondering: is there a way to allow spells of silence between a couple holding text message conversations while avoiding a feeling of unease when one or both don’t respond within a short time? And more importantly, is text messaging messing us up on a deep level–is it crippling our character? I believe these issues are related, so I will answer the first question, then move onto answering to second.
Today’s technology makes long silences difficult to handle between couples who have set a standard of replying quickly to text messages. As an example, let’s say I am in a dating relationship and have been holding an ongoing text conversation with my girlfriend for a month. She knows that, because I am an American twenty-something, I have my phone on my person for most of the day. This means that any elongated silence is usually at least somewhat deliberate on my part. All of this goes for her as well, of course: it’s a two-way street. We both have our phones with us almost all day, so we can rarely say we didn’t see the other person’s message.
However, I am recalling ages before cell phones, before telephones in general, when couples who were separated by distance for whatever reason had to wait on the postal service to deliver handwritten letters to and from each person. This provided time for them both to live their separate lives while they waited for their letters to be delivered and for the postman to deliver their love’s response.
Can we use this idea of lengthened time spans between our conversations even with modern technology? I think so. We could certainly continue to hold conversations in ways in which text messaging allows–quick, brief responses to each other’s messages–but we could bring each conversation to an end. Then we could let a day or two (or, society forbid, more days) pass before sending another conversational text message. Returning to the scenario of me dating someone, this would allow for communication between the two of us to feel, well, more… romantic.
Now, regarding the second, and I believe more pressing, question. Changing from an ongoing conversation to different, spaced-out conversations would not be easy to institute, especially not for the text-message-addicted couple, to which we will again return for an example. The consistent, indefinitely-long conversations between my girlfriend and I allow for a lack of trust and a lack of confidence to flourish. When each of us receives affirmation of the one person’s feelings for the other about once every hour (or more frequently), we learn to expect such frequent affirmations. After we have garnered such expectations, we tend to become very unnerved if there is a longer lapse of time between messages. Often, we are uncertain of why this period of silence has occurred, and tend to form (what are in our opinions) the worst conclusions. “He isn’t replying because he doesn’t like me anymore.” “She hasn’t responded because she is texting another guy she’s interested in.” We worry about such possible events because they are the very occurrences we desire not to happen.
However, from my experience, such conclusions are typically unfounded. The other person has never said nor done anything about not wanting to remain in a dating relationship, yet when we haven’t received a text message within however long our typical response time frame is, we fear this to be the case. We think that they may not be interested in us anymore even though they have not stated this, so we worry. The possibility exists, so we fret. This reveals our lack of trust and lack of confidence in the other person and in ourselves, respectively.
Lack of trust could play out in our minds like so: “She hasn’t responded to my text in four hours. That’s plenty of time for her to go on a date, or do something else, with another guy. Maybe she is texting another guy and has forgotten about me. She hasn’t told me about anything like that, but why would she? I don’t like this silence. She needs to respond.” In this case the male evidently does not trust the woman he is dating when, based on their conversations, he has no reason to mistrust her. The frequent replies have diminished his level of trust in her.
On the other side of the issue, lack of confidence may look in our thoughts like so: “He has had four hours to reply to my text, yet he hasn’t sent anything back yet. What is he doing? Does he think I’m not pretty enough? Not lively enough? Not funny enough? Has he found someone, some other girl, who is prettier and livelier and funnier than I am? Or is he looking at porn? He needs to reply! He hasn’t mentioned any of these things, but of course he wouldn’t–he would want to keep them secret. Please reply!” In this scenario, the girl worries that she isn’t good enough (in whatever traits) for her boyfriend’s standards–in spite of the fact that he hasn’t stated any such standards. She has no confidence in herself, so she fears that her boyfriend will leave her, even though her boyfriend has likely told her he wants to be with her. Indeed, lack of confidence leads to lack of trust, so the core trouble in expecting frequent replies to text messages is mistrust.
This need not be a problem. We should trust other people by default, especially if we are children of God. Trusting people who haven’t given a reason not to do so is part of loving them, and Jesus tells us to “Love your neighbor as yourself” in Mark 12:31. And more than trusting a person we may not know well, we should trust a person whom we have gotten to know for an extensive period of time. However, we want to avoid all pain, so we fear the worst and consequently cause ourselves to languish (paradoxical, isn’t it?). We could trust others, and specifically the people we are dating, and this would relieve the stress and pain of expectation–not to mention the pain of the consequent disappointment that will inevitably come from unmet expectations.
Then, after we have decided to trust others (and, by the way, trust God), we can rejoice in the times when we communicate with our dating partners and live confidently, contentedly and peacefully when we are not.
I am not meaning to condemn text message conversations; rather, I want to say that there may be a danger to relying on them as a main way to communicate with another person. Since we are not in the company of the person to whom we are conversing, there are many parts of communication that are left to guessing, and when we guess, we usually guess the worst possible situations are happening. If we can avoid this unnecessary way of communicating, it would prevent much unnecessary anguish.
Also, this is a rather childish issue, but I have faced it a handful of times and I know it can feel pressing. Therefore I want to address it so that we can see how it may be affecting us and how we might best use text messaging to communicate while avoiding unneeded pain and frustration.
Text messages can be a great way to communicate, but I advise that when we hold conversations with them, we end them like we would any face-to-face conversation: when they are over.