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3 Sexy Ways Texting in a Relationship Works (And 3 Pitfalls to Avoid)

Texting in a relationship can be fun, sexy, and even useful. But there are also some huge pitfalls to avoid. Is your relationship text smart?

By
Stephen Snyder, MD
Episode #18
couple texting
The Quick And Dirty
  • For better or worse, texting is now a permanent part of the relationship landscape. But texting only really enhances communication in situations where you both want the same thing. When that's not the case, texting can often cause trouble. 
  • Like all electronic forms of communication, text messaging can be a great way to start a fight, but it’s not much use if you want to settle one.
  • Never use text to argue, negotiate, or have a serious conversation with your partner. Save texting for light, happy situations where you're mostly in agreement. 

Texting in a relationship can be a great thing. It can also be a disaster. Today I want to talk with you about how to enjoy all the wonderful things texting can bring to your relationship while avoiding the most common pitfalls.

Texting is part of every relationship

For better or worse, texting is now a permanent part of the relationship landscape. Americans now send a total of 26 billion text messages a day. The average American spends nearly an hour each day sending and receiving texts. There’s even a study suggesting that “text compatibility”—how well your texting habits match—are an important predictor of relationship satisfaction.

Human beings didn’t develop the capacity for language until very recently. Until then, our ancestors got along perfectly well with non-verbal communication plus the occasional grunts and groans.

Human beings didn’t develop the capacity for language until very recently, at least in terms of our 13.8-billion-year-old universe. Scientists estimate humans began developing languages anywhere from two-million to just 50,000 years ago. Until then, our ancestors got along perfectly well with non-verbal communication plus the occasional grunts and groans. Written language didn’t get invented until much, much later. So disembodied words on a screen may be something our brains haven’t evolved to process very well.

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As a sex and relationship therapist, I often feel nostalgic for the good old days when texting didn’t wreak such havoc in relationships.

I’m not just talking about extreme things like catching your partner cheating by intercepting a text message. I’m talking about the endless misunderstandings that occur when people try to rely on text to communicate.

Be smart about texting in a relationship by asking yourself one simple question

There’s one crucial question that determines whether or not texting is going to be a good way to communicate at any given moment. And that question has to do with whether, at that moment, you and your partner both want the same thing.

Texting tends to be a great means of communication when you both want the same thing. But when you don’t, or you’re not really sure, then texting is often the worst communication technique in the world.

Texting can be a great thing for relationships. It can also be a disaster.

The most important question to ask yourself, before you hit “send” is, “Do we both want the same thing right now?”

Let me show you how this works.

First, I want to show you three absolutely wonderful things to do by text. They all typically involve both of you wanting the same thing.

Three fabulous ways to use texting in a relationship

1. Coordination

The first key to relationship text success is to using text for coordination, like making plans to get together. You’re both interested in getting get together. Remember our rule that you should both want the same thing? This is a good text situation.

Let’s say I’ve arranged to meet a friend for lunch. They get to the restaurant first, and they text me to tell me they’re already there. That’s useful information.

Caution

But even in this really simple situation—and this is obviously as simple as it gets—there can still be ambiguous meanings. Is my friend just texting me to let me know he got there first? Or is he also trying to communicate a sense of moral superiority? Which might lead to trouble, if I don’t feel like playing that particular game.

Make sure you have a purpose in mind with your text. If my friend texts me to let me know what table I'll find him at, that's helpful and not a humble-brag about his punctuality.

2. Flirtation

How about flirting? Flirting is one of the most common things people do by text. Is that a good idea? Well, let’s think about our rule. When two people flirt, are they both looking for the same thing?

Usually, yes. You both want to enjoy the fact that someone finds you interesting and attractive. For most of us, that’s better than a pint of Häagen-Dazs. Flirtation by text is so much fun that it’s astonishing how humans ever lived without it.

One study suggests that “text compatibility” —how well your texting habits match—are an important predictor of relationship satisfaction.

It starts with those three little dots that tell you some living, breathing, attractive person is thinking about you—right now. They're spending their valuable time and energy trying to figure out just the right thing to say—to you—because you're special and important to them.

If that’s not fun, then I don’t know what is.

Caution

Now obviously, flirting can lead to all sorts of complications. Ultimately, maybe you don’t both want the same thing, for instance. It's important to "read the room." If your text partner isn't responding in kind, take that as a sign to back off.

3. Seduction

Seduction is a lot like flirting. The main goal is to have a good time. And texting is a great way to do it.

Text messaging is technology’s gift to foreplay.

The art of seduction has always been about revealing just enough to keep it interesting, and letting your imagination fill in the rest. Texting does that almost automatically. The other person types something sexy, and your imagination goes into overdrive.

Text messaging is technology’s gift to foreplay. As a famous sex expert once said, eroticism = attraction + obstacles. Sometimes texting, because it’s so disembodied, can be just the right obstacle to send eroticism through the roof.

Caution

Of course, that’s assuming you both want a seduction scenario to happen. Texting is a terrible way to negotiate consent. This is why seduction by text works a lot better when you’re already an established couple.

Three things you should never do by text in a relationship

Now let’s get to the three things you should never do by text. Once you understand the fundamental rule—never to use text unless you’re sure you both want the same thing—these are all pretty obvious.

1. Arguing

In an argument, you clearly don’t want the same thing. If you did, you wouldn’t be having an argument.

Texting is like social media. It’s great for starting a fight, but not much use if you want to settle one. I’ve never seen a couple settle an argument by text.

What you really both want, of course, is to feel heard and understood. There are some excellent techniques for achieving this, as we discussed in Episode 11. But it’s virtually impossible to use any of these techniques via text.

Texting is like social media. It’s great for starting a fight, but not much use if you want to settle one.

2. Negotiating

Next, there’s negotiating. Couples have to negotiate all sorts of things—from little things like where to have dinner, to big ones like where to live and whether or not to have children.

The whole purpose of negotiating, as we discussed in Episode 8, is to figure out how to make you both happy. But that often means going back to the drawing board, again and again, until you finally arrive at the right solution. Until then, negotiation tends to feel like a total pain in the neck.

During the stage when negotiation feels like a total pain in the neck, you’re both going to need all the physical channels that we mammals have developed over millions of years, to reassure each other that everything’s going to be okay. Texting just can't meet that need for physical connection.

3. Having a serious conversation

The last thing you want to make sure never to do by text is to have a serious conversation. Serious conversations tend to be threatening. You need lots of reassurance, and disembodied words in cyberspace are never enough, no matter how many smiling emojis you add.

Trying to have a serious conversation with absolutely no sensory input violates everything we’ve learned as a species, over millions of years, about how to establish trust between two people.

The only way to provide the kind of reassurance we all need to have a serious conversation is through our physical senses. Even just hearing the other person’s voice on the phone provides us with a lot more emotional input than text on a screen.

Trying to have a serious conversation with absolutely no sensory input violates everything we’ve learned as a species, over millions of years, about how to establish trust between two people.

This includes conversations to define your relationship. Deciding to be exclusive. Breaking up. Making Up. And all points in between. In one survey, over half of Americans said they’d broken up with someone by text. Surely we can do better than that.

These are serious conversations. Don’t try to define your relationship unless you’re in a situation where you can look directly into each other’s eyes.

How to make sure your relationship is text smart

Texting can be loads of fun, and it’s very efficient. And that's great, as long as you both want the same thing. But when you’re part of a couple, your needs are never going to entirely match.

These days, when we’re all living part-time in the real world and part-time in cyberspace, it’s useful to keep in mind that virtual interactions, like texting, work best for the really easy stuff. When it comes to the hard stuff, skip the e-communication and wait for a time when you both have your feet firmly planted in the real world.

Disclaimer: All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider.

About the Author

Stephen Snyder, MD

Dr. Stephen Snyder is a sex and relationship therapist in New York City and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine. He's also the author of Love Worth Making: How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship

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