Texting your boyfriend to say you're running late is one thing. Trying to win an argument via text is quite another, suggests a new study that finds how young couples use text messaging may affect the quality of their relationships.
The research doesn't actually prove that texting influences how well couples get along, but it does raise questions about the role played by those little messages you send your significant other.
"Texting almost always gets a bad rap when people talk about what it does in relationships," said study author Lori Cluff Schade, who worked on the research as a graduate student at Brigham Young University. "They always talk about it like it's a disconnecting force."
The study, published in the Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, suggests that texting can actually improve relationships, although it seems to also have the power to hurt them, Schade said.
Researchers haven't spent a lot of time studying text messages, which have only become common over the past decade, said Jeffrey Hall, an associate professor of communication at the University of Kansas.
Hall said couples often use texts to coordinate their schedules and needs, such as figuring out who will pick up the kids and who will buy milk after work. But they may also use texts for other reasons, such as to express affection or try to hurt their partner, he said.
In the new study, researchers surveyed nearly 300 people aged 18 to 25 about their relationships and their texting habits. The participants were married, engaged or seriously dating, and about four out of five texted with their partner multiple times a day.
The researchers found that both men and women were more likely to report less satisfying and less stable relationships when the men frequently texted their female partners. Women who texted the most, however, were more likely to report that they had stable relationships.
Those who texted affectionate notes to each other were more likely to be more closely attached, judging by the survey results.
Why might texts have this kind of power? It seems to lie in their ability to reflect emotion. Study author Schade, a therapist, said patients often will bring in text messages from their partners to show her. "They can feel the emotion from the personal message," she said.
Specifically, the study may suggest that men use texts to distance themselves and avoid an in-person conversation, while women use texts to connect, Schade said.
This could reflect a common dynamic in heterosexual couples, she said. "Women are pursuers in trying to fix things, while men tend to withdraw from feeling that they're being attacked or criticized."
Hall, the Kansas professor, said the findings deserve skepticism since there's no way to know whether texting levels are actually having an effect on relationships or vice versa. There could actually be no connection.
The authors acknowledged several limitations to their work. The study population was mostly white and well educated, so it's not known if the findings would apply to other groups. Also, there was no way of assessing the degree of commitment each romantic partner felt toward the other.
That said, there may be some universal ground rules couples can follow with text messages.
"They should be purposeful in how they're using texting," Schade said. "It can be used positively, and they can use it as a way to connect and reach out to their partner. But they should slow themselves down if they're feeling emotionally frustrated, angry or hurt. That can have unintended consequences."
Hall suggested that couples use texting to handle "impersonal or universally positive things. The more complicated the issue, the less well-suited texting is to handle it."
SOURCE: HealthDay News; Nov. 5, 2013; Lori Cluff Schade, Ph.D., former graduate student, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah; Jeffrey Hall, Ph.D., associate professor, communication, University of Kansas, Lawrence; Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy
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