Last month, I got really into binge watching the first few seasons of Sex and the City.
While it was undeniably entertaining to witness the glittery lives of the rich and powerful in New York City, what I enjoyed most about the ‘90s sitcom was the reminder of how people dated back in the day. It was refreshing to see a character write down their phone number on a napkin and hand it to a prospective suitor at a bar or cafe. And if the suitor was interested, they’d call over the landline to propose a date — or simply leave a message if no one was around.
Anyone currently navigating the dating scene can tell you that calling to set up a date is no longer commonplace. Following the COVID-19 lockdowns, dates moved almost totally online. That meant many people looking for love, especially young people, took to downloading a dating app (or two or three) and spending lots of time messaging total strangers.
But texting back and forth, while potentially exhilarating, can also be exhausting and wrought with anxiety. Read on to learn why texting your romantic interest can be so stressful and ways you can make it more manageable.
(Lack of) Context
For the vast majority of our time on Earth, humans communicated with one another face to face. As a result, our brains developed extremely effective processes to interpret facial expressions, body movements and tone of voice. These clues allow you to correctly interpret someone’s words in context.
But as different communication technologies were introduced, we traded some of these contextual clues for convenience. You can now be halfway across the world from someone and hear their voice through the phone — but you won’t be able to see their facial expressions or nonverbal body cues.
Texting, in comparison, provides only the bare minimum of context cues to understand what someone is saying; all we can see is the words a person uses, without even the benefit of their handwriting. The culture surrounding text messaging is additionally low in context. In other words, texts are meant to be written and sent quickly (perhaps with a slew of acronyms and emojis), which often leaves room for ambiguity.
It’s Not You, It’s Me
Speaking of ambiguity, our brains don’t like it. We’re uncertainty reduction machines, built to make guesses and form conclusions based on previous experiences. Generally, this is a useful skill that allows us to estimate a bunch of things we can never know. However, when texting, the lack of context can leave lots of space for error.
Michelle Drouin, author of Out of Touch: How to Survive an Intimacy Famine, explains that our brains have a propensity to fill in any unknown gaps: “If we don't have those immediate nonverbal cues, we fill in the gaps between the things that they don't say … and we interpret them through our own lens.” Since we read text messages in our heads, she adds, we tend to read them in our own voice. This makes it easier to project your own thoughts onto a message, as you’re lacking the context clues that would remind you who the other person is and how they differ from yourself.
Leora Trub, a professor of psychology at Pace University in New York, explains how this could also enable the projection of fears. “The less information available to you, the more you will project your own internal world onto that stimulus,” she says. “So if you have some anxiety about rejection in a particular relationship, you'll be more likely to interpret communication in ways that align with your fears.”
Reflect on Your Emotions
Trub developed an app to help people text more mindfully, but here are three steps she suggests you follow after drafting a text.
Notice how you’re feeling and recognize any potential ways that your internal emotional state could allow you to project onto the conversation at hand.
Imagine how the text you’re sending will make the receiver feel.
Decide if and how you want to send your text.
If you notice yourself struggling with anxiety around an incoming or outgoing text, marriage and family therapist Moe Ari Brown recommends tuning in and noticing where that anxiety is coming from. “If you're feeling anxious, it's for a reason. I'd like people to explore what that reason is and try to mitigate the possible circumstances that activate that anxiety,” he says.
Brown explains that sometimes anxiety is an indication that you’re not secure in the relationship, while other times a text exchange can trigger past trauma that has nothing to do with the relationship at hand. Either way, though anxiety can be an unpleasant emotion to experience, it’s also an important one to listen to and learn from.
Evaluate Your Needs and Expectations
Brown encourages his clients to validate and articulate their communication needs and expectations with potential partners. “Be very honest about what your needs are and know that you are amazing. You don't have to try to fit into someone else's life. Don't just accept what someone else is offering if it's causing you real stress,” he says.
Ultimately, the important thing to remember is that other people are their own individuals. It can be easy to jump to conclusions based on your own thoughts, fears or previous experiences — but stepping back and approaching your own and someone else’s behavior with curiosity and compassion can allow you to tune into your own emotions and overcome your worst instincts.
And of course, it’s never too late to take a page out of Carrie Bradshaw’s book. If texting makes you feel stressed, the good news is you can always try giving someone a call or suggest a time and place to meet in person.