Why attachment styles and text messages don’t always mix
I listened intently as the young woman I worked with recounted the controversial discussion she had had with her romantic partner the night before.
“He was so mad at me. I mean, all I said was he didn’t listen to me and didn’t care about everything I had to say. And then he ran over with me and got really cold. “
She added with great inflection, “I’m not going to take this any longer. He started yelling at me. And he was like, ‘There you go, you’re doing such a big deal for nothing. Our only problem is that you are still so hostile.
She added that last part by putting her hands on her hips and imitating his voice.
This description of the argument with her boyfriend, complemented by the expression of inflections and tones of voices from her and her boyfriend, lasted about 15 minutes. Then she got to the point where she said he was so inconsiderate he didn’t respond for 10 minutes.
Suddenly it hit me. “You mean all of this conversation was over text?” ” I asked.
She looked at me like I was totally out of touch, said “yes” and went back to recounting the rest of her exchange with her boyfriend.
I would like this type of story to be isolated to one person or one situation, but it’s common. And one of the most common recommendations I give to my clients struggling with relationship issues is to “REDUCE TEXTS” (in plain text, I think I shouted that, right?) .
Texting increases conflict and decreases privacy
A recent study by Halpern and Katz, 2017, found that more texting is linked to more conflict and less intimacy in romantic relationship. More conflict and less intimacy then lead to a decrease in the quality of the relationship over time.
As a way to communicate plans, details, and what your partner needs to pick up from the store, texting is great. But, as a vehicle for communicating complex, emotionally charged information where you have to go back and forth with a partner or resolve issues or misunderstandings, it is downright inappropriate and potentially damaging.
SMS and attachment system
Some of the problems with SMS are related to differences in the style of attachments, but there are some issues that are common to all of us. Let’s discuss it first.
The first thing you need to remember is how the fastening system works. Click here if you need a reminder.
The human attachment system balances the search for security with a willingness to explore and develop mastery over the environment. The father of modern attachment theory, John Bowlby, eloquently described how healthy people personality develops through a repetitive cycle of:
- Step out in the comfort of a secure base (usually a romantic partner, relative, close friend, etc.) to explore the world
- Encountering roadblocks or setbacks
- Fold over to the secure base for added comfort and support
- Obtain comfort, regulation of emotions, and new strategies and encouragement to start over and try again
- Explore knowing that the secure base will be there for you when you need it
The key things to note in this arguably straightforward description of how the system works are that it requires:
- A time of separation
- Tolerate some distress until the person can no longer comfort themselves
- Reconnect and obtain comfort (regulation of emotions) and framing on how to better face the environmental challenge
The problem with ongoing texting is that we’re always “on” – that is, no more than a nudge away from prematurely hitting the base (if we’re exploring) or reassure an exploration partner (if we are acting as a base).
Look at it this way: if the system worked well to foster a secure attachment and sanity in you, you would text your partner less and less because you have learned from experience that they are always there for you. and that you can calm down and regulate your own emotions in mild to moderately distressing circumstances. But many of us are stuck in continuous texting cycles. Even when we are at work, some of us constantly send and receive text messages from our loved ones.
We have to learn to let ourselves explore ourselves and let others explore and feel some distress without jumping too fast with comfort. It actually blocks learning to tolerate distress and frustration.
Try not to text (like when you are at work!). Not having hours to text can also keep your base secure when you really need it.
When we have a secure base and we are convinced that this base is always available, warm and responsive, we are free to move away from this base to explore our environment and independently develop mastery. But what happens when we never really separate from our base?
- We don’t learn to regulate our own emotions.
- We don’t learn to tolerate ambiguity.
- We keep ourselves activated.
- We can burn the base.
Regarding this last point, someone with a dismissive style needs time to process emotionally invigorating interactions. If they are pressured to provide emotional support and intimacy when they are not ready, they may close down and run away (figuratively or literally). If the romantic partner has a preoccupied or fearful style, they may text too many times and actually promote the rejecting person becoming less available to them.
Research results from Drouin and Landgraff (2012) indicate that higher levels of avoidance are associated with fewer texting to romantic partners.
Fewer texts or a delayed response can then activate people with anxious attachment styles. People with anxious styles (fearful or preoccupied) may interpret ambiguous or neutral expressions as emotional threats. Because they tend to elaborate too much, this activation can then cause them to text even more and potentially damage the relationship.
I don’t pretend to know who started it all – the anxious person who texts too many or the avoidant person who doesn’t respond enough. But, it’s up to all of us to know our style and how to conduct ourselves accordingly.
- For people with preoccupied or fearful attachment styles: don’t sit by your phone while waiting for a text. Put it down, don’t watch it, and learn to regulate and soothe your own painful emotions.
- For people whose attachment styles ignore: respond even when you don’t want to and invite a phone call or in-person chat instead of texting.
When you send an SMS you miss valuable information
Beyond what has already been discussed, texting can also be problematic because it ignores how the human brain receives information about relationships.
When we have a face-to-face conversation with someone, we are actually communicating across multiple channels. Obviously, there are the words we use, but much of it is also communicated in our tone, facial expressions, and the inflection of our voice. These are totally lost in a text exchange.
Instead, as pointed out in my opening example, people will infer each other’s tone and inflection. Our brains are wired to make sense of our surroundings, and even without our realizing it, they fill in the missing information. In a text conversation, the tone, volume and inflection of the voice is lacking and our brain will do what it is supposed to do and compensate. But how they fill in the missing information will depend just as much on our own attachment styles as it is on what is actually happening on the other end of our text exchange.
- If we have a preoccupied style, we can be on our guard against rejection and anticipate being spoken to as if we are inferior or somehow damaged and needy. Thus, we are likely to infer such attitudes in ambiguous situations such as a text exchange.
- If we are fire, we can ignore an inflection that we should infer. We can just tell ourselves that it doesn’t matter and that the person on the other end of our text stream should be okay with what we just said.
- If we have scary styles, we can expect to be attacked or falsely accused. We can then engage in reckless texting in an attempt to counterattack. In doing so, however, we may not anticipate how the other person is also likely to inaccurately infer our intentions and attitudes (as found in our facial expressions, tone and volume).
When it comes to texting, less is more
People with insecure styles tend to send more text messages as a percentage of their overall communication compared to more secure people (Luo, 2014) (voice, phone, face to face, email, online chat, among others ). So try having more face-to-face or phone conversations and texting less often. You could just start rewiring your system to be more secure.