“Text me.”

That request would’ve sounded crazy twenty-five years ago.

Now it’s the way many of us communicate; it’s easy, fun, and convenient. It opens up time in your day to be more productive. Or to binge on a little Netflix.

A quick text can be expedient and efficient for work, and it allows you to stay in touch with friends and family. Longer text conversations can take place while you’re simultaneously cooking, working out, or otherwise occupied. Group texts can be both fun – and times, annoying, with way too many “dings” going on. And you bet it can feel a little intrusive. Yet you pick up your phone and reply, even when you’d rather not…or worse, it takes your attention way from what you’re doing.

How can texting lead to problems?

1) You can irrationally or wrongly interpret the “why” of no response or a delayed one.. 

What’s fascinating neurologically about texting is that dopamine is released when you’re awaiting a response — and what does dopamine do? It’s known as the seeking neurotransmitter. It’s released when you’re seeking something out that you anticipate being pleasurable. The more dopamine, the more seeking. 

So, what happens when a reply doesn’t arrive? An hour can make you believe that you’ve been abandoned, forgotten, disrespected, or ghosted, or even a few minutes can lead to imagining a catastrophe — that the absent sender has been abducted. You text other friends for advice and the “why” can be the topic of endless, agonizing speculation.

It’s even worse when you see those three flashing little dots, only to see them disappear. Theories spring into action. And you’re.a wreck. There’s no dopamine happening anymore… Cortisol and thus anxiety is running rampant. Or anger. 

And there’s the dreaded one word response. And let’s not forget the drunk texting late at night.. not usually positive.

2) Texting ignores those around you..

I don’t think we realize how much innate power the act of texting in front of someone else has on that relationship. Think about it. You’re hunkered over your phone, head down, privately giggling or rapidly moving your fingers over the keys. You’re not in the moment with them at all, or certainly not completely. No wonder it leads to problems with distrust. 

And then there’s texting as a replacement for real, live conversation.

I had a young female patient who was miserable here at our local university. Let’s call her Lisa. Lisa  was from another state, and complained to me, “Everyone already has their friend groups.” I asked her what she did as she walked between classes.

“I usually text my mom.”

“I wonder if the person right next to you, walking up the steps and going into the same classroom, might be someone to say hi to?”

“I’d never thought of that.”

Lisa wasn’t available to anyone around her as she giggled with her mom or told her how miserable she was. 

3) Texting can serve as an escape or become a way to avoid intimacy… 

There’s a poignant sadness in seeing a family, or a couple, supposedly out for dinner and all are on their phones.

I never know quite what to think. Are they uncomfortable? Unhappy? Is there nothing to talk about? Do they not realize that time is a gift? Is the game they are playing, or the scores they are checking, that important?

4) Texting can make betrayal far too easy…

“She used to have her phone out, just laying around. I noticed that wasn’t happening anymore. She took it with her everywhere. When she took a shower, I picked it up.”

“I was using his phone to Google something, and saw their texts.”

Discovering texts has become a prevalent way for people to find out about affairs, whether sexual or emotional. Maybe it’s you that is having a teasing, flirty, fairly intimate relationship with someone else that spices up your daily life but feels otherwise innocent. But it’s a secret; you don’t share the conversations with your partner, because you know it would hurt them. This is deceit by omission. And talk about dopamine… 

So what can be done about this?

Rules of Thumb for Healthy Texting

First, here are five rules that can help couples keep their texting within healthy boundaries.

1. If you wouldn’t show what you are writing to your partner, then it’s better not to write it.

2. If you’re actively doing something together, and you get a text that needs a response, or you think of something you want to text to someone else, explain to your partner who you’re texting. Let them in on it a bit so it doesn’t feel like such an intrusion.

3. If you get an inappropriate text from someone else, show it to your partner. Talk together about how to handle it.

4. Use texting as a way of reaching out every now and then in a loving way. Don’t only have fun with your friends via text, then only use it with your partner to ask them to pick up a dozen eggs. Send them funny memes… let texts between you feel fun as well. 

5. Recognize that if you show someone else a text your partner has sent you, then that can feel like an invasion of privacy.  Think about it before and if you do.

And now, families.

1. Establish times when technology takes a back seat; maybe a no-tech Tuesday, phone-free Friday, or perhaps phones get put away at dinner time.

2. Put away your own phone when you’re with your kids, at least as much as you can. They’re watching and learning from you. My toddler son used to hide my beeper (now quite a gadget of the past). But the message was clear. “I need you here with me, present and in my world.”

3. Have age-appropriate discussions with your kids about what you expect if you text them. By having these agreements followed, trust and respect are built. 

4. Remember that reading your child’s texts is like listening into their private conversations. And the older they get, it’s important they have their own identity, away from you. Unless you have a good reason to suspect that your teenager is getting into trouble, don’t read them. Or tell your kids ahead of time that occasionally, you’re going to read them as a safety precaution. 

5. Make sure your kids understand that even if they think the messages they’re sending are private, it only takes a screen grab for that conversation to be shared with others – and not necessarily in a fully truthful way. The safest thing to do is never write something to someone, no matter who it is, that you wouldn’t be okay with the entire world seeing. 



You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!

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This post was originally published on November 15, 2015 and was republished on December 8, 2018, and then again updated on March 21, 2021.

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