I don’t know who needs to hear this, but technology is not ruining romantic relationships. Texting, Snapchatting or communicating via social media with a significant other can actually help maintain your relationship and improve your communication within it. It’s just that, as with anything else, balance and understanding are key.
Of course, in-person affection and face-to-face contact are important parts of romantic relationships. But technology can make it possible to use the interstices of our day — those small pieces of time we “waste” while waiting for a train or standing in line for lunch — to experience more moments of interpersonal communication with our partners.
And research shows that texting and messaging throughout the day can help romantic partners feel a greater sense of presence in each other’s daily lives. Having a partner share moments of their day with you as they happen or send a cheerful GIF can help you feel connected throughout the day.
Moreover, technology has always had the capacity to help us preserve and intensify our romantic relationships — and I should know.
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Before I began researching how interpersonal communication and technology are intertwined, and long before I became a professor — in the dark ages before smartphones were ubiquitous — I dated a man who lived five hours away from me, across the U.S.-Canada border.
The relationship started off a bit bumpy: After we had gone out a few times and despite his having my number, he took weeks to initiate a phone call and then, in another early call, expressed that he didn’t like talking on the telephone at all. Yet we both knew that continued contact was important for any long-distance romantic relationship to survive. But in the early 2000s, text messaging —and particularly international text messaging — was cost-prohibitive, so phone calls and emails were all we had.
Luckily, my now-husband was able to put some effort into keeping up regular communication, and we’ve maintained our connection ever since. But if we were just beginning to date today, I would suggest more texting.
Texting and other types of messaging can be key communication channels for long-distance romantic relationships in this day and age. Much as in my relationship with my Canadian then-boyfriend and now-husband, any long-distance relationship can benefit from the ongoing relational contact and maintenance through texts or emails. A new study in the Western Journal of Communication shows that using mediated channels — which is what researchers define as anything other than face-to-face contact — generally has a positive association with relational closeness in long-distance relationships.
The type of message and the content, though, obviously matter. For example, in a recent study on text messaging, my co-author and I found that messages focused specifically on relational maintenance tasks — such as sharing affection or coordinating tasks like grocery shopping — had positive effects on relational satisfaction and closeness.
Saving certain topics for mediated channels, however, can indicate a desire to avoid certain conversations. Particularly when it comes to communicating about conflicts, avoidance (which can turn into stonewalling or a refusal to talk about certain topics) can have a negative effect on a relationship regardless of the channel. In other words: Squabbling by texts is not optimal.
Furthermore, having different expectations for technology use can be detrimental. For instance, if one partner expresses that five texts a day are expected and another says one a week is the norm, then they need to discuss and revise expectations. And feeling like you are required to check in with your partner all day — let along being required to check in with a partner all day, which can be a warning sign of potential abuse — has negative effects.
Still, partners in a relationship can address potential challenges related to technology. Researchers at Pace University found that similarity in texting frequency and how often partners initiate texts were related to greater relationship satisfaction. And Aimee Miller-Ott, a researcher at Illinois State University, found that partners need to communicate with each other about how they perceive technology use. When partners are satisfied with the way they use technology for relational communication as a couple, they generally also experience greater overall relational satisfaction.
In all likelihood, though, how couples use technology to communicate — and whether they view technology as helpful or detrimental to their communication as a couple — probably reflects the general satisfaction levels they have with the communication in their relationship.
And while most couples report in studies that they want to be considerate of when and how to bring up important topics and of their partners’ communication preferences, sending a thoughtful message or a surprise “I love you” via text or social media will likely help, not ruin, romantic relationships.
A little “ILY” can go a long way, no matter the medium.
Bree McEwan is an associate professor of communication and technology at DePaul University, where she coordinates the communication and technology degree program. She is the author of “Navigating New Media Networks.” She is a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.