Sometimes I imagine what it was like back when my parents fell in love. They met in college, and they didn’t have cell phones — just landlines, with no answering machines. They didn’t know what it was like to agonize over a confusing text message, and certainly wouldn’t have been able to fathom a “text message breakup.” What mattered back then was how a couple interacted in person. My parents fell in love escaping to the movies or watching hockey games in the wintertime, and making long-distance phone calls or writing letters in the summertime.
My college relationships look nothing like the ones my parents had. Mine are defined by different kinds of moments: suppressing a smile in class when I get a text from a crush, figuring out how to word my first message to someone new and, sometimes, wondering why I never heard from him. On a campus where formal dating is rare, many of us come to rely on texting to build a new relationship or to maintain an old one. No matter how superficial texting seems in light of the much more important things that define relationships — excitement, confusion, heartbreak and, once in a blue moon, love — I’ve learned it is a central part of communicating in any relationship, and shouldn’t be written off as trivial.
My process of coming into this realization started with one simple message: “Yo, you should go to TI.” It was the first real text he’d sent me after the initial number exchange we’d made the previous weekend. I’d run into him in the long line to get into Cap, and he’d decided to ditch the line for TI. A few minutes later, my phone buzzed with his message.
I knew what it meant, and I was excited — he wanted to see me that night, to be with me. A few to-the-point text messages later and we agreed to meet in Terrace instead, where we kissed for the second time in the dark corners of the taproom. Even though he was a senior, weeks away from graduating, I felt drawn to him in a way I hadn’t been drawn to anyone else in my two years at Princeton.
Our next few encounters were arranged by more text conversations — “Are you out tonight?” “Ya, where are you?”— but I was noticing a trend: All our text exchanges were awkwardly spaced out. Almost every text he sent came an hour after my prior message. And besides that time he’d messaged me to come to TI, I’d always initiated the conversation.
It wasn’t until Reunions that I really started to think about our texting patterns. He was a beer-jacket-clad senior, on top of the world; I was a sophomore just trying to navigate the Reunions tents for the first time. Every night of the crazed weekend ended in a kiss: dancing in the fifth tent, outside my door and then outside his as we said what I feared would be our final goodbye before he took his diploma and skipped out of the Bubble. But to get to each kiss, each night we had a confusing and drawn-out text exchange — “Where are you?” “The Fifth, you?” “Where?” — that was spread out over hours. Finding each other in the bustle of the Reunions tents — an already difficult task — became nearly impossible when the exchange of basic information was so stilted in this way.
I didn’t expect him to respond promptly or at all; he was older and had Big Important Things to think about and Cool Fun Things to do. But every other sign he was giving me was positive: In person, he was always eager to dance with me and introduce me to his friends. He had no reason to spend so much of his last few days on campus with me if he wasn’t interested in me, I thought. So why wouldn’t he just text me back?
We said goodbye on the day of Baccalaureate and vowed to keep in touch — which, I would discover, came to mean one brief text exchange every few weeks over that summer. I would text him something, and he would respond about five hours later. Then the conversation would end. But often, he would not respond at all — and I was left by my phone feeling stupid for texting him in the first place, for being not laid-back or cool enough to just leave him alone when clearly he wanted to be left alone.
To any outside observer, I was an idiot for continuing to try to talk to him. It’s common sense: Anyone who likes someone will find a way to communicate with that person. And if I’d learned anything from my past experiences, it was that a guy who “is just not that into you” would never go out of his way to text you.
But my whole intuition was telling me that this guy was different. That he liked me, but hated using his phone. That what mattered was how we acted when we were together, and not how terrible and non-existent our cellular communication was. I would ultimately find these thoughts reassured by both him and his friends countless times over what turned into the next eight months. Each of his friends explained to me that he acted this way with them, too. They expressed their own frustrations with his communicating habits and complained how difficult it was to make plans with him. They told me not to take it personally. He told me not to take it personally — he assured me that he just hated using his phone. So I tried to forget about it. And every time he came to visit, my frustration over our communication vanished into thin air, as I was reminded of our remarkable in-person chemistry. We clicked so well when we were together, he was notoriously bad at communicating, and I had to deal with it.
But though we ultimately dissolved for other reasons, by the end I had discovered I could not deal with it. I knew he wasn’t trying to hurt me, but I felt increasingly anxious every time he didn’t respond. As much as I had tried to understand his texting mindset, I couldn’t stop myself from taking it personally when I didn’t get a text back. Each failed communication attempt or cut-off conversation made it harder for me to focus on what we had that was good. I finally realized that even if I could live without a hyperactive communicator, I at least needed to be with someone who would want to text me back.
Just a semester before I met him, however, I had discovered that the flip side of the coin — the active texter — wasn’t necessarily better for me. I met this guy in a class, we exchanged numbers, and soon the texts were flying. For the month and a half of our pseudo-relationship, we texted constantly — our conversations would last almost all day, and each message would be wittier than the last. I had never known that chemistry could emerge through texting, but he proved it possible. And if anyone were to ask, I would have concrete proof — our long text history — that he liked me.
But if texting was what brought us together, it was also what quickly and dramatically broke us apart. Things began to unravel when my phone revealed that one somewhat flirtatious text message he sent me he also sent to another number — the first of a series of signs that something was up. Shortly thereafter, things broke down completely when he unexpectedly stopped responding to my texts, and what had been constant, day-long communication abruptly shifted to no communication whatsoever. I was confused and upset. A little while later, I found out he’d started dating someone else.
While the active texter taught me that communication chemistry is not only possible, but also memorable, enjoyable and worth seeking out, he also taught me that no one can redeem shitty behavior in real life through their superior communicating abilities. But for me, I’ve discovered it goes the other way, too: Great in-person chemistry doesn’t make up for poor communication.
Communication is central to any relationship, whether just a flirtation, a hookup or a serious commitment. And since texting is a big part of communication in today’s world, it’s important that we give it attention. I’ve learned the key to a successful relationship is not just a fantastic in-person vibe, nor just a great virtual one. It’s about finding the right balance so it’s possible to be content not only when the two of you are together, but also when you’re apart — with nothing but an unlimited texting plan to stay connected.