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Where Is This Going? Maybe Your Phone Knows

The key to decoding your relationship’s future could be sitting in your pocket right now. It’s not your wallet, or those breath mints, or that crumpled lottery ticket. It’s your cell phone.    

Similar to how a runny nose and sore throat can quickly let us know we have a cold, the right kind of information about our romantic relationships can tell us a lot about their future potential. For example, researchers know that a couple’s level of love, commitment, and “positive illusions” are powerful predictors of future relationship success (see my last article here), whereas the number of fights couples have and their respective personality traits are surprisingly less important (see more here.). I call these “predictive elements” -- i.e., the punchy details that psychologists use to predict the quality or future outcome of relationships (basically, whether or not a couple will live happily ever after). Although we cannot rely on these elements to foresee the precise outcome of any particular relationship, it is safe to think of them as useful clues. Predictive elements are like the weather report from a station you trust. If they say there’s a 90% chance of rain, then you should probably pack an umbrella. 

Your smartphone innocently collects predictive elements every day. What can that lump of precious hardware tell you about your relationship? For starters, when it comes to “traditional” methods of communication, like talking and spending time together, we already know that more is better. A couple’s total amount of communication significantly relates to their relationship satisfaction, especially for women.1 So, a glance at your phone’s calendar, with its record of business travel, daily commitments, and date nights, gives you a quick snapshot of how much time you and your partner are spending together. Moreover, a scroll through your call log or text message history will remind you how often you two communicate when you’re apart. Is it daily? A few times a week? Or hourly?  

Lately, I’ve been wondering whether interactions like calls and text messages actually “count” as meaningful interaction. While you can safely apply the “more is better” principle to in-person interactions like date nights, chats on the couch, or vacations spent together, the value of technology-mediated communication is not fully known. In 2009, psychologists from Brigham Young University conducted one of the first studies asking people in romantic relationships about their tech-interaction patterns.2 They confirmed that the average couple (aged 17-60) now calls and texts each other at least once a day. A couple’s sheer frequency of tech-interactions (calls, texts, emails, etc.) did not directly predict their satisfaction directly, like in-person communication does. 

These results made me scratch my head. Intuitively, I think keeping in touch during the work day or on a business trip should matter. I know I personally like hearing from my spouse, even if it’s just a quick “luv you J,” or “found the toothpaste you wanted :P.” I also remember past relationships where a partner’s lack of response to texts and emails made me feel unimportant and eventually led to a well-needed break up. 

The researchers thought so too, and quickly realized that the number of text messages mattered far less than why couples were getting in touch in the first place. Surprisingly, “expressing affection” (e.g., “I miss you already,” or “XOXO”), was the most common reason couples were texting each other. In fact, couples said they texted for affection 75% of the time, followed by discussing serious issues (25%), apologizing (12%), broaching confrontational subjects (6%), or hurting their partner (3%). 

Two of these reasons mattered more than the others. Relationship satisfaction specifically predicted using media more often to “express affection” and less often to “broach a confrontational subject.” Basically, highly satisfied couples were much more likely to text “hey sweetie bear” than “huge credit card bill :( we need 2 talk.”  

Your text message history is a great place to start looking at your relationship’s predictive elements (those useful clues about your potential). How do you compare with those “highly satisfied” couples who reach out daily, keep things sweet, and stay away from hot-button issues? If you’ve got an issue to discuss, maybe you can use that phone more productively. Schedule a little reminder to discuss it this weekend, in person, preferably when you’re both well-rested and fully caffeinated. If all is well today, try sending a sweet message to say hi or plan a date. Try n melt em with nthng but ur thumbs—u can do it!

Interested in learning more about relationships? Click here for other topics on Science of Relationships. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter to get our articles delivered directly to your NewsFeed.

1Rehman, U. S., & Holtzworth-Munroe, A. (2007).  A cross cultural examination of the relation of marital communication behavior and marital satisfaction. Journal of Family Psychology, 21, 795-763. 

2Coyne, S. M., Stockdale, L., Busby, D., Iverson, B., & Grant, D. M. (2001).  “I luv u :-)!”: A descriptive study of the media use of individuals in romantic relationships. Family Relations, 60, 150-162.

Melissa Schneider - Science Of Relationships articles | Website
Melissa is a licensed Dating and Relationships Counselor and the Co-Founder of LuvWise.com. Follow her blog or connect on Twitter. Take her free relationship test or work with her to get over that breakup and learn how to build your own great relationship, right from the very first date-- find out how.  Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

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Reader Comments (1)

When I saw the title of this article, I got worried, thinking I'd need to download yet another app on my phone. Oh no, now I need one for my marriage? My husband recently told me he has some kind of automation so he only has to push a few buttons to send me a text that says he's on his way home. I though how sweet, but no wait, how impersonal. I'm confused.

In the end, I was relieved to know that I only need to keep texting some sweet nothings every now and then.

Don't ever remember texting my husband about toothpaste. Sounds like that might be a symptom of being an expat : )

October 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDoctor Lorraine
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