There’s a delicate balance which every dater hopes to achieve in the beginning of any relationship: texting parity. Ideally, texting should flow like an IRL conversation, with both parties actively contributing. In fact, daters with similar texting styles reported greater satisfaction in their relationship, according to a 2018 study. But alas, sometimes those texting styles just don’t match up. The pain of crafting thoughtful missives day after day only to receive a short “lol” in return—or worse, nothing at all—is like a shot in the heart.
Yet, so many of us optimistically continue to text our crushes—those we’ve had a few great dates with but are flaky, elusive, or non-responsive when we attempt to flirt or plan your next hangout—hoping, magically, they’ll offer a thoughtful response even though you know deep down the person on the other end isn’t as excited to get a notification from you as you are to get one from them. So why is it so hard not to message people you know aren’t that into you?
Sporadic texts can feel especially rewarding.
If the person you’re texting has a history of replying sometimes, why wouldn’t you want to shoot your shot? When you get a notification on your phone, the brain releases the pleasure hormone dopamine, so it’s natural to want to replicate that positive outcome. Even if you aren’t rewarded with a response every time you reach out, intermittent replies are enough to justify your initiations in the first place, thanks to a psychological concept called variable ratio reinforcement schedule. Although you're not rewarded every single time you do a task—in this case, text—the fact that you’re rewarded occasionally means you’ll still continue to text faithfully. This concept of random, unpredictable rewards keeps gamblers and gamers engaged.
Receiving intermittent texts from the object of your affection makes it difficult to stop contacting them altogether, said Shula Melamed, a relationship and wellbeing coach. “When the pleasure of hearing back from this person is fewer and further between, it can create a counterintuitive positive and semi-addictive feedback loop.” That is, when you do finally hear from them, it feels more rewarding than if you heard from them consistently, she said, allowing you to falsely believe you’re engaged in a real relationship. “If you are psychologically invested in this relationship working out, any bit of contact will feel like confirmation of it being a real thing, especially in combination with ignoring any other red flags about it,” Melamed said.
Texts are hard to decipher—and allow you to make your own conclusions.
Texting is the most common method of communication for Americans under 50, according to a Gallup survey, so we know the person on the other end is receiving our messages and reading them in a timely fashion. This creates an environment where it’s generally accepted people will swiftly reply (and perhaps be considered a jerk if they don’t), creating pressure to respond even if they’re not feeling it.
While a long delay between responses or an empty reply from your conversation partner isn’t encouraging, it’s still not an outright dismissal. The more ambiguous the response, the harder it is to register it as a rejection, Melamed said. “One isn't working with body language or other nonverbal cues so one can project a lot more onto a text,” she said. “Short of someone saying ‘this isn't going to work,’ one can project a lot onto words on a phone if they have the energy for it.”
Absent that clear rejection, it’s common to harbor hope things could work out, said Moe Brown, a licensed marriage and family therapist. If someone were to stand you up on a date, you would understand you’d been rebuffed, Brown said. An unanswered text allows you to fill in the blanks and make excuses for the other person. For example, “If I think that person is amazing and they're not texting me back, they must be so busy because they have so much going on,” they said.
You aren’t in touch with your emotions.
When people feel isolated, lonely, or bored, they tend to reach for their phones in the hopes their texting partner sends a timely, thoughtful response (or, in pre-pandemic days, initiated a hangout or date) to uplift their mood, said Leora Trub, an associate professor of psychology at Pace University who studies the intersection of psychology and technology.
In an ideal situation, sending and receiving texts can improve mood when you’re feeling sad or lonely, research shows. While your goal in reaching out may be to feel closer to the person you’re texting, you might be thinking ahead and considering how a one-word reply would be upsetting. “People are not always in touch with what decisions would be best for them in a given moment,” Trub said. “The more dysregulated our state is, the more we're going to be inclined to do the things that will feel like they’ll have high reward in the moment but may actually hurt us in the end.”
In the age of social distancing and isolation, boredom runs rampant. This languor can inspire you to add some drama to your life by texting an unresponsive crush even if it means you’ll be worse off in the end. The potential of forging a connection, albeit one that is painful in the long run, is preferable to none at all, Trub said. “When we are discussing matters of the heart, the motivations are often deep and unconscious, and ultimately people don’t actually want to cause themselves pain even if they seem to be very good at it,” she said.
If you often send texts out of boredom or loneliness that leave you feeling worse, Trub suggested preparing a list of things you can do when you feel the urge to reach out to someone who tends to be less-than-enthusiastic about chatting with you. Maybe you take a walk, or put on a specific playlist; you could also get your thoughts and feelings out through journaling, or even text yourself what you would’ve sent the other person.
You don’t want to be alone.
Options for meeting new people these days are slim when congregating with others is a public health risk. If you’ve already identified a potential match, you don’t want to let the romantic opportunity slip away. “For some people, no connection, isolation, and loneliness is the most intolerable state,” Trub said.
In these moments of loneliness, Trub said, it’s common to pick the wrong person to be comforted by. Instead of reaching out to your generally unresponsive recent hookup, seek solace from a friend or another trusted confidante you know will answer you in a timely manner and support you in the process.
You’d really built up the vision of the person in your head, and you’re not willing to let it go.
Regardless of how long you’ve known the folks in your life, most people tend to picture a future with them, Brown said. When it comes to both romantic partners and friends, you’re likely to look forward to certain (maybe imaginary) events, like having a picnic next week or moving in together next year. Sensing the other person doesn’t reciprocate your feelings—and thus putting an ending to your contact with them—forces you to pre-emptively mourn the relationship you’d envisioned. “Letting go of the imagined future—that needs to happen,” Brown said. If you don’t, you’re likely to continue to reach out and spiral further into denial, they said.
Having this ideal plan for the future creates circumstances where you might picture a wrong-for-you person in your perfect world. “It's having a future planned out in your mind and plugging a person into it,” Brown said—and this isn’t always helpful. You start to build up hope if this person would just text you back, you could have a future together, Brown explained. But by thinking to the future, you’re ignoring the present red flags.
Of course, when you feel like you’ve put in a lot of work into the relationship by constantly initiating communication, you don’t want to abandon your efforts. Just as the IKEA Effect suggests that people assign high value to the things they’ve put physical labor into creating, perhaps unrequited lovers feel pride in the “relationship” they’ve built. However, you should not be so optimistic, Trub said, and instead look at the evidence—the person doesn’t text back, they don’t initiate dates—and not what could be. “The fantasy often outweighs the evidence in moments like that,” she said.
You need to work on your self-worth.
Research shows that people with low self esteem tend to stay in unhappy relationships, in part due to avoiding confrontation which would result in rejection. The same is true of maintaining one-sided texting situations, Melamed said. “A person might be afraid to move on because of low self-worth or fear of the potential unfamiliar rejection of a new partner,” she said, “so they settle for this scenario in lieu of doing some foundational work on themselves.”
While the path toward building higher self worth is a process in itself, once you realize you deserve an enthusiastic texting partner, it’ll be much easier to cut your losses and find greener pastures.
“If you recognize yourself as valuable and worthy of engagement and response,” Melamed said, “you won't put up with this nonsense.”
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