A concerning thing has been happening to our society in the past few years when it comes to dating, relationships, and friendships. It happened so subtly and so quickly that we didn’t even really seem to notice it until it had already changed everything for the worse. In fact, even if someone had tried to tell us how shitty things were going to become (and I’m sure many did) we wouldn’t have paid much attention to them because we were welcoming it. Now that it has its roots laid down I fear that there is no way it can ever be completely eradicated and we are basically stuck with it…and its changes…forever. I am talking, of course, about text messaging. Text messaging is ruining relationships.

Whether you think of SMS messaging, online instant messaging, email, or social network direct messages when I say the term “text messaging”, doesn’t really matter. They all are being abused…bastardized, even. Text messaging was intended to be a quick and unobtrusive way to communicate with people without dominating their attention. You could send them a message, which they instantaneously receive, and they could read it while at school, in the car, on their computer, or whatever, and then they could choose to return your message when they felt it appropriate. It wasn’t like being face-to-face where responses have to happen in real time while giving the subject your direct focus, or even like having a phone call where responses are in real time but you can be doing other things during the conversation. This was designed to make conversating something that could be perpetually ongoing at the pace the people decide. But it took a turn at some point and now has a side effect that not many people anticipated: people feel like there is no culpability for their words or actions while they have control over the conversation’s speed and trajectory.

As an example of what I’m talking about, let’s look at something that has more-than-likely happened to everyone reading this and everyone you know: you’re going to meet up with someone for some sort of function and they send you a text saying, “Sorry, I have to cancel” only a short time before the function was to begin. Maybe some sort of reason is attached to the cancellation text but a lot of the time no explanation is given at all. The sender of the cancellation text then feels totally absolved of all responsibility for breaking the plans and thinks nothing of it. After all, they feel they did the right thing and sent a message so the person expecting to see them doesn’t go to the function expecting them to be there. No big deal!

This lack of culpability for what quite possibly may have ruined the person’s evening, entire day, or possibly even entire week, is astounding. After all, if text messaging didn’t exist the person would have had no choice but to either verbally talk to the person they were cancelling on over the phone or not do so and simply stand them up. I think pretty much everyone would agree that standing someone up is really bad and would never want to do that, so that phone call would be their only option. But a phone call like that is tough: you can’t just say, “Sorry, I have to cancel” and hang up the phone. No, you have to apologize for canceling, explain why you’re canceling, and then hear the disappointment and dismay of the person-you-are-canceling-on’s voice. That’s a tough pill to swallow. Given those two choices a lot of people may choose to just suck it up and meet with the person rather than cancel because, man, that phone call sounds like it’s going to suck.

But now, with text messaging, they can pick any number of easy ways to get the “Hey, I’m not going to keep plans with you because they’re just not that important to me” message across without having to deal with any messy things like responsibility or negative emotional reactions. In less than 5 seconds they have gotten the word across and are ready to move on with whatever it is they were going to do instead of the original plans they had made. It’s unbelievable.

And that’s just one example of text messaging’s destructive power. Entire relationships can be created and destroyed with a handful of texts. Promises broken, commitments neglected, responsibilities destroyed. Insults can be thrown, threats can be made, careers can be terminated. It can happen so quick that it’s merely a blip on the radar for the perpetrator…one second they are texting a “Sorry” text or a “Fuck you” text or an “I quit” text, and the next second they are turning to talk to the person they have been simultaneously chatting with, or hitting “Play” on their TV to watch a movie, or shutting off their phone and going to sleep. They don’t even have to wait for the response. Hell, they don’t even have to read the responses when they come, they can just delete them! What would have been a common, simple, yet still emotionally taxing and tricky situation 15 years ago has become a 10-second series of button-presses that barely register in the emotional center of the person.

What can be done about it, though? Text messaging is here to stay. The bulk of my communication with people is done via some sort of text messaging and I’m sure the vast majority of society is in the same boat. You can forego the technology entirely and not have a mobile phone and not use email, I suppose. But that’s limiting in its own way. After all, how are people going to communicate with you?! They communicate with everyone else they know via text message, so if you’re the odd-ball out you’re more than likely just going to be forgotten (see also: people who don’t use Facebook or Twitter).

The only practical solution is for people to set the right example themselves. If you’re going to cancel plans with someone last minute, for whatever reason, call them. If you need to have a serious discussion with someone about something, use text messaging to set up a get-together and do it face-to-face. Don’t have the conversation via text. When you call someone to cancel on them the chances will be greater that they will feel compelled to do the same when they have to cancel on you. If you refuse to have a heavy conversation via text, you show the person the importance of having body language, voice tone, and physical presence available to give weight to the words you know you will be saying during that conversation. When people see how one situation went and can compare it to text-only situations they experience with other people, hopefully they will be smart enough to see the positive difference actual communication makes.

Then again, maybe we’re just all fucked and text messaging will have destroyed relationships as we know them. Time will tell…