‘Did You Get My Text?’ — Searching for Relational Connections in Electronic Communication
By Lisa Eible, DSW, MSW, LCSW
Developments in communication technology in the past 20 years have changed our world dramatically. Incorporating texts and e-mails into our regular communication accustomed us to immediate and convenient exchanges. I am one of many who feel generally positive about the benefits of e-mail and texting and use both extensively.
But here’s the thing: I am also dangerously sensitive. I have always been this way—intuitive, interpretive, and also easily hurt. My capacity to feel everything helps me be an empathetic social worker but does not serve me particularly well when it comes to interacting with others through technology. I see myself as a relational communicator via writing, even in texts, and I am stunned when others don’t respond with the same attention to the relationship. I get stuck in the nonresponses, curt responses, or what feels like inappropriate responses—from family, friends, or even colleagues—to a text or e-mail. I am ashamed to admit how often I am undone when things like this occur in response to my communications.
I get unraveled guessing why they would be so thoughtless, mean, or unconcerned. As many others have also experienced, I am left questioning whether my intuition is correct, or whether my interpretation of the other person’s tone has misdirected me from their real intention.
Gina Innocente, DSW, LCSW, my colleague and friend, wrote her doctoral dissertation on the relational aspects of texting between therapists and clients (Innocente, 2015). The components of her exploration can be applied to communications beyond the clinician-client relationship and can be applied to both e-mail and text communications. Innocente proposes that texting is a continuation of an in-person relationship and needs to be treated with the same level of responsiveness and expertise from the therapist as would occur in person. Psychologist Donald Winnicott proposed that humans need a “holding environment,” a place where they feel safe and can return for support and love (Applegate & Bonovitz, 1995), and it is this theoretical construct that Innocente uses as a framework for understanding texting in the therapeutic relationship. In essence, the presence of a holding environment is essential for security in a relationship, and communications via technology need to be seen as a part of the relationship to be kept safe.
Themes of connection and disconnection are present in the work of relational-cultural theory (RCT) as well (Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, n.d.), and can be applied to the use of technology. RCT posits that humans are “hard wired” to connect and that connection with others is what results in positive emotional growth. RCT also speaks to (chronic) relational disconnections, defined as “repeatedly encountering nonempathic responses” (Jordan, 2010, p. 5). It can be argued that unanswered texts/e-mails or texts/e-mails without relational attention result in a disconnection in the relationship, often with accompanying shame and isolation. RCT goes further, outlining that repeated disconnections result in inauthentic relationships, self-protective behaviors, and the inability to engage fully in the relationship.
Having an understanding of the theoretical components can be helpful to understanding our reaction when communications via technology leave us feeling empty, ignored, or even angry. It is not your imagination; something real is happening.
Using text and e-mail effectively can help to build relationships. Many people seem to feel more comfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings in writing, even if sometimes the emoji dictionary is needed to understand what is intended. Even electronic communications regarding logistics require a sensitivity of timing and response. An unanswered text can leave us to feel ignored, unimportant, and without the holding space to fully grow in the relationship. Conversely, prompt responses and responses which address both the content and the emotion contained in the communication can have a positive impact on the relationship, whether that relationship is therapeutic or personal. Electronic communications should be seen as the medium through which the relationship is continued. Nurturing the relationship electronically is possible and, increasingly, required.
— Lisa Eible, DSW, MSW, LCSW, is a consultant and educator with more than 27 years of social work experience. She has advanced certificates in cultural competence and trauma.
Applegate, J. S., & Bonovitz, J. M. (1995). The facilitating partnership: A Winnicottian approach for social workers and other helping professionals. Jason Aronson Inc.
Innocente, G. M. (2015). Client-clinician texting: An expansion of the clinical holding environment (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from https://repository.upenn.edu/edissertations_sp2/71.
Jean Baker Miller Training Institute. (n.d.). Our work. Retrieved from https://www.wcwonline.org/JBMTI-Site/the-development-of-relational-cultural-theory.
Jordan, J. V. (2010). Relational-cultural therapy. (pp. 63-73). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.