My boyfriend has just spoken to me for the first time in three weeks. We haven’t had an argument or gone ‘on a break’ – he’s just returned from a project that necessitated three weeks of radio silence. No phone calls, texts, Facebook messages, Insta-likes, FaceTimes or Skypes.
“It’s going to be so awful and weird” I told my mother three weeks ago. Shocked, she replied: “You can’t go three weeks without talking to each other? Your generation is so needy.”
She’s got a point. We’re frequently chastised for our almost surgical attachment to our smartphones, constantly in contact with everyone in our social circle – from close friends and family WhatsApp groups to likes from acquaintances on Instagram. It’s especially true of relationships where, with the expectation of immediacy, an unanswered message can send one half of a couple into a tailspin.
“If my boyfriend and I were not in touch one day I would definitely assume the worst,” says a friend, 28, whose boyfriend lives abroad. “We can go weeks without seeing each other, but I need that constant text contact to feel like we’re ‘OK’.”
It’s not just the tricky beast of long-distance, though; many admit to constant contact with a partner being a high priority. “I speak to my girlfriends all day on WhatsApp – I definitely expect the same from my boyfriend,” says another friend.
So are we needy? Has having all the answers just a tap away made us spoiled when it comes to contact?
Amanda Major from Relate, an astounding charity working with couples from all backgrounds and sexual orientations, thinks yes: “If I want to find out information about something, I can find it out immediately. I think that translates into relationships. That immediacy and seeking it out like this is a way of constantly getting validation.”
Our parents did not have these issues. Indeed, Major is my mother’s age and says she was happy with “a letter every two weeks” from her partner. Hillary O’Brien, 55, talks to me about dating her now-husband long-distance. “I’d hear from him once a week on the phone and then we’d see each other every three weeks.” And you were OK with that? I ask, incredulously. She blanches. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
The modern age has raised our expectations, perhaps irreversibly. We know we can reach someone at any time of the day and therefore think we’re entitled to do so. Dangerously coupled with this is the fact that our phones and emails now helpfully tell us when we’re being ignored – the read receipt and that dreaded blue tick on WhatsApp.
Back when lovers were separated by dodgy landlines or slow post, the worst you could think was that your man had actually died – as opposed to the domestic (if devastating) news that he’s just not that into you.
I wonder how this has affected our psychology, with your phone giving you data on your value to the other person. We are quantifying our worth based on our partner’s response time – or on whether they respond at all. Our generation created the phenomenon of ghosting, perhaps because we place such a high premium on immediacy of contact. Journalist and author of The Curious History of Dating, Nichi Hodgson, shrewdly calls this “micro-abandonment”.
I’ve seen so many smart, successful women fall apart at a read-and-ignored message from a guy they are dating. Back when lovers were separated by dodgy landlines or slow post, the worst you could think was that your man had actually died – as opposed to the domestic (if devastating) news that he’s just not that into you.
Gill Selby, 67, tells me about ghosting back in the day – it was called ‘just not turning up’. “You’d meet a boy at a dance and make a plan to go to the pictures,” she says. You wouldn’t give them your number? I ask, to which Gill shoots me a look that I’m fairly sure would have been some savage side-eye back in the 1960s. “No. Of course not,” she replies, before continuing: “Then, if you didn’t feel like it, you just wouldn’t turn up. They would understand, they’d probably think you got caught up in something, not that you didn’t like them.” More brutal, yes, but it seems like the pre-digital age was brimming with extenuating circumstances. Now there’s no excuse.
We can’t turn back the clock, though. Major thinks it would be “alien” to act as if these advances did not exist and Barnett believes that our manners have to keep in step with technology: “It’s rude not to text back. It’s just a courtesy,” she says. “They know you got the message, we are always on our phones. You don’t have to wait a whole day and go home and listen to your answering machine anymore.”
Yet there is a side to this we don’t often consider. “This ability to know when something has been read is actually quite stressful for the person receiving these messages, it’s a very pressurised environment for them,” says Major. “At the crux of this, though, is the question: is it OK for your partner to sometimes have things to do before they respond to you?”
Both Barnett and Major tell me that, to navigate this minefield of expectation, an old-fashioned conversation about your conversation is in order. “You need to settle on the level of contact each individual wants to have – and it’s important for each partner to understand the other’s,” says Barnett, who also believes that these needs should be readdressed throughout the relationship.
Yet maybe we have lost something important in the digital age. Hodgson tells me it is a clear case of quantity over quality: “Being in constant electronic contact is a bit like snacking all day on crackers or biscuits and expecting to feel fully nourished. That agitation you experience from not being hungry but still craving something more substantial is essentially the same, whether it's biscuits or WhatsApp chat.”
Whereas I may think constantly updating my boyfriend on my movements, lunch choices and moods throughout the day equates to intimacy, perhaps all I am doing is diluting the power of romantic contact – by making it too available.
O’Brien agrees. “The time I spoke to my husband, then boyfriend, was quality time,” she explains. “We’d write letters that I still have today. They showed he cared enough to sit down and think of me, and vice versa. Our time on the phone and in person was special because we couldn’t see each other all the time. Now it’s different, texts are not special at all.” I ask her what she thinks of my relationship and our bombardment of texts. “Maybe you have lost a sense of mystery. My husband and I still don’t text. I don’t think we’re not as close as you and your boyfriend.”
Three weeks of silence later, I can’t help but agree with her. When I met my boyfriend at the airport, we had no idea what the other had been up to in that time. We had nearly a month of news for each other.
There was a sense of mystery there. I liked it.