“I met a guy.” Though the shoddy Skype connection and pixelated iPad screen, I can see Tabitha is doing a happy dance in her seat.
“Tell me about him,” I ask, and she launches into a giddy, breathless breakdown: his name is Evan, he’s a graphic designer, surfer and foodie. He’s funny, cute and smart, and looks like pre-naked-bongo-playing Matthew McConaughey.
I am excited for her. Maybe this budding romance will develop into something more. But then, she pauses.
“There’s only one thing,” she says, with a look of uncertainty. “He uses too many emoticons in his texts.”
Tabitha is beautiful, bearing a passing resemblance to Charlize Theron, so she meets plenty of men, and goes on plenty of dates in hopes of finding the “One.” She is also smart and successful, an in-demand filmmaker who produces and directs commercials you’d recognize on television. Not only is she bright and funny, she even likes sports, too.
But finding the One has proven elusive, mainly because she gets in her own way. She admits to having control issues, coupled with a tendency to overanalyze everything. She is also picky — she once wrote off a man because he misspelled too many words in an e-mail. While those perfectionist traits are needed in her career, they’re napalm in any love life.
Still, I’m always optimistic anytime anyone enters the picture, and I secretly hope she’ll break those patterns and look beyond “flawed” texts and e-mails. But I have doubts.
With technology changing every aspect of our lives, the most dizzying effects are felt in the areas of romance. Smartphones make it easier to date, flirt and even “wink” at one another, but they often add confusion to the ups and downs of an already bewildering courtship ritual. We have text, Facebook, e-mail and old-fashioned phone calls. While they add convenience to the way we communicate, they all “mean” different things when love is involved — even if nobody can quite agree on those exact meanings.
“I definitely look down on a guy if he only texts me at the beginning of a relationship,” Stephanie, a 32-year-old writer in Portland, told me. “I feel like he has to call me at least once to set up a date or get to know me better. If he doesn’t, he’s just lazy or a coward.”
But Sheila, a 26-year-old paramedic in Texas, disagreed. “I don’t care if he calls or not, because I’m actually not big on phone calls. But I do have an issue if it’s, like, ‘Hey, it’s two in the morning, what’s going on?’ or just ‘What are you up to?’ I mean, if you’re going to text, have something interesting to say. Catch my interest, flirt, do something. Don’t just waste my data.”
Scott, a 35-year-old documentarian in Los Angeles, admitted that his methods depend on his level of interest. “I like to text first, but I notice sometimes women only give out their e-mails, not their phone numbers,” he added. “I’ll e-mail if that’s what I have, but I try to escalate to text and phone as soon as possible.”
Meanwhile, Dylan, a 25-year-old IT worker in Sacramento, was more concise. “I just text — everyone texts now. We’re the texting generation. It’s easier.” When I pressed if he’d ever e-mail or call a girl, he said, “If it’s too much trouble at the beginning, it’s too much trouble later.”
Needless to say, Dylan is single. But he admitted that different forms of communication can carry various weights of importance. Once, he texted a girl he liked, but she would only reply over Facebook. “It was weird,” he said. “Is she just on Facebook all the time or do I not deserve a text?”
It’s no wonder we laugh when Lena Dunham, creator and star of HBO’s “Girls,” poked fun at the “totem of chat” — the idea that, in modern romance, how you say things is just as important as what you say. At the bottom, of course, there’s Facebook, then texting, followed by e-mail, phone and then — the most significant method in the totem — face-to-face. But nobody expects to talk in-person anymore.
As the main character in the show said, “That’s just not of our time.”
When it came to the totem, Tabitha didn’t have a problem with Evan. They met at the beach, and a couple of days later, he texted her to ask her out, even calling once more to sort out the details of the date. (A movie, then Mexican food and drinks.)
The night went well. He texted to ask her out again, followed by e-mails to keep in touch, complete with forwarded stories and videos that he found amusing. Tabitha said he even called to plan their next date — she liked his warm, deep voice and the funny, smart jokes he made. In person, on the phone or over text, he was attentive, polite and witty.
It was just the emoticons that she didn’t like.
“I just think Valley Girl when I see all those little smiley faces and winks,” Tabitha said. “He even used those animal and flower emoticons when he suggested we drive out to a winery for the day.”
I reasoned with her. Everyone uses emoticons these days. Maybe he wasn’t as sophisticated as she’d like, but it’s hardly a character flaw, like rudeness, smoking or white-collar crime. Emoticons don’t mean he’s a bad person.
“Just go on the second date,” I said. “What do you have to lose?”
Tabitha often reads too much into something insignificant, but then again, communication has always been part of courtship game. The people are the same, it’s the methods that have changed over the last 300 years.
When marriage was less about a meeting of hearts and minds, and more a merger of property and resources, courtship was mediated through parents, matchmakers and third-parties, who considered family lineage, professional advancement and even astrology to help them decide on a suitable spouse.
Romance didn’t enter the picture until potential mates began to court one another, and the method of choice was the written word. Letters often contained intensely personal details and self-analysis, as each person was eager to discover if the other was a fit. After all, divorce was frowned upon, so it was imperative to get the matter right.
Over time, in the 17th-century, the contents of those letters shifted, according to Ellen Rothman’s “Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America,” to show faults, worries and tendencies. Marriage began to be seen as a business partnership, and letters were used to rationally evaluate one another to find shared values and compatible personalities.
As the age of Enlightenment ended and the era of romanticism began, the tone and tenor of those words began to change. Letters, particularly from men, became longer and more expansive, touching not only on facts and reason, but on emotions. Even among the Victorians, writings also began to allude to the growing primacy of romantic passion and physical attraction in finding a mate.
Today, it’s rare for our parents to mediate a courtship, and it’s even rarer for us to write love letters. Instead, we fill the void between face-to-face meetings with texts, phone calls, Facebook “likes” and small bits of electronic contact.
While these digital methods have flourished, we show less of ourselves on the surface. For example, Facebook, Instagram and even dating profiles can show how we live their lives, or even what we value, but they don’t make it any easier to figure out if someone’s a good fit for us.
Meanwhile, dating apps like to say they have intelligent algorithms to help find the perfect mate, but the process is haphazard at best. When we expect so much out of relationships — passion, compatibility, growth, support, respect, contribution and chemistry — we need to venture out into the mystery of each date and look for subtle hints of whether someone is likely the “One.” Everyone’s algorithm of love is different and unique — and there’s no simple formula to finding the one that fits you as well.
Despite Evan’s affection for emoticons, Tabitha joined him on a drive to the wine country, where they toured the vineyards and ate at a romantic restaurant overlooking a moonlit valley. They made each other laugh, and as they talked about deeper topics, like family and hopes and dreams, the chemistry became electric. As they sat on the beach to watch the sunrise, they made plans to meet the next weekend.
After they parted ways, he sent a text to say how much he looked forward to seeing her again. Tabitha was smitten, and began to overlook his texting flaws. In fact, she now found them adorable.
But then, nothing. Not for days. No more follow-up texts, no sweet hellos or “thinking of you” messages. Evan was off the radar, at least until Tabitha texted him hello. When he responded, she said he seemed distracted. And then, he postponed the date.
Tabitha didn’t know what to do. She whipped herself into a sadly familiar cloud of anxiety, wondering if she should text, stay cool, wait a few days or just write him off altogether. When she summoned for me in an emergency Skype session, she held up the entire iMessage exchange between them, asking me to dissect and analyze each line of the conversation.
I was torn. On one hand, I wanted to assuage her anxiety and give her the sympathy she so desperately needed. But I also didn’t want to encourage her overly neurotic behavior. But I could see her point: his messages were straightforward and utilitarian.
“Well, he’s texting back without emoticons,” I said. “That’s good, right?”
“No!” Tabitha wailed. Then, I got a glimmer of neuroticism that makes men say women are crazy. “It means he’s being distant with me, right?,” she said. “It’s too early in the relationship to be distant.”
“Tabitha, cut him some slack,” I said. “You’re just dating. There isn’t a relationship yet. It’s just a few dates.” I tried to keep her on an even keel.
“There is always a relationship,” she said, her eyes in panic. I could tell she was driving into the city limits of Crazyville, and once she reached it, that control freak would kick in — which meant she would send a barrage of texts to try to re-ignite interest, or even worse, demand him to tell her what’s going on.
Outside of confiscating her phone, I couldn’t keep her from falling over the edge. In truth, though, I could understand her panic. Tabitha worried that she would become victim, yet again, of what some people call “ghosting,” or “the fade” — when someone you like simply stops contacting you after what you thought was a romantic spark. There’s no explanation — they just disappear.
Tabitha’s last relationship lasted three months, before he, in fact, ghosted on her. When they ran into each other at a gallery opening a month later, he pretended not to see or recognize her. She doesn’t like to admit it, but it hurt her deeply, making her feel insignificant and disposable. That’s why she was so terrified Evan would do the same thing to her.
Ghosting has been around since we’ve been unable to tell people we’re not interested in them, but some see the digital age blurring the lines between dating, hanging out and hooking up into a hazy mess. Courtship is just more casual — and confusing. And breaking if off has become just as blase.
“I don’t see it as a problem if it’s early in the process,” Dylan said. “If it’s been just a few hangouts, it’s sort of par for the course. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. You shouldn’t be that invested so early on.”
He said he’s ghosted on girls before, and when pressed, he admitted to feeling guilty about it, saying either someone else came along, or a random thing on the date made him feel that something just wasn’t right. “How do you tell someone that?” he said. “If you say that over text, it sounds cold. So you just avoid it and hope it goes away.”
Stephanie, though, disagreed, saying she appreciates when someone takes the time to tell her, even over e-mail or text. “I’m more inclined to look upon them with respect,” she said. “They should just do it for the self-respect, if anything else.”
Ghosting isn’t isolated to men. Women do it to men, as Scott found out. After going on a fantastic date with a girl who he thought was the One, he never heard back from her again, even after he tried to reach out. “I moved on, but I was always wondering in the back of my mind about her,” he said. “It just never went away, even as I dated other women.”
Scott eventually got the resolution he needed, but it wasn’t pretty. A few months later, he found her on Instagram, and he could tell she had met someone else. “There were all these pictures of him, and she looked really happy,” he said. “It was a punch in the gut.”
Still, he sounds wistful as he talks, as if he still misses her. He admitted it would hurt more to hear her say it wouldn’t work out, or she had met someone else. But he thought he would have gotten over it sooner, instead of spending all that time wondering. “I wasn’t really paying attention to other women I went out with,” he said. “This girl was always in the back of my mind, and I screwed up some good opportunities.”
Scott doesn’t ghost anymore, and he better understands what people can go through. “It’s better to know what page everyone is on.”
Tabitha had been the victim of ghostings, too, but instead of coming to terms with it, she became anxious and obsessive, and I had a harder time convincing her that Evan was still interested. I pointed out he was responding, after all. Maybe he wasn’t replying as quickly or as thoughtfully as he was before, but he was answering.
I told her to pay attention to his behavior, not only in what he says, or how he says it, but if he’s still respectful and reasonably responsive. Give him the benefit of the doubt and just stay cool, I advised.
But as she obsessed, I realized Tabitha has a bigger problem. She paid too much attention to Evan, and not enough on herself, her own feelings or her own life. That’s an easy mistake to fall into: technology allows us to accumulate “evidence” of a growing relationship, but it’s easy to mistake likes, emoticons and shares as substitutes for the real work of building a connection with someone.
It’s also easy to expect instant responses to texts and e-mails when it’s so, theoretically, simple to reach anyone at any time, in any way. Every time Tabitha received a text, she hoped it was from Evan, and when it wasn’t, she was reminded again that something wasn’t right with him.
Tabitha was already a semi-neurotic person, but the electronic aspects of courtship were just bringing out her neurotic side. And contrary to what nearly every romantic comedy wants you to believe, neurotic behavior isn’t cute or conducive to a healthy relationship. It was time for a tough-talking intervention.
“Tabitha, you just need to stop,” I said, “The beginning of any relationship is supposed to be fun, and you’re not having any fun when it’s getting like this for you. You’re making yourself crazy, and who wants to go out with a crazy person?”
She said she wasn’t crazy, like all crazy people do. So I pointed out that she had just spent 40 minutes averaging out Evan’s response time on texts versus e-mail. If that wasn’t slightly nuts, then I didn’t know what was.
Tabitha took a couple of days to calm down. But eventually, she started to run and surf again, the things she enjoyed before she met Evan. Then, she went dancing with girlfriends and flirted with other guys she met. Art openings and film screenings kept her busy, too, as well as new restaurants and nature hikes — all of which I “liked” on Instagram to encourage her to keep it up.
Slowly, she began to enjoy life without Evan, learning to be happy whether he was in the picture or not.
It turns out, Evan stayed in the picture, and his texts “improved” with frequency. He explained he was busy with work and a demanding client, and ended up hiring someone to help him out — a time-consuming project that derailed his schedule. He asked her out again, but Tabitha already had plans to go on impromptu weekend trip to Austin. When she asked me and her girlfriends if she should cancel, we were all unanimous in telling her “No!”
But we agreed she should reschedule with him to meet a week later. And they did, to a hot, new sushi spot for dinner. Naturally, she texted me with a post-mortem of the date, along their plans for the next date: she would meet Evan’s friends at a picnic and barbecue. Things seemed to progress nicely, in a relaxed, natural, easygoing way.
“Sounds like everything is going well,” I text back.
She replies within minutes. No words, just three once-reviled smiley emoticons in a row. I laugh: maybe Tabitha is slowly changing, making it just a bit easier for love to enter her life, after all. ♦