With texting and social media, it’s easier than ever to stay connected to the people in our lives. But just as sweet messages and kiss emojis can be imparted via text, so to can harassment and manipulation. This is sometimes referred to as textual abuse, a form of dating violence that happens almost exclusively via text and involves excessive and sometimes threatening messages. While this form of abuse is dangerous, it’s seldom recognized as such since abusive partners will deploy manipulation techniques in the form of playful banter and light-hearted statements to achieve their goals, whether it be to find out your location or keep you in constant communication with them. Behind the kiss emojis and humorous façade, these messages are always fueled by their need to control and even dominate their partner. And despite texts and social media DM’s being pixels on a screen, the impact of these messages can be devastating.
Of course, this isn’t to say that having a heated exchange with your partner is inherently unhealthy but when technology is consistently used in a harmful way that leaves you feeling uncomfortable or scared, that is when it becomes an issue of abuse.
Here are some of the common ways textual abuse can take form.
They Ask a Ton of Questions
Example: “Where are you? Who are you with? What are you doing later? How late are you staying out?”
Healthy partners use technology to talk with one another, while unhealthy partners will use technology to talk at someone. The difference can seem subtle but the intent behind their incessant questions will make all the difference. Since unhealthy relationships are rooted in power and control, partners may feel entitled to know where you are and who you’re spending your time with. This can lead to relentless questions that feel more like an interrogation than a display of concern.
They Send Indirect (or Overt) Threats
Example: “Answer me or else.”
Who says you have to threaten someone out loud in order for it to be valid? In reality, threatening DM’s and texts are just as menacing as the sort of intimidation that occurs in-person. Because unhealthy partners know their crude statements won’t just cripple your self-esteem, but reinforce the emotional abuse that takes place behind closed doors, they’re banking on their veiled threats to make you feel like there’s no escape from them or their barrage of texts. This often leads their partner to modify their behaviors (i.e. keep their phone with them at all times and answer their partner right away) to avoid further repercussions.
They’re Overly Controlling
Example: “Don’t speak to them, they’re not good for you. You should avoid that website, I’m just looking out for you.”
Controlling partners sometimes restrict their partner’s internet usage or texting by discouraging them from contacting specific people, like friends, or downright blocking certain websites on their partner’s devices. This also may involve checking their partner’s browser history or sneaking a look at their partner’s phone when their partner is not aware.
They Keep Track of Your Location
Example: “Where are you?!! Hey, what were you doing downtown?”
While it’s totally normal and makes sense to temporarily share your location with your partner when you’re trying to meet up, if your partner demands you share your location to prove you are where you say you are or to account for why you might be less responsive to them while you’re out, that’s a clear sign of abuse. Unfortunately, digital abuse doesn’t always end with a text. Now more than ever before, it’s possible to track someone’s internet usage, hunt down their social media pages and blogs, and even follow their geographical location online. Never mind activating “ghost mode” on Snapchat and deleting “Find My Friends”; an unhealthy partner can take advantage of someone’s Facebook and Yelp check-ins, tagged photos, and more to find out what their partner has been up to.
They Expect You to Be Glued to Your Phone
Example: “Hey, why didn’t you call me back when I called you last night?”
Since unhealthy relationships are rooted in power and control, unhealthy partners may demand 24/7 access to their S.O. through text, social media, and calls. While it’s normal for couples to want to be in constant communication with each other especially at the start of a new relationship, in unhealthy relationships, there’s a desperate, urgent edge to it. As unhealthy partners vie for control, they will expect their partners to remain connected and in some cases drop everything to respond to them immediately even if it goes against their partner’s personal boundaries.
They Are Accusatory and Jealous
Example: “I saw you looking at them! Don’t deny it.”
Jealousy is a normal part of any relationship, but it’s how you respond to this feeling that dictates whether it’s unhealthy or not. In the case of extreme jealousy, partners may use jealousy to fuel a tirade of accusatory, threatening messages to their partner. Jealousy is complicated because it’s a feeling people often confuse with love, but extreme jealousy is rooted in insecurity.
They Insist You Sext
Example: “You would send them if you loved me.”
While sexting is not inherently unhealthy, few things change the power dynamics in a relationship quite like it. In some cases, unhealthy partners will demand nude photos from their partners to gauge just how much control they have over them. In other words, unhealthy partners may think “If I say ‘do this,’ are they going to do it?” They will use phrases like, “I love you” or “You would send them if you cared about me,” to get their partner to do exactly what they want. This sort of manipulation is common in unhealthy relationships. And once they have those photos, you lose all control of what your partner does with them.
They Feign Vulnerability or Innocence
Example: “Are you angry with me?”
Does your partner send a slew of volatile messages one moment and follow it up with a sweet response? Uh oh. We’re entering unhealthy territory. When a partner uses loving messages to manipulate their partner or to backtrack on the volatile messages they sent earlier, it’s usually indicative of an unhealthy relationship. In fact, it’s this very behavior, mood swings and fits of rage followed by feigned care and concern, like “I do it because I love you,” or “That wasn’t the real me,” that keeps people on the receiving end on edge and locked into a potentially dangerous relationship.
They Demand Your Passcode
Example: “If you don’t have anything to hide what is the big deal???”
In the past, the natural next step in a relationship was exchanging childhood secrets and “I ❤️ You” texts. But as relationships become increasingly digital, with some playing out almost exclusively via phone and text, exchanging passcodes and fingerprints are becoming the preferred ways for partners to show their commitment.
While sharing passcodes to your phone or social media accounts is not inherently wrong, especially if you mutually agree to do so, you should be aware of when the suggestion becomes unhealthy. In some cases partners will demand passcodes as proof of trust and their partner’s level of commitment within the relationship, however, under no circumstances should someone feel like they have to give up some of their privacy in order to appease their partner. If you do there are much larger issues at play.
To add another layer of complexity, unhealthy partners can use access to their ex-partners accounts and social media to snoop long after they have broken up.
Here’s What You Can Do
If any of these behaviors feel familiar to you, or if your communication with your partner has you constantly feeling like you’re walking on eggshells, then you may be in an unhealthy relationship. If something feels off about the way you communicate with your partner, speak with someone you trust like a friend, school counselor or family member, or consult these real-time resources. Take screenshots of the messages as you may need them for evidence later if you decide to seek legal justice. If you know textual abuse, or any other form of digital abuse, is a part of your relationship, your instinct might be to “just block them!” And while that may occasionally work in cases like anonymous cyberbullying, it isn’t a realistic strategy when it comes to relationship abuse. Blocking someone’s phone number or social media profile won’t solve the core issue and, in extreme cases, it could make the situation far worse. Like any other form of abuse, textual abuse is symptomatic of an imbalance of power within the relationship that takes considerable thought and safety planning to address and/or leave.