Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Late one night last spring, a man I hadn’t seen in six months stood in my doorway and asked me softly, “Why did we quit doing this?” It was dark, and he had one hand in my hair.
In my imagination, a record scratched. Uh, why had we quit doing this? “You stopped texting me, you goon,” I wanted to scold him. I sensed this was not the moment, though, and instead simply murmured, “I don’t know.”
Over the following months, we would have this exchange many more times, sometimes in a playful tone and sometimes not. How do two young, single people who like each other just … fall out of touch?
I blame a very particular age difference — and, improbably, AOL Instant Messenger.
My boyfriend is five years older than me. As people in our early 30s and late 20s, respectively, those five years don’t feel like much of an age gap most of the time. Our parents and siblings are around the same age, and we remember plenty of the same music videos and short-lived breakfast cereals of the 1990s. But crucially, we stand on opposite sides of the dividing line between what Jesse Singal diagnosed last year as “Old Millennials” and “Younger Millennials.”
“For us Old Millennials, the social aspects of our middle- and high-school years were lived mostly offline,” Singal wrote. My boyfriend’s childhood was before the internet; my childhood was on the internet.
So by the time AOL’s megasuccessful instant-chat system flowered into a mainstream mode of communication in the late ’90s, my boyfriend was a teenager and already had an established impulse for how to get in touch with his peers: a phone call. Dialing someone’s home phone line, briefly exchanging words with one of their parents or siblings, and then catching up with a friend or asking a girl out on a date — these were normal, natural things people his age did, and continued to do, uninterrupted, even after the arrival of the internet.
I, on the other hand, was just beginning to navigate my desire to communicate outside of school with new friends and boys I had crushes on. I had only made my first few sweaty, six-digits-and-hang-up forays into the art of calling a crush when AIM came along and mercifully gave me an out. I loved AIM; I liked that having to type everything meant I couldn’t blurt out something embarrassing, and I felt immense gratitude that it wasn’t obvious when I was scrambling for what to say next. As I grew up, AIM was replaced by texting, but typed-out messages remained my preferred mode of communicating with people I liked and people I dated.
Today, my boyfriend and I are the adults that the ceaseless forward march of innovation dictated we would become: I am a texter (and a constant one), he is a caller (and a when-there’s-a-reason-for-it one). Phone calls, for me, are scheduled events between business associates or people who need to have a Serious Conversation of some sort. For him, they are what instinctively happens when he has a question, when he has a funny story, when he wants to make plans. He sees texting as a slower, more frustrating alternative to the quick, easy phone chat, and I see it as both less confrontational and more private than a call.
And like lots of folks my age, I think of lively and steady-flowing text banter as the hallmark of — hell, maybe even the substance of — a promising new relationship. Among “Younger Millennials” in places like New York, texting is often the sole, tenuous thread that connects people who wouldn’t otherwise run into each other. For a certain micro-generation of us, a text’s true function is mostly to deliver a bit of subtext: I’m thinking about you.
So when, a month after we’d met, he told me he’d been feeling under the weather lately and his texts slowed to a halting trickle, I did what I thought I had to: I took the hint. When he took a whole day to respond to a text, I thought, Welp, this was fun, and made a point to let his last text message dangle there, suspended in the no-response void, the way mine had.
Later on, a mutual friend of ours would mention to him that I was bummed out by how abruptly things had ended. That night, at home, I received a phone call I wasn’t expecting — and then I promptly recoiled from my phone, hit “decline,” and waited a few minutes before texting him, “hi sorry been on the subway. whats up?”
To the best of our understanding, it seems my boyfriend never meant to text me any less frequently. I guess at the blissful old age of 32, he does not, on a minute-by-minute basis, fight off the competing anxieties of “Am I texting too much?” and “Am I texting enough?” that I do when I like someone; I guess his texting habits naturally ebb and flow when he gets sick or has a particularly busy week (imagine that). But when I took the hint and stopped texting, he noticed and did the same. Maybe, in the end, this is all just a story of a miscommunication and two people too easily spooked.
Identifying a problem, of course, is never the same as solving it. Every once in a while I still have to remind my early-rising boyfriend that a phone call is most welcome when the receiving party is already awake. More often, he is morbidly impressed at how long a conversation can burble on, one-sided, after he has texted me “good night.” And sometimes, when the tone of a text conversation reaches a particular level of indignation, he gently tells me we should switch to a phone call so no one gets misunderstood.
We’re learning, though. Our wildly contrasting sleep schedules, for example, are one point in favor of silent, respond-at-your-own-pace communication, while the long-distance relationship we share across two non-adjacent boroughs of New York City make phone calls indispensable when it comes to matters of logistics. Turns out “Hey, how close are you? I’m here but it’s crowded, let’s meet somewhere else” is a more efficient conversation when it doesn’t have to be punched in one letter at a time.
And the longer we stay together, strangely enough, the more I find myself inclined to just call when I want to talk to people I care about. Even stranger, I’m discovering that those times when my voice is unsteady or my words aren’t materializing are the times when I should pick up the phone, not shy away from it. I’ve spent a lot of years being afraid of what would happen if someone could tell I was fumbling for what to say, or if I accidentally revealed exactly what was on my mind. But I’m learning that those moments are called vulnerability, and that when other people witness them, it helps them know you better.
My boyfriend, for his part — bless him — now knows to provide me with the daily texting validation I crave. Ever since “the reset,” as he likes to call it, he seldom goes more than half a day without sending me a good morning, or a how’s your day going, or a funny tweet he saw, or a single, gloriously random context-free emoji (the more baffling, the better).
I’m thinking about you, his texts say without saying. I’m thinking about you too, buddy.