A few years ago, I was in what felt like a very intense relationship. But I had only met him in person three times. Our relationship was text-based. We texted constantly and, while I knew it wasn’t a full-fledged relationship, it felt very real. We texted multiple times a day and shared intimate details of our lives. Even at the time, I knew it was an unsatisfying situation that defied dating in any traditional sense — in which, you know, you actually see someone in real life. But I was completely captivated by the situation. From texts alone I was able to build an entire narrative of romance, and I was obsessed.
A few weeks ago we saw the launch of a new texting mobile service called Invisible Boyfriend. Users pay $25 a month to have a fake boyfriend send them text messages. You design your “invisible boyfriend” — his name, age and personality — and the texts you receive cater to those specifications. According to app creator Matthew Homann, the service is run by a company called CrowdSource, which manages remote freelancers who are paid to respond. Several people could be responding at different times to the same texting thread, so your “boyfriend” is actually a random assortment of people, as opposed to a bot, which makes the texting experience feel very real, dynamic and nonrobotic. Invisible Boyfriend claims its purpose is to “give you real-world and social proof that you’re in a relationship — even if you’re not — so you can get back to living life on your own terms.” It’s frustrating to think that despite a shift in demographics, single people still feel so much pressure that they would have to go to such great extents to avoid the question, “Why are you single?” But I’m actually surprised this app didn’t exist already — not as an excuse for nosy friends and family, but for your personal pleasure.
For many, texting is a primary form of communication; whether with lovers or friends, people engage in extensive dialogue via text. According to the Pew Research Center, 83 percent of American adults own cellphones, and 73 percent of them send and receive text messages. Thirty-one percent said they prefer to be contacted by text. These numbers increase substantially among young adults: 95 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds text and receive an average of 87.7 text messages per day. That’s a lot of texting. (Thank goodness for unlimited text plans.)
Does texting a love interest make you happier? Does it help you feel more connected to others? It’s hard to say. Some people love it: Texting allows you to engage with someone without being fully invested; it takes almost no emotional or physical effort. You get to control the message completely. It’s especially good for people who have a hard time communicating in person. It also allows you to test the waters with a new potential beau.
Texting your way to romance, on the other hand, can be wholly unsatisfying. Sure, you may get constant reminders that someone is thinking about you, which can be exhilarating. But texting can also be confusing. After all, text messages are devoid of eye contact or body language. They are also subject to your interpretation. You can imbue it with what you think they mean, as opposed to what they actually mean. How many times have you gotten a text from a new romantic interest and wondered, “What the hell does this mean?” People obsess about and analyze texts from potential or current mates for hours, even when phone calls could easily clear up the confusion.
For most people, texting is a gateway that might link to a more engaged experience, whether it’s sex, dating or love. This leads to a frequent frustration: not knowing where all the back and forth is going. The hope is that you are texting in order to meet in real life and see if the person lives up to his texting hype. Common sense, your therapist and pretty much any women’s magazine will tell you that if he is only texting you but never wants to see you, dump him immediately, because he’s probably leading you on.
But maybe there is a third possibility: a relationship that relies only on text communications. We already read erotica, chat with strangers and have entire relationships online with people we’ve never met. We sext with people we may never have sex with. Why would a relationship that is based only on texting be that different? Could this mindset free us from the burden of wondering where a texting relationship is going and turn it into just fun between consenting adults? Perhaps it could be a way to decrease the pressure of monogamy for those who aren’t very good at it. Imagine the possibility of a space that allows us to experiment outside the bounds of our day-to-day lives and identities?
Our mobile phones are already extensions of our bodies. Not only are we attached to them; they allow us to be attached to others. In some ways, keeping our phones so close creates an incredibly intimate space. We sleep with our phones and send and receive messages at all kinds of nonrespectable hours. It’s also isolating. We are alone with a tiny machine that is a conduit for any number of people, but those people are not actually there.
And sometimes you might really want them to be. That desire won’t be satisfied with a text-only relationship. I found that to be the case. These days, texting mostly frustrates me. I prefer a phone call before I meet someone for the first time. The text-only situation didn’t work for me because I wanted to meet someone in real life. When potential interests start texting too much without following up with actions, I consider it a red flag because I know how easy it is to text without meaning anything by it.
But I also can’t deny the exhilaration I felt texting intimately with a stranger — and how, at the time, it worked. My dissatisfaction was with the expectations I put on it instead of accepting it for what he was: an invisible boyfriend.