Smartphones have made it far easier for us to stay in touch with relationship partners even at times when we may be geographically distant, and furthermore have enabled us to convey messages which are sexual in nature – sexting (a portmanteau of sex and texting).
Sexting is defined as sending sexually suggestive, nude or nearly nude photos or videos of yourself, and it’s significance as a form of romantic communication is evidenced by the fact that around 75% of young adults engage in sexting. Having said that, they are more likely to send sexually explicit texts than send nude pictures, but the definition covers sending both photos and messages.
Questions therefore arise as to how the way in which we communicate by phone can affect our relationships and secondly, what does the way in which we use our phones to stay in touch say about us?
Is there a relationship between sexting and attachment style?
One possibility is that there is a relationship between sexting and the way in which we become attached to or interact with our relationship partners. Researchers have identified three broad ways in which we may become attached.
- Securely attached people describe their relationships as involving happiness, friendship and trust. ‘I find it relatively easy to get close to others, and I am comfortable depending on them, and having them depend on me. I don’t often worry about being abandoned, or about someone getting close to me.’
- Avoidant individuals describe a fear of closeness. ‘I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others. I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often love partners want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.’
- Anxious ambivalent people describe a love life full of emotional extremes, obsessive preoccupations, the desire for union with the partner, desire for reciprocation with the partner, and love at first sight. ‘I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or want to stay with me. I want to merge completely with another person, and this desire sometimes scares people away.’
The research on sexting and attachment style has indicated that those who send sexually explicit messages and attempt to initiate sex through texting, also display either avoidant or anxious attachment styles with their romantic partners. For example, it has been suggested that individuals who possess anxious attachment styles engage in sexting, and use it as a hyperactivating strategy, which means they are compulsively seeking proximity and protection. However, people who are characterised by an avoidant attachment style employ sexting for what has been called a deactivating strategy. This means that sexting meets their sexual needs, but at the same time keeps their partner at a distance.
Sexting in established relationships
The topic of sexting in relationships has been focussed primarily on adolescents and younger adults, but what does sexting say about people in more established relationships? A recent study investigated sexting behaviour in married couples, looking specifically at:
- The frequency with which they did this
- Attachment style and sexting
- Relationship satisfaction and sexting
In this study attachment in romantic relationships was measured using the Experiences in Close Relationships Scale–Short Form. The scale uses items to measure attachment anxiety (‘I need a lot of reassurance that I am loved by my partner’), and attachment avoidance (‘I try to avoid getting too close to my partner’).
The prevalence of sexting in established relationships
The researchers found that those in established relationships do engage in sexting, but the levels of reported sexting (messages and pictures) are lower than those for young adults. For example, only around 12% of people in established relationships engaged in sexting. This could be because those in established relationships are less likely to take part in risky behaviour than younger adults or are at least more likely to consider the risks of a third party seeing their ‘sexts’. Additionally it is possible that those in established relationships are less likely to be conversant with the whole phenomena of sexting, having established their intimate relationships before the advent of sexting. Finally, it is also possible that because established couples have less frequent sex than their younger counterparts, then the fact that they send fewer sexts may be indicative of the fact that they have less sex anyway.
The association between sexting and attachment style in established relationships
Researchers have categorised sexting behaviour into either sending sending nude or semi nude photos, or sending sexy text messages. They then looked at the relationship between the sending of each of these in relation to relationship attachment styles’
They found that for females, sending nude or semi nude photos was related to higher degrees of avoidant attachment, whereas for males, the sending of nude or semi nude photographs was related to anxious attachment.
But, they found no relationship between attachment style and the sending of sexy text messages for males or female.
Is sexting associated with relationship satisfaction?
An earlier study investigated the relationship between sexting and relationship well-being in married and cohabiting couples. They found that those who reported greater relationship well-being were more likely to have sent some kind of sexual message to their partner. Conversely, other researchers found no relationship between the sending of sexy messages and relationship satisfaction for either males or females. But they did find that sending nude or semi nude photos was related to higher levels of relationship ambivalence (uncertainty about the relationship), and that this was the case for males and females.
All in all, the way in which we send ‘sext’ messages reveals more about us and our relationships than we may think.
Martin Graff, PhD is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of South Wales, whose main research interests are the psychology of online romantic relationships and social media.