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IMing your way to love

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By Alison Hewitt

Published Feb 9, 2009 1:07 PM


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When you instant-message a love note to your sweetie this Valentine's Day, new research suggests you could be expressing more than you think.

Which words couples use in their IMs to each other predicts the staying power of a relationship and the satisfaction of the love birds involved, said the study's lead researcher, Richard Slatcher, a post-doctoral researcher in health psychology at UCLA who specializes in relationships.

The big question is whether using the right words can make the relationship better, or whether people in a good relationship just tend to use the right words.

Read the study for yourself in the December 2008 issue of the journal Personal Relationships, or find out more about Slatcher's research on his Web site.

"That's the million-dollar question," Slatcher says. "If you can get couples to change the words that they're using, can you change the relationship?"

Well, it's worth a try. So, without further ado, here are the IMing secrets of highly satisfied couples. Of the 68 couples who sent in 10 days of uncensored IMing (bonus for the researchers: no tedious transcriptions of spoken conversations), twosomes who reported the highest levels of satisfaction with the relationship and who were still going strong six months later had a few typing quirks in common.

In dating duos where the women used the word "I" frequently, the women were more satisfied, the men were more satisfied, and the relationship was more stable. The study looked at undergraduate sweethearts who had been together a year and a half, on average.

"My thinking is, women using 'I' was good because it meant the women were comfortable opening up about themselves with their partners," Slatcher says.

Really? "I" this, "I" that — so, narcissism is the way to go? Um, no, Slatcher chuckles.

"The point isn't that they weren't interested in their boyfriends," he explains. "What it means is that people are able to open up to each other about what they're thinking. Although our sample size was fairly small, if you had a bigger group, you might see women who use the word 'I' so much that they are talking about themselves all the time and it's detrimental to the relationship."

Somehow, men's use of the word "I" didn't have the same punch.

"It doesn't do them the same good," Slatcher says. Men's increased use of "I" was linked to minimally higher levels of satisfaction, and — disturbingly — an ever-so-slightly lower likelihood of staying together. Men using "me" was an even worse sign. It's not even that they want to spend all their time talking about their girlfriends — men saying "you" often were also less satisfied.

So what can men do? Talk about feelings. Men directing mushy sentiments toward their sweethearts by using lots of positive emotion words, like "happy," "love" and "nice," were far more likely to be satisfied, as were their honeys, and the relationships were longer-lasting. Strangely — or typically? — women using feel-good emotion words had almost no impact on anyone's satisfaction.

While negative emotional words — angry, hate, upset — from either lover had a negligible effect, sarcasm appeared to be a warning sign. Coming from men or women, texting sarcasm was linked with less satisfaction and an impending break-up.

"Sarcasm can be hurtful," Slatcher says. "Both sarcasm and so-called 'positive negations,' or negations of positive emotion words [ie, 'not happy'] are indicative of lower relationship satisfaction."

So what about a combination of a big plus — like the women saying "I" — with a downer like one of those "positive negations," as in, "I'm not happy"?

"That's a good question," Slatcher says — but one that will have to be answered by future research.

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