Swipe This! I’m dating someone who leaves ‘read receipts’ on—and it’s emotional torture

Swipe This!” is an advice column about how to navigate human relationships and connections in an age when we depend so heavily on technology. Have a question? Email [email protected]

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Dear Swipe This!

I recently started dating someone who leaves his read receipts on and it is ruining my life.

We started dating about a month ago and, in general, he’s pretty awesome. He’s smart, creative, and fun to be around. I think we click well and the sex has been great. But after we started getting intimate, the read receipts started to really drive me nuts.

I know this might sound like a minor gripe, but seeing that someone has read a text and hasn’t responded yet makes my brain go crazy. If I know someone has read receipts on, I will check an outgoing text over and over again to see if they’ve read it yet. Once they have, if they don’t text back right away, I get anxious and panicky. The weird thing is, when someone leaves them off, I don’t wonder about it. I still get a little anxious if I’m texting someone I really like, but I don’t obsess over it the way I do with read receipts. I guess because I can imagine they just didn’t see it yet, so I don’t have to worry that they are avoiding me or annoyed by me or have just generally lost interest in seeing me ever again!

The other day, it took the guy I’m dating six hours to respond to a text he read almost immediately after I sent it—and it took everything in me not to scream at him for putting me through that kind of torture.

I realize it could just be that his approach to communication is different from mine. When we first started dating, I noticed we didn’t have the same exact texting style. I like a little more back-and-forth banter and he’s a bit more matter of fact and slow to respond. I get that people have different styles of communication, so I guess what I’m wondering is, should I tell him how much this freaks me out? I don’t want to scare him off, so part of me wants to play it cool. But I’m afraid if I don’t tell him, I’m just setting myself up for more torture.

What should I do? Can I ask him to turn his read receipts off? Will that make me seem high-maintenance? Is there a laid-back way to tell someone you have major texting anxiety? Help!

Sincerely,

Ruined by Read Receipts

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Dear Ruined by Read Receipts,

Ah, the thrill of a new romance! The excitement of that first touch! The giddiness of hearing your phone ding! The crippling, devastating anxiety!

The initial stages of dating can be so much fun. They can also be a total fucking nightmare. If you are prone to anxiety, getting close to someone new can trigger all kinds of prickly feelings. So before we get into it, I want to assure you that “freaking out” over seemingly little things like read receipts and texting patterns is actually, totally normal. We don’t always talk about it. Not with our friends, and certainly not with our new partners, but to some degree or another, we’ve all gone through these mini-to-full-blown crises over things we tell ourselves shouldn’t matter. And yet, they do!

I believe one of the reasons we love technology is because we love validation. On top of that, we hate waiting. Technology promises us that we can get what we want whenever we want it, and often that’s a promise that’s too good to be true. Personally, I blame AOL for naming those first private chats “instant” messages. We got hooked on the idea that whatever, or whoever, we want should be available to us instantly. What’s worse, most of us no longer “sign on” to a system where we can signal we are available or away. Instead, we often assume everyone’s phone is at their side, or, more likely, in the palm of their hand at all times. And now our brains go into overdrive when we don’t get an instant response. We’re addicted to the high of hearing ding after ding after ding. Because when we hear those dings we hear, “Hello, hello, hello! I like you, I like you, I like you!” And that makes us feel good.

It might help you feel less “crazy” to learn a little more about the science behind this behavior. Our brains are susceptible to getting addicted to this kind of exchange because of a pesky little chemical called dopamine. Dopamine rewards us for seeking out validation. So when you describe how that extra little bit of information sending you checking your phone over and over again, you’re not acting “crazy” at all. You’re acting exactly the way a powerful chemical in your brain has instructed. And your brain won’t be satisfied until it gets a sweet dose of opioid release in the form of a response to your text. This video does a pretty great job of explaining how dopamine makes us into pleasure-seeking junkies.

The most frustrating thing about the way our brains work is our “seeking” chemical system is much stronger than our “reward” system. So, to some degree, we will always seek more than we will feel satisfied.

So what can you do? Should you tell your new boo you’re a dopamine/opioid addict and you can’t recover until he turns off read receipts?

On the one hand, I’m all for transparency and direct, honest communication. It’s healthy to communicate your needs, and seeing how a new partner responds to a request for a need to be met will tell you a lot about who they’ll be and what they can offer you down the road. On the other hand, if someone asked me to alter a setting on my phone, I might feel a little invaded, or like this person might exhibit more controlling tendencies later. That said, you should know that the latest iOS offers individualized read receipt settings, so it’s totally feasible that you could make this request as a “just for you” change.

My concern is that this one “fix” won’t make the bigger issue go away. And that bigger issue is about how you manage your need for validation. How do you make yourself feel good? What kinds of messages do you send to yourself about, well, yourself? Do you give yourself little doses of love and validation throughout the day? Or do you frequently go to external sources for signals that you are worthy, lovable, and hot as shit? What changes can you make to how you treat yourself before you go running to your new dating partner to soothe you?

You should also consider that, at a practical level, there is more than one form of communication. We use language for two purposes: to share information and to build intimacy. Some people are more prone to one than the other. Based on what you’ve shared, the person you’re dating texts in a very practical fashion. He’s “matter-of-fact,” so I’m guessing he texts you to share information and iron out logistics more than he does to establish intimacy. And he may not realize that when you reach out, you’re saying, “Hello, I’d like to connect.”

It’s OK to want to connect and build intimacy with a partner through digital communication. And I’ll admit it’s true that some people signal a waning interest in passive ways, like progressively responding more and more slowly to texts. But getting close to someone new involves a bit of ebb and flow as you negotiate needs for intimacy and space. And I think the best things take time. So, especially when you’re only a month into a new connection, it’s valuable to let people warm up to you at a natural, organic pace.

This doesn’t mean never requesting that a need be met. But it does mean approaching conversations with a sense of curiosity and a willingness to see things from a point of view outside of your own. If you can accept someone where they’re at and enter this dialogue from a place of genuine curiosity, my hunch is you’ll get far better results than if you come in with a list of demands.

Before you approach your new boo, I’d try to think about what it might be like to be someone who actually likes read receipts. Plenty of people fall on your side of the read receipts divide. They hate the feeling of being “left on read” and they’d rather not know exactly when a text was seen because that extra layer lets them experience a feeling of rejection when replies aren’t timely. And who wants to feel rejected? Others enjoy the transparency of knowing a text has been seen. To them, it’s simply an added bit of information that lets you know who’s seen what, and who’s responding in a timely fashion, or simply who’s unavailable at a given moment for one reason or another.

If I were in your shoes, I might tell this new guy, “Most of my friends turn their read receipts off, but I noticed you leave yours on. Is there a reason you have them on?” He may not even know what his setting is, or he may have a very practical reason for leaving them on. For example, if he is the matter-of-fact guy you’ve described, he may see it as a courtesy to let people know whether or not he’s received information. And he may not always realize that information necessitates a response.

You may also find that talking about this topic without tying it to your own patterns of seeking validation allows you to relate to it in a new way. Whatever you discover, I hope you will treat yourself kindly and give yourself plenty of love. You deserve to enjoy your time with this person, with your phone, and above all, with yourself. Dating can be challenging, but it shouldn’t have to be torture.

Nayomi Reghay

Nayomi Reghay

Nayomi Reghay is a frequent contributor to the Daily Dot, covering body positivity, feminism, sex, relationships, and gender. She is also the author of the advice column “Swipe This!” A former New York Teaching Fellow, her writing has been featured in Reductress, Rolling Stone, Mic, Someecards, and more.