When Texting Violates the Moral Third

There are no rules for texting.  To my knowledge, there is no established Emily-Post-style socially-accepted etiquette for how to text.  As a result, people (several of my patients and myself among them) often feel frustrated, confused, and even hurt by the erratic rhythms of texting.  You must know what I mean.  There are times when texting is satisfying:  it goes back-and-forth in a predictable manner, and stops with a sense of closure, a clear goodbye, maybe even a little waving-hand emoticon.  Yet there are other times when texts are simply not responded to/get ignored.  And then there are times when your text-partner disappears from the exchange, dropping you.  It is these latter patterns, text-ignoring and text-dropping, that I want to discuss here.

I am not interested so much in the ignorers and droppers themselves (who may have good reason for not responding), but I am interested more so in the felt experience of being ignored or dropped in a text exchange.  I know from my own and my patients’ experiences that when texts are ignored or dropped, it can feel terrible.  And it can feel especially terrible if you are already in a one-down position (e.g., you are already feeling worried or depressed, or you are in a vulnerable or one-down position relative to the person you are texting.)  What I have wondered is this:  What is it about being text-ignored or text-dropped that feels so awful for some people?  Why can it be so painful to be left abruptly or not acknowledged at all?

Jessica Benjamin, a pioneer of relational psychoanalytic theory, describes a concept she calls the “moral third.”  The moral third refers to patterns of relating that we come to expect and rely upon in relationships:  the give-and-take of mutual communication.  Think about the natural back-and-forth way a mother relates to her baby; that is an example of complying with the moral third–there is room for each partner in the exchange.  Just to be clear, Benjamin calls it the “third” because it belongs to neither person in the interaction, but exists as a phenomenon they create together, a third-entity of sorts.  What makes it “moral” is that it necessary, an unspoken law of relating.

Here’s how she describes it:  “The idea of the moral third relates not to morality as commonly understood but the idea that patterns of engagement are necessary to human interaction, and when things go well create the sense of a lawful world in which intentions are recognized and ruptures in expectation are acknowledged. Acknowledgment means that even when individuals fail somewhat in satisfying or recognizing the other, the lawful quality of experience is upheld. This makes attachment positive rather than a source of terrible pain and anxiety.”  (Benjamin, 2009)

She also writes “The moral third refers to those values, rules, and principles of interaction that we rely upon in our efforts to create and restore the space for each partner in the dyad to engage in thinking, feeling, acting or responding rather than merely reacting.” (Benjamin, 2009)

I would argue that texting lends itself especially well to violations of the moral third.  It is easy for someone to feel hurt or rejected when their text partner does not comply with a back-and-forth text rhythm.  Even though texting is by nature sporadic (someone may not be in a position to text you back, or something in their living experience, which you can’t see or hear on text, may have interrupted them), we can easily feel rejected, lost, or invalidated when a text exchange stops unexpectedly or a text goes unanswered.

Of course, people are endlessly complex, and a person’s reasons for feeling wounded by texting can, like everything else, be determined by a whole host of factors.  But I think that there is something about the nature of the text message that in-and-of-itself contributes to bad feelings, especially when the text exchange violates the moral third.  (Of course, there is also the issue of projection, but I’ll save that for another blog.)

So the next time that you receive a text or are in the middle of a text exchange, remember the moral third.  Think about how it might feel to the other person if you abruptly leave or don’t respond.  Even if you have good reason in the moment, be sure to get back to the person later so that they are not left hanging, so that they know you held them in mind.  If Emily Post were writing about text etiquette, I am certain she would agree!

©2014 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.