There's no doubt that the primary way in which we now communicate is via text-message, email and social media. Phone calls have fallen by the wayside.
Electronic communication has changed the dynamics of how we interact, creating both benefits and problems.
One problem that continuously arises in romantic relationships is the way in which men control the conversation by selectively ignoring texts and emails.
I like to call this behavior cafeteria responding.
That's right. Just like when you go to a cafeteria and walk around, picking and choosing what you want to eat, men who engage in cafeteria responding are also picking and choosing the messages and responses that appeal to them most. Leaving you hanging...
Melodie, age 35, has seen this pattern of behavior play out in her last two relationships. Anytime she would text or email something that made these men uncomfortable, whether she was attempting to address an argument that had taken place, ask for clarification about the relationship, or request something that they didn't want to do, they would ignore the text. Either they would go silent right away and wait for her to text again, or they would text her a few hours later, about some other issue, as if nothing had happened.
The point is, no matter what the issue, whether it was something major or something small, if it was a concern or question her boyfriend didn't want to deal with, the solution was simple: ignore. They pretended like the message was never sent and would move on to the next issue.
But the silence became a vicious cycle as Melodie began confining these issues -- the ones she knew were touchy and uncomfortable -- to text messages. She figured that if they didn't want to answer or talk about it through text, they definitely wouldn't want to answer in person, "If he didn't respond by text, there's no way I would have the courage to ask him in person. I just felt like I would be ambushing him."
Of course, in lacking an outlet and someone with whom to discuss the issues that were important to her, Melodie was left feeling frustrated and emotionally unfulfilled. So, she was sacrificing her own emotional health for her boyfriend's emotional comfort.
Lisa, 47, found that she would deal with her discomfort in reaching out to her husband about emotional matters by burying the question or comment in one or two other texts, "I just felt better if I didn't hit him with the issue directly."
Of course, her husband responded to her other messages and ignored the emotionally difficult text.
Kristy, 32, often faces this challenge when she reaches out to her boyfriend about emotional matters. And what does he say when she confronts him about being a cafeteria responder?
"I always get the excuse from him that he doesn't know how to respond to stuff 'like that.' Maybe I should forward his own long emotional emails that he wrote to me back to him. The emails he writes when HE was scared of losing me and poured HIS heart out..."
Many of the women I spoke to felt that it's always better to get a response to their questions -- even if it's a response that is not to their liking -- than to be completely ignored.
We men (and I am including myself in this) often get a free pass when it comes to crappy communication skills. Some of the women in my life who have dealt with this sort of behavior make excuses for the men in their lives, "Oh, he's just tired," or, "He's shy. He's just so busy," or, "It's hard for him to get emotional."
You know what? I take a hard line on this: Be an adult, grow up and stop acting like a child. Trust me -- and I speak broadly here -- women do not get the same free pass as men do. They don't have the privilege of acting like a teenager.
Alison, 39, gets a raft of guilt from her boyfriend if she doesn't respond to his "important" messages. "He acts as if I have just committed a major offense, like cheating. It's one of the worst things I could do to him. I get texts like 'hello???? where are you?' Sometimes minutes after the initial text. But if I say something about his regular tendency to ignore me, he just makes me feel like an overly sensitive nut job," she said.
The women I interviewed for this column generally admitted to not calling their male partners out on cafeteria responding because they didn't want to seem crazy or needy: "I'm not going to be that woman, the one that I'm scared of becoming: a nagger. But it's hard because I feel entrapped because I can't discuss what I want to discuss... ever."
This isn't about someone being busy and occasionally not responding to a text or email; when we're all in a frantic rush, we forget to follow up. And it also isn't about someone who wants to express themselves emotionally and has a difficult time.
This is about a consistent pattern of behavior. It's about controlling the conversation.
And of course, there's no better or easier place to control communication than through electronic means. Most of us would have difficulty (and yes I know there are exceptions to this) literally ignoring someone if he/she were sitting directly in front of us. However, the awkwardness of ignoring someone in person disappears when we're talking by text or e-mail.
A failure to confront or consciously ignoring an issue is part of the human condition. It's so much easier to avoid rather than react, but when it comes to romantic partnerships, so much of a man's cafeteria responding is rooted in male entitlement -- power over women. Men may feel okay about ignoring others, but when it happens to them, they openly complain about it and everyone around them scrambles to fix the situation. Talk about male privilege.
Slowly but surely, after dealing with a partner who is consciously ignoring their questions and concerns, some women manage to convince themselves that they are being good partners -- that in some areas of the relationship, they have to compromise. This goes back to my least favorite phrase, "It's just the way he is." No one said compromise means compromising your opinions and emotional health.
And there's always an excuse, right? His phone was not working, no reception, your email was in his spam, he didn't have his phone with him, etc.
But that's all bullshit. When there is a message men want to respond to, the response is instantaneous. This can be said for all of us, both men and women. But in terms of relationships and the male-female dynamic, women are left holding the bag when it comes to this cafeteria responding.
And day-by-day, that bag seems to get heavier -- doesn't it?
This piece originally appeared on The Current Conscience.