My friend Karen (all names changed to protect privacy) was confused and frustrated when she called me on a Friday night.
About a year ago, she met a guy, Michael, through work. They met a few times for drinks with colleagues and then one night, she met him for dinner, which ended with the two of them "hooking up" (whatever that means).
She liked Michael a lot, and wanted to see him again.
After they had dinner, a week went by when Karen got a text message from Michael, "What's up? How are you?"
She was happy; he wanted to hang out again.
Now Karen wishes that was the last time she ever heard from him.
As she explained the manner in which she and Michael were communicating, I realized Karen was dealing with a situation several other women very recently talked to me about.
Since their last night together, Michael kept in touch with Karen on a regular basis. Every couple of weeks, Karen received a text or email from him. The messages always started out the same way: "What's up?"
Karen would always respond.
"How are you?"
"Good, what's up with you?"
Karen would proceed to fill him in on her life and Michael would always respond with the same short answer: "That's cool."
After one or two text messages, Michael would usually disappear. But a couple of weeks later, he would show up again. Sometimes their conversations would go deeper -- ten minutes of texting back and forth. Karen would find hope in those longer texting sessions, thinking that he was finally engaging with her.
Michael would sometimes get more creative, giving Karen the impression he cared about her and her life.
For example: "What's up? How was your holiday weekend?" or "What's up? Saw your Facebook post, so funny." A couple times he even texted, "We should have dinner soon."
But every time Karen agreed to dinner, Michael would tell her about his really busy month at work, delaying the need to schedule a real date. Then he would never follow up.
This faux relationship wasn't going anywhere and Karen was left feeling confused and frustrated about Michael's intentions.
These sporadic texts weren't even about sex -- Michael never proposed any sort of rendezvous. And Karen's motivation was certainly not friendship. "I have enough friends," she said.
"He's not even trying to sleep with me. What's the point of all this?"
I told her, "Karen you're being e-maintained."
"Is that an official term?" she laughed.
The week before, I had come up with the term as a joke, but the idea actually made sense. Michael was maintaining her -- keeping her, in his mind, satisfied -- and he was doing it electronically.
My friend Julia was dealing with the same issue. She was subject to these short, rapid bursts of texting with men on a consistent basis and always got her hopes up that something was moving forward, but then there was nothing. No substance at all.
"Are these actual adult men with responsibilities or are they children? I can't figure it out," she said to me.
I've always been fascinated, and disgusted, by the notion that in order to be happy, women need to be "maintained" in a sexual and/or romantic relationship. Men are socially conditioned to behave this way to prevent women from becoming hysterical. According to mainstream social ideas, women are illogical when it comes to relationships and dating. Men engage in conscious maintenance as a way to keep women "calm" so they can get what they want from their female partners (sex, attention, etc.).
This is why so many men are in a rush to cram their love and affection into holidays, birthdays, anniversaries. We don't teach men or boys that day-to-day affection is equally, if not more important, than special dates.
And what has always been alarming to me is that this so-called maintenance of women has defined as "extra" behavior that shouldn't be considered "extra" in any kind of relationship or partnership. The consistent attention maintenance mimics should be the foundation of all relationships: basic human respect and regular affection.
So, if men are taught about certain critical steps to keeping women happy, "duties" that are treated not as normal behavior, but as annoying, time-consuming steps, how does this make women feel?
My friends, who are or were dealing with e-maintaining, or even just dealing with good-old-fashioned maintaining, are left in a strange, emotional limbo. Women who are "maintained" by men, via text or otherwise, are made to feel legitimate for short periods of time and then left to question their relationships and sometimes themselves.
Are these women supposed to be happy with a guy who stays in touch every so often on his terms? Are they supposed to be satisfied when their spouse buys them an expensive piece of jewelry or remembers an anniversary? Even though their love and/or attention come in waves -- inconsistent and sometimes abrupt -- are my women friends ungrateful for expecting something more substantial, something more basic? Does any form of maintaining make up for days, weeks, months, years of emotional silence from men?
We've always conditioned men to maintain women -- this isn't something new. What's different is this "maintenance" has become completely electronic for some men, and the men doing the "maintaining" aren't seeing or even making an effort to see the women they are connecting with. Men are just texting, emailing or using social media to give the impression they are checking in or they care -- in order to maintain these women.
For these men, the definition of "maintenance" has shifted from traditional strategies like sending gifts and meeting for the occasional dinner, drinks or movie to the incredibly convenient and empty communication text messages, emails, and social media offer: e-maintaining.
For some of my women friends, this kind of texting/emailing communication was keeping them engaged until they discovered what e-maintaining really means.
Some of the men I spoke with didn't even realize they were e-maintaining of women was a pattern of behavior. Most of them admitted to doing it when they were bored: waiting at the doctor's office, in bed at night when they couldn't sleep, at the airport.
But many of these men knew exactly what they were doing.
"You can't write about this, you are literally ruining the greatest scam of the century," my friend Carlos told me over breakfast.
"What's the scam?"
"I can keep these women satisfied by just texting or emailing. I don't have to do anything else."
"It's like walking a dog, as soon as you do it, they just calm down," a progressive friend (more on that later) told me via email that same day.
So why not keep doing it, especially if some of these women are willing to sleep with them?
"Its about options, possibilities," a friend added.
"I do this because I don't want to hear her bitching about how I just call about sex, so this way I have a history of having stayed in touch."
My friend Josh gave an example: "Last Thanksgiving, when everyone was out of town, I had someone to hookup with. We even went to the movies."
In this age of digital communication (texting, Facebook, email), our way of connecting has obviously become more frivolous. While our random, electronic check-ins with friends are usually made with good intentions, the men who engage in e-maintaining don't want to be friends with the women they text and email (the women don't want friendship either), and more significantly, their texting is not filled with good intentions.
So, is e-maintaining ultimately about men and women placing different weight on communication? Do women believe that communication is about moving forward? And do men see communication in this form in a more flippant manner, that it doesn't necessarily lend legitimacy to their desired outcomes?
Is e-maintaining more evidence of gender imbalance in our culture? Does this virtual maintenance of women show the lack of respect our culture requires or expects men to have for women?
Last week, I checked in with Karen to see if she was still pining for Michael and frustrated by his e-maintaining.
She has moved on.
And from now on, Karen's policy is very simple when it comes to communicating with the men who interest her: Show me substance.
An e-maintained relationship no longer satisfies her.
This piece originally appeared on The Current Conscience.