As a couple, is it better to fight over emails?
While there’s no substitute for the intimacy of an in-person discussion, having tense conversations over email can make difficult and emotionally charged exchanges that much easier.
Imagine this: you’re in the middle of a heated argument with your partner about where you want to eat tonight, when suddenly he suggests you move the conversation to… email. This, they say, will allow you both to think more clearly about the dilemma, list your points calmly and rationally, and then come to a decision so you can live (and eat) happily ever after. Or maybe you’re moving to another country without your partner and aren’t sure if you want to try long distance or just break up. Could writing about this extremely emotional decision in writing make things easier?
The tactic has been called “relationship hacking», and as an economist and author Emilie Oster written in his book expect betterit works by forcing you to “collect your thoughts and give yourself time to reflect rather than overreact to your partner’s reactions.” [thoughts].” On top of that, says Oster, it’s also a good way to keep receipts of your conversation to — very sanely — say to your partner, “I told you so.
If you think that sounds counter-intuitive to everything you’ve learned about healthy communication, you’re right — but before you hit it, there might be some meaning behind it. “Some people find that when their nervous system gets activated – for example, during a very emotionally charged conversation – they feel a kind of ‘flooding’, which means that it is very difficult to pronounce words clearly. words”, explains Marianne Johnson, psychotherapist at The Thinking House Partnership, a London-based psychotherapy clinic. “Someone going through this could really benefit from some time and space to think about their response and record their thoughts and feelings in an email.”
When it comes to making a big decision, having that time and space to think things through and then properly articulate your thoughts on paper can be helpful, especially for those who have trouble expressing their feelings out loud. It could also be useful for making less emotional decisions, such as investing in a sofa. Indeed, psychotherapist Silva Neves believes that “facts-only” brainstorming conversations are “the only time a conversation can best be conducted over email or text. Choosing a school for your children or financial planning are also good examples (although, he adds, “the subject of money can also be very emotional”).
Johnson thinks sending email in these contexts would work best in “a fairly secure relationship, where both parties are aware of the reasons for using email.” That way, she adds, they could also discuss it in person.
That’s exactly what London-based Ellie (pseudonym), 28, and her longtime boyfriend did when they decided to move in together last year. “We had a huge argument about it that was very emotionally charged,” she tells me. “I felt it would be easier to get my point across in a calm way over email – and then we ended up having an exchange of emails about the decision. The conversation that following up was much easier and much calmer.Writing to each other worked really well for us in this situation.
Ellie also thinks it’s helpful to write down your thoughts to yourself before a conversation – without ever needing to show them to your partner. “It’s always better to have tough conversations face to face,” she says. “But taking notes before a discussion brings clarity, or a sort of agenda for a conversation that might take a tangent.”
However, while there’s merit in a (sort of) mixed approach to things, communicating exclusively via email or text might create more problems, rather than solving the ones you already have. “Email is a distance,” Johnson says, “so it can also be a way to hide. There’s a sense of hesitation in seeing the impact of your words on the other person, which means you don’t have to face reality the way you affect it.” Johnson points this out in reference to big emotional decisions, like breaking up with someone. “This route doesn’t respect the connection and depth of feelings you could have shared with them,” she explains.
Neves agrees. “As humans, a lot of our communication happens with body language, facial expressions and tone of voice, not just words,” he says. “For big and important decisions, it is certainly best to do it in person and with as much compassion as possible. Even if it is more difficult, the result is generally more significant.
There’s also the problem of misinterpreting what the other person is saying when it comes via email or text. This is why a mixture of the two could be beneficial. “Anytime the tone can’t be conveyed, it’s really important to clarify it in an IRL conversation, whether it’s on the phone or in person,” Ellie explains.
So while a textual approach to argument may seem more appealing – in that it avoids being confronted with the ugly reality of real emotions – and can be useful when it comes to factual considerations (although most decisions in relationships are emotionally charged), it is definitely not a trade-off for face-to-face conversations. Especially since, if you’re in a relationship, you’ll end up facing each other anyway.
Guess you’ll just have to fight in person to see who wins the takeout menu – you’ll be fine once you’ve eaten.