Disagreeing is normal and can even be healthy for a relationship, but sometimes that disagreement can escalate from a discussion to something more intense. For people recovering from abusive situations, raised voices can bring up something visceral and scary, leading us to avoid conflict entirely until it’s just too much to ignore. That can lead to explosions of emotion that feel sudden and unexpected for our partners. So how do you manage to have those difficult talks in a way that feels supportive and also leaves everyone feeling heard?
A quick internet search reveals that many think you should never argue via text message. “Put down the phone!” they entreat. “There are so many reasons not to argue in text messages! Let us tell you 3, 5, 8 reasons right now!” Some articles may offer decent explanations, such as the fact that tone-of-voice is hard to read over messages, and body language is, of course, impossible to read. Also, nothing will stoke a fire like an important message being left on “read.” So, for some couples, having heated discussions or arguments over text may be too stressful and face-to-face is better. Every couple is different with different needs. But for us, text messaging is actually the most effective way to get our feelings out.
My partner and I have both experienced abusive relationships in the past. In those relationships, we were often gaslit about what was and wasn’t said. So, we knew that in-person fights wouldn’t work for our relationship as they often led us to react in unhealthy ways. But hoping we would just never fight ever was pretty unrealistic, too. We talked about what worked for us in the past, and what didn’t, along with how we dealt with angry feelings — did we get loud? Did we storm off? Did we get withdrawn? Knowing a little more about our patterns helped us narrow down communication methods that would potentially work better for us as a couple.
We decided to try texting about big topics as a way to initiate conversations about difficult topics. Texting ensures everything is explicitly written out, which makes gaslighting and manipulation far more difficult. This helps us both hold each other accountable, and hold ourselves accountable. It’s all too easy to say things in anger you don’t mean, whether in person or via SMS, so for us, being able to look back and recognize where you went wrong is helpful in rebuilding trust.
In order for this to work, we needed to understand our fighting techniques. I’m someone who tends to overprocess with my partner, while he’s someone who needs some space to figure out how he feels. This is hard to do in person. Add to that his tendency to withdraw as the other person becomes more emotional, and my tendency to run if being yelled at, and we realized that for us, in-person arguments had a high potential for causing more harm than good. We can get further in a conversation over SMS than we can in person because of our trauma responses.
For example, we once had a heated argument in person about some political situation for over an hour. Both of us raised our voices and eventually got kind of mean when we felt the other person was being unreasonable. We finally just parted ways, seething and frustrated. Later, when we talked over text messages about our positions and why we were upset, we realized we actually agreed. We fought because we were more invested in talking over each other and being “right” than hearing each other out.
By communicating about what’s worked and didn’t work in our past, we figured out that, for us, hard conversations were better had via text, contrary to what we read in advice columns. Texting meant we could focus on how we wanted to phrase what we wanted to say without the pressure of maintaining our expressions. It gave us some space to articulate. It allowed us to hear each other without feeling pressured to respond immediately.
Some things are still better to discuss face-to-face. Text messaging doesn’t fully replace in-person conversations after all! But it does help to have a prior back and forth in order to have a better feel for the other person’s position. When we need to talk about something heavy, it can be easy to get lost when we’re sitting in front of each other. Having preliminary arguments in a format that allows for a digital paper trail helps us stay on topic and ensures we don’t forget something important that might otherwise keep an argument going. We’re a lot more efficient now.
Now, this works really well in my relationship and is something we negotiated together. It’s not going to work for everyone, like most communication techniques! For some folks, text fighting may feel like it doesn’t have a finite end, so an argument might drag on where an in-person fight would not. For other folks, not being able to read tone may make this cause more strife, not less. That’s perfectly valid. The best thing you can do is talk to your partner about how you tend to react to an argument and see what methods you can put in place before that point. For me, fighting over text leads to a faster, better resolution than in person. Experiment and see what would be healthiest for you — don’t be scared to fight, just have some guidelines in place!