“We Need to Text This Out.” Should You Use Texting to Solve a Conflict?
Texting is becoming more and more of a common form of communication. This goes for couples too. Many advice websites and news articles warn against this practice, particularly when it comes to sensitive issues in your relationship. But is all this concern warranted?
In every close relationship, partners may argue with each other. That is not necessarily a sign that something is wrong with the relationship. In fact, successful conflict resolution can strengthen a bond. Yet many find engaging in healthy conflict to be hard. How best can we navigate these difficult issues? Given the explosion of text-based communication, my colleagues and I wondered whether texting could be a good way to discuss relationship issues.
The Pros and the Cons
There are several reasons why texting could work. When texting, people take more time to articulate their ideas. They also focus more on the issue at hand and are not distracted by nonverbal cues.
There are also reasons why texting to resolve a conflict may not be such a good idea. Absent tone and nonverbal cues, written information is more likely to be misinterpreted. For example, a simple ‘ok’ is often interpreted as slightly negative in texting. That is why people often add emojis to short texts to convey tone. Still, this may go wrong, and people may misinterpret how their partner is feeling.
Putting Texting to the Test
Given the conflicting perspectives on texting during conflict, we decided to compare texting to face-to-face communication about a relationship problem. We recruited 100 couples who had been together for at least three months. The participants were on average 24 years old (between 18 and 57 years). Both partners individually reported issues they argue about in their relationship. We let the partners of 50 couples talk about one of these issues face-to-face. Partners in the other 50 couples had these conversations in separate rooms via text. Both groups were allowed to discuss their issue until they thought that they had at least partially resolved it. The issues couples discussed differed widely and included topics like ‘whether to leave the window open in the bedroom at night’ and ‘getting along with the partner’s friends.’
After the discussion, we asked how distressed and angry the partners were while engaging in these conversations, whether they felt understood by their partner, and how well the issue was resolved. We found no differences between the couples on any of these outcomes!
Thus, talking things out via texting may be as effective as face-to-face conversations. Even though some people may say that you need ‘an actual conversation,’ our data suggest it is fine to use your phone. It seems you can engage in conflict via texting without fear that there will be more misunderstandings than in a face-to-face discussion. For some people using texting may be easier than directly confronting your partner. So go ahead.
Remember, addressing what bothers you and resolving it together with your partner can make your relationship stronger. If texting enables those conversations to happen, then we should use technology to help us. No matter which mode of communication you use, here are some tips on how to manage conflict that have been shown to make your relationships better in the long run:
- Stay positive. Try to deescalate conflict and do not reciprocate your partner’s negative affect.
- Be direct. Address what is bothering you by clearly stating it.
- Listen. Be open to what your partner is saying and validate their view.
Studies have shown that couples that follow these guidelines have happier and more stable relationships.
For Further Reading
Drigotas, S. M., Whitney, G. A., & Rusbult, C. E. (1995). On the peculiarities of loyalty: A diary study of responses to dissatisfaction in everyday life. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21(6), 596-609. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167295216006
Overall, N. C., Fletcher, G. J., Simpson, J. A., & Sibley, C. G. (2009). Regulating partners in intimate relationships: The costs and benefits of different communication strategies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(3), 620-639. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0012961
Pollmann, M. M., Crockett, E. E., Vanden Abeele, M. M., & Schouten, A. P. (2020). Does attachment style moderate the effect of computer‐mediated versus face‐to‐face conflict discussions? Personal Relationships, 27(4), 939-955. https://doi.org/10.1111/pere.12345
Monique Pollmann is an Assistant Professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. Her work focuses on interpersonal processes and how well people understand each other.
Erin Crockett is an Associate Professor at Southwestern University. Her work focuses on health consequences of different relationship processes.