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In a Relationship, Is It Best to Fight Over Email?

While there’s no substitute for the intimacy of an in-person discussion, having tense conversations over email can make difficult, emotionally charged exchanges way, way easier

Picture this: You’re in the midst of a heated argument with your partner about where you want to eat tonight, when suddenly they suggest you move the conversation over to… email. This, they say, will enable you both to think more clearly about the quandary, list your points in a calm, rational way and then come to a decision so you can live (and eat) happily ever after. Or maybe you’re moving to a different country without your partner, and don’t know if you want to give long-distance a go or simply break up. Could talking about this extremely emotional decision in writing make things easier?

The tactic has been dubbed a “relationship hack,” and as economist and author Emily Oster wrote in her book Expecting Better, it works by forcing “you to collect your thoughts and give you time to reflect rather than overreact to your partners’ [thoughts].” As well as this, Oster says, it’s also a good way to keep the receipts of your conversation to — very healthily — tell your partner, “I told you so.”

If you think this sounds counterintuitive to everything you’ve learned about healthy communication, you’d be right — but before you knock it, there might actually be some sense behind it. “Some people find that when their nervous system becomes activated — for example, during a highly emotionally charged conversation — they experience a sort of ‘flooding,’ meaning it’s very difficult to get words out clearly,” says Marianne Johnson, a psychotherapist with The Thought House Partnership, a London-based psychotherapy clinic. “Someone experiencing that might really benefit from some time and space to consider their response, and get their thoughts and feelings down in an email.”

When it comes to making a big decision, having this time and space to mull things over, and then to properly articulate your thoughts on paper might be helpful — particularly for those who find it difficult to express their feelings out loud. It could also be valuable when making less emotional decisions, like, say, investing in a sofa. In fact, psychotherapist Silva Neves believes that “facts-only” brainstorming conversations are “the only time when a conversation may be better done by email or text. Deciding on a school for your kids or financial planning are also good examples (though, he adds, “the topic of money can also be very emotive”).

Johnson believes emailing 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’d be able to discuss it in person, too.

This is exactly what London-based Ellie (not her real name), 28, and her long-term boyfriend did when deciding to move in together last year. “We had a huge fight about it that was very emotionally charged,” she tells me. “I felt like it would be easier to get my point-of-view across in a calm way via email — and we then ended up having an email exchange about the decision. The following conversation was much easier, and way calmer. Writing to one another worked really well for us in that situation.”

Ellie also thinks there’s value in writing your thoughts down for yourself ahead of a conversation — without the need to ever show them to your partner. “Difficult conversations are always best to have face-to-face,” she says. “But making notes ahead of a discussion provides clarity, or a sort of agenda for a conversation that could go off on a tangent.” 

However, while there’s merit to a mixed-media (of sorts) approach to things, communicating exclusively via email or text could create more problems, rather than solving the ones you already have. “Email is distancing,” says Johnson, “so it can also be a way of hiding. There’s a sense of shying away from seeing the impact of your words land with the other person, which means you don’t have to confront the reality of how you’re affecting them.” Johnson emphasizes this in reference to big emotional decisions, like breaking up with someone. “This route doesn’t honor the connection and depth of feeling you might have shared with them,” she explains.

Neves agrees. “As human beings, much of our communication is with body language, facial expressions and tone of voice, not just words,” he says. “For big and important decisions, it’s definitely best to do it in-person, and with as much compassion as possible. Even if it’s more challenging, the result is usually more meaningful.”

There’s also the problem of misconstruing what the other person is saying when it comes via email or text. That’s why a mix of both could be beneficial. “Whenever tone can’t be conveyed, it’s really important to clarify that in an IRL conversation, either on the phone or in person,” says Ellie. 

So, although a text-based approach to arguing might sound more appealing — in that it avoids being faced with the ugly reality of actual emotions — and might be valuable when it comes to fact-based considerations (though, most decisions in relationships are fraught with emotion), it’s absolutely not an exchange for face-to-face conversations. Particularly as, if you’re in a relationship, you’re gonna be faced with each other eventually anyway. 

I guess you’ll just have to fight it out in person to see who’s takeout menu wins — it’ll all be okay once you’ve eaten.