The Dance of Connection

Rescuing women and men from the quicksand of difficult relationships.

The Most Important Email Rule Ever!

Send a family relationship downhill fast with email!

Email--Uh-Oh!  Take special care with those difficult folks who happen to be members of your family.

Tack this sentence to your computer. "If you're feeling angry, misunderstood, or otherwise intense, do not write that email!"

If you're the one on the receiving end of an emotionally loaded email, don't respond in kind. Instead, send a short email that says. "Thanks for your honesty. I'll give what you're saying lots of thought. Let's set up a time to talk on the phone, or when we're next together.

Take the exchange off email, and keep it off email.

Most disastrous are long emails, with all the details you believe will help the other person to see the irrefutable truth of your point, or really get the extent of your hurt. I haven't done the empirical research, but my informal observations suggest that the greater the word count, the faster the relationship slides downhill.

The tone (easily misread) and process of email is very different from a face-to-face conversation. Even a short constructive criticism on email can lead to escalating intensity. A therapy client of mine, Gennie, was irritating at her younger brother, Joe, who often crashed at her house without lifting a finger to help out.

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After one of his visits, she wrote an email saying, "It was great to have you, but I need to tell you that we're not running a hotel here. Please pitch in and help next time you stay with us."

Her brother, whom I imagine had a major shame attack, wrote back a longer defensive response which led to an even longer explanatory email from Gennie, which culminated in an email from her brother saying that he wouldn't be causing her the trouble of more visits. The disconnection was eventually repaired, but both parties felt injured.

Email, not either of these two good folks, was the culprit. Things would have gone quite differently, if Gennie had said to my client during the visit, "Hey Joe, come help me set the table" or Joe, here's the vacuum. Please vacuum the living room while I'm cooking." If he ignored her, another level of conversation would be in order, like "Hey Joe, help me to understand what's going on here. I've asked you twice to do help clear the table, and you're your ignoring me. What's up?"

Face-to-face conversation requires courage and email requires none. Take the high road and say what you want to say-or let it go.

Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., is best known for her work on marriage and family relationships and the psychology of women. Her book The Dance of Anger has recently been reissued.

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