Brittney and Brent’s* arguments went very wrong very quickly. “Brent constantly does stuff that really upsets me,” Brittney said in their first couples therapy session some years ago. “But whenever I try to talk to him about it he just clams up and scowls like a sullen teenager!”
Brent retorted, “That's because you don’t argue; you become a crazy person!” He turned to me and said, “She gets red in the face and she cries and yells and calls me names–and it happens in two seconds flat. How am I supposed to think straight when she’s like that?”
“I call you names?” Brittney cried, outraged. “You call me names! And you tell me that if I don’t like it we should get divorced! What kind of husband does that?”
The Biggest Mistakes Couples Make When Arguing
One of the most basic truths about relationship satisfaction and success is that it isn’t what couples fight about that matters but how they fight. Four specific argument-behaviors have been found to be extremely counter-productive and highly predictive of divorce:
- Criticism (attacking the person instead of their actions)
- Contempt (name calling is a good example)
- Defensiveness (using excuses and counterattacks)
- Stonewalling (withdrawing or shutting down)
Marital researcher Dr. John Gottman calls these "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse"—and Brittney and Brent demonstrated all of them within three minutes of our first session.
I also learned that Brittney and Brent worked together, which meant they were together nearly 24 hours a day—and unfortunately, they first came to see me just before leaving town for a three-month job assignment. In our first session, I told them about the four horsemen and suggested less-destructive rules of engagement—which they agreed to follow, at least until they returned to town.
I got a frantic message from Brittney a week later: They had been unable to abide by their new rules and their arguments were worse than ever. Once I had them both on the phone, I suggested something I usually try to avoid—I told them to communicate about their disagreements only via email—not in person, on the phone, or via text. (Texting is a very different medium than email, one that promotes briefer, more impulsive exchanges; we tend to be far more thoughtful when composing emails.)
When I saw them three months later, Brittney quickly announced, “Arguing over email has totally saved our marriage!” Brent agreed: “We get through things now. We actually figure stuff out.”
Having productive arguments via email is better than having destructive ones in person. But that doesn’t mean all couples would benefit from arguing via email.
The Downside of Arguing Via Email
Arguing via email is far from ideal as a form of couple communication. The absence of tonal and facial cues makes it much more difficult to convey a nuanced message—and easier for the reader to misinterpret the sender. Not being able to see the other person’s eyes well up with tears is a barrier to empathy and understanding. Missing their half-smile means that an attempt at humor can be interpreted as sarcasm. Not being able to reach out and hold the other person’s hand makes it difficult to soften or de-escalate an argument.
But: When a couple becomes incapable of having productive conversations in person, when every argument is vicious and destructive, when even simple disagreements escalate into fights from which it takes days or even weeks to recover, it’s time to consider an alternative.
When and Why Couples Should Argue Over Email Instead of in Person
Arguing over email presents advantages for couples who have the following patterns:
- One or both members of the couple have a quick temper. Being too reactive in an argument, getting heated quickly, or having facial expressions that instantly shift from calm to irate, makes it very difficult to have a productive discussion. Arguing via email allows the reactive partner(s) to take a breath, calm down, and be more reflective before responding. It also allows them to reread what their partner wrote and be more likely to respond to their actual points or concerns. Horsemen avoided: Criticism, contempt and defensiveness.
- Couples who don’t know how to de-escalate arguments. Many couples do not know how to calm things down once they get heated. But while they might not be able to use restraint in the "heat of battle," they are more likely to be able to pull off a calming tactic via email (e.g., “Look, I really don’t want to fight about this,” or, “I know you’re upset; I am too, so let’s try and figure this out”). Horsemen avoided: Contempt and defensiveness.
- One person is verbally over-matched. It is common for one person in a couple to be much better at arguing and expressing their needs and emotions than the other. This often makes the less verbally-skilled person clam up, become overwhelmed, say the wrong thing, or just shut down. Arguing over email allows the less verbally-skilled person to think through what they feel, what they think, what they want to say, and how they should best express it—thus leveling the playing field and allowing for a more productive exchange. Horsemen avoided: Defensiveness and stonewalling.
* (not their real names)
View my short and quite personal TEDx talk about Psychological Health here:
To learn how to improve your empathy and emotional validation skills, check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).
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