Romantic Conflict, Part 2

Advantages and disadvantages of technology use in romantic conflict.

Posted Oct 03, 2017

In a previous post, I addressed some basic features of conflict in romantic relationships. Now, let us consider the role played by technology in this context. To what extent do couples use technology (the phone, texting, email) for conflict? What are the perceived advantages and disadvantages of technologically mediated communication in the management of romantic conflict?

These are important questions. Romantic relationships are key to personal happiness and well-being1 and, as previously discussed, conflict occurs frequently in these relationships and has the potential to disrupt them. Meanwhile, technological devices have become indispensable tools for everyday communication with relational partners. It is therefore likely that these devices will be used for romantic conflict and will play a part in the resolution of these conflicts. Yet there is surprisingly little research on this topic. Here is what we currently know:

1) Extent of Technology Use for Romantic Conflict.

When it comes to technology, we live in a high-choice environment: We have a multitude of media options for connecting with relational partners in an easy, fairly effortless manner. Two studies2,3 have investigated the extent to which people had ever used the media for engaging in conflict with a romantic partner, both using convenience samples of college students. In 2010, 61 percent of college students reported using a mediated channel for romantic conflict, specifically texting (51 percent), the phone (25 percent), instant messenger (13 percent), social network sites (8 percent), and email (4 percent)2. In 2014, the numbers were higher, especially when it came to social network sites and email. 64 percent of participants used texting, followed by the phone (60 percent), instant messaging (37 percent), social network sites (29 percent), video chat (22 percent) and email (21 percent) for romantic conflict3. Note that video chatting (e.g., Skype, FaceTime) also became a novel and fairly popular option for romantic conflict at this time.

Only one study has investigated a community sample (i.e., non-college students) in 20114. Results show that, at that time, adults were not as keen as college students on using technology for romantic conflict: Only about one-fourth of couples used the media to broach serious relational topics.

In conclusion, the very limited research on this topic indicates that (1) college students are quite likely to engage in romantic conflict using technological devices; (2) older adults are less likely to do so; (3) texting is the most prevalent medium for engaging in romantic conflict; and (4) the use of social network sites, video chatting and email is on the rise. It is likely that the use of technological devices for romantic conflict is on the rise across the board, as more people, across demographics, have adopted these devices for everyday communication.

2) Advantages and Disadvantages of Technology Use for Romantic Conflict.

A handful of interview studies5,6,7 had college students ponder the advantages and disadvantages of using the media for romantic conflict. Here is what they came up with:

Advantages:

  • More careful message composition. Face-to-face communication is extemporaneous, meaning that people must think and respond on the spot to their partner’s remarks. This can be challenging, especially when emotions run high—as tends to be the case with conflict. Certain media relax this constraint. Over email or texting, people can take as much time as they want to construct their messages, and they also have the ability to edit them before sending them along (a luxury unavailable to face-to-face communicators, who cannot take back an undesirable statement once it has been uttered). This media feature can be especially advantageous to those who are prone to outbursts or impulsive statements such as threatening to break up the relationship when they don’t really mean it (see my previous post on this topic).
  • Reduced interruptions. Relatedly, when conflict happens face-to-face, people may have a difficult time getting their messages across because of frequent interruptions and question-asking by their partners. Over the media, these interruptions can be reduced and conversational turn-taking can be more equitable. For instance, over email, one partner can only respond once the other has finished saying their piece. Even in more synchronous media like texting and instant messenger, people can still continue typing their messages despite incoming questions from their partner. People who are less outspoken and less vocal than their partner, and hence often feel railroaded in conflict situations, may greatly benefit from this feature.
  • Reduced flooding. Flooding refers to the experience of being overcome by emotion. In the case of conflict, this emotion tends to be negative (anger, frustration, sadness). When flooded, people tend to act in impulsive and irrational ways and are more likely to escalate conflicts rather than resolve them in an equitable manner. The partner’s embodied presence can increase flooding. That is, people are likely to get more emotional when they can see and hear their partner in real time. This is especially the case when the partner’s gestures, facial expression, and voice, denote negative emotion, because emotion tends to be contagious. Many media make it possible to communicate with one’s partner in the absence of corporeal presence and nonverbal cues (email, instant messaging, texting), and thus may reduce the likelihood of flooding. People who are highly emotionally reactive or neurotic may benefit from this feature.
  • Expressing negative emotions. Some people feel uncomfortable voicing criticism and dissent to their partner, and, as was the case with emotional flooding, these anxious feelings can be more potent when the partner is physically present. Simply put, some people find themselves tongue-tied having to look their partner in the eye and criticize them or express negative feelings. Yet these negative feelings are important to address, otherwise, the conflict remains unresolved (see my previous post about the pointlessness of avoidance as a conflict management strategy). The media can provide a buffer between oneself and one’s partner. Since the media enables communication in the absence of physical presence, it can increase the comfort level these individuals have in expressing their concerns.

To reap these benefits, participants reported engaging in the following media-related strategies:

  • Channel switching. When the conflict got too heated, some participants switched from face-to-face to mediated communication, so they could reduce flooding and increase message control.
  • Incremental introduction. Some participants eased into face-to-face conflict by broaching it over the media first. Once their concerns were laid forth in a mediated message (email or text), they were easier to address face-to-face.
  • Compartmentalize conflict. Some participants were invested in preserving their face-to-face relationship as happy and conflict-free, so they resorted to the media every time they needed to engage in conflict. Thus, conflict was designated to its own unique sphere (i.e., the media), that did not overlap with quality time spent face-to-face.

Disadvantages:

  • Waiting time. One of the greatest difficulties associated with media-based conflict was waiting for the partner to respond. While the media could be helpful in reducing interruptions in the case of overly vocal partners, waiting for not-so-vocal partners to respond was perceived as torturous. This waiting time was often described as fraught with anxiety (“what are they thinking?” “maybe things are worse than I thought!” etc.) and with escalating anger (“I can’t believe they’re ignoring me!” “They must not care about me at all!”). These concerns are not entirely unfounded. One study shows that participants were 2.8 times more likely to purposefully delay responding and 3.8 times more likely to ignore their partners when romantic conflict unfolded over texting than face-to-face communication3.
  • Emotional disconnect. For some people, the partner’s physical presence produced emotional flooding, such that media with reduced nonverbal cues was preferable. But for other people, the absence of nonverbal cues meant that they couldn’t connect emotionally with their partner, making conflict resolution more difficult. Additionally, the absence of nonverbal cues made it more difficult to “read” one’s partner—that is, ascertain how they were feeling as the conflict unfolded.
  • Lack of finality. Relatedly, some people reported that conflicts negotiated via the media felt less final, less resolved than those negotiated face-to-face. This was the case because the media left more uncertainty about the partner’s feelings and thoughts, and also because classic resolution behaviors (e.g., a hug, a kiss) could not happen.

Tell me about yourself: What are the advantages and disadvantages of using technology for your own conflict management? What are your experiences using technology for engaging in conflict with a romantic partner?

In the next installment in this series, I will discuss the handful of studies on how media use affects conflict resolution. Beyond these perceived advantages and disadvantages, is it constructive or destructive to use technology to engage in conflict with one’s romantic partner? Stay tuned. 

References

1. Dush, C. M. K., & Amato, P. R. (2005). Consequences of relationship status and quality for subjective well-being. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 22, 607-627.

2. Frisby, B. N., & Westerman, D. (2010). Rational actors: Channel selection and rational choices in romantic conflict episodes. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 27, 970-981.

3. Scissors, L. E., Roloff, M. E., & Gergle, D. (2014, April). Room for interpretation: the role of self-esteem and CMC in romantic couple conflict. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 3953-3962). ACM Press.

4. Coyne, S. M., Stockdale, L., Busby, D., Iverson, B., & Grant, D. M. (2011). “I luv u:)!”: A descriptive study of the media use of individuals in romantic relationships. Family Relations, 60, 150-162.

5. Caughlin, J. P., Basinger, E. D., & Sharabi, L. L. (2016). The Connections between Communication Technologies and Relational Conflict. Communicating Interpersonal Conflict in Close Relationships: Contexts, Challenges, and Opportunities.

6. Perry, M. S., & Werner‐Wilson, R. J. (2011). Couples and computer‐mediated communication: A closer look at the affordances and use of the channel. Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal, 40, 120-1347. .

7. Scissors, L. E., & Gergle, D. (2013, February). Back and forth, back and forth: Channel switching in romantic couple conflict. In Proceedings of the 2013 conference on Computer supported cooperative work (pp. 237-248). ACM Press.