Presidential couples: They’re just like us! They fight over text, too.
In an interview earlier this year with Harper’s Bazaar, first lady Jill Biden revealed that she and President Joe Biden have conducted the occasional argument over text messages to avoid fighting in front of the Secret Service. (They dubbed the habit “fexting.”)
It makes sense why couples — first couples included — take their tiffs to texts, according to Cindy Shu, a marriage and family therapist in San Francisco who works with her fair share of fexters.
“With texts, my clients say they have the ability to maintain a level of connection while still having the space to thoughtfully express themselves,” she told HuffPost. “Plus, when you’re ‘fexting,’ you don’t have the pressure of having to resolve conflict on the spot.”
For some people — introverts, especially — fexting offers a way to think through their arguments rather than stumbling through, shutting down or exploding, said Lia Huynh, a marriage and family therapist in Milpitas, California, whose clients also fext.
“The other pro is that it allows someone to calm down before responding,” Huynh told HuffPost.
“I often advise my clients to hold off on responding to their partner if they receive an angry text,” she explained. “Go take a walk, take some deep breaths, then respond. You don’t have this luxury when you are in the heat of the moment.”
Couples with kids might turn to fexting to avoid arguing in front of them. Friends and family members often fext, too.
“Surprisingly, a lot of the arguments would be between close friends or family members, compared to romantic partners,” said Mizi Samuels-Waithe, an associate marriage and family therapist at Wellspace SF. “This is often because some of my clients live with their partners, so they prefer to resolve their conflicts in person.”
Having heavy discussions over texts can also be a way for parents to get through to their otherwise closed-off, taciturn teens. Texting someone your requests or issues may offer just the right amount of emotional distance needed to get your point across, according to Judith Aronowitz, a therapist in New York City.
“Some teenagers struggle with expressing how they feel, so writing things down may help them articulate in a more honest and clear way,” Aronowitz said.
“Plus, sometimes a teen can accept something from a parent via text that they wouldn’t in an in-person discussion,” she said. “A text discussion may allow the teen to save face and feel less emotionally naked. It offers some protection.”
Naturally, people sometimes use texts in therapy as receipts for bad behavior (or good behavior).
“Couples will pull out their phones to prove someone wrong and validate their side of the argument,” Aronowitz said. “It’s often used like evidence in a court of love.”
The problem is, trying to win an argument or prove your point isn’t the goal of a healthy, even heated, conversation. To truly resolve an issue, you want to understand your loved one’s point of view and enter into their experience as much as possible, Aronowitz said.
Resolving underlying issues isn’t always easy over texts, said Shana Trimble, a marriage and family therapist in Tucker, Georgia.
“In a text-message exchange, ‘seen’ or ‘K’ can come across as fighting words.”
“The cons of fexting include miscommunication and one partner actively avoiding the texts, which can exacerbate even a simple debate,” Trimble said. “Also, skilled communicators with negative intentions can be very manipulating over text, whereas unskilled communicators with good intentions can often be misunderstood.”
Even without one party actively trying to manipulate the other, so much can get lost in translation over text, regardless of how many emojis you use. The biggest casualty is often tone.
Say you have a tense conversation with someone via text message, and at the end of it you text them: “Great, thanks.” You know that what you mean is: Great, I appreciate the talk and I’m glad we’ve come to an understanding. But to the other person, it could seem curt and dismissive: Thanks for nothing.
And for many people, in a text-message exchange, “seen” or “K” can basically come across as fighting words.
“People definitely sometimes interpret a lack of response as combative or hurtful,” Samuels-Waithe said.
Fexting may have its flaws, but as long as we’re glued to our phones, it’s definitely here to stay. Below, therapists offer their best advice to make your next text argument as effective and civil as possible.
Ask if the person has the time to talk over text.
Avoid surprise attacks and five-paragraph opening texts. You’re only going to catch the other person off guard and sabotage the conversation, said Charmain Jackman, a psychologist and the founder and CEO of InnoPsych, Inc., a network that connects BIPOC therapists.
“Ask the person if they are available and if it is a good time for them to engage in the discussion with you,” she said. “It shows that you respect them by asking their permission to engage with you.”
An emoji isn’t going to move emotional mountains, but it can help you convey your feelings and intonation more than an emoji-less text would.
“Using emojis or even GIFs can be helpful to create a clearer picture for communication, since you can’t see a person’s facial expressions or body language when you’re texting,” Samuels-Waithe said.
A smiley face or GIF might also add some much-needed levity to the conversation.
“I’ve had clients share their favorite emojis or memes for when they want to express themselves in their relationships,” Samuels-Waithe said. “It’s really cool and helpful for them.”
If you’re avoidant in relationships, or are unbearably slow to respond to texts, don’t get dragged into fexting.
If you’re notorious for never replying to texts, or you know you have an avoidant attachment style and tend to leave messages on “read,” it’s in your best interest to stay clear of fexting, Shu said.
If your partner or a friend is getting argumentative over texts, just casually reply: “Hey, I really do want to talk about this more with you, but I’d prefer if we could do it in person.” (Just make sure you figure out a time to talk and don’t leave them hanging.)
Recognize that some people feel more comfortable expressing themselves through the written word.
If your partner feels like they can get more off their chest via text, give them that opportunity.
“Some people communicate their complex feelings better through writing. Accept that texting might give your partner a venue to express themselves that they might not otherwise have,” said Kate Stoddard, an associate marriage and family therapist at Wellspace SF.
Of course, you also have the option to respond however you feel comfortable, whether it’s by voice memo in the moment or following up with a verbal (emotionally regulated!) conversation later.
Use “I” language instead of “you” language to avoid putting the blame on the other person.
This is solid gold relationship advice for any conversation, not just textual ones.
“Utilizing ‘I’ statements when voicing concerns, in order to focus on the emotional impact of the conflict, can be helpful,” Samuels-Waithe said.
For example, you might want to text: “Did you REALLY leave the trash piling up in the bin again this morning?” But instead, try writing: “I have to be honest, I feel worn down when I’m rushing the kids to school and I see that the trash wasn’t taken out.”
If the conversation is getting too heated or you realize the issue can’t be resolved over text, make a plan to talk in person.
Sorry, introverts. If you’re really going to resolve a matter, you’re probably going to have to tackle some of the conversation face to face, Jackson said.
“Taking it off text can help people to convey emotion through body language and tone of voice and bring the involved parties closer together,” she said.
Remember: The more serious the conversation, the more it needs to happen in person.
Generally, Huynh tries to dissuade her clients from fexting. Ideally, she thinks texting should be used for affectionate communication (memes, dog videos, sweet midday “just thinking about you” texts) or for logistical purposes. (“Hey, when are you free to get together so I can pick a fight with you?” Kidding, kidding.)
“I think that too many serious messages can be misconstrued,” she said. “And if you’re saying these angry, mean things ― possibly just out of anger ― they are there forever for your partner to read, remember and bring up again.”