May 6, 2024

The Text Trap: How our Thumbs can make Conflicts Worse.


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Texting is an amazing technology. Texting for conflict resolution? Not so amazing.

When I first witnessed someone using their cell phone to send a text in the early 2000s, I remember wondering why the f*ck they were doing this texting thing. Why not just pick up the damn phone?! Surely it was a fad!

Little did I know I would be texting in no time. And ruining relationships left and right (thankfully, this is an exaggeration. It’s only been left).

I don’t recall when I first texted to resolve conflict, but unfortunately the last time was not long ago and it still stings. Texting to resolve conflict is something the experts (my therapist, for one) recommend against. If you’re experiencing negative emotions and/or feeling misunderstood, it’s best to talk eye-to-eye or pick up that phone (video chat preferred!). Otherwise, you’re missing the non-verbal cues, which can lead to misinterpretation and even exacerbate the conflict. Early research demonstrated that body language and vocal qualities were far more important than words alone.

We’ve all been there, I think you would agree. You’re with someone you care about, talking away without a care in the world on the phone or in real life and BOOM. Said someone appears frustrated and you’re not exactly sure why. Maybe they try to offer advice and you begin to realize they misunderstood you. You don’t address it in that moment; you might even thank them for the input in an attempt to smooth things over. You go about your day with a sinking feeling following you everywhere. Eventually devouring you. Did I say something wrong? What did he or she mean by that? You begin rehashing the conversation, searching for clues. A story, likely not entirely true, begins to form in your head. You start reaching for that phone. Surely a text will help.

Or maybe you’re going through a bad time in your life. Maybe that bad time has gone on longer than you ever would have imagined, as hard as you’ve been trying to dig yourself out. Thankfully, you have certain friends you feel you can vent to. Okay, maybe spew is a better word, depending on whether it’s a Tuesday.

They attempt to lift you out of your funk by reciting a few meant-to-be-inspiring lines from Jay Shetty’s motivational podcast. You appreciate it and lob back a couple more spews. After all, there’s more stuck in your brain that demands to be unleashed! And who better to unleash it onto than one of your besties! You’re there for each other always!

Next thing you know, the air around them turns to ice and he or she announces suddenly that they have to leave early (oh, I forgot, I need to pick up some food for my new pet snail that I neglected to mention). Or, if you’re on the phone, they have a sudden excuse to hang up (I have to go, oh my gosh! I just saw a lion cross the road up ahead and need to figure out a detour). They leave or hang up and you realize, in fact, that despite how inspiring those Jay Shetty or (insert motivational podcaster here) words they recited were, the delivery was laced with a tone of impatience. Plus, who has a snail as a pet? And a lion crossing the road is not likely in Illinois, especially because your friend does not live near a zoo. What have I done? Are they mad at me? You start reaching for that phone, your thumbs rev up.

Or maybe you and your partner had one of those financial discussions. You know, the one you start up every third Thursday because you’re concerned about overspending, and since your family is known to live to a ripe old age of, on average, 98 years, you’re experiencing this relentless pit of fear in your stomach that money will run out. You can’t erase the image of yourself moving into a box, hopefully under a bridge, around age 87, if your calculations are correct.

You want to talk about it, but your partner looks at you blankly, then announces for the umpteenth time that their intention is to live in the present moment with a pack of unicorns and never-ending rainbows! Next thing you know, they decide it’s time to shovel the driveway. Yet, its mid-July, not to mention you live in Florida. And they’re out the door before you had chance to dramatically turn your pockets inside out to emphasize what your future may look like if he or she doesn’t slow down that damn money train.

In the deep recesses of your high-tech trained mind, the idea of further explaining your position in written form immediately jumps to the forefront. You grab your phone.

The scenarios for relationship conflict are endless. And too often, we think to ourselves: I know! I’ll write a text message to clear the air or re-emphasize what I’m saying but in a different way, so they really understand my point. 

Stop right there. Paraphrasing, rephrasing, explaining ad nauseum is not the answer. At least not in text form. Yet, texting has become a fallback relationship-air-clearing technique for many of us and, nine times out of ten (proven in a very small statistically significant case study that is my own life), it is not only ineffective, but it can also be damaging to the relationship. It can even lead to fexting, which is a full-blown fight via text that will not likely end well.

As mindful as you may be while writing the text, the tone (anger, sarcasm, disgust, impatient, negative) that the recipient decides—consciously or not—to assign to your text could override your mindfulness efforts. That tone will likely be influenced by any number of scenarios that may not even have anything to do with the message you’re trying to convey: the recipient’s mood-of-the-moment, their own underlying insecurities, or the paradigm they have formed about you. Maybe someone nearly ran them off the road. Or they have indigestion. Or they simply misunderstood what you said out loud to them and have been stewing about it ever since, defense mode on. As a result, while the recipient reads your text, they will hear it in whatever tone they’ve assigned. Often, it’s a negative interpretation. Yes, even though you were simply trying to relate and help them understand you, they take your text the wrong way and things get worse. It ain’t rocket science, people!

Something tells me that, like me, you’re aware of all this yet sometimes find it hard to resist texting. I’ve known to the core of my being that I shouldn’t text in certain situations and yet have watched my thumbs type away, emotions coursing through my veins, determined to clear up this misunderstanding if it’s the last thing I do today, as if I am not attached to my own appendages. Even as I’m telling myself this is probably not the best idea…SEND!

We’re all human! Who likes to sit in discomfort and wait for the opportunity to talk in the flesh to make things right when there’s this magical communication device just waiting, no begging, to be used? Not too many of us! But that’s where that little trick pony mindfulness comes back into play.

Put the phone down. Sit with your feelings. What are they? Feel them! Breathe into them! Tell yourself this does not need to be solved right now. Take another breath. Write down your thoughts and feelings without censoring then shred it. If possible, take a nature walk. Run up and down the stairs. Watch a fire or study the flame on your stove. I don’t care! Just stay away from that phone, darn it!

If you’re fortunate enough to have stopped yourself from texting and can arrange to sit down and talk with the person face-to-face, you’re doing great! Bring flowers or chocolate. If you feel a bottle of wine or booze is in order, make it one bottle and—as tempting as it may be to imbibe—hold off on throwing back any alcohol until after your discussion. Thank them for taking the time to hear you. Give them a hug. If it’s your partner, hold their hand. Make that connection. Try to avoid rehashing the conversation in he-said/she-said fashion.

Instead, ask questions. Can you help me understand your perspective? What are your concerns? What do you need from me to resolve this conflict? Can you share how you’re feeling? Talk in terms of how you feel. I feel you may not have wanted to talk about XYZ. I feel that you may have perceived XYZ in a way I didn’t intend. Do your best to be calm and non-defensive. You may be surprised to find that the person wasn’t frustrated at you at all.

If you have no other choice but to talk by phone, try to do so with video if at all possible (and break the ice by wearing a funny pair of glasses or a clown nose).

Do not despair, texting addicts! Texting does not have to be completely off limits in your life. Here are seven texting examples that will likely keep you out of trouble:

1. Making plans. What could possibly go wrong? Hey, want to do something tomorrow night? Great! Let’s meet at 7. See you there! If you can’t seem to agree on where or when to meet, call to find compromise.

2. Providing a quick update: Hey! I’m running a bit late because an alligator ate my shoe and I tried to go in after it, but the second alligator went for my other shoe so I ended up shoeless and my phone was soaked so I needed to let it dry before I could let you know I would be late and meanwhile I had to find a shoe store the old-fashioned way by just driving around aimlessly.

3. Dropping someone a quick positive note to say it was great to see them or thanking them for a gift. Everyone loves to hear that they or something they did are appreciated! If seeing this someone wasn’t so great, refrain from telling them so.

4. Checking in and see how someone’s doing, telling them you’d love to catch up by phone or over dinner soon. Insert happy face emoji.

5. To send an inspiring quote (not in response to a text you perceive as negative).

6. Sharing a recipe.

7. A quick positive note in words, GIF, or meme: Happy Birthday, Safe Travels, Happy May Day! (Be careful here. Some GIFs or memes may be offensive to some and not everyone is on board with celebrating 4-20.)

Our fast, high-tech world is miraculous and if we’re if we’re not mindful, sometimes harmful.

Wait a minute! What about sexting? That’s hot stuff, at least when it comes to a love relationship, right?! This essay is about texting not sexting. I do not have an opinion one way or another about it, but you can check out this article or this one.

Back to the conclusion: if we take a few moments to resist resolving conflict via text, whether our intentions are good or not, our conflicts can be better managed and our relationships can thrive. Your loved ones (and thumbs) will thank you.

Can you relate? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below! Share your own experience of getting caught in the text trap and what you learned! Or, if you’re one of the lucky ones who’s never fallen into this regrettable trap, please share your tips!


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