it's complicated

Texting Is the Only Way My Husband and I Can Argue Without Destroying Each Other

Photo: praetorianphoto/Getty Images

My husband and I are fundamentally misaligned when it comes to conflict resolution. When we argue, I short-circuit. I try to use my diplomatic therapy talk, my “I” statements, but any attempt is undercut by the shakiness of my voice and the fact that my brain has been emptied of all coherent thought. My husband, meanwhile, becomes laser focused, able to come up with scathing, multi-clause arguments and intricate indictments of my character. There’s no hope for resolution, only the provisional relief of one of us declaring they are “DONE!” and storming out of the room.

He was raised in a home of hot tempers. Both his father and brother are criminal defense attorneys and have the sharp words and scent for weakness required of practicing litigators. He, too, was trained in the law, and while he no longer practices, his love for argument hasn’t waned. He has joked that anger is his manna. He sometimes provokes Trump supporters on Twitter for fun.

I, on the other hand, grew up keeping emotions tightly controlled. My childhood home was one in which voices weren’t raised, moods were cheerful, and conflict was discussed calmly at family meetings or, better yet, avoided altogether (the notes from one of those family meetings includes my father’s promise to “be less LOUD,” a nod to how upset my sister and I were by the occasional times he would raise his voice). In my one memory of true childhood anger, I smashed a china plate onto our counter, shattering it in a spasm of unruly rage, then cleaned it up and never spoke to anyone about why I was mad.

Eventually, therapy taught me the skills required to transmute my emotions into specific and expressive language. It began when I was 11, with family therapy after my anorexia had torn our household apart for a year and landed me in the ICU. Then there was individual therapy, which remained a mainstay in my life and shaped my idea of how difficult things should be resolved: like you’re in a therapy session.

Turns out this wasn’t a realistic model for life, or at least for my marriage. Take the time my husband arrived home with our daughter ten minutes after he said he would, leaving our dinner to grow cold on the table and my rage to reach a rapid simmer. Flooded with cortisol and adrenaline, my conflict-averse brain couldn’t assemble the calm words of therapy; instead I stammered out some half-sentence involving the words incredibly and rude. In the brain of my husband, however, those stress hormones worked magic. He shot back at me with a four-minute counterargument, his points so multitudinous I lost track of how many things I wanted to rebuff. I sat, mute, my anger accruing while my language deserted me. The exchange ended with yelling, with slammed doors, with dinner ruined.

My years of therapy equipped me to analyze my feelings with unhurried curiosity, to probe my mind and return back to the world with a clear description of how I feel and what I want. They did not equip me to argue, to think on my feet, to turn anger into persuasive language. And after 11 years together, four married and three as parents, my husband and I still can’t calmly work things out when we clash; there are no family meetings in our home.

So we text.

At first, texting was just a different medium for exchanging venom, three little dots turning into streams of vitriol over and over. “Oh, that’s right, I forgot, you never do anything wrong.” “Wow, you’re spiraling, I’m not putting up with this shit.” “What the fuck is wrong with you.” But eventually, the temperature of our volleys would lower. Text blocks would grow shorter, caps lock would disappear, expletives would peter out. And as we’ve had ample opportunity to argue over the years — cross-country moves, the rearing of a toddler, the pandemic — we’ve continued to improve our text-fighting technique. We are more restrained at the outset (fewer FUCK YOUs throughout, to be sure), quicker to offer concessions, conscious of inserting a kind word among critiques. We deploy the couples communication skills we’re constitutionally incapable of in person: using “I” statements and feeling words, avoiding absolutist statements, telling the other person we hear what they’re saying. “I feel sad that you haven’t asked how I’m doing,” my husband texted me from his COVID quarantine last month, rightfully angry that I’d given him no sympathy, being too overwhelmed with solo parenting a toddler whose day care had also gotten hit by Omicron. “I’m sorry, you’re right,” I tap back, his choice of words disarming me, reminding me that he is not my antagonist.

There are a few reasons text-fighting works for us. For one, when you have to type a sentence, you’re less likely to say something tremendously hurtful than if you just blurted it out. Texting also lets me articulate complex, emotionally loaded thoughts, something I’ve only ever been able to do through writing. So instead of yelling, “It’s incredibly fucking rude for you to show up late and not text,” I spell out, “It made me feel disrespected when you didn’t apologize for coming to dinner late.” It allows for precision of word choice, for restraint, for nuanced language, and though I’m sure my husband doesn’t carefully read every word of my paragraphs-long texts (nor do I his), I feel better for having expressed myself. And beneath all of it is the analgesic knowledge that we know how to do this; that, unlike with our volatile in-person altercations, we can land this plane.

This dynamic isn’t how I envisioned my marriage; it’s not a fact I readily volunteer to my girlfriends. It seems, in some lights, like a failure of me, of him, of our relationship. After all, if communication is the backbone of any healthy relationship, and we can’t communicate in times of conflict, then haven’t we failed at the whole endeavor?

But then I remember that we can communicate, and we do. We just don’t do it in the way that I’d been taught was best: in person, with plenty of “I hear you’s.” We do it through blue and white blocks of text, tapped into little rectangles from different rooms or even miles apart.

I’ve realized that our text fights highlight a fundamental truth about any long-term relationship: that try as you might, you’ll never fully understand what it’s like to be your partner, and vice versa. This asymptotic aspect of marriage — of getting infinitely closer, of intertwining yourselves more and more but still remaining fundamentally separate — can feel lonely, but it can also serve as an exciting reminder that there’s always more to discover about your partner. For me and my husband, we just sometimes do that discovering through iMessage.

Texting Is the Only Way My Husband and I Can Argue