The Digital Age: Conflict in Cyberspace

As you spar online, intimacy goes out the window.

As you spar online, intimacy goes out the window.

As you spar online, intimacy goes out the window.

The Digital Age Conflict in Cyberspace

The Gottman Relationship Blog launched a new series: Relationships in the Digital Age.  Today, let’s discuss one risk in particular: the enormous destructive potential of fighting in cyberspace.

One of the greatest dangers faced in using technology to communicate arises when you are in conflict. If a disagreement occurs, then tensions mount, and emotions run high. You may become flooded, just as you would in a face-to-face argument. But here’s the thing:

When partners are flooded in conflicts offline, they can agree to take a break, to self-soothe, and to come back to the conversation after a short pause. In online conflicts, this is almost impossible.

When you are psychologically engaged in the world of text messaging and in “reality,” part of you constantly stays focused on the conversation you are having online.

Text messages and online chat can keep you continually occupied in the conflict process with no opportunity for a time-out.

Without the ability to take a break, you stay escalated and preoccupied, coming up with well-thought-out responses and rebuttals to the messages you receive. Because you remain flooded, you may fume and strategize like this all day, becoming more and more upset over solvable problems.

You stay caught up in thinking about the unresolved problem, increasingly frustrated and distracted from the activities of your day, often becoming gridlocked on subjects that might not have become so contentious if they came up face to face.

The truth is, even if you genuinely strive to understand your partner, you cannot see their facial expressions, hear their tone of voice, or interpret their body language. Thus, emotional connection is greatly impaired.

As you spar online, intimacy goes out the window.

Because of the literal and figurative distance, rational reflection on the intentions of your partner becomes nearly impossible, and your capacity for self-reflection declines. As tensions mount, you lose control. As you lose clarity of connection with yourself and lose clarity of your image of the other, your partner ceases to be a complex human being, and begins to assume the shape of a depersonalized adversary.

What a mess!

Sound familiar? You are by no means alone. The next blog post will help you to understand this more deeply, and see what is happening underneath for the two of you when it arises. This understanding will help you to perceive and manage these situations in a more healthy way, staying in control of yourselves and your relationship.

Ellie Lisitsa is a former staff writer at The Gottman Institute and editor for The Gottman Relationship Blog.