Last week on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we launched our new series: Relationships in the Digital Age. We started off by investigating the basics of virtual communication in relationships, enumerating some of its risks and rewards.
Today, we would like to discuss one risk in particular: the enormous destructive potential of fighting in cyberspace.

One of the greatest dangers we face in using technology to communicate arises when we find ourselves in conflict. If a disagreement occurs, then tensions mount and emotions run high. We may become flooded, just as we would in 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 we are psychologically engaged in both worlds – in the world of text messaging and in “reality” – part of us constantly stays focused on the conversation we are having online. 

Text messages and online chat can keep us continually occupied in the conflict process, in which there is no opportunity for a “time-out!” 

Without the ability to take a break, we stay escalated and preoccupied, coming up with well-thought-out responses and rebuttals to the messages we are receiving. Because we remain flooded, we may find ourselves fuming and strategizing like this all day, becoming more and more upset over solvable problems.

We remain caught up in thinking about the unresolved problem, increasingly frustrated and distracted from the activities of our 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 we genuinely strive to understand our partner, we cannot see their facial expressions, hear their tone of voice, or interpret their body language – emotional connection is greatly impaired. 

As we spar online, intimacy goes out the window.

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

What a mess!

Sound familiar? Don’t panic. You are by no means alone. It is precisely for this reason that we write about the subject. Now that we have identified the problem, we will help you to understand it 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.

Look forward to learning more about conflict in cyberspace on Wednesday!

More in The Digital Age
The Digital Age: Conflict in Cyberspace

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.