In our last post on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we introduced the topic of Conflict in Cyberspace. Today, we would like to explore the subject in greater depth. First, we give you a brief summary of Monday’s piece: 

Conflict is, by definition, an absorbing state. When it is encountered online, it can be even more so. Without access to the language of emotion, continued miscommunications are inevitable, and flooding can be more damaging (and longer lasting) than in face-to-face interaction.

The moment that partners engage in argument in this virtual setting, they literally lose their senses. Two things happen at once:

1) As virtual communication takes away their ability to perceive visual, tonal, and nonverbal cues, it deprives them of access to a complete human connection.

2) In addition to being thus impaired, partners are more and more blinded by their escalating frustration with each other.

When we enter into this space, we may begin to encounter a new and very serious problem:

We no longer perceive the other person as a complex human being, one who may have hurt feelings, or be yearning to connect. 

Because of the fundamental separateness we feel when we type from opposite ends of cyberspace, there remains a discontinuity in our connection. You can imagine virtual communication as an imperfect bridge – missing some bits, inviting those traversing it to fall through the cracks.

When partners encounter significant difficulties in virtual interaction, they may ascribe these difficulties to the method of communication; however, when they are engaged in serious conflict they may become blinded. They may see their relationship itself as the cause of the problem or even see their relationship as damaged. Sound familiar?

Ironically, this attribution error – blaming the partner entirely for conflicts that, in large part, stem from the nature of the media over which they unfold – may inflict direct and very real damage to the relationship itself.

At this point, people often begin to feel that they are under attack. They may lash out in defense against what they perceive to be aggression, insensitivity, or coldness from their partner, the inescapable result of lack of warmth afforded by virtual media. As text messages go furiously stampeding back and forth over this already rickety bridge, they may do more damage to it, and send the remaining bits falling into the cyber-void.

Even when partners try to re-forge links in conflict over messaging, their attempts may be lost in translation. The already plummeting feelings of connection have been translated into a loss of trust. They may have already lost control, and noticed too late.

We’ve all experienced this feeling – it’s painful and exhausting to reach out over and over and be rejected, to try repeatedly to build bridges and fail. When one or both partners become flooded, the course is very difficult to reverse.

Here’s the bottom line: Continuing to engage in conflict that arises over online messaging is a very, very bad idea!

On Friday, we will share some alternatives to the disaster scenarios described above! Look forward to some simple, specific ways to avoid conflict in cyberspace!

More in The Digital Age
The Digital Age: What’s Beneath the Conflict?

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.