Every now and again I’ll open my laptop to find an email from my husband with the subject line “Let’s Talk.” Perhaps the two most dreaded words in the history of relationships, and a phrase one that calls up images of unpleasant conversation to come—awkward silences, defensive overreacting, maybe even raised voices and trying to talk through tears. But in our relationships, “let’s talk” isn’t the nightmare fuel it used to be because in our relationship. It doesn’t mean we’re going to sit down and hash something out face to face. Instead, it signals the beginning of an email conversation where we will reply back and forth until we solve the problem and smooth it over. Because here’s the thing: My husband and I prefer to fight over email.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. We do still have disagreements in person, of course, like any longterm couple does. I should probably rephrase that to say that my husband and I prefer to try to solve our marital issues via email. It’s a technique that’s worked for us (or at least, I think it’s working—more on that later) for the past decade.
Let me back up. When we were newlyweds, I was a terrible arguer. But I was a champion fighter, with an expertise in voice-raising and door-slamming. I was out to win the argument and would stop at nothing to prove I was right. I soon realized that I had to learn to fight fairly to have a happy marriage, and over time, the solution became putting our thoughts in email.
It all began when I was traveling for work and couldn’t stop thinking about how frustrated I was by the current division of household chores. Door-slamming me would have let the issue build up and later combust, screaming red-faced at Nate to do the dishes already. But this time, I was on an airplane—no possibility of talking to him face to face and and probably with no opportunity to hash things out till I returned from my trip. So, while I was there in the plane, I constructed an email. The first draft was pretty deplorable: It consisted of a laundry list (legit laundry included) of the things that he’s not doing around the house. And there’s a good chance I added in some non-household issues, too, like general annoyances that had nothing to do with chore division.
I read it through before sending it and I noticed that it was basically a list of things that annoyed me about my husband, the recipient of the email. Seeing my words on the screen—everything I wanted to shout at him all together in a big wall of text—made me realize that saying a bunch of critical things (even if a great many of them were totally valid and legit) was probably not the most productive way to achieve an actual solution to the problem. So I went through it and deleted unfair comments, replacing them with proposed solutions. It was sort of like editing a story.
The more I thought about the issue and came up with ways to solve it, the less urgent it became, and the pressure I felt to rage my way to the changes I wanted start to lift. As I let go of my need to unleash my anger, I was able to think about things more clearly, including all the things my husband does do around the house and how unfairly my original draft had characterized him and his contributions to our home. The result was a well-thought-out email that expressed my concerns as well as how hurt and angry I was feeling and also asked him to take responsibility for the things he was neglecting. And you know what? I received a reply that was equally caring and result-driven. Boom! It was the beginning of fair fighting.
It’s worked for us so far, 15 years in. But I wanted to know: is this, like, a sign that our marriage is successful, or a recipe for disaster? So I asked an expert.
Turns out, it can be a little of both. Ty Tashiro, psychologist and the author of The Science of Happily Ever After, tells SELF that some partners are not very articulate during verbal disagreements. (Raises hand.) “They get tongue-tied or flustered, which can lead to miscommunication. If a partner is better able to articulate their thoughts in writing, then an email can be a great first step.” He says that email can be a good way to make your point and is also a great opportunity to let your partner know you understand their perspective. “Even if people do not agree with their partner’s perspective, it’s critical to convey their best understanding of where the partner is coming from and show their interest in understanding the partner’s perspective.”
For us, the medium felt natural. As we both acquired smartphones (and busy jobs), it was an instinctive way to communicate—whether we were reminding each other to buy plane tickets or using it as away to air our grievances. Working things out via email allowed me to communicate in a way that I was lousy at verbally and it gave Nate an equal voice in our arguments.
But Tashiro says that while email may work for some disagreements, he’s not a fan of couples introducing a major conflict this way or seeing email as the last word in a fight. “Email is helpful once a disagreement has surfaced in person and there is a commitment to resolving that conflict through a combination of email and face-to-face discussion.”
And I agree. Over time, we’ve learned exactly what conflicts work best over email (like division of household chores or a discussion about budgets). We reserve bigger issues—of course, what’s big to us might not be big to you and vice versa—for in-person discussions. As helpful as we’ve found it is to have these conversations by email, there are truly some things that, for us, require the intimacy of being face to face.
Since we’ve started airing our grievances via email, we’re now better at fighting fairly at home. Digital communication has taught us the art of thinking before you speak and giving both partners a chance to be heard.
But there are of, course, a few caveats and exceptions. Tashiro says that if a person is anxiously attached—for example, they have strong fears of being abandoned, are vigilantly on the lookout for signs that their partner is pulling away, etc.—they might not be a candidate for the whole argue-by-email thing. “Anxiously attached partners may be more likely to misinterpret the meaning of emails or become distressed when a response is not immediately sent back,” Tashiro says.
Another rule Tashiro recommends that we happen to already be abiding by is to never, ever fight or talk about relationship stuff by text. For us, texting is about chit chat, brief and timely updates, and saying a quick “I love you.” Tashiro points that in general we (that’s the societal “we”) tend to use text for quicker, less meaningful communication compared to email, which makes it not a great vehicle for deeper conversations. “The purpose of writing a letter or an email is to encourage time to formulate a thoughtful, measured response, but for most people text messaging is more of a quick, reflexive means of communication,” he says.
Just this week, I sent Nate an email with the subject line: “Let’s talk.” We are aggressively saving money for a home and I felt like we’ve been overspending. No one was at fault, but I wanted to write down a clear list of expenses as a reminder for ourselves about our goal. For this, email seemed like the best option, but, armed with Tashiro’s advice, we made a plan to further discuss over dinner that evening. I’m cool with the compromise. In the meantime, I’ll still be emailing about those dishes and texting all the emoji heart eyes.
Anne Roderique-Jones is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in Vogue, Marie Claire, Southern Living, Town & Country, and Condé Nast Traveler. Twitter: @AnnieMarie_ Instagram: @AnnieMarie_
The content of each “Anything Once” column is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of SELF or SELF editors.