My husband, Don, and I were out for dinner the other night when, at the table next to us, a three-year-old boy launched into a classic temper tantrum. After being denied his third glass of soda -- an injustice of epic proportions when you still use a sippy cup -- he proceeded to throw his food at his mother, kick his dad under the table with all his might and scream, "I hate you!" at the top of his lungs. It was quite the show.
Scenes like this are never flattering to the players. They're even less flattering when the players are old enough to know better. I mean, you'd assume that a person who has to use the fingers on both hands to show his age would have left these infantile outbursts of self-indulgent anger behind him, right? Wrong.
The adult temper tantrum is alive and well. Although it takes many unpleasant forms, one of the most common is what I call a "texter tantrum."
Not a week goes by that I don't have a client hold up a cell phone and say, "Look at what my partner has been saying to me!" The text-fight between them is always the same: Name calling; Profanity; Insults; Upper case letters meant to convey JUST HOW F*&^CKING STUPID the other person is; One. Word. Sentences. With. Periods. To. Really. Emphasize. Just. How. Done. I. Am. With. Your. B@llsh*t.
I've seen text-fights that lasted for hours and involved literally hundreds of back-and-forth digital missives, each more contemptuous than the last. The anger, misinterpretation and vitriol in text-fights escalate with the speed and force of a runaway train filled with explosives.
Unlike a face-to-face argument, there are no safety checks to slow down a text-fight. There's no opportunity to shake your head and say, "Wait, that's not what I meant! I love you, let's bring this down a notch." There's no chance to defuse the situation with a spark of affection or humour, a soft word or even an unexpected embrace. There's only unbridled, unchecked, unrestrained and utterly self-focused emotion and assumption.
So what's the solution? Well, that's easy. Stop texting. OMG, right?! Well, get a grip on yourself. Texting is not your only communication option. And it certainly isn't an essential way to communicate. Is it convenient? Yes, at times it can be. But the moment texting becomes a source of conflict rather than convenience, it's time to delete this form of communication from your relationship.
How long should you refrain from texting? A month? Six months? There's no magic number. I suppose my answer would be, "Until you have moved past your relationship problems, can demonstrate more respect for your partner, and can show an adult-level of self-restraint."
If you twist my arm and demand a number -- which I know you want to do -- I'd say that couples who regularly fall into these kinds of extreme text-fights should stop texting altogether for a period of three months at an absolute minimum, during which time they must tackle the deeper relationship issues that exist. Happy, healthy couples simply don't speak to each other this way.
After this time, those couples who wish to reintroduce texting into their communication must first lay a few ground rules.
Text messages must always begin with a greeting such as, "Hi sweetheart" or even a simple "Hello." For those people who are prone to text-fights, it is important to start a message off with a polite greeting. Launching into a text message without a brief greeting is like storming into a room and talking before you've said hello. It can come across as abrupt, invasive, self-important and demanding.
If a partner does not respond, do not text him or her again. It is irritating to pick up one's phone only to find twenty messages saying, "Where are you?" and "Why aren't you answering me!" and "Call me NOW!" Almost always, this kind of pattern snowballs into typical text-fight frustration, hostility and accusation.
A text message must serve at least one of three purposes. It must either: a) convey a positive emotional message; b) convey information in a respectful and thorough way, and/or; c) serve as a positive way to stay connected during the day via brief "I love you"s, "xoxo"s or happy-sweet emoticons or symbols.
Finally, text messages must always end with a loving and clear sign-off. When does a text message conversation end? Even between friends or happy spouses, it can sometimes be unclear. To avoid a spouse mistakenly believing that his or her partner has just stopped responding, couples must always make it clear that the texting conversation is over.
A spouse might text, "OK, I'm going to get back to work now...anything else before I go?" If the other partner responds "No," then the spouse can end the conversation with a respectful, "Love you, chat later." This lets a partner know that his or her texts won't be responded to for a while. It might even be a good idea to let a partner know when you might next be looking at your phone. Texting a brief, "Will check my phone at lunch time" can prevent all kinds of confusion, unnecessary speculation and escalating irritation.
Even for those couples who are not prone to text-fights, following these texting ground rules can go a long way toward avoiding pointless arguments and assumptions. Texting is the demon child of the communication world, and the more you can prevent an innocent text from being misinterpreted -- and potentially spiraling into a texter tantrum -- the better.
Debra is a leading relationship author-expert in Canada & the USA. Visit her at MarriageSOS.com
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