Thursday, February 14, 2013

How Gchat saved my marriage: Some advice on Valentine's Day

Do you have an issue that you and your partner argue you about on a regular basis? That topic where one or both of you argue terribly because you're so emotionally involved you lose the ability to speak with any sort of compassion or kindness? Do you have one of these?

Matt and I have have about a million of these issues.

Alright, not a million, but many. I think they are probably the same as yours: finances, jobs, sex, religion. The big ones. These issues are wrought with emotions and hopes and anxiety and passion, and despite some well-meaning discussions, they can get us into trouble. We are both endlessly stubborn (mostly me). We are also endlessly tired, and this can sometimes make us cranky arguers. Not the best combination.

My marriage and my iPhone

But here is the thing: we often connect through the day online over chats on our Gmail accounts or through texts on our phone (and we're not the only ones). Most of the time we send ridiculous messages that will make each other laugh, about the children or the cats ("Please send help: Lucy the cat just set up a union and is out of control with demands. Also, the cats are late in paying rent.") Other times we send notes of a more practical nature, reminding each other to pick up something from the store or run an errand, or, sometimes, to gently nudge the other person to stop leaving dirty clothes all over the bathroom floor. (For the record, there is a laundry hamper directly outside the bathroom, not two feet away from said bathroom floor.)

Matt and I have what feels like a strange work/family set-up, though the way so many parents cobble together resources and working hours I'm sure it's more common than I realize. There have been periods in our lives where we've spent a lot of time together because we both worked from home, but for the past few years we have found ourselves constantly trading off home/kids for working time. Although Alyce is in school during the week, Shira has always stayed at home because it made the most financial sense for me to continue working from home and not pay for daycare (in addition to me wanting to keep her at home with me as long as humanly possible because she is my baby). But because Matt's job is very flexible he and I take turns staying home with the kids, which translates to me escaping the house two days during the week.

Here is our typical day: Shira wakes at 5:15 am (that's sleeping in) and one of us gets up with her. (Our rule is whoever is staying home with the kids that day gets to sleep in. Deal? Deal.) Once it's time for that parent to leave for work, the other parent takes over and begins the day at home, usually trying to squeeze some work in between school drop-off, meal preparations, and Shira's requests to paint/draw/have a snack/watch a show/have a snack/paint again/and then paint again. Some nights when the other parent comes home around dinner, the other parent heads out for a few hours of work (and that is when I meet most of my doula clients). Other nights we sit on the couch and watch NCAA tournaments and eat popcorn.

What I'm getting at is that we don't have a lot of time during the day to connect, to sift through all the details of an issue, including those that are time-sensitive in nature. But what we've found is that because we are both very comfortable on computers and phones and can type almost as fast as we speak, we can connect very well online. Matt and I can work through a lot of necessary conversations in stolen moments throughout the day rather than during the witching hour of dinner and bath time with two young children.

Not just for shopping lists

But there's more. Some fancy (and probably very knowledgeable people might tell you that it's important to have the BIG conversations face-to-face, so you can look into each other's eyes and really listen to your partner's needs. I say phooey. Sometimes you need to have a conversation with your partner where you they don't see you roll your eyes or can't hear you raise your voice. Sometimes you need to talk about something really pressing and important in your relationship but you need space not to storm out of the room. Chatting online has saved us so many times, and I don't mean enabling us to just work out schedules. I mean with the big things.

We've talked about clashing expectations about our sex lives and moving our family to a new country over gchat. We've texted each other through emotionally charged panic attacks and moving disasters. We are so invested in these kinds of  issues that sometimes when we talk face to face we let our emotions stand in the way of a solution. We get defensive, shut down, or begin to raise our voices. But over gchat we are patient and take the time to (sometimes) clearly explain our positions and concerns, we ask each other for feedback, and generally give the other person space to disagree. Of course there are times when we do all this in person, but sometimes we can discuss an issue online or as texts first and then come together still in one piece with greater patience and understanding.

I kid you not, in the last hour Matt and I have begun to work through a very challenging idea over Gchat, an issue that presses buttons well-established after almost six years of marriage. I promise you that we will speak kindly to each other when we finally see each other face to face than if we waited until I got home to discuss it. Also, just because we hashed it out online doesn't mean we no longer speak its name when we get together human to human. We'll continue to talk about it sometimes, often, but the anger that often comes with that initial passionate argument is usually gone. And then we can be nicer to each other. And then we dance together on a rainbow.

Please, take this piece of advice as my Valentine's Day gift to you!

P.S. Happy Valentine's Day, Matty!


  1. Oh, I agree completely Danielle!! I have a lot of trouble speaking when I'm upset -- my voice breaks a lot and I usually end up in tears. So I'd often avoid talking about difficult things because I didn't want to end up blubbering.

    Being able to chat about things in real-time by typing is a godsend for me. It doesn't matter if I'm blubbering, I can still express myself coherently. It also helps to keep the power in the conversation more level, because if I'm in tears, I think it changes the dynamic of the discussion: it makes me feel undignified; makes the other person feel like they have to comfort me instead of talking about the issue at hand; and probably affects the other person's perception of me and the points I'm trying to make (ie. they're more likely to dismiss my perspective as being over-emotional).

    When I look back on a particularly difficult chapter in a previous relationship, I realize that I was really at a disadvantage because my former sweetie insisted on talking in person about everything. It put me at a real disadvantage in those conversations, and I think I was really impaired in my ability to advocate for myself and to be taken seriously. I wish I had realized that at the time and insisted on a more 'blended' approach.

    There are downsides, for sure, and it's not appropriate for every situation. And as you said, of course it's useful to speak in person about these things as well. For me, I usually find that hashing out the really hard stuff by instant messaging, followed by a face-to-face debrief (once the difficult stuff has already been said/typed and the emotional intensity died down), to be really helpful.

    1. ....also, I think it's better to instant message than to email. If I start emailing back and forth, I find it ends up being these lengthy dissertations on the issue -- more like one long monologue after another rather than a real conversation -- and I spend wwaaaayyyy too much time writing them. The synchronous back-and-forth with instant messaging is definitely preferable.

    2. I completely agree! It's the real time nature of chatting or texting that helps us. It feels like more of a conversation. We found all this out by accident, but it really, really works for us. Glad we're not the only ones!

  2. good post. reading hold me tight right now and recognizing so many aspects of our marital (mis)communication. you (and we) are not alone!
    ps nursing as usual...hence no capitals/punctuation

    1. Nursing, nursing. I spent the day with a six-week old and his Mama and all she wanted was for me to hold him so that she could nap, but ALL he wanted was to snuggle next to her boobs. Such is the way.

      Do you recommend the book?