'Fexting' or fighting over text message keeps therapists and divorce lawyers busy
A marital expert says that fighting over text message is a kind of compulsion for certain people, a need to get a response right now rather than having a conversation that unfolds face to face.
On a Tuesday in early October around 5 pm, Robb Loeb was with his wife, Jenn, in their Atlanta home hanging a bookshelf. Or rather, attempting to hang a bookshelf.
In Jenn Loeb’s telling, he was using a leveller that had dust on it, obscuring the actual level and causing the shelf to be askew on the wall.
In Robb Loeb’s account, he had mismeasured the length of the wood, which made it hang crookedly.
They do agree on what happened next: Jenn Loeb, who said she is “a direct person,” pointed out the problem. Robb Loeb, who described himself as a “sensitive, reactive person,” immediately took offense, interpreting her critique as a personal attack.
Peeved, the pair separated and went into adjoining rooms – and began typing into their phones.
“You take every single thing I say as an insult,” Jenn Loeb, 37, wrote.
“Maybe you should look into why,” Robb Loeb, 36, replied.
In a move that may ring familiar to many, they went on to invoke their therapists.
“Since we’ve met, you’ve seen one therapist, once,” he wrote.
“And yet you still react to everything,” she replied.
“So there is one of us, refusing work,” he answered.
“I went to multiple appointments. It wasn’t just once. I’ve been working on myself my entire life, dude,” she wrote.
The Loebs were engaging in a ritual familiar to almost everyone in a relationship of any kind in 2022: The text message fight.
Text message fights can be funny. When Tricia Ziebarth, 54, of Hudson, Wisconsin, was fighting with her teenage son, he accidentally responded, “all right love you win” instead of “all right you win,” thereby admitting to loving his mother – the pinnacle of adolescent humiliation. They also make for good material for online humour videos.
Arguing over text can be practical, to avoid yelling in front of children – or in front of the Secret Service. (Jill Biden recently admitted to the occasional – steel yourself – “fext” with her husband when he was vice president.)
These text fights can be heartbreaking, too, as I heard from multiple people who reported that their spouse or family member had ended a marriage via text.
They can be weaponised, as in the case of Bravo’s Real Housewives, who now regularly show up at reunions with binders of printed text fights, aka “the receipts.”
“Fexting” also keeps therapists and divorce lawyers busy.
“It comes up in my practice a lot,” said Laura Wasser, a Los Angeles-based family law attorney who has represented Kim Kardashian, Britney Spears and many other well-known figures. “We get inches and inches of text message printouts, which can go a long way toward providing evidence to the judge.”
How powerful is that kind of evidence?
“It is –” Wasser paused briefly, almost as if she were remembering something specific, “powerful.”
Photos, threats, inadvisable admissions, errant social media posts – all of these can contradict the buttoned-up vision of an upright citizen presented in a courtroom.
“Now the judge is seeing how the person really communicates,” she said. “This is the real them.”
The format certainly has its detractors. According to Debra Macleod, a marital mediator based in Calgary, Canada, texting is “the absolutely worst form of communication that the human species has ever invented.” In her practice, she sees couples who print out hundreds of pages of messages, expecting her to read them.
“If the couple already has problems, you’ll see the nastiest things,” she said. “I’m like, oh, my God, this is insane.”
Fighting over text message, she said, is a kind of compulsion for certain people, a need to get a response right now rather than having a conversation that unfolds face to face.
“To me, it’s part of a larger culture of wanting that immediate answer,” she said. “There’s a sense of urgency, where I am almost angry if I don’t get that instant answer.”
What Macleod suggests to clients is a drastic break from text-based communications altogether, for at least three months. If they must text, she asks that couples greet each other, say something nice and end with a sign-off.
“I try to make that rule – not that people follow rules,” she said.
To help guard against text fights, Wasser advocates using a special portal, from places like Divorce.com, an online divorce service that she works with, or WeParent. These sites can ferry messages between exes who have to, say, coparent. Wasser said that a more formalised communication platform, one that might later be viewed by a judge, often “precludes people from going bananas.”
However, for some people, like the Loebs, there is no way to fight but text message. The couple met on Match.com and spent a week texting before they met, laying the word-based groundwork for their relationship.
Before the pandemic, their schedules often didn’t align, meaning that one of them would be getting home while the other one was starting work. But now, they both work at home as consultants at different accounting firms. That arrangement could have led to more fights IRL, but it hasn’t: When they start arguing, they immediately retreat to separate spaces to spar on screens.
Jenn Loeb, in a separate interview, concurred.
“We had some pretty big fights in person before going to text,” she said. “Yelling is very triggering for me, and for Robb as well.” Over text, there is “more space and time” to explain a misunderstanding.
It is rare to come by anyone who endorses text fighting. Macleod remains skeptical.
“If that works for you, great, it’s whatever works for you,” she said. “Would I give that advice to other people? Never in a thousand years.”
But it feels inescapable to many couples. This technique of taking it to text has worked so well for the Loebs that they recommend it to friends often.
The Loebs’ dispute ended productively. Robb Loeb, crucially, used the phrase “you were right” to his wife. She also backed down from her ledge, noting that the room, in general, looked nice with the bookshelf. And then came the peace offering.
“Would you rather spend the next hour cleaning or doing a sniffy walk,” he asked, referring to the dogs sniffing in the park. “Or both.”
“Walk,” she replied.
So they did.
By Reyhan Harmanci © The New York Times Company
The article originally appeared in The New York Times.