What Relationship Therapists Want You To Know About ‘Fexting’—AKA Fighting Over Text

Photo: Getty Images/JGIJamie Grill
In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar earlier this year, First Lady Jill Biden said she and President Joe Biden occasionally argue over text messages, using the word “fexting,” or a combination of “fight” and “texting.”

There are all kinds of reasons folks might take to fexting and tap away on their phones to air their grievances with any important person in their life. (As a note, fexting can happen in platonic and romantic relationships alike.) For one, expressing hurt in a live, face-to-face scenario can be intimidating, especially if you hate conflict. Also, taking the time to write out your thoughts can help you stay composed and on-message while you're communicating. And if you live in different time zones, or you don’t see your partner or friend in question often, this mode of communication may feel all but natural. At the same time, however, leaning on a regular fexting practice might not be doing your relationship any favors.

Experts In This Article

While it's possible to disagree with a partner and settle an argument constructively, there are also many ways to go about conflict that will only make things worse. And when arguing via fexting, that's absolutely the case. According to counselor Mykal Manswell, LCMHCA, here are some examples of forms of fexting that stand to exacerbate any given argument, whether with a romantic partner or anyone else:

  • Using harsh language
  • Sending several messages in a row as a tactic to overwhelm or hurt someone
  • Sending demeaning comments
  • Intentionally relying on short responses in order to be manipulative
  • Using emojis, photos, GIFs, and videos in an immature to nature to elicit negative emotional responses
  • Stonewalling, or refusing to respond or communicate in a constructive way (or simply not taking a moment to calm down
  • Typing so it looks like you’re replying, without the intention of actually sending anything

How fexting stands to compromise your relationship

Ultimately, fexting is more likely to lead to misunderstandings than arguing live, which can lead to subsequent, unrelated arguments that could have been avoided entirely. That's because when you fight over text, “words can be misconstrued, an excessive number of messages cause irritability, and the conversation is not effectively or mutually accepted by both parties,” Manswell says.

“Words can be misconstrued, an excessive number of messages cause irritability, and the conversation is not effectively or mutually accepted by both parties.” —Mykal Manswell, LCMHCA

Furthermore, well-intentioned, genuine texts can easily be perceived as sarcastic or ironic during a fexting spat, adds Callisto Adams, PhD, an AASECT-certified sex and dating expert. (Detecting tone from a text is close to impossible—been there, tried to do that—even when you include emojis and careful wording.)

The negative impacts can be long-lasting, too, Manswell says, potentially leading to resentment, a lack of communication, and even a breakup in romantic relationships. He especially sees this with couples in long-distance relationships. “Communication is supposed to be engaging, provide clarity, and create an opportunity for growth, enthusiasm, or education,” Manswell says. “Couples who are in long-distance relationships tend to run into communication issues because they simply lack the unique opportunities to constantly meet in-person, which can help improve problem-solving issues more directly.”

How to approach arguments constructively and leave fexting behind

First, take a moment to gather your thoughts and decipher what exactly is eating at you. “While taking your time, you also give yourself a chance to calm down from the overwhelming emotional stage you might be in,” Dr. Adams says. “That can affect your logical thinking as well.”

Next, reach out to your partner (or friend). Manswell recommends having serious conversations over a phone call or video chat, if not in person, “so that tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language can be acknowledged effectively and reduce the opportunities to become consistently misunderstood.” This is a way to have the conversation right when it’s needed, but without all the heat-of-the-moment hurt and confusion.

Scheduling virtual or in-person meet-ups regularly is a good idea, too, even when you don’t have a concern to share. And if your loved one starts fexting you, consider encouraging them to move the conversation to one of those other mediums so you two can address the issue best.

During that conversation, remember that other fair-fighting skills come into play. Some examples include using “I statements” (aka, “I feel ___ when ___ because ___. What I need is ___.”), as well as not bringing up past fights or being cruel in general.

Dr. Adams also urges talking to the other person as if they're right in front of you, regardless of your proximity. This includes being thoughtful; if the situation were flipped, consider how you would respond to the words you’re saying. “Pay attention to your words and how you put them in a sentence,” she says. “That can set a friendly, defensive, or aggressive tone to your message. The more aggressive, the more you agitate the fight.”

On that note of arguments escalating, Manswell recommends setting boundaries. “One of the best ways a couple can have an argument or dispute more effectively is by creating ground rules and expectations when texting,” he says. He also suggests setting up a code word for when things start heating up, so you can stop and reassess how to best move forward. These steps limit mistreatment and create mutual accountability, he adds.

Arguing with your loved one is never fun, but fexting—while tempting, at times—can easily make the situation worse. The next time this happens, the experts encourage picking up the phone to call or FaceTime, or planning an in-person meeting.

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