Should Separated Parents Text Each Other?
As useful as text messaging is in daily life, it may not be the best choice for separated parents. Some attorneys, in fact, feel so strongly about text messaging that they instruct their clients to avoid using it for communication with their former spouse or partner. One, when asked why he tells his clients to avoid texting their co-parent, said: “It [texting] is very, very bad for parents. I don’t mean that it’s worse than other mediums, but that it’s bad, period.”
It’s strange to think that such a ubiquitous method of modern communication can be so strongly condemned by legal professionals. Most people, especially those who text on a regular basis, might wonder why their lawyer so fervently advises against texting their former partner.
There isn’t one answer to this question. Rather, there are four primary reasons that texting may not be the best choice for separated parents. Strangely enough, the first of these arguments against texting is often seen as one of its biggest strengths.
Texting bears one of the most distinctive hallmarks of the modern age: convenience. Whatever comes to mind can be typed and sent in the space of a few seconds with little risk of a bigger time commitment. Phone calls, on the other hand, often run longer than anticipated. It’s so easy to shoot over a quick text that it can be done in the middle of a meeting or while multi-tasking. Think, then send. Some might even say that the thinking part isn’t even all that necessary.
But this lack of thought is the problem with text messaging. A person can send a text into the irretrievable ether only to later realize that what they said was hurtful or offensive. Or, they could hear bad news and immediately send six angry paragraphs full of statements they never would have made in-person or over the phone. The convenience of texting allows people to act on impulse with what seems like no cost to them.
This problem is amplified by texting’s second downside.
A Lack of Context:
In the 1970’s, Dr. Albert Mehrabian posited that 93% of communication is nonverbal; 38% is through vocalizations (like tone and volume), and 55% is through body language. While there are a lot of valid criticisms of Dr. Mehrabian’s numbers, the fact remains that most communication is nonverbal. To put it simply, it’s not about what you say, it’s about how you say it.
What’s more, communication is also informed by our environment—by mood, by location, and by recent events. It’s the reason a playful jab can get a laugh in the morning but start a fight after a long day of work. Put together, these environmental and nonverbal factors constitute the “context” of communication.
And context is entirely lost with text messaging.
Text messages are nothing but “text messages.” They’re stripped of all nonverbal elements of communication, and it’s highly unlikely that either party knows the environmental factors affecting the other person. Our interpretations of text messages will vary widely, as we can’t use body language, tone, or context to gauge the intent behind these messages.
Sometimes, this only leads to simple misunderstandings: a sarcastic “yes” in answer to an invitation can cause some confusion. Other times, a joke may miss the mark and lead to a simple misinterpretation.
But for separated parents who have a history of conflict, the results of a misunderstanding can have bigger consequences.
Without context, a human being is likely to perceive a given message in relation to one of two things: how theyview the world (usually affected by their current mood), or how they view the other person. Either assumption is likely to end in disaster.
In the first case, an angry person is more likely to read an innocuous message as something aggressive. It’s understandable; when someone is already defensive, their minds are prepared to respond to conflict, not to resolve it.
The second case, where someone misreads a message because of how they view the other person, is a frequent headache for attorneys. Usually, separated parents hire lawyers only after the separation has become contentious. As a result, they often view each other as “the enemy.” They see the other as an aggressor, as a “bad person” who intends to cause them harm.
When this happens, one or both parents may begin to “project” their image of the other parent onto every interaction they have. Specifically, they project their image of the other parent onto any “gaps” in knowledge. It’s harder to do this in phone calls or in-person communication. There are layers of context to everything the other person says, and the parent’s rational mind is better able to suppress their projection of the other parent and take their words as they’re intended.
But, as mentioned, text messages lack those layers of context. As a result, even harmless messages can be read as manipulations or outright attacks if one parent views the other as manipulative or aggressive. Each parent has their set assumptions about the other parent, and it can be tough to get them to listen to outside opinions.
The saddest part about all of this is that, for the most part, it isn’t malicious. It’s human. It happens when two people are flung into conflict with one another. That said, some attorneys have seen problems unique to texting that do, in fact, involve malice.
There are two misuses of text messaging that attorneys face. The first is enabled by the fact that text messages can be altered, while the second is enabled by texting’s anonymity.
In the first case, some co-parents will provoke the other party, then delete the provocative messages before showing the other parent’s response to friends and family, thus painting the other person as aggressive or cruel. In the second case, new partners of one parent take the parent’s phone and text the co-parent, trying to dig up dirt on their partner or start a fight.
While both methods have been used as far back as the email era, the convenience of texting has made them common enough that some attorneys now deal with them on a frequent basis.
Luckily, for all the downsides of texting, there are a few easy solutions.
The first solution is simple: refuse to communicate via text. Other forms of electronic communications, like email, lack the convenience of texting but provide a clear paper trail of who said what and when. For most, just the act of writing an email feels more “business-like” and will do a lot to curb the kinds of writing that could cause miscommunication.
But, while that certainly helps, it still doesn’t solve the core problem: miscommunication caused by the lack of non-verbal context.
This brings us to the second solution: utilizing a specialized communication service. While these specialized communications services can’t make up for the lack of non-verbal context, they go a long way towards minimizing conflict. Some provide tools, like online calendars, that reduce the need for long back-and-forth messages, while others have taken more proactive measures to curb miscommunications. OurFamilyWizard, for instance, offers a patented feature called ToneMeter which flags emotionally charged sentences and gives co-parents a chance to adjust their tone before sending. Over time, this can even give parents a better understanding of how their tone impacts their co-parenting communication.
Connor D. Johnson