Couples "Vortext" Their Way Into Trouble

Couples “Vortext” Their Way Into Trouble

Earlier this month, the New York Times published an article that calls attention to something that we all have seen a lot over the years. In case you don’t have a subscription to the NYT, the sub-headline for this Style section piece by Reyhan Harmanci is, “Want to fight fair? Some couples advocate taking it to the texts.” 

I think you’ll find that the gist of the article is in the headline and subhead.

And look, an argument via text can serve many practical purposes. Examples include a useful mechanism to keep the most heated moments of couple’s argument out of earshot of the children, a means of making contact with a partner about a concern in a seemingly non-invasive way, and so on. The practice is born out of a desire, conscious or not, for a quick answer to something, for emotional validation, or even a need to feel understood quickly in an argument. 

And this efficiency can backfire, often very suddenly and painfully.

The virtues of this gorgeously efficient means of communication notwithstanding, its dark underbelly emerges in the form of what I have always referred to as “vortexting,” or the thing that happens when human beings try to manage relationship anxiety or eagerness via text.—It’s almost as though the bottom drops out before we had any idea that such a thing could even happen, and then down we go headlong into the anxiety spiral that inevitably accompanies the (vor)text argument. 

“Vortexting” typically starts out innocently enough, especially because it seems as though everyone under the age of beyond-retirement communicates this way, either a little or a whole lot. (Don’t you?) We avail ourselves of the instant gratification that our phone’s SMS app and/or other instant messaging apps afford, until…well, down into the vortex of miscommunication and misunderstanding we find ourselves. 

Here’s a great real-world example from this year that someone shared with me off of her phone (with wait times approximated):

Person A:  Hi. How are you?  How is your day going?

Person B:  Fine.  Yours?

A:   Sounds like you’re busy.  I miss you, and I’m looking forward to seeing you.  

            ||Insert 180 minutes of non-reply time here.||

A:   Um, hello? 

            ||Insert 90 more minutes||

A:   OMG, are you mad at me??

This level of communication misalliance, while resolvable fairly quickly in many instances, comes with a significant distraction cost. It diverts our energies away from our normal mood and level of focus for today’s work into a vortex of damaging assumptions, projections, and the distortions that can result from these. And the tricky part about sitting in this quasi-paranoid space is that there are, more often than not, maybe two or three kernels of truth to the assumption…but, also more often than not, we can fill these little truth kernels with so much distortion of one kind or another, that we would swear that we’re staring at a nightmarish revelation of truth.

It’s been a chewy little trope for comedians for a few years now.  Comedic duo Key and Peele, for example, developed a good and giggle-worthy, NSFW creation by riffing on an exaggerated meltdown that can happen between two people. Now, add the exponent of infatuation and love into the relational mix, and things can go south and spirally pretty quickly, as was the case with this last slice—from the EIGHT printed-out pages she brought in—of what I would consider classic “vortexting” that took place between a woman I was working with in individual therapy and her very troubled and easily injured partner at the time:

He:  I really wanted to finish our conversation last night. You are heartless.

She:  We texted for over two hours, and I told you I was exhausted, my brain was shutting down, and absolutely needed to go bed.

He:  I don’t understand how you can get tired when I’m telling you how hurt I am.

She:  I’ve told you time and time again, my body just shuts down when I reach a point of exhaustion.

He:  You’re mean.

Texting by its very nature has the other person at a degree of separation—separation from rich, informative non-verbal and tonal data, separation from a more objective reality, and so on—even when the text option can be an emotional transitional space or a proxy for closeness and connection.—Perhaps this can work for some self-reliant, generally securely-attached people to be able to titrate and manage either person’s anxiety, but this can feel absolutely crazy-making for someone who’s holding more than a fair share of anxiety in the relationship, be they introverted or extraverted, securely attached or located anywhere else on that seemingly ubiquitous four-box graph of adult attachment styles, which developed out of Bolby’s and Ainsworth’s research

A fair number of people, often independent of age, simply do not prefer frequent texts, and for various reasons. Chief among these:  People want autonomy as well as the benefit of the doubt. Texting someone frequently, without fully discussing and negotiating mutually defined meaning and intentions of certain word choices or syncopation beforehand, can feel like something bordering on haranguing or harassment to the receive, when the conscious intentions of the sender were only bunnies, rainbows, and sunshine.

So, while texting might seem like a good way to speak your feelings indirectly, it far too often will have the opposite effect that you intended. What you want is closeness and connection, but you might be working at cross-purposes with that goal if your partner feels controlled, nudged, or accused (even inadvertently)—or all three. Relationships can wither and die under perceptions of, even when we do not mean to be controlling. Keep in mind, there are far better ways to manage anxiety in, and about, the relationship, such as by using our anatomical voice and presence (even our 2-D presence), and, if need be, by checking in with a couples therapist for even just a few session to iron out some communication wrinkles.

Bottom line is, when you don’t have something calm and indisputably positive to say, it’s may be received with the beloved reader’s head askance, if it arrives in text form. To keep yourself and this relationship above ground and growing in healthy ways, please try to interrupt the earliest perceptible “vortexting,” and use the old-school phone or video app, together with a minute’s worth of your timeless, soft, dulcet tones.--It’s easier on the eyes and music to our ears.


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