Avoiding the Adverse Impact of Electronic Communication in Couples Therapy By Terence E. Patterson on 4/16/24 - 8:30 AM

Although it is nearly impossible to break communication habits in the Internet age, I have had numerous therapeutic instances where clients only dig themselves deeper relational holes by attempting to resolve interpersonal issues by texting and messaging their partners. The nuances of tone, emotional body cues, facial expressions, and the imperfections of language that are a normal part of face-to-face interaction, are lost through these digital mediums. The result is often an exacerbation of ongoing communication difficulties. Through my informed voluntary consent at the outset of therapy, I make my position about texting and messaging outside of the therapy hour very clear. Because clients frequently do this, my informed consent includes these statements for reasons that will become clear in the cases below, but also because SMS creates the expectation of an instant response, which I am only prepared to provide in an emergency. I also encourage clients to deal with emotional issues with each other in person, or at least by phone. In this way, the nuances of non-verbal communication and precise language can be more readily perceived, clarified, and addressed.

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Case Examples of Electronic Communication Gone Wrong

Brian and Samantha, a couple in their forties who had lived together for two years, presented the problem of frequent arguments over both trivial and deeper issues. These tensions regularly escalated into withdrawal, name-calling, and impulsive criticism, with old resentments resurfacing. I worked with the couple on the basics of communication, problem-solving, and behavior exchange, and explained the role of lingering resentments. They did well with practicing and understanding these issues, but resentments still lingered, and comments flared up.

After six sessions of rocky and frustrating, ungratifying conjoint therapy, I received copies of text exchanges between them. They each sent me the copies they received without their partner’s knowledge in hopes of proving to me the other’s abusiveness — ignoring my informed consent provision. In one thread, Brian apologized for commenting at dinner that a glass was dirty, saying that he was merely making an observation, not a criticism. Samantha replied, “If you don’t appreciate all I do for you, when you never do anything around the house, you can do it all yourself!” Brian then attempted to clarify his intent, to no avail.

I replied to Brian by text, indicating that my informed consent stated that I do not use the internet for emotional content such as this, and we could discuss it further in our next conjoint session. In their next “post-text debacle” session, Brian did not bring it up out of embarrassment. They continued for six sessions, working on the resentments that surfaced and terminated with improved overall skills; I never found out whether they were able to resolve past resentments.

In another case, I worked with a disgruntled individual client, Belinda, who was in a severely dysfunctional marriage with her wife, Lucy. Her goal was to obtain recommendations for dealing with the anger she felt for several reasons. I explored them cognitively and emotionally, having her align her values with her behaviors. Belinda sent me pages of exchanges going back eight years in which Lucy had historically berated her for everything she resented. Seemingly, Belinda wanted me to agree that she had indeed been emotionally abused.

When Belinda directly expressed outrage at home, Lucy said she “didn’t really mean all that,” to which Belinda told her she could not take it back and they should consider divorcing. In the next session, we explored her situation, and I told her that moving forward, I could not take an additional hour to go over all the comments her wife made in those electronic exchanges but could instead help her to consider some resolution of the contempt and disconnect she felt. I advised that they see a couple therapist, either myself for a 1-2 session consultation, or another therapist. She seemed to have a better understanding of her resentment and how to control it.


In looking back on these two cases, I understand the widespread use of texting and messaging in today’s electronic world. Although I discourage clients from using it to discuss emotional issues, I cannot prevent them from doing it, either interpersonally or with me. I believe it’s important for therapists to set an example — and boundaries — by not using electronic media for intimate communication.

File under: Couples Therapy, Therapy & Technology