I was reading an interesting thread of discussion by a group of therapists the other day. One therapist asked the following question – “Is it ever innocent when two married people are exchanging sexually explicit emails without their spouses knowing?” She went on to explain that she was seeing a couple. The wife had been receiving emails from a male colleague on a regular basis. The emails were explicit about themselves but were rather “naughty stories and jokes.” The wife felt her husband was overreacting and that the emails were “innocent and meaningless.”
The resulting responses were pretty consistent. While a few, very few, therapists suggested there might be circumstances where this was okay, most resoundingly condemned exchange of sexually explicit emails and/or conversation as a violation of trust and verging on an emotional affair. Now, this may be true. Or it may not be. I certainly believe we live in a very sex-negative society and quickly denounce any discussion of sex or sexual outside of some limited settings as inappropriate and wrong.
Given our society’s current values, there was probably some reasonable expectation by the husband that his wife is not engaging in sexual dialogue with another man. However, my concern with the situation is that I think everyone was getting distracted by this debate and missing the larger issue. The question of the “okayness” of the email contents is subjective. We could argue about it all day long and never resolve it.
What I see as a more important issue is the fact that the husband was expressing feeling that the boundaries of their relationship were being violated. He felt that he and the relationship were being disrespected. Instead of the wife expressing concern that he felt this way, she seemed more committed to defending her actions. If her partner feels the boundaries of the relationship are being threatened, why is she more determined to prove him wrong than to protect and respect those boundaries by curtailing something that is meaningless?
In therapy terms this is the difference between content versus process. We so often want to focus on the content, or subject, of interactions, discussions and arguments. But what is often more helpful is to look at how those things are happening (the process) instead of what they are happening about.
It is easy to get distracted by content. While the content of some discussions is important it is also possible that getting too locked into it prevents us from recognizing and dealing with the real issue. Too often we have arguments about subjects that are just an excuse to battle about process. It is those situations where we often say, “we argued over something stupid.”
In this example I don’t know what the wife’s real intentions or desires were. What is clear is that the unspoken message she was sending was that her email exchanges were more important to her than the feelings of her husband or any threat to their relationship. It is possible she really feels that way but isn’t ready or able to acknowledge it. Or maybe she just got distracted by the content. Maybe she and her husband have created a dynamic where winning arguments became paramount. Either way, the question isn’t about whether or not the content of the emails was appropriate. It is about why things are happening the way they are.
The next time you find yourself in a conversation that isn’t going well, pay attention to the process. It could be that the content is just a distraction.