by John Suler, Ph.D.

A big advantage of e-mail encounters over f2f ones is that you can keep an exact record of what was said. At your leisure you can reread and reflect on the exchanges between you and your e-mail partner. If two people only know each other via e-mail -- and at least one of them saves all of the exchanges messages -- we could even make the argument that the "relationship" has been preserved in its entirety. Often, however, a person only saves some of the messages, probably those that are especially meaningful -- emotional high points, moments of intimacy, important personal information, or other milestones in the relationship. Comparing the messages saved by one person to those saved by the partner could reveal similarities and discrepancies in what each of them finds most important about the relationship. One person might savor humor, practical information, personal self-disclosures, emotional recollections, or intellectual debate - while the other may not. Saving mostly one's own messages, or mostly the other person's messages, may reflect a difference in focus on either self or other. The area of significant overlap in saved messages reflects the common ground of interest and attitude that holds the relationship together.

It's very possible that there might be a significant difference between partners in the number of saved messages. The person who saves less -- or maybe none at all -- may have a lower investment in the relationship. Or they may not be as self-reflective about relationships as people who wish to reread and think about what was said. On the other hand, that person may simply have less of a need to capture, preserve, or control the relationship. Some people like to "live in the moment." They may not feel a need to store away what was said... and that doesn't necessarily indicate less of an emotional involvement.

Unless you're simply searching for information (e.g., phone number, address), what prompts you to go back and read old messages may be a sign of something significant happening in the relationship or your reaction to it. Doubt, worry, confusion, anger, nostalgia? What motivates you to search your archive? The curious thing about rereading old messages (even if they are just a few days old) is that they look different than they did the first time you read them. You see the old message in a new light, from a new perspective. You notice nuances that you did not see before. Or you discover that the emotions and meanings you previously detected were really your OWN projections and really nothing that the sender put there (i.e., your transference reaction). We are tempted to think that an e-mail archive is a factual record of what was said. In some ways it is. But a saved message also is a container into which we pour our own stuff. We invest it with all sorts of meanings and emotions depending on our state of mind at the moment.

In my article on e-mail dynamics, I discussed the use of quoted text. Usually, one quotes lines from the most recent message received from the e-mail partner. If you have an e-mail archive, you also can quote lines from earlier messages, including messages from long ago. This may have a dramatic impact on your partner. On the positive side, the person may be pleased to realize that you are saving her messages -- in a sense, holding him in your memory, even cherishing her words. On the negative side, it can be eerie seeing one's words revived from the distant past -- especially when you don't quite remember when or in what context you said it. It's a reminder that the person has a "record" of you. The situation can be even more unnerving when you don't have a record of the message yourself, so you can't verify the accuracy of the quote. A slightly paranoid feeling seeps in. "Am I being deceived, held hostage?... Why didn't *I* save that message?" Of course, all of these negative reactions are amplified when the old quoted text is being thrown at you in an accusatory or hostile manner.


John Suler, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at Rider University and a practicing clinical psychologist. He has published on psychotherapy, mental imagery, and eastern philosophy. He currently maintains several web sites.


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