Dr. Beth Ribarksy is an associate professor at the University of Illinois Springfield as part of the Communication Department. Her areas of expertise include dating and sexual communication, along with the construction of individual and relational identities through interpersonal communication. Dr. Ribarsky also has a website on which she gives advice for romantic, family, and friend relationships.
Dr. Beth Ribarsky’s interview was conducted by The Journal’s Hayley Payne via Zoom on 26 Oct. 2020.
Payne: What advice would you give someone who is trying to start a new relationship during the pandemic and quarantine?
Ribarsky: I think a lot of it has to do with people’s comfort and safety levels. Of course, I’m always encouraging people to follow CDC guidelines, as far as safety goes. Therefore, a lot of what we typically do as far as flirting and meeting new people doesn’t necessarily apply in the same way. For example, imagine you’re trying to flirt with somebody, but half of your face is now covered. This is a situation where I might smile at somebody to show that I’m interested or inviting interaction, but I can’t necessarily see that, so we go back to the old Tyra Banks’ learning-to-smize type of thing. I encourage almost exaggerated eye contact, in some ways. We can squint up our eyes more, because we know that this is a sign or symbol that we might be smiling. Same thing goes with your voice, as far as nonverbal communication goes…we can actually hear people smile in their voice. It’s one of the reasons why customer service representatives are individuals who are taught to smile even if they are not feeling it, because the person on the other end of the phone can often hear the smile in their voice. Some of the dating apps out there have options where you click on what you’re comfortable with. For instance, meeting someone socially distanced, socially distanced with a mask or only staying online. These are decisions individuals have to make…Things we used to do in a typical face-to-face style aren’t necessarily things that we can do in the same manner now. For instance, we can’t touch another person’s arm, because we are not getting in that bubble to be able to touch that other person.
Is it okay to start a romantic relationship without meeting a person face-to-face first as a result of the pandemic?
Yeah, I definitely think that we’re living in an era in which you can start getting to know people and interact[ing] with them without having to meet them face-to-face. Scenarios like catfishing make us think that everyone is lying on apps and the Internet. It’s not true. Yes, about 50 percent of people will stretch the truth in some way. So for instance, someone exaggerating their height. Most individuals do not drastically exaggerate who they are. In a scenario such as now, we have so many technology capabilities in which we can take advantage of simulating a face-to-face date. Set up a Zoom or FaceTime date, in which you can see and talk to the other person…simulate some of that initial date-type experience. I encourage people to start a relationship, even if it means not meeting face-to-face at the current moment or any time soon.
What advice do you have for someone who is already in a romantic relationship during this pandemic?
I definitely encourage a lot of the things that I would encourage in any type of long distance relationships. You still need to work on implementing things that support one another: engaging in more positive communication, providing assurances that you’re still there for the other person, and doing non-face-to-face dates. I know that there are several different apps that allow you to watch movies together with someone at the same time. It might not be the same close and intimate type of interaction that you’re used to but it still provides something that you can bond around. Zoom dinner dates together is also something that simulates those types of romantic experiences with each other.
Do you have any suggestions on how couples should communicate with each other regarding conflict using non face-to-face methods?
A lot of times we want to turn to texting or something like that when we’re engaged in a conflict because it allows us more time to reflect before we answer and think about the appropriate responses. There’s a lot of things that we miss out on when we’re not engaged in some sort of telephone call or face-to-face. We can’t read somebody’s nonverbals. If we have a channel with more nonverbal communication, then it creates more richness. Even though it makes us uncomfortable to discuss things that are upsetting to us, having nonverbals over Zoom calls or such allows a more intimate connection. A lot of the conflicts we have over text messages are simply misunderstandings because perhaps we read a tone wrong. We have to really think about where the conflict is coming from. Sometimes conflicts stem from things outside of our relationships. In a pandemic, we’re in a situation where we’re under stress, and that stress can have an impact on the relationship. Sometimes we take out this stress on the person in our relationship. We have to know where the stress is coming from. It’s also important that you don’t have to engage in a conflict the moment that it happens. Take time to reflect. The old advice of ‘don’t go to bed angry’ is something that I don’t agree with. Allow yourself time to cool off and self-reflect. Come back to the table with a clear head and a better understanding of both perspectives.
How can you keep the romance in an online relationship?
As I said, you can still engage in romantic gestures from afar. Sometimes it means that you’re reaching out to the other person and giving them assurances that you’re thinking about them or that you miss them. The same thing goes for compliments. Specific compliments make compliments a lot stronger and more impactful overall. Even though you’re separated by a screen, having a date night planned, such as watching a movie or eating together over Zoom, can help the romance. As college students, you might not have the funds that you would like, but sending a Door Dash to someone with their favorite food can let the person know that you’re thinking about them. We need that support the most in times of stress. It all comes down to being upfront and open about what makes the other person feel more valued.
Do you think that online relationships have the same quality as ones that are face-to-face?
Researchers say that long distance relationships have the same quality as those with individuals who are geographically close. They tend to report similar levels of satisfaction and success. Where some of the discrepancies come in is when individuals have too much uncertainty. For example, someone being unsure of when they will no longer have to be in a long distance relationship and use technology to supplement their relationship. We have so much uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, because we don’t know when we can go back to the ‘normalcy’ we had once before. I think the pandemic will change how we initiate our relationships but using technology to supplement relationships has proven to be successful. Geographically close relationships should also use technology to communicate. It’s incredible how much a simple text message can boost the other person’s day and encourage a sense of connection.
What are some ways people can flirt over text, calls or other forms of online communication?
Flirting via texting can be really great or really bad, depending on how people go at it. Sending flirting messages to one another online makes people braver because they don’t have to worry about seeing the person react in person. By no means am I encouraging people to send unsolicited types of pictures but you can still find ways to send fun and flirty messages to another person. Humor goes a long way and can relieve some relational stress. Keep in mind that just because we intended our message to come across a certain way doesn’t mean that the receiver will interpret it in the same way. This is where emojis can come into play. If you send a winky face with your message, then it means that you’re being flirty instead of being derogatory.
How should someone break up with someone using online forms of communication?
It doesn’t surprise me that couples are breaking up in the middle of a pandemic because of added stress in our lives. I usually suggest individuals to break up face-to-face because it allows for better communication and accountability. In a situation where you’re not able to engage in a face-to-face interaction, we can use technological tools that we have such as FaceTime. Using this still allows us to see the other person and replicate the face-to-face scenario. If you think you’re in a situation where it will become explosive or verbally abusive, then perhaps sending a well thought-out email or text message might be a better approach. We live in an era where we have technology available and it’s important for us to use them. I can’t imagine a time in which we were going through a similar type of scenario as the pandemic where we couldn’t see or talk to one another as much as we would without technological assistance. We can use technology to replicate face-to-face scenarios.