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When a Close Relationship Goes Virtual

When in-person contact is lost, we face new challenges.

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My transition from refereed journal articles to popular press kicked in after my memoir, Miracle at Midlife, the story of a two-year courtship between two middle-aged professionals who lived an ocean apart, went to press. Suddenly finding myself working in a new industry, I began translating my research and classroom talks for more general readers. Originally, I titled my Psychology Today blog “Relationships, Refracted." My editor intuitively broadened the scope and retitled it “Life, Refracted.” I have had the joy of writing about psychological and personal perspectives on many topics in the nearly four years since that first post.

Today, in contemplating the problems we face when dealing with virtual relationships, I returned to two threads that run through my posts on Psychology Today: romantic love, especially long-distance love, with its challenges and opportunities, and tips for maximizing the situation; and the impact of screens on our perception, understanding, expectations, and communication with an intimate, the bedrock of a personal (rather than transactional) relationship. Several of these earlier posts may offer ideas or insights that might be useful in today’s world. Here are some additional thoughts.

What do we gain when a relationship becomes virtual “only?"

Access. Screens can make access to groups and individuals easier. We can communicate across distance, across time zones, even, with taped transmissions, across conflicting commitments. We do continue to need our social relationships.

Expectations and trust. By making an agreement to “chat” through a screen, people pledge their presence to one another. Building trust can be as easy as showing up, honoring your word that you will be available to someone else at a particular time, that you will make the conversation a priority for those moments in your life.

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Control over self-disclosure and other forms of intimacy. Screens allow us to share a broader swath of our lives, from the background where we live and work to the activities that are meaningful to us. A son introduces us to the ducks and chickens he raises in his backyard. In response, my husband can grab his Chicken Hat, put it on his head, and describe a recent visit to an agricultural fair. Grandchildren can spot their photographs on the bookshelves behind a desk chair, and Grandma can peek into their dorm rooms. Show and Tell can become easier because, just like in elementary school, it is planned in advance of the event rather than spontaneous.

Small group catch-ups can reveal dynamics that more easily may have gone unnoticed. Who is eager to share recent experiences, feelings, thoughts? Who hangs back in silence and why? Can you decipher the meaning of silences? Does one person regularly interrupt, correct, or support another?

Connection. In addition to providing protection against the sense of loneliness or even isolation, virtual relationships allow us to test the strength of a connection. We watch ourselves as we feel closer following a video chat or, on the contrary, more disconnected, more distant. The absence of real eye contact, full-body language, and touch do modify our bonds.

And what do we lose? What additional challenges do we face?

Distortion. We may miss relationship information or misinterpret what we may be seeing. As Albert Mehrabian documented decades ago, words alone carry only about 7% of the information in an emotion-laden message. Voice adds another 38%, making a phone call superior to an email, fax, or letter. Because body language can account for up to 55%, video can add another chunk when we can observe non-verbal material expressed in a timely manner. However, as psychologist Paul Ekman has demonstrated, “micro-expressions” of emotion take place in 1/25th of a second. Given the lag time between sending information electronically and the reception of a response, the communication is destined to be asynchronous. It is impossible to grasp the micro-expressions that carry the greatest truth of emotional meaning.

Energy and emotional contagion. Further, not only may we distort the meaning or importance of information we are receiving, we are deprived of the kinesthetic nonverbal communication that takes place in person. People do indeed “read” and react to each other’s emotions, whether in a positive way such as a spiral of mirth or passion or joy, or the negative arousal of fear or anger. The literature on group behavioral contagion, on the development of empathy and attachment, and on emotional contagion in close relationships, all show that in-person contact conveys far more than manifest content. We can so easily miss this entirely when a relationship takes place on screens. What we miss may distort what we think we are seeing.

Challenges in repair. Screens can make it even harder to repair a relationship when it goes off-track, precisely because of the “real reactions” information that is lost. What does the silence really mean? Your perception should influence how you choose to respond. Was that a smile or a sneer?

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Misinterpreting the unknown. One of my favorite ways of thinking about psychology is a gender-neutral modification of psychologist Henry Murray’s observation: “All people are in some ways like all other people, in some ways like some other people, and in some ways like no other people.” This insight allows us to consider coping during difficult times from three very different but useful perspectives. Because of our own level of discomfort with unknowns, our tolerance for the duration of ambiguity, and the intensity of our reactions, we can so easily jump to conclusions that fail to match the truths of a unique individual.

Failure to grow. The Law of Entropy guarantees that change is inevitable. Without the inputs we need to grow, to nourish, to feed a body or soul or relationship, the quality deteriorates. New information or experience can help us grow and be strong, creating a net positive experience, or it can be negative, inclining us to want to withdraw in avoidance or fight back in resistance. The well-validated work of John Gottman documents that it takes five positive interactions to counteract one negative one. Relating only through screens can make it more difficult to maintain a positive balance: Given the loss of our go-to positive inputs such as touch, sharing new experiences, or even showing up to support or to cheer each other on, we are challenged to rely on a narrower band of options— for example, create surprise, engage in careful listening, remembering moments that might put a smile on another’s face or laughter in their hearts.

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Missed opportunities. When a relationship goes virtual, we lose more than the creation of new shared memories. We miss the immediacy of comforting one another in sorrow or celebrating with them in moments of joy or triumph. We lose opportunities to care for each other physically or receive the gifts they may want to bring to us. Most of all, we may need to mourn what no longer is or can be as time moves on, events pass, and all people change. I think of “When A Best Friend Moves Away” and all the ways in which virtual-relationships miss out on being “the real thing." Celebrations create a particular challenge along with opportunities to adapt, invent, and develop resilience.

The good news is that today’s reliance on so much virtual contact will not last forever. In-person relationships will again fill our lives with tears, laughter, and discoveries. Our task is, like my precious sourdough starter, to feed our relationships carefully and regularly (putting them in conscious and deliberate and acknowledged cold storage when we need to take a break from tending them) and to assign them the priority they deserve to have in our lives.

Copyright 2020 Roni Beth Tower