Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

Bite Me? That’s What TV and Movie Romances Do

Matrimaniacs get their come-uppance

Sleepless in Seattle: Is there anyone who hasn’t seen it, or at least know what it is all about? What about Titanic? Pretty Woman? Those kinds of movies turn into cultural touchstones – just about everyone has at least a passing familiarity with the romantic fantasies they showcase.

TV shows also add to the glut of matrimania. Romance is all the rage on reality shows such as The Bachelor, dating-game shows, soap operas, and many dramas.

Does it matter that movies and TV shows are awash in matrimania? Is there any link between watching these shows – or believing in the messages they convey about romantic relationships – and how people in romantic relationships feel about their real relationships? That’s the question addressed by a new study.

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Of course, I would also like to learn about the implications of these movies and TV shows for people who are not in romantic relationships. Maybe the author (Jeremy Osborn) will do that study next.

Unlike many social science studies that rely on college students, in this study the participants were 392 married people, with an average age of about 47, who had been married an average of 19 years. They were asked about the number of hours they spent each week watching movies and TV (typically, it was more than 20) and about the number spent specifically watching romantically-themed movies and TV shows. Lots of examples of the various kinds of shows were given. The married people in the study spent nearly 9 hours a week watching matrimaniacal movies and TV shows.

Did the married people take those romantic portrayals seriously? Their belief in media portrayals of romantic relationships was measured by questions such as these:

  • “Television presents romantic relationships as they are in life.”
  • “Television helps me understand what I can expect from my romantic relationships.”

The participants were also asked about:

  • the kinds of rewards and costs they expected to get out of their romantic relationships (costs included restrictions on personal freedoms and time, and the partner’s unattractive or embarrassing qualities; rewards included compatibility, attractiveness, and emotional support)
  • the actual rewards and costs they were getting from their marriage
  • their satisfaction with their marriage
  • their commitment to their relationship (e.g., “How committed are you to maintaining your relationship with your partner?”)
  • the kinds of partners, other than their spouse, they may be able to attract

Watching romantically-themed movies and TV shows, and believing in them, did not seem to matter much with regard to people’s satisfaction with their marriages or the rewards they expected to receive. When it came to matters of commitment, costs, and the allure of other potential partners, though, it was a different story.

Here’s the first big conclusion: It is all bad.

Married people who watch more romantically-themed movies and TV show are less committed to their own marriages and they expect greater costs from their romantic relationships.

The time people spent watching the media romances was not the most important factor in how people felt about their own relationships. Those links were small ones. Instead, it was people’s beliefs about the romantic themes that mattered most.

The more the married people believed in the media portrayals of romantic relationships (see the two sample items above):

  • the less committed they were to their marriage
  • the more successful they thought they would be in attracting someone other than their partner
  • the more they expected romantic relationships to come with costs (as described above), and
  • the more costs they thought they experienced in their own marriage

So maybe matrimaniacs are getting their come-uppance. They believe in the sappy love stories and the matrimania peddled in the movies and on TV, but their own romantic relationship seems more costly and less worthy of their commitment.

If you have ever taken a research methods course, or you are smart and savvy about such things even without any formal training, then you probably already know the relevant caveats. The people were surveyed at just one point in time. That can tell us whether there are links between beliefs in these romantic themes and your own relationship experiences, but it cannot tell us whether the links are causal. So, we don’t know whether married people feel less committed to their partners because they believe in the romantic messages portrayed in movies and on TV, or whether the married people who are less committed to begin with are especially likely to believe in matrimaniacal themes, or whether there is some other explanation for the findings.

Reference:

Osborn, J. L. (2012). When TV and marriage meet: A social exchange analysis of the impact of television viewing on marital satisfaction and commitment. Mass Communication and Society, 15, 739-757.

[Notes: (1) Thanks to Yolanda for the heads-up about this article. (2) Some other posts of mine are listed below, for those who are interested. (3) Check out other singles-bloggers at Single with Attitude.]

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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