There you are, watching your favorite television show: The Bachelor. It’s the end of the season and the Bachelor has sorted through his potential mates and will finally make his choice. Later you'll catch Grey’s Anatomy, Smash, Big Brother, or Two and a Half Men, because like the average television viewer, half of your “tube time” consists of programming with romantic themes—shows that portray what relationships, love, and picking a romantic partner are all about.
And it’s all in good fun. Watching this kind of television has no effect on your real-world relationship. Or does it?
Nearly 400 married people were asked about their television viewing habits and their relationship commitment for a study published in the journal of Mass Communication and Society. Programs from medical dramas to dating games and soap operas to reality shows include themes of love and human bonding. The question posed by the researcher was: will watching a lot of these shows increase the perception that you have attractive alternatives to your partner? And will that perception reduce your relationship commitment? After the researcher compiled the numbers, that appeared to be the case. The more romantic programming people watched, the more they believed they had good alternatives to their marriage, and also, the lower their commitment to their marriage.
We can’t blame TV writers and producers for our relational commitments. It’s actually our belief in the accuracy of the romantic portrayals on TV that does the most damage. People who watched a lot of romantic-themed media and believed the portrayals were a fair comparison for their relationship had lower levels of commitment. Those who watched a lot of hours but did not believe the portrayals of relationships were realistic didn’t suffer the same fate. In other words, if you believe that what you see on The Bachelor is an accurate representation of relationships, you’ll tend see a world where there is an abundance of romantic options. And as such, there would be no need to get overly attached to your current partner.
We all compare our relationships to other relationships we see in our culture, even if that’s the unrealistic portrayals in romantically-themed television shows. Consuming this media can increase our expectations and make us believe there are more attractive partners who will bring us more joy with little cost. While taking in these media can have a negative effect, more important is whether we believe the representation. We can consume romantic media without harming our commitment if we remind ourselves it isn’t real.
If you are easily influenced by what you see on television, you may want to remind yourself that what you are watching is for “entertainment purposes only.” If that isn’t enough, consider limiting your exposure to the romantic, sexy stuff in order to remain focused and committed to your current relationship.
Heidi Reeder, Ph.D. is the author of the forthcoming book, Commit to Win (Hudson Street Press).
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(5), 739-757.