We have all seen that couple at the party that appears to have the perfect relationship: Gazing into each other's eyes, holding hands, smiling and talking together the entire evening, they appear to be a match made in heaven. Skeptics, however, question whether a couple's public displays of affection accurately reflect their private relationship.
The answer may be positively associated with the couple's proactivity in advertising their union. From wearing a partner's varsity jacket in high school, to a fraternity pin in college, to a wedding ring in adulthood, most of us recognize the social value of publicly displaying relational status.
The same social customs operate online. As with the demonstrably affectionate couple at the party, some might question a pair's relational authenticity when observing them frequently posting information and photographs together on Facebook. Yet if they are “Facebook official,” research indicates they just might be as happy as they look.
The Benefits of Becoming “Facebook Official”
A couple's graduation from Facebook friends to the public proclamation of Facebook official has consistently been linked with positive relational qualities, as well as relationship duration.
In the study “Can You See How Happy We Are?” Saslow et al. (2012) found that partners who posted profile pictures as a couple reported higher relational satisfaction, and were more likely to share relationship-relevant information on days where they were experiencing higher relational satisfaction.[i]
Exploring how this process begins, Fox et al. (2013) found Facebook to be a primary method of reducing relational uncertainty during the early stages of relationship formation.[ii] They noted that relational exclusivity usually precedes the decision to go Facebook official, indicating that couples who are publicly an item enjoy more committed, stable relationships.
Subsequent research by Orosz et al. (2015) recognized Facebook as a place to publicly declare romantic commitment and enhance relational security.[iii] This team found that announcing relationship status is linked with higher jealousy and romantic love, and that becoming Facebook official effectively takes a couple off the market, functioning as a “digital wedding ring.”
More recently, in their study, “Making It Facebook Official,” Lane et al. (2016) found that individuals who displayed their relationship status on Facebook enjoyed stronger relationships, within which they were more committed, invested, and satisfied, than non-Facebook official relationships.[iv]
In addition, they found that individuals who disclosed their relationship status on Facebook perceived relational alternatives as being of lower quality. Their results showed that partners who are more committed disclose relational status online, which increases the likelihood of relationship persistence, and alternatively, people intending a relationship to continue are more likely to go Facebook official.
As with offline social networks, online social media platforms contain romantic alternatives, some of whom continue to make contact with committed partners even after a couple has publicly declared themselves to be together. Facebook makes it easy to communicate with romantic alternatives, either publicly or through private messaging.
Yet going Facebook official may provide protection against being seduced by romantic rivals due to the enhanced level of commitment. Drouin et al. (2014) found that it was people who were less committed to their partners who were more likely to both send and accept friend requests from desirable romantic alternatives.[v]
Appearances Are Often Reality
Relational commitment fuels the desire to publicize relational status as a couple, and enhances relational satisfaction. The entire process appears to be a positive self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps couples that share their lives together on Facebook really are as happy as they look.
Wendy Patrick, JD, Ph.D., is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert. She is the author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House). She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention, safe cyber security, and threat assessment, and is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own. Find her at wendypatrickphd.com or @WendyPatrickPhD
[i] Laura R. Saslow, Amy Muise, Emily A. Impett, and Matt Dubin, ”Can You See How Happy We Are? Facebook Images and Relationship Satisfaction,” Social Psychological and Personality Science 4, no. 4 (2012): 411-418 (416).
[ii] Jesse Fox, Katie M. Warber, and Dana C. Makstaller, ”The role of Facebook in romantic relationship development: An exploration of Knapp´s relational stage model,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 30, no. 6 (2013): 771-794.
[iii] Gabor Orosz, Adam Szekeres, Zoltan G. Kiss, Peter Farkas, and Christine Roland-Levy, ”Elevated romantic love and jealousy if relationship status is declared on Facebook,” Frontiers in Psychology 6 (2015): 1-6.
[iv] Brianna L. Lane, Cameron Wade Piercy, and Caleb T. Carr, ”Making it Facebook official: The warrenting value of online relationship status disclosures on relational characteristics,” Computers in Human Behavior 56 (2016): 1-8.
[v] Michelle Drouin, Daniel A. Miller, and Jayson L. Dibble, "Ignore your partners´current Facebook friends; beware the ones they add!” Computers in Human Behavior 35 (2014): 483-488.