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How Do Couples Use Instagram?

Research examines couples’ Instagram use with each other and other people.

Key Points:

  • Among Instagram users, couples who are satisfied with their relationship are more likely than unhappy couples to post about their partnership, a new study finds.
  • Happy partners are also more likely than unhappy partners to comment on or "like" their partner's Instagram posts.
  • Individuals who believed that high-quality romantic alternatives were available to them were more likely to interact with other Instagram users of their preferred sex, rather than their partner.
  • Actually pursuing an alternative partner via the app, however, was rare.

Social networking websites, such as Instagram and Facebook, let us share our lives—and loves—with the world. So, when we see our friends posting (or not posting) photographs and updates about their romantic relationships on social media, we may wonder what that says about those relationships.

I have previously written about research on the motives people have for sharing their relationships on Facebook and what that says about how satisfying those relationships are. But Facebook is not the only social media platform out there, and for younger adults, it is not necessarily their main social media network. Instagram, a social media site that focuses on posts of photos, rather than text content, differs from Facebook in important ways. New research by Leisel Sharabi and Anannamraih Hopkins, just published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, examines how people’s Instagram activities relate to how they feel about their romantic relationships.

Mitch Boehn on Unsplash
Source: Mitch Boehn on Unsplash

Why Couples May Behave Differently on Instagram

When it comes to how people manage their romantic lives online, Instagram may encourage different behaviors than Facebook. Facebook social networks include mostly offline friends and acquaintances, whereas people often try to reach a larger network of followers on Instagram. Instagram also has less back-and-forth interaction than Facebook, so it gives users even more control over the image they create. Compared to Facebook, Instagram is more about presenting an image to the world and less about connecting with other people. On Facebook, happier couples are more likely to post about their relationships. But Instagram might be more prone to unrealistic flights of fancy—and presenting a relationship that’s too good to be true. Is posting about your relationship on Instagram really a sign of a strong relationship?

In addition to being followed by a wider network of people, Instagram also gives users the opportunity to follow a wider network themselves. This larger network can include those who aren't part of your offline social world—people who could be potential romantic partners. Could Instagram open up new avenues to pursue alternative partners, or even cheat?

In their study, Sharabi and Hopkins surveyed 178 couples who used Instagram. Both members of the couple completed questionnaires measuring their levels of relationship satisfaction, and the extent to which they believed that other, high-quality alternative romantic partners were available to them. To see how these couples presented their relationships on Instagram, the researchers examined each partner's 10 most recent posts. They counted the number of likes or comments made by their partners and counted the number of photos that contained or referenced the partner or relationship (e.g., a couple photo, a photo of an engagement ring).

They also asked their study participants how much they paid attention to other potential alternative romantic partners on Instagram. Specifically, they asked how often they sent messages to other Instagrammers of their preferred dating sex or liked or commented on photos of them. They also asked participants how often they actually pursued or considered pursuing an alternative partner on Instagram.

The Link Between Relationships Satisfaction and Instagram Posts

The study results showed that happy couples were more likely to post about their relationships and to comment on and like each other's posts. So, both your own and your partner's level of satisfaction may relate to how often you engage with each other on Instagram and how often you post about your relationship.

On the other hand, the more that people felt they had desirable alternative partners available to them, the less likely they and their partners were to post about the relationship or engage with each other's Instagram content. But what they did do was engage more often with other people's content. Those who thought there were plenty of fish in the sea were more likely to comment on and like, or even directly message, Instagram users of their preferred dating sex.

This is consistent with other research showing that people who believe they have viable alternative partners tend to keep those potential partners on the “back burner” via social media. However, it seems that the pursuit of other potential partners stopped at the level of these ambiguous interactions. Those who thought they had desirable alternatives were not particularly likely to actively pursue such partners via Instagram. In fact, actually pursuing alternative partners on Instagram was quite rare.

While these study results don't rule out the possibility that people may present an especially idealized version of their relationship on Instagram, they do suggest that the Instagram picture people paint of their relationships does reflect reality. So that couple who constantly posts photos with each other on Instagram may very well be happy with their relationship. And perhaps that Instagram follower you have who seems a bit too interested in your posts isn't so happy with their current relationship.