Why Sharing Your Relationship Status Is So Complicated

Research uncovers how we really feel about our coupled friends online.

Posted May 27, 2016

Stokkete/Shutterstock
Source: Stokkete/Shutterstock

What’s your Facebook relationship status? Are you single, in a relationship, or is it oh-so-complicated? The advent of social media, and Facebook in particular, allows people in to keep others up to date on the details of their lives, including their romantic relationships, with extreme ease. Someone might make their relationship status visible, or post photos or updates highlighting their coupled status.

Other people are less likely to engage in this sort of online oversharing. I wrote a blog post a while back that focused on just this issue—what kind of people are likely to disclose their relationship status on social media. Here, I'll focus on something a bit different:

How does making your relationship status visible or disclosing details about your relationship on social media relate to how you feel about your relationship, how other people think you feel about your relationship, and how other people feel about you?

Let’s start with the first issue: How does relationship-related visibility and information posted on Facebook relate to individuals’ satisfaction with their relationships? This seems to be a fairly straightforward issue. Surveys and longitudinal studies that track Facebook use and relationship satisfaction over time demonstrate that having a romantic relationship that is visible on social media predicts higher levels of relationship satisfaction and closeness (Saslow, Muise, Impett and Dubin, 2012).

Among married individuals, having a profile picture on one's Facebook page that includes their romantic partner (actual Facebook profiles were downloaded with participants’ permission) was associated with higher levels of marital satisfaction and closeness. The researchers also found, in a daily diary study that tracked participants over a period of two weeks, that individuals were more likely to share information on Facebook about their romantic relationship on days when they felt more satisfied.

Of course, these studies simply look at the associations between relationship visibility and relationship satisfaction—we can’t assume that relationship satisfaction causes people to post more about their relationships on Facebook or vice versa. But there does seem to be a tendency for people who are especially happy in a relationship to make that relationship visible to others.

Interestingly, other people seem to pick up on this. Recent research demonstrates that others perceive us as having more satisfied and more committed relationships to the extent that our relationships are visible on social media (Emery, Muise, Alpert and Le, 2014). The researchers examined whether individuals in romantic relationships (1) had a profile photo on Facebook that included their romantic partner; and (2) listed their Facebook relationship status. They found that individuals whose relationship was visible in both ways were perceived as being more satisfied and more committed in their romantic relationships than individuals whose relationship was only visible in one way or not at all. Further, individuals whose relationship was visible in one way were perceived as being more satisfied and committed than individuals whose relationship wasn't visible at all. The researchers also looked at actual relationship satisfaction and commitment among individuals whose profiles were assessed and found that perceived satisfaction and commitment corresponded well with individuals’ self-reports of satisfaction and commitment. This means that the perceivers’ ratings mapped onto individuals’ actual feelings regarding their relationships quite well.

So far we’ve figured out that if we are are happier in our relationship, we are also more likely to make our relationship visible on social media. In addition, other people seem to think we’re happier in our relationship to the extent that we make it visible. However, beyond simply making a relationship status apparent on Facebook, people also use Facebook as a place to tell other people more intimate details of their relationship. People vary in the extent to which they post status updates that focus on their relationships. Recent studies focus on what high versus low levels of relationship-relevant disclosures on Facebook, in addition to relationship visibility, mean for the way others perceive our relationships—and us.

In one study, undergraduates were asked to look at fictitious Facebook profiles that were ostensibly of other undergraduates in romantic relationships. These profiles included (1) a profile photo of an individual or couple; (2) relationship status information or no information; and (3) status updates that varied in terms of information about the relationship (Emery et al., 2014). For one sample, the statuses contained no relationship information; in a second they contained a small amount of relationship information (e.g., “I love my girlfriend”); and in a third they disclosed a high amount of relationship information (e.g., "Pining away for Jordan…I just love you so much I can’t stand it!" Emery et al., 2014, pg. 4). The researchers then examined how satisfied and committed the study participants thought the Facebook users were, and had them rate how likable they found the Facebook users.

As in the previous study, the researchers found that more relationship visibility—profile photo and relationship status—is associated with greater perceptions of relationship quality. Additionally, greater relationship visibility was associated with likability—the fake Facebook users with profile photos that included their partner and a visible relationship status were seen as more likable than those containing only one form of relationship visibility or no relationship visibility.

However, a very different picture emerged when the researchers examined the amount of relationship information disclosed in the fake Facebook users’ status updates (Emery et al., 2014). Although disclosing more relationship information was associated with the perception that the Facebook users had high-quality relationships, it was also associated with the Facebook users being perceived as less likable individuals. This suggests that there may be such a thing as “oversharing.” It may be one thing to post a status update stating that you care about your partner, but it's another to share the nitty-gritty of your relationship with your Facebook community.

Overall, we are more likely to let others on social media know we’re in a relationship to the extent that we’re happy in that relationship—and other people appear to recognize that this is the case. Other people also seem to associate relationship visibility with someone being a likable person—as long as we don’t get carried away with the amount of information that we share about our partner and relationship.

Keep these findings in mind the next time you feel the desire to change your status or to post about your cuddly-snuggle-bear on social media.

References: 

Emery, L. F., Muise, A., Alpert, E., & Le, B. (2015). Do we look happy? Perceptions of romantic relationship quality on Facebook. Personal Relationships, 22(1), 1-7.

Saslow, L. R., Muise, A., Impett, E. A., & Dubin, M. (2013). Can you see how happy we are? Facebook images and relationship satisfaction. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4(4), 411-418.