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What We Really Think of Public Displays of Affection

New studies reveal our level of tolerance, at least online.

When we present ourselves to the world on social media sites, like Facebook, often it’s not just ourselves that we’re presenting, but our most important relationships as well. Many people’s Facebook profiles state their relationship status and even link to their partner’s profile. Photos of smiling, embracing couples are not uncommon as profile photos, and sometimes people leave loving messages on their partner’s Facebook pages.

You may wonder, Are these couples genuinely happy? And when you see these signs of couple-dom on social media, do you think, "How sweet!” or, “Enough already!”?

Some recent research has examined how happy couples present their relationships on social media—and what others think about these public displays of affection.

They’re happy …

To answer the first question: Are these happy couples for real? Yes.

Research has shown that those whose relationships are “Facebook official"—with both partners' profiles indicating that they're in a relationship—are more satisfied than those who choose not to report their love on Facebook1. Satisfied couples are also more likely to use a couple photo for their main Facebook profile image2, and to post couple photos and affectionate comments on their own and their partner’s timeline3. Those who are least satisfied with their relationships are the most likely to keep their intimate relationships private and not share them on social media3.

... and we know it ...

In a recent study, Lydia Emery and colleagues4 examined the Facebook profiles of coupled individuals, and in general, were able to accurately predict how satisfied couples were by examining their profiles, in particular due to the presence of couple photos and a coupled relationship status.

... but when they really show it?

So, what does everyone else think when confronted with these images of someone else’s happy relationship? It depends on how that happiness is displayed. In another study, Emery and colleagues4 created a series of fake Facebook profiles, varying the profile photograph (between a couple and an individual); relationship status (coupled status or no status); and how disclosing the status updates were. Participants viewed some profiles with lovey-dovey, highly disclosing status updates, such as “Pining away for Jordan…I just love you so much I can’t stand it!” Some profiles contained updates that were affectionate and disclosed information about the relationship, but were less personal (e.g., “I love my girlfriend :) ”). Still others consisted of updates unrelated to a relationship (e.g., “Phoneless for a bit, email me!”).

The researchers then asked college students about their impressions of these fake profiles. First, regarding profile photos, the students thought those depicting a couple, along with a coupled relationship status, were the most likable, and that those with a single photo but a coupled relationship status were the least likable. Perhaps the coupled individuals seemed warmer, and those who chose to focus on themselves in their profile photo despite being part of a couple were seen as cold or distant.

And what of those sickeningly sweet, highly-disclosing status updates? People perceived those couples as the most satisfied with their relationships, but also found them the least likable. Perhaps the subjects felt these updates were too personal, or inappropriate for social media, or that these couples were trying too hard to show off.

So those couples with constant Facebook PDA are happy, we all know it, but we don’t always like it when they show it.

These findings don’t mean that those who don’t want to highlight their relationship on Facebook are necessarily unhappy, but in general, showing off a relationship on Facebook is a habit that happier couples are more likely to engage in. And when thinking about how you should present your own relationship online, remember that an affectionate photo or simple loving post on Facebook can show your love to the world, but overdoing it could turn people off.

Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College, who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior.


1 Papp, L. M., Danielewicz, J., & Cayemberg, C. (2012). "Are we Facebook official?" Implications of dating partners' Facebook use and profiles for intimate relationship satisfaction. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15, 85-90.

2 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. doi: 10.1177/1948550612460059

3 Seidman, G. & Havens, A. L. (2014, May). Introversion, neuroticism, and relationship satisfaction predict Facebook activity pertaining to romantic relationships. Poster presented at the Association for Psychological Science Annual Conference, San Francisco, CA.

4 Emery, L. F., Muise, A., Alpert, E., & Le, B. (in press). Do we look happy? Perceptions of romantic relationship quality on Facebook. Personal Relationships.

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