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Relationships

Why We Stalk Our Partners

A new study on 'Facebook stalking' reveals who's more likely to do it, and why.

Alliance / Shutterstock
Source: Alliance / Shutterstock

Social networking websites like Facebook give us unprecedented access to others’ lives. By simply logging into our accounts, we can learn what our friends, family members, and romantic partners are doing and who they’re communicating with. Information that was once private is now public. And most of us do take advantage of this opportunity to check up on others. In one study, surveillance was the second most cited reason for using these sites, after staying in touch with friends.1 And when it comes to surveillance of romantic partners, the cause is often jealousy.2,3 But jealousy may not be the only reason we monitor our partners’ Facebook activity. It may also be a way to maintain the relationship and let us know if there are potential threats on the horizon. In a new study, Robert Tokunaga examined how this kind of Facebook surveillance is related to the types of relationships we have.4

In this study, 126 adults who were currently involved in romantic relationships, about two thirds of whom were college students, completed an online survey. Commitment to the relationship, relationship satisfaction, quality of potential alternative romantic partners, partner trust, and "investments" were assessed. (Investments are the important things you would lose or that you’ve put into a relationship so far. Thus a greater investment in the relationship would mean that you feel you would have a lot to lose if it were to end.) Surveillance on social networking sites was also measured. The surveillance scale included statements with which to agree or disagree, such as, “I often monitor my partner’s social networking site.” and, "I check up on my partner through updates on his or her social networking site profile.”

What types of relationships were most prone to surveillance?

The results showed that those who were less satisfied with their relationships or who thought they had a lot of good alternative partners available to them were the most likely to “Facebook stalk” their partners. Of course, one question raised by these results is whether Facebook stalking leads to poor relationship outcomes or if those with relationship troubles in the first place are more likely to monitor their partner. Statistical analyses designed to tease apart these two competing explanations showed that the latter is more likely to be true—that is, already being in a troubled relationship makes you more likely to Facebook stalk.

Tokunaga also found, not surprisingly, that those who didn’t trust their partners were more likely to engage in Facebook stalking. But this was only the case for those who were highly invested in their relationship—those who felt they had a lot to lose if their relationship ended. For those who weren’t that invested, trust was not related to Facebook surveillance. This suggests that those who have little to lose are willing to take a risk and not keep tabs even on untrustworthy partners, whereas those who have a lot to lose and feel they have a good reason to be worried (due to lack of trust in their partner) will be cautious and try to stay informed of potential trouble in the relationship.

This particular study didn’t examine jealousy, which is unfortunate because it makes it difficult to determine the relative roles of relationship satisfaction and jealousy in predicting Facebook surveillance. Who is more likely to monitor their partner’s Facebook activity, the jealous partner or the dissatisfied or distrustful partner who’s highly invested in the relationship? Or, is jealousy-based dissatisfaction especially predictive of surveillance?

These new findings suggest that snooping on your partner’s Facebook page is unlikely to destroy your relationship, but if you find yourself preoccupied with this activity it could be a sign that you’re dissatisfied with the relationship or that you don’t trust your partner and feel you have a lot to lose if the relationship ends.

References

  1. Joinson, A. N. (2008). ‘Looking at,’ ‘looking up’ or ‘keeping up with’ people? Motives and uses of Facebook. Proceeding of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing System, Italy, pp. 1027–1036. doi:10.1145/1357054.1357213
  2. Guerrero, L. K., & Afifi, W. A. (1998). Communicative responses to jealousy as a function of self-esteem and relationship maintenance goals: A test of Bryson’s dual motivation model. Communication Reports, 11, 111–122. doi:10.1080/08934219809367693
  3. Marshall, R. C., Benjanyan, K., Di Castro, G., & Lee, R. A. (2013). Attachment styles as predictors of Facebook-related jealousy and surveillance in romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 20, 1–22. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2011.01393.x
  4. Tokunaga, R. S. (2015). Interpersonal surveillance over social network sites: Applying a theory of negative relational maintenance and the investment model. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, published online before print. doi: 10.1177/0265407514568749

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. Read more more articles by Dr. Seidman on Close Encounters.

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