Why TV Is Better for Your Relationship Than You Think

Shared experiences (even fictional) add real value to your connection.

Posted Aug 04, 2016

 racorn/Shutterstock
Source: racorn/Shutterstock

Do you look forward to binge-watching the new season of Orange is the New Black or Game of Thrones with your significant other? It’s possible that this guilty pleasure could be good for your relationship.

Research shows that one way for couples to feel closer to each other is to have a “shared social reality”—for example, having mutual friends or “couple friends"; attending the same school; or belong to the same social organizations. Couples who have common friends tend to be closer, happier, and more committed.1,2,3,4 These experiences create a sense of shared identity, which helps couples feel like they’re connected and on the same page.5,6

But not all couples have that sort of social overlap. Long-distance couples, or couples that have recently relocated are missing out on potential bonding experiences. In a paper recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Sarah Gomillion and colleagues propose that such couples may be able to compensate for their lack of shared social reality with a shared social fiction, in the form of their favorite TV shows or movies.7 Couples can bond over their love or hate of fictional characters and gossip about them in the same way they could about shared real-world friends.

The researchers conducted two studies to test this possibility. The first was a survey of 259 college students. Respondents rated the extent to which they felt that they and their partner belonged to the same social circles. They also reported on the amount of time they spent together, their shared media use, and their overall closeness. To assess shared media use, participants rated the frequency, enjoyment, and importance of sharing various types of media (e.g., TV shows, movies, books) with their partners.

The results show that overall, sharing more media with one’s partner was associated with greater feelings of closeness and commitment. But the positive effect was rather small for couples that already had many shared friends. Their need for a shared social reality was already being met, with or without bonding over media. Sharing media experiences, however, seemed especially beneficial for couples that lacked a strong mutual social network; this was true regardless of how much time couples spent together. So the benefits of shared media cannot be attributed merely to the fact that these experiences allow couples to spend more time together.

The authors also propose that lacking a shared social network with your partner will make you more inclined to compensate for it by seeking out shared media experiences. In an experimental study, 128 participants were randomly assigned to one of two different conditions designed to make participants feel that they did or did not have a strong shared social reality with their partner. The researchers did this by asking participants to either think about the friends they had in common with their partner (high shared friends condition) or to think about the friends they did not have in common (low shared friends condition). Participants then rated how much they currently felt the desire to share media with their partner; their overall interest in media; and their feelings of closeness and commitment.

The results showed that for those who expressed a high general interest in media (as opposed to those who weren’t that interested), those in the low shared friends condition expressed a stronger desire to share media with their partners than those in the high shared friends condition. Among people who generally liked to watch TV and movies, a lack of shared friends with partners prompted them to compensate for that lack by wanting to plop down on the couch and watch TV together. Interestingly, the friends manipulation did not affect participants’ desire to engage in other sorts of activities together, such as going out to dinner. Additional analyses show that causing these participants to focus on their lack of shared friends actually had the effect of making them feel closer to their partners because it made them think about the possibility of sharing media experiences.

Forming attachments to fictional characters and having a vested interest in their lives may seem superficial, but it can have real psychological benefits. Other studies have shown that engaging with fictional characters can increase people’s feelings of social belonging.8 Attachments to fictional characters can make people feel more secure and make them more resilient to rejection.9,10

This latest research shows how sharing fictional worlds with romantic partners can compensate for a lack of shared real world friends. The next time you feel the urge to binge-watch a show, consider sharing the sofa with your partner.

References

1. Kim, H. J., & Stiff, J. B. (1991). Social networks and the development of close relationships. Human Communication Research, 18, 70–91.

2. Parks, M. R., Stan, C. M., & Eggert, L. L. (1983). Romantic involvement and social network involvement. Social Psychology Quarterly, 46, 116–131.

3. Hogerbrugge, M. J. A., Komter, A. E., & Scheepers, P. (2013). Dissolving long-term romantic relationships: Assessing the role of the social context. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30, 320–342.

4. Kearns, J. N., & Leonard, K. E. (2004). Social networks, structural interdependence, and marital quality over the transition to marriage: A prospective analysis. Journal of Family Psychology, 18, 383–395.

5. Clark, A. E., & Kashima, Y. (2007). Stereotypes help people connect with others in the community: A situated functional analysis of the stereotype consistency bias in communication. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 1028–1039.

6. Pinel, E. C., Long, A. E., Landau, M. J., Alexander, K., & Pyszczynski, T. (2006). Seeing I to I: A pathway to interpersonal connectedness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 243–257.

7. Gomillion, S., Gabriel, S., Kawakami, K. , Young, A. F. (2016). Let’s stay home and watch TV: The benefits of shared media use for close relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Published online before print: doi: 10.1177/0265407516660388

8. Gardner, W. L., Pickett, C. L., & Knowles, M. (2005). Social snacking and shielding: Using social symbols, selves, and surrogates in the service of belonging needs. In K. D. Williams, J. P. Forgas, & W. von Hippel (Eds.), The social outcast: Ostracism, social exclusion, rejection, and bullying (pp. 227–241). New York, NY: Psychology Press.

9. Keefer, L. A., Landau, M. J., & Sullivan, D. (2014). Non-human support: Broadening the scope of attachment theory. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 8, 524–535.

10. Derrick, J. L., Gabriel, S., & Hugenberg, K. (2009). Social surrogacy: How favored television programs provide the experience of belonging. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 352–362.

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