Relationships

Why Do People Show Off Their Relationships on Social Media?

New research explores how posting about your relationship may protect it.

Posted Feb 09, 2020

Free photo 115423704 © creativecommonsstockphotos | Dreamstime
Source: Free photo 115423704 © creativecommonsstockphotos | Dreamstime

Social media sites, like Facebook and Instagram, allow us to not only tell the world about ourselves, but also to tell the world about our romantic relationships.

People often state their relationship status in their social media profile, use a photo with their partner as a profile photo, and post photos and updates that mention their romantic partners. People who engage in these common types of social media relationship displays tend to be more satisfied with their relationships. However, these displays aren't necessarily entirely about connecting with your partner. Certain types of displays may involve overcompensating for a less satisfying relationship, and people may also post about their relationships as a way to show off to others. New research by Kori Krueger and Amanda Forest explores another motive underlying these displays: protecting your relationship from outside threats.

There are two ways that displaying your relationship on social media can protect it:

  1. Social media gives you the opportunity to interact with a large network of people, some of whom could be potential alternative romantic partners for you. By having a couple profile photo and posting about your relationship, you are signaling to others that you're taken.
  2. Social media also gives your partner that same opportunity. By displaying your relationship online, you're also signaling to potential romantic rivals that your partner is taken.

Thus, these relationship displays prevent you from being tempted to stray, and make it less likely that your partner will be tempted as well.

Krueger and Forest conducted two studies to help understand how these relationship-protection motives can explain why we post about our relationships.

In the first study, they surveyed 236 Facebook users who were currently involved in a romantic relationship. They assessed how much they displayed their relationships on social media (e.g., having a coupled relationship status, using a couple photo as a profile photo, posting updates or photos that included their partner). They also asked participants the extent to which they used social media as a way to protect their relationship, by indicating how much they agreed with statements like "I want to discourage any romantic or sexual interest from others" and "I want to avoid someone else potentially stealing my romantic partner from me."

Like past research, they found that people who shared their relationships online did in fact report stronger feelings of connection to their partner. However, they also found that relationship-protective motives were connected with relationship sharing, above and beyond these feelings of connectedness.

The first study showed that people often display their relationships on social media as a way to avoid romantic advances from other people. But do those potential suitors get the hint? In a second study, the researchers explored how other people perceive these romantic displays.

In an experiment, the researchers presented 224 participants with a Facebook profile they created, that supposedly belonged to a person of the gender the participant indicated they preferred to date. For half of the participants, the profile clearly displayed that the person was involved in a romantic relationship, by including a coupled relationship status, a couple profile photo, and a status update that mentioned the romantic partner. The other half of the participants viewed a similar profile, but without the relationship information.

Compared to participants who viewed a profile without relationship displays, those who viewed the profile containing these displays were more likely to perceive that that person was in a good relationship and was unreceptive to romantic advances from other people. In addition, these perceptions that the person was unreceptive to romantic advances led to a lower likelihood that the participant would try to flirt with or get closer to them. This shows that relationship displays really do protect your relationship from others who might be romantically interested in either you or your partner.

One interesting question that the researchers did not address is who is more likely to have these relationship-protective motives. For example, people who worried about their partner leaving them or people who are generally anxious might be particularly likely to try to signal to others that their partner is taken. In fact, other research has shown that worry about a partner's loyalty can prompt social media relationship displays. On the other hand, people who see themselves as particularly desirable might be especially likely to project a "hands off" message on social media, especially if they're highly committed to their partner. So perhaps both greater insecurity and greater security can prompt people to use social media to protect their relationships.

This research shows that showing off your relationships on social media serves two purposes: 1) feeling more connected to your partner, and 2) protecting your relationship from others who might be interested in pursuing either you or your partner.