When It Comes to Relationships, Is Instagram Real Life?
What Instagram reveals about a couple’s relationship.
Posted December 11, 2020
Instagram is an integral part of popular culture and social life, especially for 18- to 29-year-olds. Musicians write songs about it, influencers rise to fame on it, and movies are inspired by it (see “Ingrid Goes West”). Couples also use Instagram to document their relationships in photos, from major milestones to the mundane, everyday moments that capture their experiences of togetherness. But are couples’ Instagram activities true to the reality of their relationships?
“I know a girl happily married ‘til she puts down her phone…” —Drake
One place to begin looking for answers to questions about social media use in relationships is in research on Instagram’s parent company, Facebook. According to one study, having a joint relationship status, sharing couple pictures, and posting on a partner’s wall are all indicators of commitment on Facebook. There also tends to be more overlap between partners’ Facebook profiles (i.e., more mutual friends, pictures, and page likes) when they are invested and committed to the relationship and when they perceive fewer viable romantic alternatives.
To extend this line of research to Instagram, we recently conducted a study where we surveyed 178 couples about their relationships and captured 3,270 of their Instagram posts. We were interested in their engagement with the relationship on Instagram in terms of the number of couple pictures they posted and the number of likes and comments they received from their partner. We found that when people thought they had high-quality alternatives, they kept their couple status more private—from looking at their posts, you might not even know they were in a relationship at all. However, when people were happy in the relationship, it showed in their posts, with those who were more satisfied, invested, and committed engaging more with the relationship in front of their Instagram followers.
Yet, it is important to recognize that Instagram still shows the best of people’s relationships—generally speaking, big fights and boring evenings at home don’t make for good content. Relationships are complicated, and when people clean them up with filters, the image that’s presented is necessarily incomplete, even in situations where it is mostly accurate.
“It goes down in the DM…” —Yo Gotti
Although Instagram offers valuable opportunities for couples to maintain relationships, it also connects them with former and potential partners and can serve as a near-constant reminder of their alternatives. This led us to also explore the amount of attention that couples directed to their alternatives on Instagram by asking about their liking, commenting, and direct messaging (DMing) behaviors with others on the platform. Here, our results showed that people who were more aware of their options on Instagram thought they had higher quality alternatives to their current relationship. They also reported being more likely to actually pursue those options if given the chance.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that Instagram is causing people to shift their focus away from their partner—those who are sliding into others’ DMs on Instagram may very well be exploring their options outside of social media as well. But it does suggest that whether Instagram is a positive or negative reflection of a couple’s relationship may ultimately depend on the way it is used.
Castañeda, A. M., Wendel, M. L., & Crockett, E. E. (2015). Overlap in Facebook profiles reflects relationship closeness. The Journal of Social Psychology, 155(4), 395-401. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224545.2015.1008968
Pew Research Center. (2019). Social media fact sheet. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/social-media/
Sharabi, L. L., & Hopkins, A. (2020). Picture perfect? Examining associations between relationship quality, attention to alternatives, and couples’ activities on Instagram [Manuscript submitted for publication]. Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, Arizona State University.
Toma, C. L., & Choi, M. (2015). The couple who Facebooks together, stays together: Facebook self-presentation and relationship longevity among college-aged dating couples. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 18(7), 367-372. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2015.0060