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Do You Need Everyone to Know Your Status?

A new study discovers who shares more about their relationships, and why.


My generation is probably one of the last to remember life before social media (or before the Internet, for that matter). I am constantly fascinated by how people use outlets like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to share the details of their lives with friends, family, and anyone and everyone who might be even remotely interested.

Researchers have become increasingly interested in what sorts of information people choose to share on social media and why. A recent paper published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin looked at exactly this idea, asking, What are the characteristics of individuals who choose to make their romantic relationships more or less visible on Facebook, and what are their motivations for doing so?

This research by Lydia Emery and colleagues (2014) conducted several studies in which they looked at individuals' desire to make their relationship status visible on Facebook, or their actual relationship visibility on Facebook (the presence of a relationship status on their page) as a function of their tendencies to engage in different styles of emotional bonding in relationships. Specifically, they looked at adult attachment anxiety and avoidance as predictors of desired and actual relationship visibility.

  • Attachment anxiety is a broad construct that refers to the tendency of individuals to experience elevated anxiety regarding their romantic relationships in adulthood (e.g. Mikulincer & Shaver, 2003). People high in attachment anxiety tend to desire high levels of closeness in their relationships, and to be extremely vigilant for, and reactive to, perceived threats to the relationship. Attachment anxiety is often equated with having a negative view of oneself, or having a tendency to question whether one is lovable and worthy of being cared for (e.g., Collins & Allard, 2001).
  • Attachment avoidance, on the other hand, is a broad construct that refers to the tendency for individuals to experience a discomfort with, and avoidance of, too much intimacy in their romantic relationships in adulthood (e.g. Mikulincer & Shaver, 2003). People high in attachment avoidance tend to be uncomfortable depending on their partners for support, and try to keep some amount of distance between themselves and their partners. Attachment avoidance is often equated with having a negative view of others, or having a tendency to question whether others are trustworthy and reliable.

Across three studies, the researchers found that anxiety was associated with a greater desire for relationship visibility on Facebook, as well as a greater likelihood of actually having one’s relationship visible on Facebook. Avoidance, on the other hand predicted less desire for, and less actual relationship visibility. The researchers also found that when people were feeling more insecure about their relationships—either because they were induced to feel that way in the lab, or because it was day when they naturalistically felt that way in their relationship—they desired to make their relationships more visible and were more likely to post relationship-relevant things on their Facebook pages.

All of this emerged even when accounting for how much time people spent on Facebook in general.

Finally, the researchers looked at the motivations people had when they wanted to make their relationships more visible on social media. Regardless of attachment dynamics, they found that people were more interested in using Facebook to communicate about their relationship when they were motivated to feel good about themselves (i.e. to boost their self-esteem) or they wanted others to perceive them as being in a happy and stable relationship.

In sum, it seems like our approaches to romantic relationships can alter the way that we communicate information about those relationships to others on social media.

Collins, N.L. & Allard, L.M. (2001). Cognitive representations of attachment: The content and function of working models. In G.O. Fletcher & M.S. Clark (Eds) Blackwell Handbook of Social Psychology: Interpersonal Processes (pp. 60-85). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Emery, L.F., Muise, A., Dix, E.L., & Le, B. (2014) Can you tell that I’m in a relationship? Attachment and relationship visibility on Facebook. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40, 1466-1479.

Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P.R. (2003). The attachment behavioral system in adulthood: Activation, psychodynamics, and interpersonal processes. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 35, pp. 53-152). New York, NY: Academic Press.

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