Does the Couple That Facebooks Together Stay Together?

Surprising new research on how social media influences who stays together.

Posted Aug 10, 2015

Source: Rido/Shutterstock

Facebook was originally designed as a virtual yearbook, where college students could keep track of their classmates by linking to each other's profiles. Since then, it has evolved to fulfill a multitude of psychological functions, such as documenting one's own life, maintaining existing friendships, reconnecting with old friends, and managing romantic relationships.

Research is starting to show that Facebook plays an important role in romantic relationships. Listing one's relationship on Facebook—colloquially referred to as becoming "Facebook official"—has become a new stage that many couples have to actively manage. Dating couples routinely check out their partners' Facebook activity (also known as "social surveillance"), and experience increased jealousy as a result. When couples break up, they have to make decisions about whether to remain Facebook friends, decisions that affect how successfully they get over the breakup (hint: it's best to unfriend).

In a newly-published study, my co-author Mina Choi and I set out to investigate the link between public displays of affection (PDA) on Facebook and the state and fate of the relationship—that is, how committed it is and how likely it is to endure. Are those fawning couples that constantly post about each other more or less stable?

Many people find Facebook displays of affection irritating and might even believe that the couples that engage in them are insecure. Yet the couples themselves might have a different psychological experience than the observers suspect.

In making our predictions, we used a well-validated theory called "public commitment." The theory proposes that people feel psychologically uncomfortable claiming to be one thing in public while believing themselves to be something different in private. Therefore, when they make public claims about themselves, they tend to internalize them—that is, they shift their identity to match the claims. Prior research shows that after people claim to be extroverted or emotionally stable in front of an audience, they genuinely think of themselves as more extroverted or emotionally stable. This shifting of self-concept does not happen if people lack an audience.  

Following this logic, we predicted that the more romantic couples engage in displays of togetherness on Facebook, the more they will perceive the relationship to be important to who they are. Facebook is an extremely public venue, supplying the largest audience that average people have ever had. Who we claim to be in front of this audience should matter greatly in how we actually think of ourselves. In the context of romantic couples, we predicted that those who engage in Facebook PDA would experience more commitment toward their partner and would be less likely to break up after six months.

This idea should not be completely unexpected: After all, what are weddings if not a large public occasion for engaging in displays of affection? Why have people considered it important, for centuries and across cultures, to declare their love and commitment toward one another in front of (often large) groups of friends, family, and acquaintances?

To test this prediction, we recruited about 180 college students who were engaged in heterosexual dating relationships. We used the Friendship app, freely provided by Facebook, to create a joint profile for each of the romantic pairs. This joint profile displays all the Facebook activity the two have in common.

Results show that the more participants posted photographs with their partners, wrote on the partner's wall, and listed themselves as "in a relationship," the more committed they felt towards their partner and the less likely they were to break up after six months. In other words, Facebook PDA had a positive influence on the relationship.

Of course, a perfectly plausible alternative explanation is that couples that were more committed to begin with were more likely to engage in Facebook PDA and to remain together after six months. We used statistical techniques to test for this possibility, however, and found that the data does not support it. Rather, the data is consistent with our theoretical prediction that Facebook PDA leads to increased relationship commitment, and, in turn, a decreased likelihood of breaking up.

In thinking about whether these results apply to you and to the people you know, it's important to keep in mind that the present study only examined young, dating, heterosexual couples. Future studies are necessary to establish whether the same pattern of results holds for marriages, same-sex couples (for whom the experience of coming out on Facebook might have different psychological implications), and older individuals. Additionally, it is important to recognize that the vast majority of college students (about 95%) use Facebook, whereas fewer older adults do. These results might not apply to people who don't use Facebook: If you or your partner don't engage in Facebook PDA because one of you is not on Facebook, I would definitely not worry.