Does Watching TV Together Help Maintain a Healthy Relationship?: Relational Maintenance and Scarcity, Part I

As my wife and close friends can attest, I’m just not much of a movie guy. I fully respect those who are, but for some reason movies have never really been my cup o’ root beer. But I know many couples who spend a lot of time watching movies together. For my wife and me, it’s not so much movies, but TV – after working and taking care of young kids during the day, watching an episode of The Office or Friday Night Lights can be awfully relaxing.

But could it be that watching TV/movies together isn’t just recreational, but also a sign of a healthy relationship? One of my recent studies suggests the answer may be “yes.”

I surveyed 123 romantic couples about things they do to maintain their relationships with each other. The couples were diverse – most were married, but some were dating; some were in their 20s, and others in their 60s and 70s, etc.

The first paper from this data set has been accepted as the top paper in the interpersonal communication division of the Central States Communication Association. You can read and comment on that paper here.

In this study, I wanted to examine the idea, advanced by psychologist Arthur Aron and his colleagues, that the things we do to maintain our relationships arise from something called “including the other person in your sense of the self.” The basic idea is that when you become really close with someone, you don’t think of them as a separate person, but rather as part of who you are. If they’re happy, you’re happy. If they’re hurting, you’re hurting. If they need money, you give it to them. We don’t think of our resources as “mine” and “yours,” but rather “ours.” I don’t know if Aron had the biblical “… and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24) in mind, but that description of utter husband/wife unity seems very similar.

My study identified eleven different behaviors people do to maintain their romantic relationships. What seemed to distinguish these behaviors is whether or not they are scarce. Giving money is a great example of scarcity. If I give you a dollar, I can’t give that dollar to another person. But if I give you some deep conversation, I can still give deep conversation to someone else. Both giving money or deep conversation could maintain a relationship, but one behavior is scarce and the other is not. In this post, I want to talk for a moment about scarce maintenance behaviors. I’ll discuss the non-scarce behaviors in my next post!

What are these “scarce” maintenance behaviors, then? This study identified three.

One is resources—basically, money and possessions. Another is time. Couples who didn’t include each other in the sense of the self—basically, who weren’t “into” each other—didn’t share much resources or time. Couples only shared a lot of time and resources with each other when both people were “into” each other. Only one person being “into” the other didn’t cut it.

The third scarce behavior was shared media, or watching TV/movies together. I had to scratch my head on that one—is sharing media really a scarce behavior? After thinking about it (and after seeing my daughter’s ire when I change channels from Dora to CNN), I realized: “Yeah, it sure is!” Think of the cliché argument over the TV remote (or these days, the DVR). An hour together watching “his” show can’t also go to “her” show. The couple could watch separate shows on separate TVs in separate rooms, but this study focused on shared viewing, not that kind of individual activity.

And like time and possessions, the pattern held: The highest amount of shared media use only occurred when both people were really “into” each other! This seems a bit counterintuitive—vegging in front of the ‘tube’ doesn’t sound like a particularly romantic activity. But, this study suggests watching TV together has something to do with being a close couple.

Now, this finding could be just a side effect of time: Closer couples spend more time together, so they also spend more time watching TV together. Also, it could reflect similarity: Couples watch TV together because they like the same shows.

But nevertheless, I’m intrigued by another explanation: that sharing media might actually help a couple stay close. Perhaps watching TV together provides shared experiences, and maybe it doesn’t just reflect similarity, but also helps build it. Shared media can generate discussion about characters, plot, and actors, and who hasn’t enjoyed in-jokes with fellow fans of favorite shows and movies?

So, I leave the question to you: Do you think the media you share with your romantic partner strengthens your relationship in any way? If so, why; if not, why not?

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11 thoughts on “Does Watching TV Together Help Maintain a Healthy Relationship?: Relational Maintenance and Scarcity, Part I

  1. A hearty Amen! To this one, Andrew! I love that the research backs up what David and I already love to do together. And nice choice of shows, by the way.

  2. This is really interesting, Andrew! I always feel vaguely guilty when Brad and I spend an evening vegging out in front of the TV, but we do enjoy many of the same shows and, honestly, a lot of the time we don’t have the energy to do something more stimulating (like playing a game) but we still want to do something together, instead of just reading or working on separate projects in the same room. TV (or movies, but with kids 45 minutes is all we can do, sometimes) fits the bill perfectly. I think it is the shared experience, and the fact that we’re choosing to relax together instead of separately, that makes it a fun relationship-maintaining activity for us. I think (and this seems obvious) that if all we ever did together was watch TV that would be a problem, but (and this was true for us even before kids, since we’re both introverted homebodies!) we really enjoy having a date night in — we order take-out after the kids are in bed and pop in a movie or continue our watch-through of ST:TNG. It’s a nice time to relax and reconnect, especially if we’ve had a stressful week. So now that research supports that watching TV can be healthy for our relationship, I won’t feel guilty about it any more 🙂

  3. While my parents don’t watch everything together, there are a few shows that they will watch together. Often they will watch a movie together and over the course of close to 40 years together, they have watched a lot of shows over the years together and really do like to spend time with each other quite a bit, even if my mom doesn’t watch Canucks games and my dad doesn’t watch the cheesy, sappy romantic movies.

  4. Sarah, really like your comment: “I think it is the shared experience, and the fact that we’re choosing to relax together instead of separately, that makes it a fun relationship-maintaining activity for us.” And definitely true if that’s all you did, it wouldn’t be healthy for your relationship — that’s probably why this study found 11 relationship-maintaining behaviors! 🙂 We need variety! Enjoy the watch-thru of TNG–I approve. 🙂

  5. Andrew,
    Been reading your work on media multiplexity theory (doing a paper on it now for an Int. Personal Comm PhD class with Leslie Baxter @ U of Iowa ): good stuff! I only say that to preface my comment as one from a fellow academic….
    How much of what you’re talking about in this blog post has to do with ritual? When couple-shared media use takes on a ritualistic nature it can be quite multidimensional. For example, my wife and I love watching The Office on Friday nights–it has become a sort of ritual for us. And I do feel it brings us closer for reasons you’ve raised in this post. So there is consistency, dependency, shared time, etc. that takes place in those positive ritualistic media experiences together. But aren’t there negative outcomes from routinization? And what about new social media that seem to work more intrapersonally than interpersonally? For example, have you ever tried surfing Facebook together with your wife? It’s kind of an interesting phenomenon. My wife and I have done it a few times and after 10-15 minutes we both suddenly snap and feel like, ‘why are we wasting our time doing this together?!!’ So it also seems our perception and conceptualization of what constitutes appropriate media for interpersonal relationship sharing has a big impact on what each personal in the relationship gets out of the shared interaction. Anyway. Just some thoughts. I’d love to talk with you more about this stuff!

    1. Hey Gavin,

      A pleasure to meet you! Awesome that you get to work with Leslie at Iowa–please say hi to her for me!

      And excellent questions. I’ve wondered about using “ritual” as a theoretical lens for relational maintenance, too. It strikes me that the two literatures (relational maintenance, rituals) have grown up somewhat separately from each other, but seem to address similar communication behaviors. So we have measures of relational maintenance (e.g., Stafford and Canary), and measures of rituals (see recent work done by Judy Pearson, for example), but I’m not sure that we’re clear on how they’re empirically or theoretically distinct. Clarifying that is a great idea for a research project.

      That said, I don’t think the lens of ritual explains the different effects observed in this study. After all, couples can enact deep talk and informal talk and physical affection in ritualistic ways, but those demonstrated different patterns of association with actor and partner IOS. In other words, even if we reconceptualize these maintenance behaviors as rituals, we still need to explain why IOS predicts some rituals differently than others.

      When you mention “negative outcomes of routinization” and “Baxter” in the same post, of course I think of relational dialectics. 🙂 Along that line of thought, you might check out a recent article published by my friends Nancy Baym and Jeff Hall, which takes a dialectical approach to cell phone use between friends (http://nms.sagepub.com/content/14/2/316). They observed that friends can feel entrapped and overdependent due to the use of technology in the friendship. It certainly seems logical that such could occur in romantic relationships as well. And it’s consistent with your guess that routinization of technology use may produce negative relational outcomes.

      Regarding Facebooking with a spouse–I have another manuscript from this same data set (in press at Communication Quarterly) that examines the association between different types of media use and relational closeness. Interestingly–somewhat surprisingly–I found that Facebook communication with the spouse was the one medium that predicted closeness, and it was a positive predictor! Now, I measured that as Facebook communication with the spouse–for example, my wife and I sometimes post on each other’s walls when she or I am at work. That’s different, I think, than what you mentioned–that seems more like Facebook communication “alongside” the spouse. I wouldn’t agree with your suggestion that such media use is “intrapersonal”; I’m more comfortable framing it as interpersonal, albeit not necessarily directed at the spouse. In other words, I may be chatting up my buddies on Facebook while my wife feels entirely ignored (… in fact, I’m pretty sure that’s happened before… :-)) And certainly, if I’m talking with my wife on Facebook itself, that’s interpersonal communication within our relationship. Overall, research seems to indicate positive relational outcomes arising from SNS use, but work remains to identify factors that might moderate those effects (perhaps turning them negative?).

      Best wishes as you continue your studies–clearly, you do a good job asking heuristic questions!

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