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?