Many of us may know the pleasures of binging Netflix comedies with a romantic partner or cuddling up to watch Game of Thrones every Sunday night. If you’ve ever been in a long-distance relationship, you and your sweetie may have even synced up a movie to watch “together” while chatting on the phone. Recent research suggests that watching TV shows and movies with a significant other is more than a fun and relaxing way to pass the time — it may have important benefits for your relationship. In a line of studies published in The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, my colleagues and I explored why many couples seem to spend so much time watching TV shows and movies together.
Romantic partners quickly begin sharing important parts of their lives and intimate aspects of their selves with one another, a process known as expanding the self. In this process, couples begin to form a shared identity, transforming from a “You” and “I” into a “We.” An important part of expanding the self is merging social networks – meeting the parents, forming mutual friends, and getting to know your partner’s coworkers. Sharing such social connections makes couples feel closer and more satisfied with their relationships. It may even help keep relationships together. Couples with more shared social connections are less likely to break up over time than couples with fewer shared connections.
However, some couples have difficulty maintaining this fully integrated social network. In long distance relationships or among working couples with conflicting schedules, for example, outings with mutual friends or family gatherings may be few and far between. In these circumstances, sharing TV shows and movies with one another might allow couples to maintain closeness by creating a sense that they share social connections.
Humans are social creatures, and we’re quick to seek out friendships wherever we can, including in the fictional worlds of TV shows, movies, and books. For example, reading the Harry Potter series leads people to feel like they are part of the wizarding world and friends with Harry, Hermione, and Ron. Even though these relationships are one-sided, relationships with fictional characters have many of the same benefits as friendships in the real-world. These faux relationships can relieve loneliness, make us feel closer to our ideal selves, and restore energy after a draining experience.
To date, most of the research on the benefits of faux relationships with fictional characters has emphasized how these relationships can benefit individuals. We believe that couples who watch TV and movies together may also form mutual “friendships” with characters like The Office’s Jim and Pam or the Stranger Things kids. When watching a favorite show together, couples can enter a new fictional world, creating a shared social experience that brings partners closer.
In our first study, 259 participants in committed relationships answered questionnaires about their social networks, media consumption, and relationship quality (e.g., closeness, satisfaction, and commitment). The more people share media with their partners, the closer they feel. This was especially true for people who did not share many mutual friends with their partners. In other words, sharing connections to a fictional social world may allow such couples to overcome the challenge posed by lacking mutual friends in the real world.
In a follow-up experiment, we examined whether lacking mutual friends might motivate people to share TV shows and movies with their partners. In this study, participants who’d been asked to think about the friends they did not share with their partners showed a stronger desire to share media with their partners compared to participants who’d been asked to think about the friends they shared with their partners. In other words, making participants feel deprived of their shared social connections with partners motivated them to share TV shows and movies with their partners.
Our studies suggest that couples can use shared experiences with TV shows and movies as a strategy to compensate for lacking shared social experiences in the real-world. But any couple may benefit. Even couples with the most tightly integrated social networks might occasionally feel disconnected from these networks. In turn, sitting down to watch a favorite show or movie might revive a sense of social connection.
Indeed, some clinical psychologists have begun using movies as a tool to improve relationships. Psychologists at the University of Rochester found that assigning couples to watch and discuss a relationship-themed movie was as effective as a skills-based clinical intervention at preventing divorce over a 3-year period.
Our studies still leave some questions unanswered. For example, do couples need to actively engage in and talk about a show or movie together, or do they benefit just as much if they are staring at their smartphones while the show plays in the background? In addition, we focused our research on TV shows and movies, but sharing video games or sports-viewing as a couple might have a different impact because it allows couples to engage in a more active shared experience.
Couples are amazingly resourceful at finding ways to feel close and to maintain shared bonds. TV shows and movies may be one tool couples use to connect and to navigate challenges in their relationships. So, next time you and your partner find yourselves hours-deep into a Scandal marathon, remember that it may actually be bringing you closer together.