By Lydia Emery
Think about the last time you were on Facebook. You probably noticed “that couple” – the person who always posts pictures of himself with his girlfriend, or the one who claims that she has “the best boyfriend ever” in her status updates. And then there are the people who you know are in relationships, but there’s no trace of it on Facebook. No “in a relationship” status, no pictures together, maybe no mention of the relationship at all.
My colleagues and I were curious about what drives these decisions – what leads some people in relationships to post profile pictures with their partners and others to not share relationship-relevant information? We examined a concept that we called relationship visibility, which occurs when people make their relationships a central part of the images of themselves that they convey to others. According to impression management theory, people often attempt to influence other people’s perceptions of them through the self-images that they share with the world (Leary & Kowalski, 1990). For example, students might choose to wear a college sweatshirt so that others see them as having school pride, or because being a college student is an important part of their identity. We wondered if impression management might also motivate how visible people make their relationships. Facebook seemed like a particularly good starting place for this question, because it easily allows several types of relationship visibility, like profile pictures, status updates, and the option to disclose that a user is “in a relationship."
Previous research has shown that people who post a dyadic profile picture (a profile picture featuring both members of the couple) are more satisfied in their relationships (Saslow, Muise, Impett, & Dubin, 2013). However, we were interested in the individual differences that lead people to make their relationships more or less visible to others. We predicted that attachment would drive this decision. Attachment describes two different dimensions that influence people’s thoughts and behavior in relationships (Collins & Allard, 2001). People who are high on anxiety have negative views of themselves and worry that their partners will abandon them. People high on avoidance distrust others and are hesitant to get too close to their partners. We expected that more anxious people would want their relationships to be visible to others, whereas more avoidant people would not.
In a first study, we found that anxious individuals wanted their relationships to be visible to others on Facebook, whereas avoidant individuals did not. Avoidant individuals were also less likely to post a relationship status or a dyadic profile picture. We also looked at the motives behind these differences. Anxious individuals thought that other people knowing about their relationship would make them feel better about themselves, whereas avoidant people thought that it would make them feel worse about themselves. Both anxious and avoidant people were concerned that other people thought they had unstable, unhappy relationships, but this led anxious people to want their relationships to be visible and avoidant people to want their relationships to be less visible.
In a second study, we tested the link between attachment and relationship visibility experimentally. We primed people to experience attachment anxiety or attachment avoidance by thinking about a time when their partner was hesitant to be close to them or when they were hesitant to be close to their partner. Those who were made more anxious desired higher relationship visibility, whereas those primed with avoidance wanted lower relationship visibility, suggesting that attachment causes differences in how much relationship visibility people desire.
Finally, in a third study, we recruited couples to complete a “daily diary” (a short online survey every night for two weeks). As in Study 1, we found that avoidant people had less visible relationships (they were less likely to post a relationship status or dyadic profile picture). Moreover, people with avoidant partners were also less likely to make their relationships visible. That is, having an avoidant partner is enough to suppress a person’s own relationship visibility. We also found that daily changes in people’s feelings about their relationship influence their Facebook posts. On days when people felt more insecure about their relationships than usual, they posted more about their relationships on Facebook.
So, the next time you see people making their relationships visible on Facebook, think about why they’re doing it. Not everyone who makes his or her relationship visible is insecure about it (recall that people who post dyadic profile pictures have higher relationship satisfaction; Saslow et al., 2013). But how people feel about their partners or their relationships, for better or worse, probably has something to do with it.
Lydia Emery is a graduate student at Northwestern University.
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(11), 1466-1479.