Is Social Media PDA a Sign of Happiness or Overcompensation?

John Jones via flickr | CC0 LicenseSource: John Jones via flickr | CC0 License

We all know those people on social media who are constantly posting information about their relationship. Sometimes, we might think, "Oh, that's sweet," if we know and like the couple. Other times, we might find ourselves rolling our eyes and thinking, "Stop showing off and overcompensating." So, are these couples actually happy and our eye-rolling is the function of jealousy or disbelief? Or are they really overcompensating?

People often are suspicious of those who share a lot of relationship information on social media. Research has shown that people dislike those who post over-the-top, affectionate social media messages about their partners. Yet, the majority of research actually shows that people who have a couple profile photo , are " Facebook official ," or post about their relationship tend to be more satisfied with their relationships than those who do not engage in all this showing off. People are often surprised to hear this, as it goes against their intuitions about couples who frequently post about their relationships.

However, if you step back, it makes sense that happy couples post relationship content on social media. Imagine a couple that is in a committed, happy relationship. They are more likely to have linked profiles and to be a committed couple unit that might post a couple or family photo as a profile photo. They are likely to spend a lot of time together, spend holidays together, and take vacations together. If this couple is moderately active on social media, then they will share photos of social gatherings, holidays, and vacations, which will naturally include each other. So it shouldn't be surprising at all that these kinds of social media posts are associated with higher satisfaction and commitment. In my own research, conducted with two of my former undergraduate students, Amanda Havens and Dayana Petrenko, and Michael Langlais at University of Nebraska-Kearney, we wanted to address the discrepancy between two contradictory intuitions:

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  1. The notion (backed by research) that sharing one's relationship on social media is a sign of a happy and committed relationship.
  2. The notion that sharing one's relationship on social media implies trouble and may involve overcompensation for an unhappy relationship.

In two studies, recently published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture , we surveyed a total of 348 adult users about how they used Facebook in their romantic relationships. We asked them to rate how frequently they engaged in general displays of the relationship, such as posting photos or status updates about their relationship or partner. These questions were similar to the types of behaviors assessed in previous research. We also assessed what we called " excessive relationship displays ," those that went beyond the kind of relationship displays that these individuals engage in offline. Specifically, we asked how often participants posted:

  • Potentially embarrassing information about their partner or relationship.
  • Content on their partner's wall that they would be uncomfortable to say in person.
  • Content that showed more affection than they normally show in public.

We found that excessive displays were much less common than general relationship displays. We also found that even though they were correlated with each other, the way they related to satisfaction was quite different. As past research has found, general relationship posts were associated with greater satisfaction . So people who have a couple profile photograph and post photos and statuses about their relationships tend to be more satisfied than those who infrequently engage in those behaviors. But excessive displays were associated with less satisfaction . So people who post relationship information that they deem as potentially embarrassing or that shows more affection than they are comfortable expressing in person were actually less satisfied.

In the second study, we also asked participants to rate the extent to which they felt that Facebook had made them feel closer to and more intimate with their partners. Once again, we saw a positive effect for general relationship displays. Those who posted more relationship information on Facebook felt that Facebook helped bring them closer to their partners. Overall, excessive displays were not related to these perceptions. However, for people who were especially low in relationship satisfaction , posting excessive displays was associated with perceptions that Facebook had brought them closer . This suggests that these types of over the top displays are being used to compensate for weaker relationships. First, those who are less satisfied may post Facebook content that shows levels of affection that they aren't displaying in their actual offline relationship. These individuals then believe that engaging in these types of posts has helped their relationship. It's not clear if it actually has this helpful effect on their relationships. It is possible it has no effect or is even harmful. We would need to follow people's relationships over the long-term and to find out how their partners react to their Facebook activity in order to understand the actual consequences of these posts.

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These findings demonstrate the paradoxical nature of social media and its relation to feelings of social connection. In a series of studies published in 2011, Kennon Sheldon and colleagues found that frequent use of Facebook was associated with both feeling connected to others and also feeling disconnected from others. Their explanation for these seemingly contradictory findings is that Facebook can make people feel more connected to others, but it is also the case that those who are feeling disconnected may turn to Facebook to seek out social connections that they are lacking. Something similar may be happening in the case of romantic relationships. People who are less satisfied with their relationships may engage in excessive displays on social media in order to bring them closer to their partners, and social media displays may also help people feel closer to their partners.

Returning to the two competing intuitions raised at the beginning of this post: 1) Relationship posts are an indication of a happy relationship, or, 2) relationship posts involve overcompensation for an unhappy relationship. Our research suggests that both are true. The types of displays that simply involve sharing photos and information about one's relationship may indicate higher levels of satisfaction. However, when someone's relationship displays on Facebook reflect more affection than they show offline, it is likely that they are in a less satisfying relationship.