Television often gets a bad rap. If your mom was anything like mine, she often warned that if you sat too long in front of the TV it would “rot your brain.” TV’s potential for brain degradation aside, because watching TV is enjoyable, it feels natural to assume there is a catch. Something we clearly like so much must have detrimental effects, including hurting your relationship, right? Not so fast. A recent article from the Journal of Personal and Social Relationships challenges that assumption and tests whether watching TV with your partner could actually improve your relationship.
Dr. Sarah Gomillion and colleagues asked 259 college students in relationships (dating for ~16 months, on average), to provide information on shared friendships (e.g., “To what extent would you say that you and your partner are in the same social circles?”), shared media use (i.e., how much partners watched TV/movies or read books together), and relationship quality (e.g., “I am committed to maintaining our relationship.”).1 Those who reported better relationship quality also reported sharing more friends and more shared media use. The benefits of shared media use on relationship quality were boosted when partners did not have as many friends in common; in other words, watching TV was especially helpful when couples didn’t have as many shared friends. Together, these results demonstrate the importance of shared activities, and highlight how couples can adapt in ways that can benefit the relationship. Specifically, when they lack shared friends, couples can compensate by placing greater importance on shared media.
A second study tested the possibility that shared media is a viable strategy for those couples who don’t have as many friends in common. Researchers had 131 college students in relationships (average length was ~19 months) focus on the friends they shared with their partner. Half of the participants were randomly assigned to focus on “friends they share with their partners, including the activities they engaged in with mutual friends and friends of their partner with whom they had grown close.” The other half of participants focused on the friends they didn’t share with their partner. Afterward, participants completed measures of motivations to share media (i.e., how much they desired to watch their favorite TV/movies with their partner), and relationship satisfaction (e.g., ‘‘I am extremely happy with my current romantic relationship”). When participants were led to feel like they had fewer social connections (vs. those who felt like they had ample social connection), sharing media with their romantic partner was more appealing and benefited the relationship more.
As much as I’d love to tell you that this study gives you free reign to binge watch all of your favorite shows each night with your partner, there are a few things to keep in mind. We really can’t conclude from this research that television and movies have a special or unique benefit for relationships over other shared activities. The media format probably isn’t responsible for the improvement, but rather the fact that couples are sharing an experience and as a result have more in common and more to talk about together. With that in mind, it’s also possible that spending an hour going for a run as a couple or playing a board game together could have similar benefits. That said, if you and your partner find Netflix time more enjoyable than running or playing chess together, you shouldn’t feel guilty about vegging on the couch and watching Game of Thrones or This is Us together…it just may help your relationship.