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Social media sites have provided us with unprecedented access to the lives of our friends and acquaintances, letting as connect with… and spy on… people in our social network like never before. It has also allowed us to share our own lives with others quickly and easily, and potentially with a much larger audience than we did in the past. Social media has also found its way into our romantic relationships. We declare our relationships to the world by making them “Facebook official” (linking one’s own profile to a partner’s, indicating the relationship) and sharing couple photos. We can also see what our partners have been up to and who they’re friends with by taking a peek at their online profiles. In my own research, I wanted to see how these unique features of social media play out in people’s romantic relationships, and whether people’s personality is linked to how they use social media in their relationships.
Research on mate retention suggests there are many strategies people use to hold onto their romantic partners and prevent rivals from stealing them away.1,2 Two common strategies are direct guarding and public signals. Direct guarding involves making sure your partner is not pursuing anyone else. This can involve reading a partner’s emails or going through their things. On social media, it’s easier than ever to engage in that kind of surveillance. We can find out whom our partners have been talking to, who they are friends, and where they’ve been. Public signals involve showing the world your partner is taken. This can involve publicly putting your arm around your partner or having them wear an engagement ring. Social media makes it very easy to announce your relationship to the world. The signals can be quite blatant (e.g., making your relationship “Facebook official”) and they can be broadcast to a potentially large audience. In addition, because posting about your relationship on social media is somewhat one-sided, you can post affectionate comments and snuggly photos that far exceed the public displays of affection that you and your partner normally show to others in your offline lives.
In my own research, I surveyed 257 adults about the extent to which they engaged in three kinds of mate retention behaviors on Facebook:3
- Surveillance/monitoring: Reading your partner’s posts, going through their friends list
- Public displays: Posting photos or statuses about the relationship
- Excessive displays: posting photos or statuses that are potentially embarrassing and express more affection than you normally show offline.
I also asked them how often they had experienced certain negative relationship effects due to using Facebook. Specifically they were asked how often something they saw on Facebook made them feel jealous and how often they had a conflict with their partner regarding Facebook use.
Participants also completed a measure of the Big 5 Personality traits:
The results showed that neuroticism was linked to more jealousy, more Facebook-related conflict, and greater partner surveillance. I also found that the link between neuroticism and these Facebook-related relationship difficulties was explained by surveillance. That is, the reason that those high in neuroticism experience jealousy and conflict as a result of Facebook use is that they spend a lot of time monitoring their partners’ activities.
Extraverts were more likely to publicly display their relationships to others by posting photos and statuses about the relationship. This is consistent with research that shows that offline, extraverts are more likely to use public signals to let the world know their partner is taken.4 Surprising, extraverts were also more likely to monitor their partners’ activity on Facebook and to have conflicts over Facebook use.
People high in conscientiousness tend to be cautious and practical. Thus, they normally do not reveal too much on social media and are particularly prone to feelings of regret when they do post something inappropriate.5,6 In this study I found some evidence to support that idea, but other evidence that very much contradicted it. I found that conscientious people were less likely to engage in what I called “excessive displays,” showing more affection in Facebook portrayals of their relationship than they normally do out in public. This is very much in line with the cautious nature of conscientious people who would not want to misrepresent their relationships online or embarrass themselves or their partners. However, I also found that conscientious people were more likely to engage in general public displays of their relationship, posting photos and statuses about their relationship. It is possible that conscientious people believe this is healthy for the relationship and thus they are doing it to maintain a positive relationship or please their partner.
There were also some interesting differences in Facebook behavior, depending upon the length or seriousness of participants’ relationships. People who were in longer relationships were less likely to get jealous over their partners’ Facebook activity. This suggests that as the relationship progresses, people become more secure and less suspicious about a partner’s activities. Those in longer relationships were also more likely to post photographs and statuses about their relationships, but were less likely to engage in “excessive displays.” This could be because general posts about the relationship and photos of the couple together are merely signs that the relationship is serious and the couple spends a lot of time together, whereas excessive displays may be a sign of insecurity among those in the early stages of their relationships. I also found that neuroticism was associated with more excessive displays — but only for people who were in less serious relationships. This also suggests that insecurity is at the heart of these excessive displays.
Some mate retention strategies on Facebook are fairly harmless, like posting photos and statuses about the relationships. However, monitoring a partner’s activities or posting over-the-top affectionate content could be problematic or a sign of insecurity. But ultimately, how likely someone is to use Facebook in ways that harm their relationship depends, in part, on their personality.