Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Does Television Romance Buzz Kill Commitment in Marriage?

I came across a really fascinating study last week. Usually, I see all sorts of interesting studies and they roll across my desk and off it onto the floor. This creates quite a mess of research—and research can be quite messy as is. Anyway, I most often just take in the headline or the summary, but I don’t have or take the time to read further. Not this one. I wanted to read more.

Jeremy Osborn is a researcher in Communication Studies at Albion College in Michigan. He just published this study that’s gotten a lot of buzz across the internet, and it’s entitled: When TV and Marriage Meet: A Social Exchange Analysis of the Impact of Television Viewing on Marital Satisfaction and Commitment.  You can get a very nice summary of it here, and you can sample some of the media around it here.

The headline is this: People who consume more television, and especially if they believe in the romantic portrayals on TV, tend to have weaker commitment dynamics in their marriages. People believing more strongly in the portrayals of romantic themes also reported being less dedicated to their partners and rated their sense of the quality of alternatives to their present relationship as higher. The amount of TV one viewed was not nearly as related to marital commitment as the degree of belief about the romantic themes. One aspect of commitment measured here is what I call dedication, which reflects one’s sense that he or she wants to be with the partner, is more willing to invest in having a future together, sees the relationship more as an “us” than me/you, and would tend to protect that relationship when attracted to others.

Osborn also measured the quality of alternatives, which speaks to a very basic issue in commitment theory—that one is constrained to be more committed with their present partner if their perceptions of the alternatives suggest that the alternatives are less good. In other words, if you think you have pretty high quality alternatives, and you get pretty unhappy with your mate, you may just be more likely to bolt because you believe that you could get a better deal elsewhere. That may or may not be true, as many people find out to their surprise, but as a constraint, the perception of how good your alternatives are initially will trump the reality around if you were to act on being unhappy.

So, people who watch more TV and tend to believe in what they see about romantic relationships are likely to have weaker dedication commitment to their partners and are more likely to think they can do better, or at least, not so bad, if they were to leave.

What about unhappiness itself? Well, Osborn found that these television patterns were not related to marital satisfaction. That’s really kind of interesting, and this is one of the things that is very nice about Osborn’s study. He looked at both commitment variables and things like marital satisfaction, and the TV viewing impacts appear to be more linked to commitment than satisfaction.  Had he not looked at commitment, his reported finding would be, for the most part, that the TV viewing and beliefs had little impact on marriage when they might be having a serious impact on commitment within marriages. 

Caveat time: As Osborn notes, his study is cross-sectional, and some of the most interesting questions here are chicken and egg. No yoke. He can’t really tease out if people who are more likely to believe unrealistic romantic themes are simply more drawn already to such things on TV, and also more likely to have trouble making commitments because they are just people who tilt romantic and have more trouble committing to one partner without keeping an eye on how much better it might be with someone else. Very likely, the stuff cuts both ways. And, of course, TV is always serving up the notion (whichever way you want to think, causally here), that there’s something better out there than what you have now. Just think cell phones for a minute. Wait, I’m behind the times.  Smart Phones. (By the way, one can have a super smart phone and still be pretty dense in love and relationships.)