Part 1 of this article described a recent study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships investigating how Facebook has become an important part of the development of romantic relationships.1 In particular, although young adults don’t view Facebook as a dating site per se, it is used as a way to get to know potential partners better and gauge romantic interest. But beyond these initial interactions, Facebook is important as relationships progress.
2. Information Seeking
Looking at people’s Facebook profiles can give you all sorts of information about them and their potential as a relationship partner. Scouring others’ profiles for information about them (without their knowledge) is known as “creeping” or “Facebook stalking” and, at least according to one participant in this study, “Everybody does it, whether they admit it or not.”
Having information about others can help with later face-to-face conversations, because it can give you something to talk about (e.g., “I saw the pictures you posted of your cat…He sure is cute!”), assuming you can tactfully bring that into conversations without tipping your hand that you’ve been creeping. However, a downside of knowing about the other person is that, because of the information you’ve gleaned from creeping, you might feel closer to them than they feel to you. Closeness is built through self-disclosure as partners mutually learn about each other;2 however, with Facebook, the “communication” may be one-sided (i.e., you’re creeping but your desired partner isn’t), and you may feel you know the other person well although they don’t necessarily feel close to you.
When it comes to forming impression of others, people tend to rely more heavily on the posted pictures than what people write about themselves in their profiles. This may be a good strategy; “a picture is worth a thousand words” and it is harder to manipulate and manage one’s self-image in pictures, so pictures are seen as particularly credible (especially those your friends have uploaded and tagged you in). It’s hard to deny your Spring Break shenanigans when there’s visual evidence! Study participants noted this, reporting that they use photos to identify “red flags” like reckless behavior, substance abuse, excessive partying, promiscuous behavior, and “glamour shots” that may indicate vanity.
3. Relationship Status
Once a relationship forms (i.e., your creeping didn’t scare him/her off and your relationship moved to the next level), Facebook communicates your commitment about the relationship to others (both your partner and your friends/family). Couples post that they are “in a relationship with…” (a.k.a., become “Facebook Official”) to define the relationship to each other and to announce the new relationship to their networks.
Study participants noted that posting a relationship status was an added complication within new relationships, as couples negotiate when it’s time to go public with their relationships on Facebook. For example, (heterosexual) men in this study were more likely to say that they got pressure from their girlfriends about changing their status than vice versa, and the conversation about becoming Facebook official can cause stress. In addition, men commented that Facebook was an additional place where they had to work to maintain their relationships (e.g., showing affection towards their partners); one participant noted that he “got in trouble once because she said she loved me on Facebook and I didn’t reply back.”
In addition, because everyone can see your status, there may be social pressure that accompanies changing your Facebook relationship status to being “in a relationship.” Posting your relationship status (and having your partner reciprocate) also communicates to others that your partner is in a relationship; it’s a way of “claiming.” For example, one participant in this study reported that posting a relationship status was a way of saying, “’Girls, don’t touch my man.’”
Clearly, Facebook is changing the way relationships develop. It provides information that helps individuals decide about potential partners and changes the pace at which relationships progress. One’s Facebook status is also an important marker of commitment and communicates the relationship to social networks; however, it can also be a source of stress for partners. As technology evolves and becomes ever-embedded in our daily lives, it undoubtedly will both reflect the state of our relationships while also impacting them.
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1Fox, J., Warber, K. M., & Makstaller, D. C. (in press). The role of Facebook in romantic relationship development: An exploration of Knapp’s relational stage model.Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
2Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R. D., Bator, R. J. (1997). The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: A procedure and preliminary findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 363-377.
Dr. Benjamin Le – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Le’s research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships.