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Our Stuff: Household Objects Indicate Relationship Quality

Having just moved into a new house, one thing is clear to me (and the moving guys): Couples accumulate a lot of stuff. Whether it’s the crates full of grunge CDs from college or our new bedroom furniture, I have firsthand knowledge that as a couple’s relationship develops, so does their collection of objects and artifacts. Now I’m not talking about the folks on Hoarders here. Rather, as normal couples build a household together, undoubtedly that includes merging each individuals’ possessions along with the acquisition of new things (please see my credit card statement as evidence for the latter). 

What do those household objects say about relationships? Can we tell anything about a couple by looking at their stuff? It turns out we can. Researchers have investigated the role of “placemaking” in relationships, seeking to understand how objects in a home reflect and represent the couple that resides in that space.1 In a study published in the journal Personal Relationships, researchers asked partners who were married, or couples that were not married but cohabiting, to list objects in their homes and note whether each item was acquired by a particular partner individually (“that’s my ’59 Fender Stratocaster and your first edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species”), or whether the couple had acquired it together (“our collection of vintage pornography”; see this post for more on language use and relationships). Two types of objects were of particular interest: couple displays representing jointly acquired objects that couples want visitors to see (e.g., the shelf in the living room showing off the shot glasses from all of the countries we’ve been to together), and couple markers reflecting those favorite objects that couples jointly acquired (e.g., the quilt in our bedroom that we bought while on a romantic weekend trip to New England).

Partners with more couple displays and couple markers, relative to individually-acquired objects, felt closer to each other, had less conflict and relational problems, and were more committed to maintaining their relationships in the future. Importantly, however, this study did not address what caused placemaking (a.k.a., the classic “chicken or the egg” question). Does the accumulation and display of joint objects lead to higher quality relationships? Or do couples in better relationships tend to buy and show-off more jointly acquired possessions? Most likely it’s a little of both. As relationships develop, individuals have the time, along with the desire, to accumulate jointly owned objects. They are also motivated to present their relationships, via those objects, to their friends and family who may visit them.

On the flipside, the objects themselves become important to the individuals and their relationships. Objects become an important part of how people think about themselves in their relationships, and they provide motivation to stay in the relationship (because you know if you break up, you’ll end up fighting with your ex over who gets to keep that ugly gravy bowl that you got as a wedding present). In addition, by showing off your joint possessions, social network members may come to support the relationship even more, and past research has shown that their support is associated with relationship success.

As I’m looking at this house full of stuff that needs unpacking, I have this urge to purge. What things are essential and what could go? I’m tempted to toss out the juicer that hasn’t been used in years, but we bought that together when we were on a health food kick. What about the old file cabinet that we got at a yard sale and then spent hours refinishing together? Maybe we’ll have a hard time getting rid of a lot of this stuff because many of these objects we bought together…

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Lohmann, A., Arriaga, X. B., & Goodfriend, W. (2003). Close relationships and placemaking: Do objects in a couple's home reflect couplehood? Personal Relationships, 10, 439-451.

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.

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