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Does Watching TV Make You (or Your Partner) a Control Freak?

It’s no surprise that television shows have a lot of relationship conflict in them. Would you watch Grey’s Anatomy if every time someone had a problem with his or her partner they sat down and had a calm, serious discussion? Probably not. I don’t know about you, but I want to see some EMOTION! It is this need for drama that encourages writers and producers to give us shows full of relational conflict, but what does watching this high-conflict type of television do to our relationships?

Depending on the type of shows you watch and the types of conflicts under consideration (e.g., family conflict vs. romantic relationship conflict), there will be between 1.05 and 8.79 conflicts per hour of television.1,2 In addition, female characters are usually the ones who start the fights, place blame, and use mean tactics (e.g., patronizing comments, chastisement, and defensiveness) to try and get their way in conflicts. Right now, some of you may be thinking, so what? Conflict exists in all relationships, right?

The problem with these types of conflict-ridden television shows is that the more television you watch, the more you may expect your relationship to function like the relationships depicted on television.3 Cultivation theory argues every time we turn on the television, it bombards us with messages about what life is like, or at least what life should be like.4 Although we may not intend to take these messages to heart, it is inevitable that some will get through. So what happens if we tune in to shows that dramatize romantic relationships and have a lot of relationship conflicts? 

In a recent survey, college students between the ages of 17 and 43 were asked to indicate how often they watch television shows like The O.C., The Real World, or Nip/Tuck (which feature a lot of relationship conflicts), how realistic they feel television is, and how controlling they are in their relationship. In this study, men, people with low relationship satisfaction, those with aggressive personalities, and those who were more neurotic reported more attempts at trying to control their partners (in real life). But, even after accounting for these variables, watching television laden with interpersonal conflict still predicted the likelihood that people try to control their partners, especially those who think television is somewhat realistic. Why? Well, according to cultivation theory, we may learn how to act in our relationships from the television we view. So if we watch shows with a lot of conflict, we may learn destructive patterns of controlling behaviors to use in our relationships. 

What’s the lesson? You don’t have to go out and cancel the Grey’s Anatomy cued up to record on your DVR, but try to keep in mind that the producers and writers of Grey’s Anatomy and other conflict-ridden shows dramatize relationships to get viewers. We can’t expect our relationships to look like those on television, nor should we want our relationships to look like those on television.

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1Comstock, J., & Strzyzewski, K. (1990). Interpersonal interaction on television: Family conflict and jealousy on prime time. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 34(3), 263–282. doi:10.1080=08838159009386742

2Tamara de Souza, R., & Sherry, J. L. (2006). Portrayals of romantic relationships on adolescent television: A content analysis. Media Report to Women, 34(1), 13–21.

3 Morgan, M., & Shanahan, J. (2010). The state of cultivation. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 54(2), 337–355. doi:10.1080/08838151003735018

4Gerbner, G., & Gross, L. (1976). Living with television: The violence profile. Journal of Communication, 26(2), 172–194. doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.1976.tb01397.x

5Aubrey, J. S., Rhea, D. M., Olson, L. N., & Fine, M. (2012). Conflict and control: Examining the association between exposure to television portraying interpersonal conflict and the use of controlling behaviors in romantic relationships. Communication Studies, 64(1), 106–124. doi:10.1080/10510974.2012.731465

Hilary Gamble - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV

Hilary's research focuses on the role media plays in romantic relationships. More specifically, she is interested in the effects television viewing can have on romantic partner's thoughts about their relationship and their partners.

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