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Tag, We’re It: How Facebook Reveals Information about Current (and Past) Relationships

You know those people on Facebook who tag their romantic partners in every…single…post? Or how about the people whose uploaded photos almost always contain their partners? If you’re anything like me, you may find it somewhat annoying, but these kinds of behaviors convey important information about couples’ relationships.

Previously, we have discussed how romantic partners’ senses of self gradually begin merging together and overlap with one another. In other words, we begin to take on some of our romantic partner’s aspects into our sense of who we are (e.g., you may find that you have picked up interests or hobbies that your partner introduced you to), and we begin to talk more in terms of “us” and “we” than “me” and “him/her”. In a recent study,1 researchers surveyed 276 individuals (mostly college students) about various aspects of their romantic relationships, including the degree of self-partner overlap and the content of their Facebook profiles. Individuals who reported greater self-partner overlap were more likely to tag their partners in status updates. And when examining the frequency of photos in which both the participants and their partners were tagged, the researchers found that individuals who reported greater self-other overlap were more likely to be jointly tagged in photos with their partners. Additionally, greater self-other overlap was also associated with individuals perceiving greater similarity between their and their partners’ Facebook interests.

However, relationships can permanently affect our identity and sense of self through a process called self-expansion. Specifically, the self-expansion model proposes that our sense of self grows and expands when we’re in a relationship with a partner, particularly if the relationship provides a lot of new experiences. As a result, the researchers predicted that there may be evidence of individuals’ past relationships on their Facebook profiles, such that individuals who have had more relationships should also have a larger sense of self. This is exactly what they found: individuals who reported having a larger number of previous relationships also tended to have more interests on Facebook. Although those past relationships had ended (hence why they are past relationships), the individuals still took something away from them. This also potentially means that you can get a general sense of how much of a serial dater someone is by counting the number of interests they list!

Importantly, these results don’t simply reflect the fact that perhaps romantically-involved people log onto Facebook more often. There is one caveat to these findings, though: the study was entirely correlational, which limits the ability to draw any kind of causal conclusions. It could be that the characteristics of the relationship (i.e., greater self-partner overlap) cause individuals to tag one another more on Facebook, but it’s equally plausible that tagging one another on Facebook causes individuals to feel as if there is greater self-other overlap. Even so, this study reveals an important connection between individuals’ relationships and their Facebook behavior. So, next time you tag someone in a status update or photo, consider what message you are conveying about your relationship with that person!

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1Carpenter, C. J., & Spottswood, E. L. (2013). Exploring romantic relationships on social networking sites using the self-expansion model. Computers and Human Behavior, 29, 1531-1537.

Dr. Brent Mattingly - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Mattingly's research, broadly conceptualized, focuses on the intersection of romantic relationships and the self. His specific lines of research all examine how individual-level constructs (e.g., motivation, attachment, self-regulation) are associated with various relational processes. Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

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