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Can Social Media Posts Predict Relationship Bliss?

Can Social Media Posts Predict Relationship Bliss?
Can Social Media Posts Predict Relationship Bliss?

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A recent conversation about the authenticity of social media posts that depict a happy and fulfilled romantic relationship seemed timely to consider with Valentine’s Day approaching. Does posting positively about one’s romantic partner reflect the epitome of relationship satisfaction (often dubbed “relationship goals.”), a strained relationship with a desire to be seen by others as happy or somewhere in between? The answer, to borrow from a relationship status on one platform, is “it’s complicated.”

Some of my early research on social media sought to uncover a correlation between narcissism and posting selfies on Instagram. To our surprise, we found little evidence to support such a link. Undeterred, we tried again with similar results.

What that has to do with relationship posts is that social media content, regardless of its focus or theme, is influenced by a multitude of factors. Selfie posts do not necessarily reveal narcissism, just as posting pictures of our dinner doesn’t make us a foodie. Likewise, posting about joyful experiences with our partner doesn’t necessarily mean that our relationship is to be idealized.

This Valentine’s Day, relationship or “partner appreciation” posts may mean that someone does have genuine affection for their partner and gratitude for their relationship. One early study indeed found that relationship satisfaction was associated with more frequent posts about one’s romantic partner and photos of the happy couple.

However, some posts could still be driven by a felt obligation to post about their partner that is tied to the holiday. It might also be emblematic of caring that one’s followers view the relationship as positive and strong. In short, relationship posts this season, and in any season, likely have many meanings and motives, including genuine relationship satisfaction or a desire to convey happiness to others. There is no clear way to know without bridging the gap between what’s on social media and what’s happening in real life (IRL).

Nevertheless, this inherent ambiguity will not stop followers from making inferences about those relationships based on social media content. To complete the trilogy of our selfie studies, we had college students rate others they did not know on various personality and social attributes based on screenshots of their 30 most recent Instagram posts, excluding captions. Based only on images, those who posted more selfies were rated as lonelier, less successful, less outgoing, less likable, and having lower self-esteem.

The opposite pattern was evident for individuals who posted more photos of themselves that appeared to be taken by someone else (“posies”). Regardless of why we post something, our followers inevitably draw conclusions about the subject matter in those posts. Our relationships are almost certainly no exception.

So, should we post about our partner on Valentine’s Day? If single, should we post about spending another year celebrating “Singles Appreciation Day?” Of course, there is no clear answer. Our posts reflect our preferences and motivations and will necessarily be viewed favorably, unfavorably, or indifferently by others.

When encountering a relationship post, what judgments should we make about those displayed and their partnerships? Probably none. What is clear from the research is that social media can spark negative social comparisons; thus, to close with a cautionary note: To the extent that our feed sparks stress, negativity, jealousy, self-doubt, or any other host of non-enjoyable feelings, it may be time to close the app and disconnect for a while. We might instead indulge in a good rom-com—or not.

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