I have several graduate students doing exciting work with relational maintenance, including Courtney Anderegg. In my Media & Relationships class, I mentioned in passing that I’d never seen a content analysis about romantic relationship maintenance behaviors on television, and before I knew it, Courtney was in my office with a plan. Graduate student Katie Dale joined us, and then a casual question became a research project.

What comes to mind when you think about romantic relationships on the television shows you watch? (I just caught up with the last season of Game of Thrones, so I’m going to pass on answering this one myself.) Perhaps you’re used to seeing the back-and-forth insult-ridden banter between couples, punctuated by canned laughter, on sitcoms. Or, maybe you’re more accustomed to the overwrought, constantly troubled relationships on dramas. Or, perhaps you prefer the grotesque portrayals of romance on reality shows. Regardless, research had yet to explore how these romantic relationships are sustained in these shows.

In the content analysis, we composed a sample week of prime time network television. (Dr. Dana Mastro was infinitely helpful during this process.) We then coded speaking turns using Stafford’s (2011) Relational Maintenance Behavior Measure, which includes positivity (being positive toward your partner), assurances (being there for your partner now and in the future), self-disclosure (sharing information about yourself with your partner), understanding (sympathizing with your partner and apologizing when appropriate), networks (involving friends and family),  relationship talks (discussing the state of the relationship), and tasks (performing activities like household chores).

All types of relational maintenance were present on prime time television. Although most relationship maintenance studies found equal distribution of behaviors, however, we found those portrayed on television to be skewed. Networks were particularly popular, whereas assurances were very rare.

We also observed differences across genres. Comedies revealed a greater number of maintenance behaviors than dramas, but they also revealed a greater number of negative maintenance behaviors (e.g., showing a lack of understanding, withholding information from one’s partner). Given that bad behavior is often reinforced in comedies both on screen (e.g., because the show is humorous, serious consequences are rare and forgiveness is always provided) and in the viewing experience (via laughter from laugh track or studio audience), comedies may be modeling unhelpful behaviors for romantic partners.

Very exciting to do some exploratory work on relational maintenance and media. We will be continuing this work in different contexts in future projects. Email if you can’t access the paper from the like below and would like a copy.

Anderegg, C., Dale, K., & Fox, J. (2014). Media portrayals of romantic relationship maintenance: A content analysis of relational maintenance behaviors on prime time television. Mass Communication & Society, 17, 733-753. doi:10.1080/15205436.2013.846383