Why comparing your relationship to others on Facebook can make you feel better – or worse

A new study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior suggests that using Facebook to compare your own romantic relationship to another couple’s relationship doesn’t inherently make you feel better or worse. Rather, it’s all in how you interpret it.

“I began by examining relationship social comparisons in general. I had observed that some people interpret these comparisons in a positive way and some in a negative way,” explained study author Marian M. Morry, a psychology professor at the University of Manitoba.

“My student Tamara Sucharyna and I found that how people interpret these comparisons predict a variety of relationship outcomes (Morry & Sucharyna, 2016). From there it was a natural leap to examining comparisons on Facebook since so many young people have profiles and Facebook actively encourages individuals to describe their relationship in these profiles.”

“In contrast to one’s daily interactions with friends, many ‘friends’ on Facebook are more accurately described as acquaintances and we were interested in whether or not relationship social comparisons to the profiles of these acquaintances would have an effect on one’s own relationship similar to what we found.”

An initial pilot study of 130 college students found that about 1 in 4 participants admitted that they made relationship social comparisons on Facebook. Most students who admitted to making the comparisons said they used photos and communication between the couple as the basis of their judgement.

Two more studies, which included a total of 411 participants in exclusive relationships, used made-up Facebook profiles of a young, attractive, heterosexual couple to examine the impact of relationship comparisons. One version of the couple’s profiles portrayed them as having a positive relationship, while another version portrayed them as having a negative relationship.

Viewing the positive relationship of another couple or the negative relationship of another couple did not directly predict the participants’ self-reported relationship quality, attention to alternative partners, or personal well-being.

In other words, viewing a bad relationship did not by itself make participants feel better about their own relationship and viewing a good relationship did not by itself make participants feel worse about their own relationship.

But the researchers found whether the participants put a positive or negative spin on the social comparison was key.

“How you interpret another person’s relationship outcome is the most important component. It doesn’t matter if the other person’s relationship is doing better or worse than your own relationship as long as you interpret this positively,” Morry explained.

“For example, if the other person’s relationship appears better than your own, interpret this as ‘hope for the future’ and ‘if we try hard we can be like them’. Similarly, if the other person’s relationship appears worse than your own, interpret it as ‘we are doing better than they are’ or ‘it seems our relationship is quite good after all.’ The worst thing to do in either case is to focus on the negatives ‘we’ll never be good enough’ or “things can get a lot worse’.”

The study, like all research, has some limitations.

“There are always questions that still need to be addressed,” Morry said. “For example, while we know how you interpret the information affects your current relationship satisfaction or commitment we do not yet know if it has a long term effect. More specifically do continuous positive interpretations improve your relationship over time or does it ensure your relationship doesn’t get worse?”

“We also don’t know yet about the consequences of training people to make more positive types of interpretations. Our research suggests that this should improve one’s relationship satisfaction and commitment, but we haven’t tested this yet. In regards to Facebook and the relationship social comparisons we still need to know whether relationship comparisons to close friends on Facebook have a stronger effect than relationship comparisons to acquaintances.”

“While my research has examined relationship social comparisons to one’s off-line friends and Facebook acquaintances there are other types of relationship social comparisons that can also be made,” Morry added. “These could include comparing your relationship to that of your siblings or parents or even to your own past dating relationships. Given the consistency of findings across my research, I would predict that how one interprets these types of comparisons would impact one’s own relationship satisfaction and commitment.”

The study, “Relationship social comparison interpretations and dating relationship quality, behaviors, and mood“, was authored by Marian M. Morry, Tamara A. Sucharyna, and Sarah K. Petty.