Has TV changed people's relationship expectations?

Has our obsession with TV affected our real-life relationships?
Has our obsession with TV affected our real-life relationships?
American Broadcast Co., Inc.

Those of us who grew up watching TV may sometimes feel closer to our favorite television characters than we do to our own family members. (Admit it: You probably know at least a few episodes of "Friends" or "Seinfeld" by heart, but how many conversations with real-life friends or relatives can you remember the next day, let alone recite word for word?)

With the growing popularity of DVRs and video-on-demand services that let us pause, shift and rewind prime-time to suit our busy schedules, the time we spend in front of the tube continues to rise. In November 2010, Americans watched their televisions for an average of 5 hours and 11 minutes per day [source: The Nielsen Company]. We tune in for the twists and turns of "Grey's Anatomy" and "The Bachelor(ette)" as though our own fates hang in the balance. But is our obsession with TV affecting our real-life relationships?

Media scholars have wondered and worried for decades about the effect television has on our emotional and intellectual development, debating whether too much exposure makes us more violent, erodes our attention spans or even diminishes our capacity to reason for ourselves. But the correlation, if any, between our television habits and our relationship expectations has received relatively little attention [sources: Comstock, Osborn].

Intellectually, we understand that television, even the so-called "reality" kind, portrays a decidedly unrealistic version of life as we know it [source: Osborn]. After all, the fantasy and escapism our favorite shows deliver are huge parts of the attraction. As we tune in week after week, knowingly and willingly suspending our disbelief, are we subconsciously buying into the depictions of love, marriage, family and friendship that we see on the screen?

Has TV changed people's relationship expectations? And if so, how? Read on to find out.

As Seen on TV

Watch even a few dramas or sitcoms, and a familiar pattern emerges: Tension builds between two of the primary characters. Sometimes they outwardly despise one another; sometimes they acknowledge an attraction but are kept apart by jobs, spouses, the fear of ruining a friendship or other situations outside of their control. But whether they are FBI agents, Dunder Mifflin employees, shipwrecked castaways, ER doctors and nurses, or vampires and mere mortals, we the viewers become convinced that they are soul mates, and their story arc is what keeps us coming back week after week. Soap operas used to call them "super couples," while TV fan boards have their own term for it: OTP, the "One True Pairing." Can real-life love ever measure up?

Of course, the minute these soul mates do get together, the writers need to find new ways to spice things up. And so the best-friends-turned-lovers become ex-lovers, then best friends again, all without permanently shattering their extended circle of friends (see "Friends," "How I Met Your Mother" and "Grey's Anatomy," to name just a few).

Family sitcoms and dramas from "The Brady Bunch" to "Family Ties" to "Gilmore Girls" have featured idealized parents who listen, understand and admit their mistakes -- and kids who come around to their parents' point of view within the space of an episode. These couples and families seemingly have it all: careers, marriage, perfect kids, witty banter, fabulous social lives, and quick, satisfying resolutions to even the most daunting problems and challenges.

At the other end of the spectrum are shows that portray one or both members of a couple in a negative light. Shows like "According to Jim," "King of Queens," and, to some extent, "Modern Family," rely on a bumbling dad and husband inexplicably paired with an attractive, together mom and wife, while "Married with Children," "Roseanne" and "Malcolm in the Middle" play up the shortcomings of both partners.

We've come to expect these themes from our favorite TV shows, but do they affect the way we approach real life?

Do We Seek Out Shows That Validate Our Beliefs?

Most of us like to think we're smart enough to understand the difference between TV and reality.
Most of us like to think we're smart enough to understand the difference between TV and reality.

Most of us like to think we're smart enough to understand the difference between TV and reality. The good news is that we're mostly right: Participants in more than one study have described television love stories as "depicting an unrealistic view of relationships based on passion, adventure and exotic situations" [source: Osborn]. But even as we recognize that many TV relationships are romanticized and idealized, we prefer the notion of passion and romance to the rational, "common sense" relationships that we condone in real life [source: Osborn].

Researchers have even demonstrated a possible link between frequent TV viewing and unrealistic expectations about pay, workplace relationships and other working conditions. It seems that viewers who watch the most TV are more likely to overestimate the kinds of salaries, perks and benefits that might be extended to a new hire, and underestimate the level of experience or education required for certain professional occupations [source: Waldeck].

Of course, not everything is rosy in TV land. Whether daytime or prime time, scripted or reality, in some television universes, everyone cheats, small misunderstandings become huge blowups, and gossip and pettiness reign. (We call these shows "dramas" for a reason!) One study explored the role of television in shaping viewers' attitudes toward marriage and found that those who watched the most TV were more likely to have negative views toward marriage. The researchers hypothesized that because viewers saw so few depictions of happy marriage on TV, they may have begun to question it as a way of life [source: Osborn]. Another study found that college students who watched the most reality dating programs were more likely to express negative attitudes toward dating and embrace stereotypes about dating and relationships [source: Zurbriggen].

So what's the verdict? Has television really changed our real-life relationship expectations? While several studies point toward a link of some kind between heavy TV viewing and unrealistic expectations about romantic, family and professional relationships -- particularly for younger viewers with more TV experience than real world experience -- researchers stop short of establishing cause and effect, instead using terms like "association" and "correlation" to describe the interaction between our TV viewing habits and our attitudes toward relationships [sources: Osborn, Segrin, Waldeck and Zurbriggen].

The bottom line? We may never know whether television in fact shapes our relationship expectations, or whether we simply gravitate toward those programs that reinforce our own fantasies about love, work, family and friendship.

Related Articles


  • Comstock, George and Erica Scharrer. "Media and the American Child." Academic Press. 2007.
  • The Nielsen Company. "Who Watches What (and How Much)? U.S. TV Trends by Ethnicity." March 30, 2011. (April 7, 2011) http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/consumer/who-watches-what-and-how-much-u-s-tv-trends-by-ethnicity/
  • Osborn, Jeremy. "The Influence of Television Viewing on Expectations for and Assessments of Romantic Relationships." Conference Papers -- National Communication Association. November 1, 2007. Communication & Mass Media Complete. (EBSCOhost April 9, 2011).
  • Pehlke II, Timothyallen, Charles B. Hennon, et al. "Does Father Still Know Best? An Inductive Thematic Analysis of Popular TV Sitcoms." Fathering: A Journal of Theory, Research, & Practice about Men as Fathers. Vol. 7, no. 2. Pages 114-139. 2009. (EBSCOhost April 10, 2011).
  • Segrin, Chris and Robin Nabi. "Does Television Viewing Cultivate Unrealistic Expectations About Marriage?" Journal of Communication. Volume 52, no. 2. Pages 247-263. June 2002.
  • Sirgy, M. Joseph, Lee Dong-Jin, et al. "Does Television Viewership Play a Role in the Perception of Quality of Life?" Journal of Advertising. Vol. 27, no. 1. Pages 125-142. 1998. (EBSCOhost April 10, 2011).
  • Waldeck, Nancy E. "The Relationship Between Television Exposure and Individual Work Expectations: An Empirical Study." Journal of Applied Social Psychology. Vol. 39, no. 1. Pages 208-234. Jan. 2009. (EBSCOhost, April 7, 2011).
  • Zurbriggen, Eileen L., and Elizabeth M. Morgan. "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? Reality Dating Television Programs, Attitudes Toward Sex, and Sexual Behaviors." Sex Roles. Vol. 54, no. 1/2.Jan. 2006. (EBSCOhost accessed April 10, 2011).