Can You Believe It? How TV Portrays Love
by David Gibson
Can unrealistic portrayals of romantic relationships on television — in dramas, reality shows, movies and other programming — result in harm for some married couples?
Quite possibly yes, according to Jeremy Osborn, an assistant professor in the communications department at Albion College in south-central Michigan. But it seems the big problem here is a belief problem – belief on the viewer’s part that television’s frequently skewed images of romantic relationships are, instead, more or less on target.
Osborn’s work suggests that people do their marriages no favor in imagining on some level that these kinds of TV portrayals are consistent with love in real life.
“I found that people who believe the unrealistic portrayals on TV are actually less committed to their spouses and think their alternatives to their spouse are relatively attractive,” said Osborn.
“The exciting escapades of highly attractive, young TV couples present an impossible ideal, and they also lead people to believe there is an endless supply of attractive partners just waiting around every corner,” Osborn told me.
He said, “Those kinds of images and distortions can be problematic if you buy into them.”
Osborn reported on his study of 392 married individuals in an article titled “When TV and Marriage Meet” that appears in the September edition of Mass Communication and Society.
The results of his investigations “suggest that people who watch more romantically themed programming” and especially people who invest belief in the portrayals offered by this programming are less committed to their marriages, even when they are not all that dissatisfied in their marriages.
Moreover, these people may perceive the “alternatives” to their current relationship more favorably and consider their marriages “more costly” in terms either of their partner’s unattractive qualities or, for example, the loss of time.
A “take-home point” of Osborn’s study is that people need “to stop and think about what their expectations are for their spouse and marriage, and where those expectations came from,” he explained. He might ask a person, “How high is the bar you have set?”
If one spouse judges the other “against a standard set by TV or movies, that is a problem,” Osborn said. Similarly, if decisions are made “about appropriate behaviors in [a] marriage based on those standards, that could be a problem.”
I asked Osborn about his findings related to belief in TV depictions of romantic love. My suspicion, I told him, is that few if any of my relatives, friends or colleagues believe that TV programming tends to present romantic love accurately.
In response, Osborn made clear that the level of belief in these TV messages may indeed vary from person to person. But he found that “as belief scores went up” among the participants in his study, “commitment scores went down.”
Most people in Osborn’s study did not report “that they believed heavily in the portrayals” of love on television, he said. “However, the more they did, the lower their commitment scores were.”
He considered this observation important “because it highlights the fact that you don’t have to be an ardent believer” in these portrayals “to be affected.” He added, “Merely believing in them more than the next person predicts that you will report being less committed.”
At the same time, Osborn has acknowledged that participants in his study who already felt less committed to their marriages might have tended to express more belief “for some reason” in TV depictions of romance. More research is needed into the causal connections here, he said.
TV and Viewer Interactions
Osborn clearly hoped with his study not only to broaden understanding of “the role of television in the relational outcomes of people in long-term, committed relationships,” but to prompt reflection on this.
Along with others in the communications field, Osborn wonders how people are influenced in their actual relationships by their TV viewing. Most researchers hold that television “presents a distorted view of romantic relationships,” his study notes.
But what I found particularly interesting about this study was its apparent suggestion that reflection on these issues should not be confined solely to what television brings “to” us, so to speak. We also need to assess the beliefs that we bring to television – to take stock of how we interact with television.
Osborn’s study observes that “for better or worse,” television “occupies a central place in our lives,” with viewers spending “a considerable portion of each day escaping from the ‘real world’ by immersing themselves in the ‘television world.’”
The society we inhabit “perpetually immerses itself in media images from both TV and the web, but most people have no sense of the ways those images are impacting them,” Osborn commented.
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.