Ned’s blood pressure spikes when his wife talks during a TV show. Television ruled his childhood home. He had to wait until commercial breaks to get his father’s attention. And even though he’s borne the brunt of TV-driven anger, he tenses up when the show’s interrupted. In that moment, he finds it hard to think of his wife as a person — she’s just something keeping him watching TV.
“I made the choice to watch what’s on and I want to know what’s going on,” he said. “Then an obstacle comes up, that just so happens to be someone I love dearly.”
TV hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s gone everywhere. Streaming services and smart devices have made programs constantly available. And that ubiquity is having a profound but overlooked effect on our relationships.
“People have this impression that TV is dead, like the effects aren’t there,” says Professor Jeremy Osborn, who teaches communications at Cornerstone University. “Everybody’s so focused on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat and all those things. The reality is different.”
With so much streaming content so readily available, we’ve become a nation of binge watchers. Sixty-one percent of respondents to a 2013 Netflix survey said they regularly binge-watched. And there’s evidently no shame in that. Seventy-one percent of the survey respondents felt good about binge watching.
We compulsively watch episode after episode, robbing ourselves of sleep and other comforts and opportunities. It’s tempting to see it as a form of addictive behavior but mental health professionals aren’t sure. While some mental health facilities treat forms of screen addiction, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders hasn’t officially recognized excessive binge viewing as a disorder.
Still, researchers are actively exploring the mental health issues surrounding binge watching. A University of Texas at Austin study found that people turn to Netflix when they’re lonely and depressed and looking to escape negative feelings.
While loneliness may drive us to burn through hours of Gilmore Girls reruns, we often don’t binge watch alone. The 2013 Netflix study found that 51 percent of survey respondents marathon TV with partners. Surprisingly, under certain circumstances, watching long stretches of shows together may strengthen a relationship. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that some couples bonded over binge watching. For couples lacking a large network of friends, sharing a show helped them form a shared identity.
But sometimes the show’s chosen for simpler reasons. Some people interviewed for this story told me they let their partners decide what to watch for the sake of keeping peace in the house.
“I ceded control of the remote, the DVR, and so on in the Marriage Accords of ’98,” Mike, a book reviewer from Virginia joked. “I watch what she watches, or at least listen while I work at the computer. It usually works, until she starts binge watching bad reality shows or something.”
Couples reported trying to watch shows together but admitted it can be hard to resist the temptation to advance on a show alone.
“I sneaked a few episodes of GOT without waiting for my husband, I didn’t admit it though,” Colorado mom Lauren said. “I just happily watched them again when he was ready.”
Watching TV is a more active experience than we are prone to believe. According to Longwood University Biopsychology and Neuroscience professor Catherine Franssen, while our bodies are at rest as we watch TV our brains are frantically firing off chemicals.
“It’s a really great trick they do to keep us watching,” Franssen said. “It’s essentially activating our stress response, our fight or flight. By the end of the show, we’re engrossed in the story and the characters. “
When we binge watch episodic television, our brains are on a rollercoaster looping through stress and alleviation from stress. When a TV episode ends on a cliffhanger and our brains release the stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine in response. Even though if we’re watching TV late at night, we feel wired and compelled to watch another show.
Franssen said that while we characterize stress as unpleasant, it’s also a crucial part of excitement and fun. “Stress, in moderation, is what we live for,” she said. “Think of a roller coaster ride. It’s fun because it stresses us out a little bit for a short period of time.”
As TV excites our brain with stress, it warms it with something close to love. Because we like and empathize with characters in shows, our brain is swimming in oxytocin, a hormone associated with affection, bonding, and passion. And the pleasure of watching the show activates our brains’ reward circuit by releasing feel-good chemicals dopamine and serotonin.
With so much going on in for us internally, interruptions from the outside world can be jarring. “Shows can pull us away from a relationship,” Franssen said. When your partner is locked into a show you can feel frustrated that they’re not engaging with you. And they’re getting a feeling of accomplishment and reward from the show, so there’s less incentive to perform the real world work that makes us feel the same satisfaction. Half-listening to a spouse’s concerns — or ignoring them altogether — is a major marital issue.
“My wife and I had a blow-out argument a few weeks ago because she said that I was watching too much television instead of listening intently to her,” says Nick Holcomb, a 33-year-old father of one. Holcomb says that he uses TV to destress after a long day in the office (he’s a financial analyst) but he did realize that he was watching it instead of having actual discussions with his wife.
Due to the brain chemistry involved in binge-watching, any kind of show has the potential to pull people apart. But Jeremy Osborn’s research has led him to believe certain types of content can make the divisions more pronounced. A 2012 study he conducted found that entertainment with romantic themes, from scripted dramas to reality TV romance competitions, casts a harsh light on real-life relationships.
“Say I’m sitting in my living room in my boring day-to-day life, looking at my partner who’s falling asleep on the couch with their hand in a bag of Cheetos or something,” Osborne said. “Then I watch a show like The Bachelor and I start to think I deserve that. Every day of my life should look like that, because it seems to be like that every day for those people. If I think that’s normal, that becomes part of my comparison.”
Like scripted entertainment, reality TV is carefully engineered to hook viewers. But the shows are presented as a form of reality, fostering unhealthy expectations for some viewers.
“The problem comes when people watch those programs and they believe that they accurately portray reality,” Osborn said. “These portrayals are not generally realistic. They tend to portray relationships in a couple of warped ways.”
Sex and romance are presented without the complications of real life. Aaron Anderson, owner and counselor at the Marriage and Family Clinic in Colorado, said actual romance can be disappointing when dating shows set up expectations of trysts involving helicopter rides and hidden mountain retreats.
“Most couples who come into counseling for intimacy or sexually related difficulties believe that sex is spontaneous, that it just kind of happens, and there’s no build up to it, and both partners just magically are in the mood at the same moment,” Anderson said.
So, what can be done to avoid over-streaming from evolving into marital strife or a relationship stuck in neutral? Simple: press pause on your show and have an actual conversation. By simply being conscious of your habits and opting to, say, go for a walk, out to dinner, or converse in silence is a step in the right direction. So is setting limits of how much content you view in the week. At the very least, steer clear of reality romance competitions. Those shows are terrible anyway.