Scientists have identified why binge-watching “Game of Thrones” together brings couples closer

You and your partner’s social circle.
You and your partner’s social circle.
Image: HBO
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You should be talking more. You should be cooking dinner together and eating it by candlelight and then having sex. You should have signed up for that tango class so that you’d be out there on the dance floor, arms around your partner, becoming closer. 

But you didn’t. You’re both on the sofa watching Game of Thrones. It’s so pleasurable, but the pleasure is tainted by guilt because instead of having experiences together, you’re wasting precious time on something mindless you could easily do alone.

We’ve got good news for you.

New research from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland has found that watching TV series, and consuming other media like films and books with one’s partner, can help to achieve the same kind of closeness as having a mutual group of friends. In relationships without many shared friends, the characters actually take on a similar role, providing a shared social world which, the researchers say, helps two individuals feel close and connected.

“Previously, sharing a social world with a partner has been conceptualized in terms of sharing real-world social experiences,” the researchers write in an article published in (pdf) the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. “However, creating these experiences may not always be possible. Fortunately, humans are remarkably flexible in finding ways to fulfill their social needs…When people’s need for social connections are undermined, they turn to a variety of social surrogates that provide alternate pathways to meet this need,” including photos, food, pets—and, in the case of the present study, TV shows.

The psychology researchers designed a study in which 259 students in committed relationships were studied over an average of 16.7 months. Those with more shared friends, and those with fewer friends but who shared media consumption, reported the highest relationship satisfaction over the period of study. (The researchers controlled for time spent together, to make sure it was the media, and not the time spent consuming it, that helped couples feel close.)

They based their work on previous findings that suggested shared experience deepens intimacy because it allows people gradually to incorporate aspects of their partners into their sense of self. The process is called ‘‘self-expansion,’’ and can foster feelings of closeness and love.

Using the characters in a TV show as subjects for gossip or for discussion of traits and behavior, or even for shared projection of fantasy, can do the same for a couple as talking about shared acquaintances—and give them the same necessary sense of belonging.