Binge-watching TV Together Can Help Your Relationship. It's Science!

The characters on long-running series can stand in for friends, especially for couples who don’t have a rich shared social life.

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A young couple watching TV together.
A young couple watching TV together.

If “Hamlet” had been written today, Polonius would have certainly asked the prince of Denmark: “What are you watching, Hamlet” instead of “I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.” The answer would of course be: “Series, series, series.”

Television series surround me constantly, or to be more precise, the discussions about them, which I take part in, because I barely watch them — Yes, I’m the one who abandoned the fight back in the days of “Beverly Hills, 90210,” and since then, nothing: not a single episode of “The Sopranos,” and forget about “Orange Is the New Black,” “House of Cards” or whatever it is you’re watching now.

In general, American television bores me, and you can count the number of Israeli series I’ve seen on the fingers of one hand. I’m not trying to prove anything, it’s not like I’m reading “The Iliad” in the original instead.

But I dwell among mine own people, and I know that in addition to individual, solitary television viewing, it’s popular to watch series as a couple. I tried it with my girlfriend. We watched “Shtisel” together, and ran into a common problem: She falls asleep in the middle. But among couples that watch more regularly, and that watch heavier and longer foreign series, there are scenes that make the beheadings on “The Game of Thrones” seem quaint.

“A friend told me he started watching ‘The Americans’ with his partner,” relates Yonatan (not his real name), 32 from Tel Aviv. As a veteran TV fan, he fixes up his friends with suitable series. “They watched one episode together, but that night he couldn’t control himself and watched the entire rest of the season, in secret. The guy found himself watching the series again, episode after episode, and pretending to be surprised by all the plot twists: The feuds, the fibs, the bittersweet compromises.”

Some couples watch everything together, and if one of them drops out in the middle of the season, the other bails as well, like two fighter pilots when their engine stalls out — and they look for something else to watch together. Some couples only watch separately, and others mix it up. “A series isn’t a movie, two hours and done. These are characters you bring into your living room, who are with you for years,” Yonatan says.

He did a good job of explaining one way TV can contribute to a relationship. A new study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships suggests it can serve couples’ need for mutual friends.

The authors of “Let’s stay home and watch TV: The benefits of shared media use for close relationships,” researchers from North America and Scotland, cite evidence that couples with a shared social life have better, longer lasting relationships. But what if that’s not possible, for example if the couple has just relocated — say, to Mozambique — for work? That’s where the fictional characters come in.

The researchers conducted two studies. For the first, 259 college students in relationships averaging over a year answered questions about the relationship, shared friends and their shared consumption of media, including books, movies and TV. A strong correlation was found between the quality of the relationship that was reported and the sharing of media — especially when the couples didn’t have many friends in common. For the second study, participants were assigned to write either about shared friends or friends they did not share with their partners, after which all were asked about the closeness of their romantic relationship and whether they had an immediate desire to watch media with their partner.

“Watching TV with a partner or watching a movie you both like is a really easy way to improve relationship quality and anyone can do it at any time so if this is something that is good for relationships, it might help us identify an intervention that can improve relationship quality,” the lead author, Sarah Gomillion, said.

It would be interesting to know whether Gomillion read a July BBC report on a Japanese finding that every additional two hours a day spent watching television increases the chances of dying from a blood clot in the lungs, a fatal pulmonary embolism, by 40 percent.

So what’s the takeway? Apparently, that the secret to health and a good relationship is watching TV on adjoining treadmills.

Yonatan suggests choose series that both partners like, but not too much. “If you really are into the series it is asking for confrontations that result from overindulging. Attraction at just the right level guarantees on one hand restraint, and at the same time staying power.” He recounts breaking up with a live-in girlfriend in the middle of the last season of “some stupid series on HBO,” and being unable to watch the remaining episodes despite wanting to know how the series ended.

“After a while I suddenly felt like seeing it and watched all the rest. It was part of the mourning process, and I was able to do it only once it was clear to me the relationship was over. It wasn’t exactly fun ... I would say it was liberating. Like removing a bandage.”