Social Networking Sites in Romantic Relationships:
Attachment, Uncertainty, and Partner Surveillance
Jesse Fox, PhD,
and Katie M. Warber, PhD
Social networking sites serve as both a source of information and a source of tension between romantic partners.
Previous studies have investigated the use of Facebook for monitoring former and current romantic partners, but
why certain individuals engage in this behavior has not been fully explained. College students (N = 328) par-
ticipated in an online survey that examined two potential explanatory variables for interpersonal electronic
surveillance (IES) of romantic partners: attachment style and relational uncertainty. Attachment style predicted
both uncertainty and IES, with preoccupieds and fearfuls reporting the highest levels. Uncertainty did not
predict IES, however. Future directions for research on romantic relationships and online surveillance are
he use of media for communicating in close relation-
ships has escalated in recent years due to the advent of
social media, texting, and other technologies that enable
convenient and pervasive access to others. The social net-
working site (SNS) Facebook has become perhaps the most
successful single platform with more than one billion users
College students are particularly heavy users,
averaging 1 to 2 hours on the site each day.
Despite Facebook’s growing dominance in interpersonal
and social interaction, limited research has addressed its
implications for our romantic relationships, both on- and
ofﬂine. By connecting on Facebook, partners are able to post
messages on each other’s proﬁles, search a partner’s ex-
tended network of friends, view each other’s photographs,
examine a partner’s history of posts and pictures, message
each other privately, or identify the other as one’s romantic
partner in the relationship status (i.e., going ‘‘Facebook
Given these affordances, it is imperative
that researchers investigate how romantic partners use
SNSs to monitor their partners. However, little is known
about how relational variables such as attachment style
inﬂuence this process. This study contributes to the existing
research on SNSs and romantic relationships by examining
the role of attachment style,
and relational uncer-
in monitoring one’s current or former romantic
Social networking sites
SNSs enable a user to (a) create a public or semi-public
proﬁle, (b) identify and connect with other users, and (c) trace
these ﬁrst-degree connections to identify members farther out
in the collective network.
In contrast to previous forms of
online interaction, SNSs like Facebook are nonymous and
predominantly used to connect with one’s existing ofﬂine
Because social networks often play a signiﬁcant
role in romantic relationships,
it is unsurprising that Fa-
cebook is affecting how partners interact, both online and
Romantic relationships and monitoring behavior
Within romantic relationships, it is common for individu-
als to stay apprised of the happenings in their partners’ lives.
Communication within the couple, an interactive strategy, is
the most straightforward way to garner this information, but it
is common for partners to employ other information-seeking
strategies to learn about their target (the other partner).
example, a partner may use a passive strategy and observe
the target’s behavior from a distance, such as watching them
interact with others at a party, or a partner may engage in an
active strategy and consult third parties, such as mutual
friends, for information about the target.
SNSs provide a novel way for partners to gather infor-
mation about each other.
Indeed, monitoring another
Department of Communication, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.
Department of Communication, Wittenberg University, Springﬁeld, Ohio.
YBERPSYCHOLOGY,BEHAVIOR, AND SOCIAL NETWORKING
Volume 17, Number 1, 2014
ª Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.
person is one of the most common uses for SNSs.
naga identiﬁes four characteristics of SNSs that promote
interpersonal electronic surveillance (IES)ofone’sromantic
First, information is readily accessible through
these sites. It is easy to join an SNS and only requires a
simple click to access the proﬁles of your connections.
Second, information on SNSs is comprised of various me-
Users can post textual messages, photographs, links,
and audio or video clips. Given that pictures are considered
more credible than words on SNS proﬁles,
may be particularly relevant to partners with suspicions.
Third, SNSs allow the archiving of proﬁle information.
Partners may conduct IES of the target’s past posts, photos,
or interactions with others to gather more data. Fourth,
given that neither geographical proximity nor social inter-
action is necessary to obtain this information, data may be
gathered more surreptitiously.
The target may never
know that s/he is under surveillance by the partner. Thus,
Facebook’s affordances enable partners to gather informa-
tion via IES, which may answer questions about the rela-
tionship or, conversely, lead to more.
One predictor that has been shown to increase levels of
monitoring within relationships is relational uncertainty. This
uncertainty stems from perceptions of ambiguity within the
relationship, such as not knowing if the partner is serious
about the relationship or if the relationship has a future.
a partner is unsure about the target’s feelings or intentions,
the partner may be more likely to engage in uncertainty re-
duction behaviors such as IES. Thus, the partner experiencing
uncertainty may explore the content of the target’s proﬁle to
determine what the target is doing and who they are inter-
acting with so that the partner can alleviate uncertainty about
After a breakup, uncertainty about the relationship’s future
may remain. In the wake of termination, it is not uncommon
for ex-partners to remain friends on Facebook.
though the current state of the relationship may be in good or
bad shape, certain or uncertain, the exes still remain ‘‘friends’’
in name on Facebook. This lingering connection—as well as
access to the ex-partner’s post-breakup experiences via Fa-
cebook posts and pictures—may foster feelings of uncertainty
about the relationship after dissolution. If an ex-partner
chooses not to terminate the Facebook friendship, it may be
perceived as a sign that the ex may consider rekindling the
romance. Thus, it is possible that ex-partners experiencing
uncertainty about the current relationship will perform IES
and monitor their ex’s behaviors on Facebook for clues about
the ex’s relational goals and intentions.
H1: Higher levels of relationship uncertainty will be associ-
ated with greater IES of the current or ex-partner.
One theory that may clarify the occurrence of IES is at-
Attachment theorists argue that the relation-
ships one experiences with primary caregivers during infancy
form working models that will shape how relationships un-
fold across the life-span. The attachment mechanism operates
when infants come to form favorable or unfavorable im-
pressions of the self and others through interaction.
dimensions of attachment are anxiety, wherein relationships
can cause increased or decreased uncertainty, and avoidance,
wherein individual opt to either engage in or avoid personal
relationships based on early relational experiences.
though limited research has addressed romantic attachment
in relation to social media, one study
found that avoidant
individuals were more likely to use technologies such as so-
cial media to terminate relationships.
Bartholomew and Horowitz argued there are four dis-
tinct attachment styles: secure, preoccupi ed, dismissing,and
Each of these styles is marked by different per-
ceptions and behaviors regarding romantic relationships.
Secure individuals are comfortable with themselves and
their partners in their relationships. They have high regard
for the self and other in relationships, and view themselves
as worthy of close, intimate relationships. As such, they
exhibit low levels of anxiety about their partners and report
fewer relationship problems than other styles.
individuals tend to elevate the partner because they feel
that they are inferior or not worthy of the partner. Due to
this insecurity, preoccupieds then attempt to control the
relationship because they are anxious that the partner may
reject them. Preoccupieds tend to be high in anxiety but low
in avoidance. Thus, they may cling to their partners.
Dismissing individuals, on the other hand, have a positive
perception of the self but more negative perceptions of
others. As such, they have low anxiety, are more indepen-
dent, and do not prioritize close relationships. Dismissing
individuals tend to be more avoidant than those with a
secure or preoccupied attachment style.
Fearfu l individu-
als are uncomfortable in close relationships because they
are worried about being hurt by others. They experience
high anxiety and, because they lack assertiveness, tend to
avoid or nullify relationship issues.
Considerable research has established how attachment
styles inﬂuence reactions to breakups.
These studies in-
dicate that those with anxious attachment styles often have a
longer recovery period and may continue to seek information
about their partner after the breakup. Given these patterns,
we expect that:
H2: Preoccupied individuals will report greater relationship
uncertainty than secure, dismissing, or fearful individuals.
H3: Preoccupied individuals will report greater IES than
secure, dismissing, or fearful individuals.
Participants were recruited from a large Midwestern uni-
versity and offered course credit for completing the survey.
Some respondents (n = 34) were excluded from analysis due
to extensive missing data or not meeting study criteria. The
ﬁnal sample (N = 328) included 145 male and 183 female Fa-
cebook users, ranging in age from 18 to 48 years (M = 20.68,
SD = 2.77) who identiﬁed as white (n = 268; 81.7%), black/
African/African-American (n = 21; 6.4%), Asian/Asian-
American (n = 19; 5.8%), Latino/a/Hispanic (n = 4; 1.2%),
multiracial (n = 14; 4.3%), or other (n = 3; 0.9%). Participants
identiﬁed themselves as heterosexual (n = 316; 96.3%), bisex-
ual (n = 7; 2.1%), or gay/lesbian (n = 5; 1.5%). In the sample,
201 were currently in a relationship, and 127 reported about a
relationship that had broken up within the past year.
4 FOX AND WARBER
Interpersonal electronic surveillance. Tokunaga’s IES
was used to measure partner monitoring via Face-
book. Participants responded to 13 items such as ‘‘I visit my
(ex-) partner’s social networking site page often’’ on a fully
labeled 5-point Likert scale (1 = ‘‘strongly disagree,’’
5 = ‘‘strongly agree’’; M = 3.27, SD = 0.80; Cronbach’s a = 0.96).
Both participants currently in a relationship (M = 3.16,
SD = 0.83) and those formerly in a relationship (M = 3.46,
SD = 0.72) reported on IES occurring during the relationship.
Those formerly in a relationship also reported current IES of
their ex-partner (M = 2.75, SD = 0.93).
Relational uncertainty. Relational uncertainty was mea-
sured using Knobloch and Solomon’s scale.
responded to 16 items, including ‘‘How certain are you about
the current status of this relationship?’’ on a fully labeled 6-
point scale (1 = ‘‘completely or almost completely certain’’;
6 = ‘‘completely or almost completely uncertain’’; M = 4.78,
SD = 1.06). Participants in a relationship responded about
their current relationship (M = 5.26, SD = 0.78). Participants
formerly in a relationship were asked to report their current
level of certainty about the relationship with their ex-partner
(M = 4.03, SD = 1.00). Cronbach’s alpha for the scale was 0.96.
Attachment. Bartholomew and Horowitz’s categorical
attachment style measure was employed.
lected one of four descriptions that most closely matched how
they feel about close relationships (e.g., ‘‘It is easy for me to
become emotionally close to others.’’). They scored as se-
cure (n = 143; 43.6%), dismissive (n = 73; 22.3%), preoccupied
(n = 56; 17.1%), and fearful (n = 50; 15.2%), which reﬂects the
distribution common in U.S. samples.
Prior to conducting analyses, Pearson correlations were run
to ascertain the relationships between variables. See Table 1.
H1 considered whether relational uncertainty would pre-
dict interpersonal electronic surveillance of current or former
partners. Relationship status and sex were also incorporated
in the regression model. Regression analysis indicated that
the model did not signiﬁcantly predict IES, R = 0.15, adjusted
= 0.01, F(3, 324) = 2.45, p = 0.063.
Because relational uncertainty and IES were not correlated,
independent two-way ANCOVA tests were employed to test
H2 and H3. To examine relational uncertainty (H2), attach-
ment style and relationship status were incorporated as pre-
dictor variables and sex was entered as a covariate. Sex was a
signiﬁcant covariate, F(1, 313) = 13.45, p < 0.0005, partial
= 0.04. Analyses revealed both a main effect for attachment
style, F(3, 313) = 5.47, p = 0.001, partial g
= 0.05, as well as a
main effect for relationship status, F(1, 313) = 13.45, p < 0.0005,
= 0.28. Those in a relationship reported signiﬁcantly
less uncertainty than those in a terminated relationship. The
interaction effect was also signiﬁcant, F(3, 313) = 3.48,
p = 0.016, partial g
= 0.03. Because differences were hypothe-
sized for preoccupied individuals compared to other groups,
planned pairwise comparisons were conducted. Preoccupied
individuals not in relationships (M = 3.43, SD = 0.95) demon-
strated signiﬁcantly higher levels of uncertainty than all other
groups ( p < 0.001) except fearful individuals not in a rela-
tionship (M = 3.15, SD = 1.13). Preoccupied individuals in re-
lationships (M = 1.76, SD = 0.84) demonstrated signiﬁcantly
lower levels of uncertainty than all groups not in relation-
ships ( p < 0.001); preoccupied individuals in relationships did
not differ from other attachment styles in uncertainty.
To examine IES (H3), an ANCOVA was run with attach-
ment style and relationship status incorporated as predictor
variables and sex as a covariate. Sex was not a signiﬁcant
covariate, F(1, 313) = 0.68, p = 0.41, partial g
= 0.00. Analyses
revealed a main effect for attachment style, F(3, 314) = 4.71,
p = 0.003, partial g
= 0.04, but no main effect for relationship
status, F(1, 314) = 2.68, p = 0.10, partial g
= 0.01, nor interac-
tion effect, F(3, 314) = 0.59, p = 0.62, partial g
= 0.01. Because
differences were hypothesized for preoccupied individuals
compared to other groups, planned pairwise comparisons
were conducted. Preoccupied individuals (M = 2.93,
SD = 1.13) reported signiﬁcantly greater IES than secure
(M = 2.45, SD = 1.01) or dismissing individuals (M = 2.41,
SD = 1.01) but not fearful individuals (M = 2.82, SD = 0.92).
This study contributed to recent research on attachment
and new media technologies,
and revealed that attach-
ment theory is an effective framework for understanding in-
terpersonal electronic surveillance between romantic partners
and ex-partners on Facebook. Likely due to their high levels
of relationship anxiety, preoccupied and fearful individuals
experienced the highest levels of relational uncertainty and
engaged in the highest levels of IES. Previous studies have
noted the prevalence of using Facebook to monitor part-
and this study shed light on those ﬁndings by
recognizing the role of attachment style in this process.
Preoccupied and fearful individuals no longer in a rela-
tionship reported the highest levels of uncertainty. Before the
advent of social media, it may have been difﬁcult to gather
information about a former partner. Now, preoccupied and
fearful exes retain access to their former partners’ lives.
Maintaining this virtual connection with one’s ex may en-
hance feelings of uncertainty about the future of a relation-
ship that, without social media, may have had a clearer and
more certain ending.
It is important to recognize who engages in IES because it
may affect levels of satisfaction, stability, and security within
the relationship. Preoccupied and fearful individuals often
identify or create problems in their relationship due to their
levels of anxiety. Given the additional information available
about one’s partner and their social interactions, Facebook
may exacerbate preoccupieds’ and fearfuls’ anxiety about the
Table 1. Means and Correlations Among Variables
Relationship status — — — - 0.15* 0.57* - 0.07
Sex — — — - 0.25* 0.07
2.22 1.06 — 0.04
IES 3.27 0.80 —
*p < 0.01.
ATTACHMENT, UNCERTAINTY, AND SNS MONITORING 5
relationship. For example, they might be more likely to in-
terpret ambiguous content on Facebook in a negative way,
which may create conﬂict or strain the relationship.
The lack of a relationship between uncertainty and IES was
surprising. However, Muise et al.
also found no relationship
between relational uncertainty and Facebook-related jeal-
ousy. This ﬁnding may be an artifact of the sample, however;
many college students may perceive their relationships as
transient. Thus, although they are uncertain about the rela-
tionship, it may not concern them or inﬂuence their Facebook
behaviors. Future studies should investigate different vari-
ables such as the desire to be in a relationship with the
It was interesting that preoccupieds did not differ from
fearful individuals in their levels of uncertainty or IES, but it
may be because it is attachment-related anxiety rather than
avoidance that predicts these outcomes. Our ﬁndings mirror
previous studies on attachment
which have shown that
anxious attachment leads to more distress and partner mon-
itoring after breakups. Facebook may appeal to these two
types for different reasons. Preoccupieds might feel more
control and closeness by using Facebook. Because fearfuls are
both anxious and avoidant, Facebook may provide them with
the perfect opportunity to monitor the partner and perceived
relational threats passively without having to interact with or
confront him or her directly. Future research should investi-
gate different attachment styles’ motivations to engage in IES.
Limitations and Future Directions
This sample was heavily skewed toward heterosexual
participants; gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other sexually iden-
tiﬁed individuals may be recruited speciﬁcally in future
studies. Additionally, although we accounted for sex in this
study, cell sizes limited the analyses we were able to perform.
Future research should consider sex as a potential moderator.
Future research may also investigate the role of gender, as it
has been shown to be a better predictor than sex regarding
some relational behaviors.
One limitation is that this study focused exclusively on
Facebook; technological practices and preferences will likely
Several studies have indicated that attachment plays a
role in texting behaviors,
and future research may ex-
amine how different attachment styles use different technol-
ogies (e.g., Twitter, Google searching, GPS-enabled
applications, or online dating sites) for partner monitoring.
Additionally, experimental studies would provide more in-
sight into what triggers partner surveillance and establish
causality. For example, researchers could prime relevant re-
lationship beliefs and then track romantic partners’ Facebook
Another rich area for future research is the management
strategies that partners or former partners use to regulate the
information that is shared via social media. These strategies
may be dictated by the affordances a particular SNS has to
offer. For example, although Facebook previously broad-
casted all posts to the entire social network, now privacy
settings can be conﬁgured to narrow the audience of a speciﬁc
post. Similarly, Google Plus features an affordance known as
‘‘circles’’ so that information can be shared with select groups
rather than the entire network. Some individuals now
maintain private Twitter accounts with only a few close
friends as followers because they want to share information
but their Facebook network is too far-reaching.
In the most
extreme cases, some users simply agree not to friend or
connect to their partners via social media.
Any of these
tactics may help partners conceal information from each other
while still connecting to other network members via SNSs.
Given the widespread use of IES, future studies should be
conducted to determine its immediate and lasting psycho-
logical, interpersonal, and social consequences. Continued
research in the area of SNSs and romantic relationships will
uncover the tactics and strategies that maximize the likeli-
hood of positive relational outcomes. In the meantime, users
should be mindful about the signiﬁcance and potential effects
of monitoring their current and former romantic partners on
Author Disclosure Statement
No competing ﬁnancial interests exist.
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Address correspondence to:
Dr. Jesse Fox
3084 Derby Hall, 154 North Oval Mall
School of Communication
The Ohio State University
Columbus, OH 43210-1339
ATTACHMENT, UNCERTAINTY, AND SNS MONITORING 7