Late last Friday, my husband and I had a rare free evening at home so we decided to try to watch something on Netflix. I suggested, “What about that series we started last fall that we stopped watching?” and immediately saw an almost imperceptible guilty expression flash across my husband’s face. “You Netflix cheated, didn’t you?” I accused. “I might have,” he confirmed, trying not to laugh. “How could you? When?” I demanded. “While I was spinning,” he admitted. “How much did you watch?” My voice was getting shrill. He looked away and mumbled, “The whole thing.” “You really watched the entire rest of the seasons without me? We were only into the second season!” I was starting to sound like a crazy, desperate person and I knew it, but I really was feeling a little betrayed. “OK Lor, when is the last time you actually stayed awake for anything we started to watch on Netflix? I don’t think you saw one entire episode. I always end up watching it myself with you asleep next to me.”
True. But it was the principle of the thing.
The term Netflix cheating was coined in 2013 after a survey showed that 51% of people admitted that they would watch a Netflix show ahead alone that they had previously agreed to watch with their partners. Many of those reported that they would hide the fact from their partners and would re-watch it with fake emotion to hide it. A smaller percentage said they would feel guilty enough to confess. Netflix has used this information to their marketing advantage, dramatized in this 2014 Commercial.
One company jumped on the bandwagon, suggesting a set of commitment rings that link to a streaming service that won’t allow access to a certain series unless both partners are together. While that sounds extreme, I have seen couples controlling enough to actually want to pay for that kind of service.
Just last month, in an expansion of the clever marketing campaign with the tagline “Watch responsibly,” Netflix released data collected in a recent survey showing that Netflix cheating has tripled since 2013. They have continued the spoof with an ironic Michael Bolton video encouraging partners to apologize for the betrayal. They went so far as to actually create entertaining cheating profiles.
Sharing media with partners has been associated with greater relationship quality and may be particularly important for couples who are separated by geographical distance. According to research, media sharing can be a way that partners develop and maintain a joint identity. Sharing activities deepens interdependence. It’s a way of establishing “we-ness.”
So, why is Netflix cheating even a thing? Why would a partner feel betrayed by a spouse watching ahead? Like everything else in therapy, it’s a triviality that can be representative of something bigger. While Netflix cheating is a tongue-in-cheek phenomenon, there is some truth to the relationship risk of duplicitous watching ahead. As a marriage therapist, it makes perfect sense to me why people would be legitimately upset. If a partner Netflix cheats it can send a message that “You don’t matter to me,” or “I don’t care about sharing this with you.” It dilutes that concept of “we-ness,” and invites uncertainty into the relationship. It makes a partner more unpredictable.
I have to give my husband credit—while he has Netflix cheated before, he has always had the common courtesy to refrain from revealing spoilers. Also, since he falls into the small percentage of cheaters who feel guilty enough to admit it, I should admire his honesty. That being considered, he’s out of town and I have nothing better to do than to watch the next episode or three of our current shared series. He really should have signed that pre-viewing agreement I suggested the other night. In the interim, I have just enough time to perfect my look of surprise.
Let’s stay home and watch TV: The benefits of shared media use for close relationships (2016) by Sarah Gomillion , Shira Gabriel , Kerry Kawakami , and Ariana F. Young, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, DOI: 10.1177/0265407516660388.
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