2023COM008
Public access from
30/11/2025
Doctoral thesis

Through the lens of change : the role of visuals in turning points of couple relationships

  • 2023

PhD: Università della Svizzera italiana

English Couple relationships have diversified in recent years (e.g., consensual, married, or living apart-couples), proceeding increasingly in nonlinear ways, rather than following a linear pattern of intensifying and de-intensifying stages (Kellas et al., 2008; Linke, 2010). This is why a turning point perspective on contemporary relationships is particularly beneficial for understanding contemporary relationship development and maintenance. Turning points denote pivotal events that alter and change a relationship and its dynamics, leading to a redefinition of the relationship (Baxter & Bullis, 1986; Graham, 1997). Research has highlighted that couple relationships are not only increasingly mediatized but are also highly visualized nowadays, meaning that media and communication technologies, as well as visuals (e.g., photographs, videos, gifs, etc.) and visual communication, are integral components of how we “do” couple relationships today (Hand, 2012; Lobinger et al., 2021). Prior studies have particularly emphasized the importance of visuals in couple relationships, for instance, as memory resources, for selfexpression and self-presentation, for creating and maintaining (sexual) intimacy, for everyday connectivity within a couple relationship, for “seeing” a partner, and for functional communication (Döveling, 2019; Kindberg et al., 2005; Prieto-Blanco, 2016; Van House, Davis, Takhteyev, Ames, et al., 2004; Villi, 2012). Despite the eminent importance of visuals, neither turning point research nor communication research has sufficiently considered visuals as important components of relationship turning points. The findings from turning point research and visual communication research have remained largely disconnected. Studies on visuals in turning points have been conducted rather implicitly without adopting a turning point perspective, for instance, in the context of online dating or a wedding. Thus, this dissertation aims to narrow this gap by bridging turning point research and visual communication research, exploring the role of visuals in turning points of couple relationships. Focusing on couple relationships is particularly important because couples are the very heart of society as the smallest form of personal relationships (Berrut et al., 2019). This dissertation provides insights into how contemporary couple relationships are maintained and develop, as well as which role media and communication technologies and the visual in particular plays in relationship crossroads and how couples navigate nonlinear relationship trajectories in and through visual media on a micro-level. Ultimately, this dissertation lays groundwork for understanding how contemporary social life “works,” and sheds light on how people in highly mediatized and visualized societies navigate the decision to stay socially connected and together. This cumulative dissertation comprises four individual papers, contributing to the overarching research aim of examining the role of visuals in turning points of couple relationships from different perspectives: on the one hand, three different key turning points of couple relationships are examined (i.e., relationship initiation, getting married, COVID-19), and on the other hand, the role of visuals is explored on different levels (i.e., on the level of visual practices, social functions, visual representation and image creation), taking into account different dimensions of the visual (i.e., both visual, symbolic and material dimensions of the visual). While study 1 contributes to this dissertation on a methodological level, studies 2–4 empirically explore the role of visuals in three highly differing turning points. Study 1 proposes a qualitative methodological approach to analyzing large numbers of visuals (in our case, 1,255 visuals), adopting a texto-material perspective on visuals for creating image types based on visual and verbal data from qualitative pair and individual interviews with 21 couples and nine friendship dyads in Switzerland, combined with creative visual methods (e.g., visual elicitation). Study 2 carves out the characteristics of “firsties,” that is, pictures from a relationship’s initiation, based on the methodological approach presented in study 1, as well as in-depth visual analysis. The underlying data material are visual and verbal insights from qualitative pair and individual interviews with 21 couples in Switzerland, combined with creative visual methods (the same data material as study 1 but without the friends’ cases, as part of a larger research project). Study 3 provides empirical in-depth insights into the turning point of a wedding by focusing on agency in image creation and what is considered “successful” professional couple imagery, employing qualitative content analysis based on five qualitative expert interviews with wedding photographers in Switzerland, combined with photo-elicitation. Study 4 explores how visual practices contributed to maintaining stability in couple relationships during the COVID-19 pandemic as a circumstantial turning point through qualitative content analysis on both a visual and a verbal level, based on visual and verbal data material stemming from qualitative pair and individual interviews with 21 couples in Switzerland, combined with visual elicitation as well as online surveys and video call interviews. Overall, this dissertation highlights: 1) the role of visuals is reflected in turning point characteristics, meaning that the role of visuals can be assessed by taking turning point characteristics into account; 2) by exploring the role of visuals in turning points, insights regarding the intertwining of social norms and visuals in couple relationships can be gained; and 3) this enables the uncovering of risks and fears regarding media and communication technology in couple relationships. Additionally, on a methodological level, 4), this dissertation emphasizes the importance of a dyadic, repertoire-oriented perspective on the role of visuals in turning points for considering visuals’ embedment in couples’ communication repertoires and provides means for qualitatively identifying and analyzing visuals in turning points of couple relationships from a texto-material perspective. Ultimately, this dissertation sheds light on relationship development and maintenance of contemporary couple relationships, as well as provides a deeper understanding of which role media and communication technologies and the visual in particular play in turning points, and how couples navigate these relationship crossroads and detours in and through visual media.
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  • English
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Social sciences
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Open access status
green
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https://n2t.net/ark:/12658/srd1326904
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