Valentine’s Day is supposed to be a time to purposely express love and appreciation to your significant other. Indeed, the promise of feeling a little romance brings on the annual rush for roses, chocolates, jewelry or a nice dinner out.
But does Valentine’s Day really make us feel heartful? Or, does the pressure of commercialized love just bring heartache and disappointment?
Chelsea Reid-Short, assistant professor of psychology at the College of Charleston, says that for couples who have a strong relationship, a Valentine’s Day gift that falls a little short shouldn’t be a big deal. But for those whose relationships might already be on the rocks, the disappointment of a less-than-romantic Valentine’s Day date could lead to bigger problems.
“In other words, if you’ve been getting plenty of signals from your partner that they’re looking out for your interests and the interests of the relationship, then a blip on Valentine’s Day is unlikely to spell the end for you,” says Reid-Short, who teaches psychology courses on interpersonal relationships. “It’s couples who already have weaker relationships that are more as risk.”
The College Today posed a series of questions to Reid-Short about matters of the heart and whether a bouquet of roses and some heart-shaped chocolates are really the best way to keep the romance alive.
Does Valentine’s Day cause couples unnecessary stress due to an unrealistic focus on romance?
Valentine’s Day gets a bit of a bad reputation, and it’s not entirely deserved. Research has found that couples of undergraduate students were 2.55 times more likely to break up during the two-week period preceding and following Valentine’s Day than other times of year. (I wrote about this study in more detail on the School of Humanities and Social Societies blog a few years ago: https://blogs.cofc.edu/hss/2015/02/06/the-valentines-day-effect/).
I think the interdependence and vulnerability inherent to relationships could explain some of the stress that many may feel around Valentine’s Day – we might worry about how our partner will evaluate the gifts we gave, the dates we planned and the sweet nothings we did or didn’t whisper. However, the research suggests that these worries are unfounded – Valentine’s Day, on its own, doesn’t seem to impact most relationships that are otherwise doing well. A 2004 study found that Valentine’s Day essentially magnified existing issues in weaker relationships, leading like a final push to the higher rate of breakups. I actually try to look at this research finding positively – the couples likely to break up around Valentine’s Day are probably already in a weaker relationship. A bad Valentine’s Day might be the nudge they need to move on to other relationships that are better suited to them. And the strong couples? They’re not really at risk.
What are some of the biggest challenges we face in terms of maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships?
Relationships are characterized by interdependence. In other words, what happens to you is not just impacted by your own behaviors and choices, but also by the behaviors and choices of your partner and vice versa. This makes being in a relationship an inherently vulnerable position, so we want to know that our partner has our interests in mind. We’ll look at our partners and the choices they make to get a sense of whether they’re acting in the interest of us and our relationship or in the interest of themselves. In a way, we’re engaging in a diagnosis of our relationship when there is a choice to be made, and an accumulation of this sort of information over different events and choices can be meaningful for us as we reflect on our continued commitment to our partners.
What are some tips to maintaining an engaging, healthy romantic relationship?
We could spend a lot of time talking about this because there are a lot of options. I teach an advanced topics in social psychology course on interpersonal relationships in the psychology department, and we spend a whole semester talking about maintaining relationships and managing differences – and we’re still just scratching the surface. Most importantly, seek evidence-based advice over someone’s personal experience or opinion. There are a lot of sources of relationship advice out there, and not all of them are based on research evidence. I like to recommend to my students and others (whether married, in unmarried relationships or single) the book The All-or-Nothing Marriage as a nice, approachable way to gain some background on how relationships have changed over time and what you might do in yours.
For Valentine’s Day in particular – and my past students would not at all be surprised to see me say this – I love self-expanding activities. The focus here is on engaging in an activity together – but not just any activity. It should be novel, challenging and exciting. That doesn’t mean you have to go bungee jumping together (but you could!), but it should be something that is outside of your typical, mundane activity. Go to a new restaurant, try a new athletic activity, plan a vacation or daytrip somewhere. One of the things that makes relationships so exciting at the beginning is that there is so much newness. You’re getting to know this new person, learning more about them and their interests. Maybe you’re trying things you haven’t tried much or at all before, you’re hearing new ideas. That’s kind of exhilarating. But after you’ve been together for a while, there is less novelty. You’ve heard their stories. You learned about their interests. The daily routine sets in – opportunities to expand your interests and knowledge aren’t as numerous. By engaging in self-expanding activities, you’re giving your relationship more opportunities to restore excitement and energy.
Should constant romantic feelings be the focus and priority of a relationship with a partner, or should other emotions take priority?
Companionate love – characterized by trust, caring, respect and mutual commitment – tends to be more stable and predictive of relationships over time. As I mentioned with self-expansion, the thrill, or what’s been labeled as “passionate love,” declines over time. Passionate love is that kind of love where you feel intense longing and infatuation – you can’t stop thinking about them and all that. Students have told me that it is kind of depressing to learn that this generally declines, but it’s honestly a good thing. That sort of intense state is really disruptive. How would you ever get anything else done if that were a permanent state?
So, does keeping the romance alive in a relationship take work?
There are a lot of things that can help couples avoid steeper declines and get some boosts in relationship satisfaction, including engaging in self-expanding activities, using effective communication with positive emotion, setting mutual expectations, providing invisible support, having accessible resources and more. When we say “relationships are work,” it almost feels like we’re saying these are just things you have to grind out, however unenjoyable, to maintain the relationship. A lot of work can be fun, though. A relationship is an ongoing process, and it takes time and energy – like lots of wonderful things do.
What should we keep in mind to maintain healthy, respectful interpersonal relationships – whether they’re romantic, familial or friendships?
Remember that you’re human. A few big lessons from social psychology: As humans, we don’t know ourselves as well as we might think; we’re inherently biased and we’re often irrational. We’ll engage in all sorts of mental gymnastics to maintain our view of ourselves. We tend to cut ourselves a lot of slack that we don’t extend as much to others. We’ll engage in behaviors that aren’t great for us, sometimes knowing that they aren’t great for us, because they feel good in that moment. You bring all that with you into your relationship. This means that sometimes it’s going to be you that said or did the wrong thing. Sometimes it’s going to be you that made the mistake or misinterpreted something. I think being open to that knowledge can be helpful.
One thing I tell my students every time I teach my class on interpersonal relationships is that I’m good at relationships in theory, but not always in practice because I’m human. In psychology, we often talk about two types of processing – some things you do automatically without much thought or effort, and some things take a lot more deliberation and control. To get to that controlled processing, you need to be motivated and you have to exert effort. At a bare minimum, I’m always hopeful that learning more about relationship science increases motivation to use that knowledge toward better relationships.