Ah, love is in the air, or, at least, it should be, since it's almost Valentine's Day.
But here's the thing: Scientists have found that this romantic holiday can have a negative impact on relationships.
And the holiday-related obligation to be lovey-dovey may have something to do with it.
There aren't a ton of studies on Valentine's Day, but those that exist suggest it isn't all hearts and roses.
For example, one study from 2004 found that college couples that had been dating for at least five weeks were 2.5 times more likely to break up in the weeks surrounding Valentine's Day than during three other, comparable times of the academic year.
Which kind of seems to go against the whole point of having a special day to celebrate love.
But there are several reasons why this holiday might doom relationships.
For starters, there are all the expectations surrounding Valentine's Day.
I mean, it's no secret that Valentine's Day comes with its share of obligations.
Like, if you're in a relationship, you're generally expected to give your partner something.
And that's not necessarily a bad thing, since gifts can make you feel closer to your beloved.
But studies suggest they don't change the overall trajectory of a relationship, and they may actually be harmful if they're given for the wrong reasons.
Some as-of-yet unpublished research presented at a meeting of the Association for Consumer Research found that if you feel like your partner gave you a gift out of obligation, then that gift may make you feel less happy with the relationship.
You might also end up comparing your Valentine's Day gifts to the ones your friends or other coupled people got.
Which brings us to another way the holiday might damage relationships: comparisons.
See, there's a concept called "interdependence theory" that says a person's satisfaction in their relationship relies on two things:
How their current relationship compares to what they expect of their relationships in general, and how their partner compares to the currently available alternatives.
And if you see other couples giving better gifts or doing more grandiose and romantic things on Valentine's Day, well, that could raise your expectations of relationships in general.
Suddenly, your current relationship doesn't seem to measure up so well.
But the worst part is that comparisons to other couples can fall prey to a pernicious cognitive bias known as "fundamental attribution error."
That's when you attribute the actions of others to inherent traits, but your own to circumstances.
So you might think that duo you saw having an extra romantic night did that because they have a fantastic relationship, while your own celebration was just because it's Valentine's Day.
Of course, those assumptions probably aren't true.
Everyone else is following the same script when it comes to February 14th.
It's just that when you see their perfect selfies and amazing gifts, it's all too easy to assume that their celebration is more authentic than yours.
And if that's not bad enough, you might already be noticing the particulars of your relationship around Valentine's Day, and how they do or don't stack up, because of a priming effect.
See, studies suggest that when you're surrounded by commercials and storefronts and Twitter memes all devoted to love and romance, you can't help but think about love and romance.
For example, a 2009 study found the words "cupid" and "flowers" popped into people's heads more easily in early February.
And a 2017 study showed that people actually raise their opinion of chocolates and flowers around Valentine's Day.
The thing is, thinking about romance and relationships can tarnish how people view their partners.
It may highlight and magnify existing issues, for example.
Though, this seems to somewhat depend on how the person approaches romance more generally, something psychologists call "attachment style".
Attachment style is a measure of a person's attitude about relationships based on 2 dimensions: attachment-related avoidance and attachment-related anxiety.
People high in anxiety are less secure in themselves and tend to see others as the solution, so they tend to be preoccupied with seeking intimacy and support from their partners.
Meanwhile, people high in avoidance are secure in themselves but aren't too trusting of support from others, so they tend to be less interested in intimacy in general.
And avoidance in particular seems to translate to being less happy with partners.
Like, a 2014 study found that people with avoidant attachment were less satisfied with their relationships.
But here's the kicker: that dissatisfaction was magnified on Valentine's Day.
That wasn't the case for people who were low in avoidance, even if they scored high on attachment-related anxiety.
In fact, the holiday-related reminders seemed to boost how they felt about their partner.
And that's actually kind of a theme: Valentine's Day can hurt relationships, but it doesn't hurt all of them equally.
Mostly, it negatively affects ones that are already on the rocks.
Like, remember that statistic about people being 2.5 times more likely to break up around Valentine's Day?
It turns out relationships that were rated as weak were nearly five times more likely to break up during the two weeks around Valentine's Day than stronger ones.
Furthermore, if the relationship was already strong or improving when Valentine's Day came around, the holiday didn't have a negative effect.
Something similar may be true for feelings of obligation around gift giving.
If you're already not feeling great about the relationship, preliminary research suggests you're more likely to assume your partner gave you a gift out of obligation.
That makes you less likely to feel grateful for the gift and, therefore, less satisfied in the relationship.
And even comparisons to other couples aren't always bad.
If you really believe your relationship is better than others, then drawing comparisons might make you feel more satisfied with what you've got.
The big takeaway is that Valentine's Day isn't a breakup instigator, it's a catalyst.
It doesn't cause relationships to end all by itself; it just gives a little push to the ones already headed that way.
So, if you're happy, Valentine's Day isn't likely to sour things.
But if your relationship isn't all that great, it might speed you towards ending it.
Which, if we're being honest, could be for the best.
Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych!
If you liked this episode, I have a feeling you'll enjoy our video on whether you really have a “type” and if it even matters.
So maybe check that one out next!
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