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Could Valentine’s Day Be Bad for Some Relationships?

It can provide a boost for some and not others, and may even hasten a break up.

Key points

  • Valentine's Day can boost feelings of satisfaction and give people a chance to express their love for their partner.
  • People high in attachment avoidance did not experience a boost in satisfaction when Valentine's Day was salient.
  • Couples whose satisfaction was already on a downward trajectory were especially likely to break up over Valentine's Day.
 Maira Gallardo/Unsplash
Source: Maira Gallardo/Unsplash

Valentine's Day is here—the day we celebrate love and our own romantic relationships with fancy dinners, romantic cards, flowers, and chocolates. There's good reason to believe that getting romantic and focusing on your partner is good for your relationship. But are there certain relationships, or certain people, for whom that isn't the case?

People in satisfying relationships frequently express affection, appreciation, and admiration for their partners. One important relationship maintenance behavior that helps keep bonds strong is providing "assurances" to your partner that you love and appreciate them. This can be in the form of saying "I love you," complimenting your partner, doing little nice things for them, or bringing them gifts. Clearly, on Valentine's Day, people tend to provide more assurances than usual. This could make the holiday an occasion when people feel especially good about their relationships. On the other hand, if you'd rather not get mushy with your partner, Valentine's Day may have quite the opposite effect. Research suggests that for some relationships, Valentine's Day could even backfire.

What type of people respond most positively to Valentine’s Day?

Bill Chopik and colleagues proposed that whether or not Valentine's day makes you feel better about your relationship depends on your attachment style, and in particular, the extent to which you experience attachment avoidance. Attachment avoidance is the tendency to avoid intimacy and to feel uncomfortable getting close to others. People high in attachment avoidance may experience the pressure of Valentine's Day negatively, or at least not experience it as a particularly positive thing.

In a clever test of the effects of the salience of Valentine's Day, Chopik and colleagues had coupled participants complete an online survey about their relationships either on Valentine's Day or on another arbitrarily chosen day in mid-April. To make the holiday especially salient, some participants were reminded of Valentine's Day by seeing a banner ad about a Valentine's Day event, whereas other participants saw a banner ad that was unrelated to the date. After seeing the ad, participants evaluated their relationship satisfaction.

Participants who completed the survey on Valentine's Day and were also reminded of it by the banner ad reported greater relationship satisfaction than participants in the other experimental conditions—but only for those who scored low in attachment avoidance. People high in attachment avoidance weren't affected by the manipulation. On the bright side, Valentine's Day salience did not have any negative impact on their levels of relationship satisfaction—it just failed to make them feel any better about their relationships.

What types of relationships could be harmed by Valentine's Day?

In their research on the effects of Valentine’s Day on breakups, Morse and Neuberg posited several reasons why Valentine's Day has the potential to be bad for relationships:

  • While Valentine's Day rituals could spark romance, they may be taken as insincere or obligatory and lose their power to serve as assurances of a partner's love and affection, particularly for people who already have reason to doubt their partner's affections.
  • Because the holiday is public, we see other people celebrating their love and may get the false impression that others are more in love than they really are—and more than we are.
  • If the relationship isn't going well, participating in the Valentine's Day ritual may feel like too much effort, or even feel especially insincere.

They hypothesized that for relationships that are already heading into trouble, Valentine's Day may push a couple over the edge and catalyze breakup.

In their study, Morse and Neuberg surveyed 245 undergraduate students about their relationships one week before and one week after Valentine's Day, or during another two-week period that did not coincide with Valentine's Day. They found that relationships that were already on a downward trajectory (even ones that were moderately strong), were particularly likely to dissolve over the two-week period that included Valentine's Day, as compared to an arbitrary two-week period. So, that means that the same types of relationships that were likely to continue during the non-Valentine's Day period broke up during the Valentine's Day period.

Taken together, these studies show that if you're the kind of person who is comfortable expressing affection, Valentine's Day could temporarily boost your feelings of love for your partner. But it also depends on the trajectory your relationship is on. If things have been going downhill, the pressure of Valentine's Day may be just what it takes to push it all the way to the bottom.

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