The Psychology Of Why Valentine's Day Ruins Relationships

Valentine’s Day typically serves as a time to show appreciation for that special someone in our lives or as an opportunity to take a relationship to the next level. It’s a time to celebrate love in all of its forms.

But can Valentine’s Day be a dangerous time for the health of your relationship?

Holidays can be stressful, but your relationship probably made it through Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, Festivus, and New Year’s in one piece. Congratulations! Valentine’s Day should be a piece of cake, right?

Not so fast. In a 2004 study1 conducted at Arizona State University, higher-than-usual rates of dating breakups occurred in the week before and the week after February 14th compared to other times of the year. During this 2-week period relationships were over 2.5-times more likely to end. Of course, we can’t definitively say that Valentine’s Day directly “caused” breakups; however, there certainly is something happening around this much-anticipated romantic holiday.

What’s especially interesting about the study is that the researchers explored two possible reasons that may explain the increase in Valentine’s breakups.

One possibility is that Valentine’s Day sets in motion all sorts of comparisons that could be detrimental to your relationship (this is known as the “instigator hypothesis”). Partners may not live up to the lofty cultural expectations associated with the holiday because their gifts weren’t thoughtful enough, the dates they planned weren’t romantic enough, or their underwear wasn’t sexy enough for this special day. Such failures might be especially harmful when compared to others’ seemingly perfect Valentine’s Day activities. “My sister got two dozen roses this year, and you dare to only deliver one dozen? Unromantic slacker!” And when partners don’t meet expectations, alternatives may start to catch your eye.

Alternatively, rather than instigate problems in relationships, Valentine’s Day could exacerbate existing issues (known as the “catalyst hypothesis”). Basically, Valentine’s Day may be a time when all those problems that you and/or your partner might have swept under the relational rug resurface and wreak their havoc. Struggling relationships may falter under the extra pressure of the holiday. Maybe you’ve been a lousy partner all year and your poor efforts on Valentine’s Day are just the last straw. Relationships with big problems were probably headed for a breakup anyway, and Valentine’s Day just provided the extra push to get them there sooner.

The results of the 2004 study did not support the “instigator hypothesis.” Instead, couples that were already experiencing problems were the only ones more likely to break up around Valentine’s Day. Score one for the “catalyst hypothesis”.

The take home message here is that if you have a rock-solid relationship, don’t worry; Valentine’s Day isn’t a hazardous time for relationships that are going well. However, if it’s been a rough ride recently, you better put in a solid effort to make sure this Valentine’s Day is very special.

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1Morse, K. A., & Neuberg, S. L. (2004). How do holidays influence relationship processes and outcomes? Examining the instigating and catalytic effects of Valentine’s Day. Personal Relationships, 11, 509-527.

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