Stressed out by Valentine's Day? In this episode, Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt, the Relationship Doctor, explains how you can make your Valentine's Day special instead of stressful.
Conducting relationship research can be difficult even in the best of times because people and relationships are complex. However, there is nothing quite so difficult as needing to study couples around the holidays. One piece of advice I received from my graduate school advisor is to never collect data from undergraduate couples in the weeks surrounding Valentine’s Day or spring break because these are particularly tumultuous times for couples and may actually affect participants’ perceptions of their partner and their relationship.
Perhaps one of the most controversial days of the year, Valentine’s Day can bring about either viscerally negative feelings or overwhelming excitement. Advertisements are in your face about the day, targeting people who may feel pressure to give gifts. Every store has over-the-top messaging just in case you forgot the holiday was approaching. It can be overwhelming and all-consuming.
Some people are extremely vocal about their disdain for this "Hallmark holiday." It’s expensive because there are expectations for gift giving to prove your love for your partner. It ignores single people, potentially making them feel left out of tradition. It’s cringe-worthy because it’s about celebrating love and all of those mushy-gushy feelings attributed to teenage angst. It also has a reputation for setting people up for disappointment when the day doesn’t go as hoped for, leading to unnecessary negative feelings.
Other people find Valentine’s day to be something to look forward to. You get to spend time thinking about and sharing positive things about your partner and hopefully have them return those positive sentiments. You get to have a fun date, maybe get dressed up, and celebrate your relationship. For those people not currently in a serious relationship, it may be the perfect opportunity to start one! If nothing else, it is a day to express your appreciation and love for the meaningful relationships in your life.
In this episode, I'm going to look at how Valentine's Day can affect our relationships and some science-backed tips on the best way to spend the holiday.
How does Valentine’s Day affect your relationship?
There are several ways in which Valentine’s Day can create the conditions to affect your relationship. One study found it can exacerbate existing problems we may be experiencing in our relationships. Indeed, relationships in that study were five and a half times more likely to break up in the weeks surrounding Valentine’s Day than they were at other comparison points during the year. This was particularly true for people in relationships slowly on the decline in happiness and satisfaction.
Why does Valentine's Day affect relationships so much? One reason might be the performative aspect of it. We may be celebrating our relationship, but it could just be part of putting on an image to the outside world. Social media feeds on the day of and the days following Valentine’s Day are filled with couples talking about how wonderful their partners are and how perfect their lives and loves are.
Some of us may take an interest in observing the patterns of these partners’ postings. When one partner makes a long sappy post and the other doesn’t reciprocate, does that mean they are on the rocks? Or even worse, what about when the other partner doesn’t even give the post a like? What about when both partners are overly performative? Why are they trying so hard to get people to see how wonderful their relationship is? Do they do anything for themselves without needing an audience?
Beyond speculating about the state of others' relationships, it can be easy to compare our own relationships to those we see on social media. During regular times, we may be able to avoid these comparisons, but during the Valentine’s Day season, we are seemingly inundated with these messages. Other people talk about how perfect and wonderful their partners are, or how fulfilled their relationship makes them feel, which can leave us to wonder whether our own relationships measure up. Other people’s partners respond to their messages with a novel of their own, but our partners may not do that. Does that make our relationship somehow less good than theirs?
These social comparisons may lead us beyond feeling slightly downtrodden about our relationships and may in fact be the catalyst for ending them. This is particularly true when we are already facing doubts about the state of our relationship. It may bring some of these concerns right to the forefront of our thoughts, and when our partner doesn’t deliver for us on Valentine’s Day, we decide to break up and move on. One study found that Valentine’s Day can serve as the catalyst for a breakup when things are already on the rocks, particularly due to those social comparisons.
So, how should you celebrate Valentine’s Day?
Knowing that Valentine’s Day may bring about complicated feelings and heightened anxiety about meeting romantic expectations for the day, there are a few ways that you can approach the holiday that may reduce those feelings:
Take the pressure off of yourself! This day is meant to be an opportunity to think about the important relationships in your life and the impact those people have on you. It’s simply meant to acknowledge and celebrate the people that you love and care about, particularly your romantic partner. If you are giving thought to the day and are planning to take time to spend with your partner, you are already on the right path to having a successful and meaningful Valentine’s Day.
You don’t need a grand gesture to make an impact. Simplicity is better than not doing anything at all. In fact, one study found that gifting your partner roses and chocolates on Valentine’s Day was viewed more favorably than receiving those gifts at other times during the year. If money is tight, write your partner a note expressing all of the ways in which they make a positive difference to you and the things you value about them. Writing love notes like this can have the added benefit of improving your physiological health, too!
If there is one thing that the current state of public health has taught us it is how to be creative about spending time with your partner. You don’t have to have a big expensive date night out to have a valid and exciting Valentine’s Day with your partner. One study found that when both partners are mutually interested in engaging in a shared activity together (which tends to happen on Valentine’s Day), it doesn’t actually matter how novel the activity is, it will positively impact your relationship. So, cook a fun dinner together, dance in your living room, have fun snacks and watch a movie, or make a little spa evening at home together—it will be just as relationally satisfying as something more interesting out in the world.
Give yourself a break this year. Valentine’s Day does not have to be this huge albatross of an experience that we sometimes make it out to be. Take the time to tell your partner how much you love and care about them. Make some time to spend together if at all possible. You don’t have to spend a lot of money or do something extra exciting to make your Valentine’s Day memorable, fun, and relationally beneficial.