By Dr. Benjamin Le
Valentine’s Day typically serves as a time to show appreciation for that special someone in our lives, an opportunity to take a relationship to the next level — a time to celebrate love in all of its forms. But, could Valentine’s Day actually be dangerous for the health of your relationship?
Sure, holidays can be stressful, but at this point 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 study conducted at Arizona State University, higher-than-usual rates of breakups occurred the week before and the week after 14th February, compared to other times of the year. During this two-week period, relationships were over two and half times more likely to end. Of course, we can’t definitively say that Valentine’s Day directly “caused” breakups; however, it certainly seems like something relationship-stressing is happening around this much-anticipated romantic holiday.
The researchers explored two possible reasons that may explain the increase in Valentine’s-adjacent 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 — maybe their gifts weren’t "thoughtful" enough, the dates they planned weren’t "romantic" enough, their underwear wasn’t "sexy" enough, or what have you. Such "failures" might be especially harmful when compared to other people's 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 a partner doesn't meet your expectations, you might start to look for an alternative.
If you're not busy comparing your partner to a largely unrealistic ideal, Valentine’s Day could exacerbate existing issues (known as the“catalyst hypothesis”). Basically, this means V-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. And, struggling relationships may falter under the extra pressure — maybe you’ve been a lousy partner all year, and your poor efforts on Valentine’s Day are simply the last straw. Relationships with problems this major were probably headed for a breakup anyway, and Valentine’s Day just provides the extra push to get them there sooner. This was the case with the ASU study couples: Those who were already experiencing problems were the only ones more likely to break up around Valentine’s Day. Score one for exacerbating existing issues.
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 doing just fine. If it’s been a rough ride recently, you may want to put in a solid effort to make sure this holiday is special. But, most important: If your relationship is already having problems, Valentine's Day isn't going to solve them.