Science explains love just in time for Valentine’s Day

Ah yes, Valentine’s Day: a precious little holiday where young couples try their hardest to prove that their relationship is special. It’s not really surprising that so many people are invested in the idea of Valentine’s Day as a sacred time of love. After all, billionaire corporations like Hershey, Hallmark Cards, Victoria’s Secret and Tiffany & Co. have been promoting this time-honored tradition for decades and making more than $18.2 billion during this one day (National Retail Federation, Valentine’s Day,” 2018). Nothing says “I love you” quite like rampant consumer capitalism. But whether we like it or not, we are a species that is in love with the idea of falling in love. From Hollywood movies to mediocre young adult romance novels, nothing is as widespread as this notion of two strangers becoming infatuated with each other.

And yet, the media seems very uninterested in what happens after the couple officially gets together. That’s a shame, since so much of what makes a relationship interesting is how the couple behaves in this new situation and the quality of their interactions over a long period of time. Just because a romance seems perfect in the beginning doesn’t mean it will stay that way permanently.

According to a longitudinal study by Stanford sociologist Michael Rosenfield, unmarried heterosexual couples have a 60 percent chance of breaking up within just the first year together (Wiley Online Library, “Couple Longevity in the Era of Same-Sex Marriage in the United States,” 09.02.2014). Given how tumultuous dating can be, why do some romantic relationships last only for a month while others last for decades in harmony and bliss? Thankfully, researchers working in the niche field of relationship science may have some answers.

Established as recently as the 1980s, relationship science is a rather interesting branch of psychology that aims to understand the structure of close relationships and how they operate, as well as the effects a certain type of relationship has on other people (Annual Reviews,

The Psychology of Close Relationships: Fourteen Core Principles,” 09.01.2016). According to the experts in this field, countless different factors play into how well a romantic relationship can turn out, and some of them are rather intriguing. In a 2013 study, researchers found that heterosexual couples where the female partner is more attractive than the male partner reported higher levels of satisfaction (The Huffington Post, “Men with Attractive Wives Report Higher Levels of Marital Satisfaction, New Study Finds,” 11.19.2013). “[These results seem to indicate] that partner physical attractiveness played a larger role in predicting husbands’ marital satisfaction than it did in predicting wives’ marital satisfaction,” the study authors concluded.

“Nothing says “I love you” quite like rampant consumer capitalism. But whether we like it or not, we are a species that is in love with the idea of falling in love.”

Surprisingly, the same results were reported in a similar study in 2008 by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (The Huffington Post). The theory seems to be that men may feel more invested in their romantic partner if they believe that they had “lucked out” by marrying such an attractive wife. Unfortunately, the opposite occurred when the husbands believed that they were more attractive than their wives, and thus they were less willing to help their wives. Typical male behavior.

Psychologists also suspect that money has a huge impact on the stability of a relationship. According to a 2009 study by the University of Michigan that involved more than 1000 married and unmarried adults, researchers found that people who are dissatisfied with their spending habits tend to gravitate towards their spending opposite in love. In other words, those who spend money luxuriously may end up in a relationship with someone who budgets carefully, and vice versa (LiveScience, “Tightwads and Spendthrifts Attract, Marry, Fight,” 09.01.2009). However, this study also showed that these relationships often fail: “Even though a spendthrift will have a greater debt when married to another spendthrift than when married to a tightwad, the spendthrift is still less likely to argue about money with the other spendthrift,” stated leading author Rick Scott (LiveScience).

Another interesting observation is that birth order may influence the happiness level of a relationship. According to psychologist Linda Blair, one of the happiest pairings is between a first-born child and a last-born child. The explanation? She believes that the success of these relationships come from how the relationship consists of one person who is used to taking care of others and one person who enjoys being taken care of (Inc., “Want a Fulfilling Relationship? Science Says the Happiest Couples Have These 13 Characteristics,” 12.31.2017).

And of course, there are countless studies that show that having sex often significantly improves romantic relationships. Probably one of the most famous papers on this topic is the 2004 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which sampled 16,000 Americans and found that for both men and women, “The more sex, the happier the person” (The National Bureau of Economic Research,” 05.2004). But is this conclusion really true? Apparently so, for a 2015 study that surveyed more than 30,000 Americans for 40 years found that couples who have sex once a week are the happiest (EurekAlert!, “Couples Who Have Sex Weekly Are Happiest,” 11.18.2015).

However, the researchers stated that there was a limit to this happiness and that having sex more than once a week didn’t really increase happiness. It’s also important to point out that a 2012 study by Cornell University found a positive link between waiting over a month to have sex at the beginning of a relationship and long-term satisfaction (The Huffington Post, “This is the Happiest Relationship Ever, According to Science,” 01.23.2014).

Regardless of what all these theories say, however, it doesn’t change the fact that all relationships are different and none of them can exactly be boiled down to a formula. However, there does seem to be one characteristic that seems to be present in almost all happy relationships. This characteristic is called self-expansion, and it is the idea that the perfect romantic partner is not someone who makes you comfortable but someone who makes you a better person.

“Given how tumultuous dating can be, why do some romantic relationships last only for a month while others last for decades in harmony and bliss?”

According to a 2017 study, researchers discovered that the strongest and most fulfilling relationship was between two people who felt like their ideal selves in their relationship rather than their actual selves. “[The results of our studies] contradict the popular sentiment that relational authenticity lies in “being yourself” in the relationship,” the study authors noted (Sage Journals, “Being Your Actual or Ideal Self? What It Means to Feel Authentic in a Relationship,” 02.13.2017). So, what makes a romantic relationship “perfect”? Despite the various outside forces that seem to be in play, it’s more likely that a couple’s happiness depends on how they help each other reach their full potential in both their ambitions and their personal life. Perhaps it’s this partnership in continual self-improvement that makes a relationship between two people truly special.

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