Should You Be My Valentine? Research Helps Identify Good And Bad Romantic Relationships
*This article also appeared on The Conversation, IFLScience, BusinessInsider, Time and Newsweek.
“Will you be my Valentine?”
People all across the country say those words in the run-up to February 14 and the Valentine’s Day holiday. Whether you’re asking a brand new paramour or a long-term partner, the question can evoke feelings both of romantic uncertainty and possibility.
But for the well-being of ourselves and our relationships, “Will you be my Valentine?” is the wrong question. Instead, the more important question to ask yourself is “Should you be my Valentine?”
Relationships can be one of the most important sources of happiness in your life, with social connections serving as a key provider of happiness and meaningfulness. Not surprisingly, human beings have a very powerful drive to form and maintain relationships. After all, the future of humankind depends on people coupling up to conceive and raise the next generation. Because forming relationships is such a powerful motivator, being in any relationship can seem better than being alone. A variety of factors can lull us into relationship complacency – compatibility, friendship, shared interests, inertia, fear of being single or low expectations. The drive to be paired off may lead you to settle for the relationship you have, instead of the relationship you deserve.
Figuring out whether your relationship is thriving or merely surviving is daunting. In the hunt for “the one,” how can you know for sure if your partner is the type of person who’s best for you and your long-term happiness? Thankfully, scientists who study relationships know a lot about factors to consider when weighing whether your partner should be your Valentine, this year and beyond.
The problem of greener grass
No one wants to settle. We all want to be with the best possible partner. In your relationship, how often do you find yourself wondering if you could do better? Are there preferable partners out there whom you’d find more interesting, enjoyable, smarter or funnier? Does your current partner pale in comparison with what else might be out there?
Researchers call these perceptions of other possible partners your quality of alternatives. Psychologists measure your perceived quality of alternatives by assessing responses to statements such as “If I weren’t dating my partner, I would do fine – I would find another appealing person to date.”
Agreeing with this kind of statement and believing you have high-quality alternatives may sound desirable because you have confidence in yourself and your ability to attract a good partner. However, thinking about and monitoring other partner options can undermine your present relationship’s stability. This type of decreased commitment to whom you’re currently with increases negative behaviors like cheating.
Ultimately, you should be in a relationship where you don’t even notice any other greener grass because you’re with someone whom you think is the best for you, and who thinks you’re the best for him or her.
Building a better you
Relationships provide a lot of benefits. Someone to share your Netflix account with, to talk with about your day, to take care of you when you’re not feeling well. Our social relationships positively affect our physical health, including buffering against high blood pressure and heart disease, and improving mental health by decreasing depression, anxiety and substance abuse. It all adds up to building a healthy, meaningful life together with someone.
A good relationship also provides a partner who helps you become a better person. Researchers refer to this experience as self-expansion. It’s your relationship’s ability to provide you with opportunities for self-growth. Whether you learn new photography skills, develop a new perspective on politics, gain a new identity such as “organic gardener” or simply feel like a better, more capable person, self-expansion has benefits.
Relationships that include more self-expansion are more satisfying, more committed, have higher levels of passionate love, experience less boredom, and have partners who are less likely to pay attention to other potential partners and less likely to cheat. (If you’re wondering how much of this valuable quality you have in your relationship, check out the self-expansion quiz.) Given the potential consequences of being stuck in a rut, less passionate love and more cheating, if your partner is not helping build a better you, it is time for a better partner.
Check with your peeps
Who is the best judge of your relationship’s future? You, or your friends and family?
To investigate, researchers asked people in romantic relationships to predict their relationship’s future and compared their predictions to those made by their roommate and mom. The daters thought their own relationship would last two to three times longer than what their friends and family anticipated. And people rated their own relationships as significantly better than how others saw them from the outside.
Parents, perhaps because their own longer relationship experiences gave them insight into what to look for, were most likely to identify problems. Friends made the most accurate predictions, but it was the person in the relationship who was most confident in the assessment they made about their own relationship.
Consider that for a second – it’s not a good combination. When thinking about our own relationship, this research suggests that we are highly confident in our predictions, which are often inaccurate.
Give your friends and family some credit, because this research shows that they have unique insights into your relationship. After all, they’re looking out for your best interests and have a greater ability to see the relationship clearly and objectively without getting swayed by the heady mix of feelings and attraction you likely have for your partner. When in doubt, ask the people in your life who care about you whether your partner really should be your Valentine.
Knowing whether you are with the best possible partner for you is difficult. While many of us get driver’s education and sex education in high school, we don’t get “relationships ed.”
But learning what science has to say about what makes for a good relationship can help. Being informed ultimately helps us make better decisions about whether to stay or go. After all, not being part of a sappy couple during the chocolates-and-flowers Valentine’s hoopla is hardly the end of the world – especially if it means you’re ready to find the relationship you should have, according to science.