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Dealing with love, romance and rejection on Valentine’s Day

Dealing with love, romance and rejection on Valentine’s Day
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Take care lovers, wherever you are, as Valentine’s Day is soon upon us. Whether you’re in a relationship or want to be in a relationship, research over a number of years shows that February 14 can be a day of broken hearts and broken wallets.

study by US psychologists in 2004 found that relationship breakups were 27% to 40% higher around Valentine’s Day than at other times of the year. Fortunately, this bleak trend was only found amongst couples on a downward trajectory who weren’t the happiest to begin with.

For stable or improving couples, Valentine’s Day thankfully didn’t serve as a catalyst for breakup. (That said, science has more to say on the predictions of any breakup in a relationship.)

But it’s hard to avoid the pressure of Valentine’s Day. This time of year, television, radio, printed publications and the internet are littered with advertisements reminding people of the upcoming celebration: Buy a gift! Make a reservation! Don’t forget the flowers! And by all means be romantic!.

Think you’re safe and single? Not so fast – ads urging those not in romantic relationships to seek one out (namely, via fee-based dating websites) are rife this time of year.

The origins of Valentine’s Day go back many centuries and it is a time of dubious repute. Originally it was a day set aside to celebrate Christian saints named Valentine (there were many). The association with romantic love was only picked up in the UK during the Middle Ages. Thank you, Chaucer and Shakespeare.

Mass-produced paper Valentines appeared on the scene in the 1800s, and it seems that the commercialisation of the day has increased ever since. Now, many refer to Valentine’s Day as a “Hallmark Holiday” – a reference to the popular producer of many Valentine’s cards.

No matter the history, or whether you are a conscientious objector to the commercialisation of love, it is difficult not to get swept up in the sentiment.

Despite the research (mentioned earlier) that Valentine’s Day can be calamitous for some, other research speaks to how to make this day a positive and beneficial one for you and your loved ones.

My funny Valentine

For those not in a romantic relationship, it’s hard to avoid the normative message that you are meant to be in one. But is it worth risking social rejection by asking someone for a date on Valentine’s Day?

Unfortunately, science can’t answer that one. What we do know is that social rejection hurts –- literally – according to Professor Naomi Eisenberger, a social psychologist and director of the Social and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at UCLA. She found that being socially rejected results in activation in the same brain areas that are active during physical pain.

Even though we may treat physical pain more seriously and regard it as the more valid ailment, the pain of social loss can be equally as distressing, as demonstrated by the activation of pain-related neural circuitry upon social disconnection.

A low dose of over-the-counter pain-killer can buffer against the sting of rejection. And, as silly as it seems, holding a teddy bear after the fact can provide relief.

Written by Lisa A Williams

Dr Lisa A Williams is a social psychologist. Her research interests include the dynamics between emotional experience and social interaction. Specifically, her research considers positive emotions that arise in the context of social interactions - namely pride, gratitude, compassion, and admiration. She is currently a Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology and Associate Dean Equity Diversity and Inclusion in the Faculty of Science, University of New South Wales. Her research is funded by the Australian Research Council as well as the Australian Red Cross Blood Service.

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