Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


(PHOTO: OLARU RADIAN-ALEXANDRU/SHUTTERSTOCK)

(PHOTO: OLARU RADIAN-ALEXANDRU/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Who’s Happier on Valentine’s Day? The Single or the Hitched?

• February 14, 2013 • 9:29 AM

(PHOTO: OLARU RADIAN-ALEXANDRU/SHUTTERSTOCK)

How we feel about romance has everything to do with the relationship we’re currently in (or not in).

It’s Valentine’s Day, which means you’re either nibbling on a chocolate truffle—nothing says “I love you” and “I forgot to make us dinner reservations” like a Godiva gift box—or spooning Ben and Jerry’s straight from the carton. And chances are, you wouldn’t have it any other way.

Coupled? You wish your friends would hurry up and find Mr. Right, already. (After all, they’re not getting any younger.) Single? You don’t see a diamond ring—you see an iron ball and chain.

“We often become evangelists for our own lifestyles,” writes a trio of psychologists in a forthcoming Psychological Science report on the phenomenon. In other words, being single (or coupled) is obviously the best way to be … right up until we get hitched (or split), at which point the calculus of love suddenly inverts itself.

Emotionally, we reinforce our decision to tie the knot (or file for divorce) by searching for external validation, or “normative idealization.” The psychologists observe that, not long after the rice is thrown, married couples often cut ties with their single friends—after all, who wants a fifth wheel at the party? Likewise, the unbetrothed lament the loss of their once-wild-and-crazy sorority sister, now locked up in her suburban prison.

The authors hypothesize that this impulse arises from the need to rationalize the sacrifices—Christmas at the in-laws vs. ramen thrice-weekly—that come with any relationship, or lack thereof. As a result, they argue, this scramble for relational self-assurance is most pronounced when an individual believes that her status is not likely to change—that she’s fortunate/doomed to be married/single for the rest of her life. “The knowledge that others live their lives differently than oneself can threaten the rationality of one’s own life choices,” lead author Kristin Laurin writes.

In one experiment, the psychologists “capitalized on a social phenomenon—Valentine’s Day—that creates a special divide between single and coupled individuals.” (Hallmark couldn’t have put it any better.) In exchange for a snack—presumably Sweethearts—113 undergrads first answered a few questions about their current romantic status (roughly half were single) and how stable it felt. They then read a description of a hypothetical classmate, “Nick,” who was sometimes described as single, and sometimes coupled. To prime their emotional selves, participants wrote a short description of how they imagined “Nick” would spend his Valentine’s evening, before rating his happiness, fulfillment, and desire to be single (if he was said to be coupled) or coupled (if single).

The psychologists found that the more stable a participant’s relationship was, the more likely he was to look with favor upon a classmate in the same situation—and to pity someone in the opposite state.

Imagine that Hubert the Undergrad is single and believes he’ll stay that way for a while, maybe forever; when he envisions “Nick” spending Valentine’s evening watching ESPN on the big-screen plasma, he thinks, “What a great deal.” But when lonely Hubert is caught up in a crush, working up the nerve to ask that O-Chem cutie out on a date, he reads about “Nick” and thinks, “Poor bastard.”

Come to think of it, “Poor bastard” might make a best-selling Hallmark card, for stags and newlyweds alike. If the trick to love is simply telling yourself that you don’t want what you can’t have, well, what more is there to say?

Kevin Charles Redmon
Kevin Charles Redmon is a journalist and critic. He lives in Washington, D.C.

More From Kevin Charles Redmon

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 23 • 8:00 AM

Medicare: Your New Long-Term Care Provider

A 2013 court ruling has paved the way for an incredible, costly expansion of home health care by removing a critical lever the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services had to control who receives services, and for how long.


September 23 • 6:22 AM

On the Hunt for Fake Facebook Likes

A new study finds ways to uncover Facebook Like farms.


September 23 • 6:00 AM

The Heist: How Visitors Stole a National Monument

Fossil Cycad National Monument was home to one of the world’s greatest collections of fossilized cycadeoids—until visitors carried them all away.


September 23 • 4:00 AM

Fifty Shades of Meh

New research refutes the notion that reading the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy strongly impacts women’s sexual behavior.


September 23 • 2:00 AM

The Portlandia Paradox

Oregon’s largest city is full of overeducated and underemployed young people.


September 22 • 4:00 PM

The Overly Harsh and Out-of-Date Law That’s So Difficult on Debtors

A 1968 federal law allows collectors to take 25 percent of debtors’ wages, or every penny in their bank accounts.


September 22 • 2:00 PM

NFL Players Are More Law Abiding Than Average Men

According to records kept by USA Today, 2.53 percent of players are arrested in any given year.


September 22 • 12:00 PM

Freaking Out About Outliers: When the Polls Are Way Off

The idea of such a small number of people being used to predict how millions will vote sometimes irks observers, but it’s actually a very reliable process—most of the time.


September 22 • 10:00 AM

The Imagined Sex Worker

The stigma against black sex workers can reinforce stigmas against all black women and all sex workers.


September 22 • 9:54 AM

All-Girls Schools Don’t Make Girls More Competitive

Parents, not educational setting, may be the key.


September 22 • 8:00 AM

The NFL, the Military, and the Problem With Masculine Institutions

Both the NFL and the U.S. military cultivate and reward a form of hyper-violent masculinity. The consequences of doing so have never been more obvious.


September 22 • 6:00 AM

Zombies in the Quad: The Trouble With Elite Education

William Deresiewicz’s new book, Excellent Sheep, is in part, he says, a letter to his younger, more privileged self.


September 22 • 4:02 AM

You’re Going to Die! So Buy Now!

New research finds inserting reminders of our mortality into advertisements is a surprisingly effective strategy to sell products.



September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



Follow us


On the Hunt for Fake Facebook Likes

A new study finds ways to uncover Facebook Like farms.

All-Girls Schools Don’t Make Girls More Competitive

Parents, not educational setting, may be the key.

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

The Big One

One in three tourists to Jamaica reports getting harassed; half of them are hassled to buy drugs. September/October 2014 new-big-one-4

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.