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?