Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

February 13, 2022

Cornell Psychology Profs Weigh In On What Makes or Breaks a Relationship as Valentine’s Day Approaches

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As Valentine’s Day approaches, knowing the ins and outs of how relationships work can benefit students immensely. Many hope to form a genuine connection with someone else and fall in love, but love is not the only thing that creates a perfect match. Prof. Robert Sternberg, psychology, and Prof. Alexander G. Ophir, psychology, gave professional insight on what makes a relationship last.

Sternberg discussed the stages of a relationship, which go as follows: attraction, values, lull and compatible stories.

While attraction mainly involves physical appearance, the latter three components determine whether two people make a suitable match. In the value stage, couples learn if their morals and values are compatible with one another. 

“So in the second stage, if your values don’t match, even if you’re physically attracted, often the relationship falls apart,” Sternberg said. 

This compatibility is further tested during the lull stage, when the couple determines whether they can agree on the roles that each of them should have in the relationship. Different models include sharing equal roles or allowing one person to take the lead. 

Finally, the couple determines whether they have compatible stories: Do they share similar ideas on what their future should look like?

“If your stories don’t mesh, even though the other stuff works, the relationship begins to feel wrong,” Sternberg said. “You begin to realize that maybe at some subconscious level, your ideas about love are different.”

According to Sternberg, one criterion for determining compatibility is the “triangle of love,” which consists of intimacy, passion and commitment. 

According to Sternberg, couples should ensure that their “triangles” are similar to each other as they enter the later stages of a relationship. In the long run, it’s crucial for couples to be on the same page for the relationship to work. 

“What you want psychologically in a relationship is to be with someone where your stories match and your desired levels of intimacy, passion and commitment match too,” Sternberg said. 

When reaching these desired levels, the brain responds with neurotransmitters and neuromodulators such as oxytocin, dopamine and vasopressin, according to Ophir. These chemicals are released when a couple spends more time together, creating bonds between them. 

“Of course, dopamine and these other neurotransmitters and neuromodulators have many functions,” Ophir said, “but when they work together in certain parts of the brain, they can help coordinate the establishment of these emotions that are related to love in humans.” 

Ophir also spoke about the behaviors that are often associated with human attachment. 

“So one thing is to be next to somebody and spend time with them, holding hands and other kinds of forms of physical contact,” Ophir said. “And when you’re not with them, you’ll likely miss them, pine over them, think about them and do things like that.”

However, attachment isn’t always enough to keep a relationship together. Sternberg explained how situations that cause stress can often put relationships at risk for falling apart.

“When there are situational stressors, your patience, emotions, stability and confidence in the future go down, and the drop negatively impacts relationships, as well as work and almost anything else,” Sternberg said.

For example, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including losing loved ones and experiencing major changes in school or work situations, have brought on stressors to many relationships, especially since many didn’t anticipate this pandemic lasting as long as it has. 

Overall, while “love at first sight” is romantic, it may not be realistic. Love and attraction are important, but compatibility and resilience are the glue that holds a relationship together. If you work up the courage to ask another Cornellian out this Valentine’s Day, that will be a great chance to see if you’ll possibly match.