Cornell psychology professors dig into what makes or breaks a relationship as Valentine’s Day approaches

As Valentine’s Day approaches, knowing the ins and outs of how relationships work can be extremely beneficial for students. Many hope to make a real connection with someone else and fall in love, but love isn’t the only thing that creates a perfect match. Professor Robert Sternberg, Psychology, and Professor Alexander G. Ophir, Psychology, provided professional insight into what makes a relationship last.

Sternberg talked about the stages of a relationship, which go like this: attraction, values, lull, and compatible stories.

While attraction primarily involves physical appearance, the last three components determine whether two people make a suitable match. In the value stage, couples learn whether their morals and values ​​are compatible with each other.

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

This compatibility is further tested during the lull phase, when the couple determines if they can agree on the roles 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 if they have compatible histories: do they share similar ideas about what their future should look like?

“If your stories don’t match up, even if the other things are working out, the relationship starts to feel bad,” Sternberg said. “You start to realize that maybe on some subconscious level your ideas about love are different.”

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

According to Sternberg, couples need to make sure their “triangles” are similar to each other as they enter the later stages of a relationship. In the long run, getting the couples on the same page is crucial for the relationship to work.

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

Upon 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, bonding 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 related to love in man.”

Ophir also spoke about behaviors often associated with human attachment.

“So one thing is to be next to someone and hang out with them, hold hands and other forms of physical contact,” Ophir said. “And when you’re not with them, you’ll probably miss them, pine for them, think about them and do things like that.”

However, attachment is not always enough to keep a relationship together. Sternberg explained how situations that cause stress can often put relationships at risk of 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 everything else. “Sternberg said.

For example, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the loss of loved ones and the experience of major changes in school or work situations, have resulted in stressors to many relationships, especially since many had not expected this pandemic to last this long.

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’re brave enough to ask another Cornelian out this Valentine’s Day, it’ll be a great opportunity to see if you might be up to it.

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