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Monday
Feb042013

Valentine’s Day Cards through the Lens of Science

If you plan on getting someone a gift for Valentine’s Day, chances are that a card is part of the package. Whether the card is the only thing you get your Valentine, or if it accompanies jewelry, roses, or chocolates, you probably will spend some time thinking about the card’s message. 

But what do these cards really say? And more importantly, are they saying things that are scientifically factual? To answer these questions, I went out to the local supermarket to see what I could find. I should note right up front that my “sampling approach” here was not at all scientific; it was haphazard at best. Prior to going to the store I decided that I would get 4 cards (which was about all I could afford…supermarket cards are expensive!). Of the four, I wanted to get two that were for a male recipient and two that were for a female recipient. Also, I wanted to focus on cards with a romantic or serious message (i.e., I avoided the humorous cards, which ended up being a good call because they all seemed to focus almost entirely on sexist jokes). 

In the store, I found a “For Him” section and took the first two cards in that column. However, I did not see a designated “For Her” section (which is sort of interesting in its own right), so I looked one column over from the “For Him” cards and pulled the two cards that were at the top. I should point out that my purpose here isn’t to call out any specific card company for good or bad messages, and I don’t want to run the risk of plagiarism (jail seems like a bad place to spend Valentine’s Day, although it would certainly be “expanding”), so I’m going to keep the card company info to myself and will paraphrase the cards’ content.

Card 1: “To the Man I Love…”

What the Card Says: If you want a short and to the point card, this is the one for you. It sent the basic message that a couple’s love is stronger than their problems and that the sender doesn’t know what to do without the man.

What Science Says: Telling a male partner that love can overcome obstacles may actually be a good idea. Men tend to have more romantic beliefs about relationships than do women.1 For example, men are more likely to believe “love can conquer all,” whereas women tend to be more practical. So assuming your relationship has problems and is worth saving, emphasizing how love can fix the relationship’s problems is a decent idea for a card. The part about being lost without the partner may suggest that the sender is clingy, or what researchers call preoccupied or anxious-ambivalent attachment.2 Generally speaking, this type of attachment does not bode well for long-term, happy, and fulfilling relationships.

Card 2: “The Only Man …”

What the Card Says: This card had a lot to say and focused on the male’s admirable positive qualities. The text paired up less stereotypical male traits (e.g., sensitive, romantic) were balanced with more typical male traits (e.g., serious, practical, fun). For example, it may say something like you are “great to talk to, but also make me feel safe.” The card then talks about how the sender can be their “own person” or “true self” while with the man. 

What Science Says: The idea of the partner allowing the sender to be her/himself fits nicely with self-verification theory, which suggests that we seek out partners who see us the way we see ourselves.3  Because the partner’s views of you agree with your own self-views, being your own person is much easier, which is beneficial to relationship quality.

Card 3: “…to My Wife with Love…”

What the Card Says: “I’m sorry.” This is pretty much this card’s theme. It opens with an apology ‘by’ the sender for not expressing feelings frequently enough and not making it clear how much the sender values the wife, but makes it clear that she is actually truly valued. In other words, the card is saying “I’m an emotional vacuum and have shown you no affection. My bad.” The card then says the sender’s lack of emotional expression isn’t the wife’s fault because she brings a lot of happiness, and that Valentine’s Day is a good time to express this sentiment since the sender doesn’t say so often enough. (And still isn’t, because the card is saying it all.) 

What Science Says: If the card company assumed heterosexual partners, research supports the message that men are less likely to incorporate feelings into their concepts of love and describe love much more simply than women.4 Importantly, receiving an apology does not necessarily increase relationship satisfaction (more on apologies here).5 Rather, the key factor in promoting greater relationship satisfaction is whether the person making the apology takes responsibility. This card does imply that the sender takes responsibility, which is a pretty good message. 

Card 4: “…Wife on Valentine’s Day…”

What the Card Says: Another short phrase, but the main message on the front of the card tells the wife that she should feel beautiful and treasured. The inside emphasizes that she should feel these things because that is how the sender sees her. 

What Science Says: The card’s message is that the woman is physically attractive and treasured; this latter term makes the woman sound a bit like an object. In fact, both male and female college students view sexy women as objects but view sexy men as people.6 (For more on this study, check out this article on The Psychology of Human Sexuality.) Suggesting, even subtly, that your wife is an object, rather than a living, breathing, feeling, person that you love, may not be the best message to send on Valentine’s Day.

As you can see, science can help us better understand some of the underlying messages in our Valentine’s Day cards. When you pick out a card this Valentine’s Day, put some thought into what the card says to your partner and what science says about what message the card sends. But please, whatever card you pick, add some of your own words so that you are sure to get your message across.

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1Sprecher, S., & Metts, S. (1989). Development of the 'Romantic Beliefs Scale' and examination of the effects of gender and gender-role orientation. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 6(4), 387-411. doi:10.1177/0265407589064001

2Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2007). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change. New York, NY US: Guilford Press.

3Swann, W. Jr. (2012). Self-verification theory. In P. M. Van Lange, A. W. Kruglanski, &E. Higgins (Eds.) , Handbook of theories of social psychology (Vol. 2) (pp. 23-42). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Ltd. 

4Barbara, G. (2008). Gender differences in the verbal expression of love schema. Sex Roles, 58(11-12), 814-821. doi:10.1007/s11199-008-9404-8

5Schumann, K. (2012). Does love mean never having to say you’re sorry? Associations between relationship satisfaction, perceived apology sincerity, and forgiveness. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29(7), 997-1010. doi:10.1177/0265407512448277

6Bernard, P., Gervais, S. J., Allen, J., Campomizzi, S., & Klein, O. (2012). Integrating sexual objectification with object versus person recognition: The sexualized-body-inversion hypothesis. Psychological Science, 23, 469-471.

Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the role of the self in romantic relationships with a specific focus on self-expansion. He has authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences and is a member of the Editorial Board for the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

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