Whether you're single or partnered up this Valentine's Day, psychology has all sorts of tips for you on how to find your next great love or improve your existing relationship with the one you've got.

Finding A Partner...

We like to think that we intentionally seek out the best, most optimal friends and romantic partners possible...but often times, in reality, we choose the best matches available to us in our (very) local environments. In fact, propinquity -- AKA literal physical proximity -- is the biggest predictor of whether people will become (and remain) friends or romantic partners. I mean, hey -- I'm certainly familiar with this, having married my grad school labmate and all.

Cherished notions about romantic love notwithstanding, the chances are about 50-50 that the 'one and only' lives within walking distance. -- Eckland, 1968

One famous study, colloquially known in psychology circles as the Westgate West Study, studied the residents living in a married student housing project known as Westgate West at MIT in the 1940s. Researchers went into these 17 ten-unit apartment buildings isolated from all of the other residential areas on campus and asked the students to name their closest friends -- not their closest friends in the dorm, but their closest friends overall in life. As it turned out, however, the researchers probably could have asked the question either way and gotten fairly similar answers. On average, 2/3 of each student's listed friends lived in their exact same building, even though each student's "building-mates" represented only 5% of all Westgate West residents. Furthermore, 41% of the students living in adjacent apartments listed each other as friends, compared with only 10% of those who lived at opposite ends of the hallway -- and the residents of the two apartments that were the closest to the stairs (meaning their upstairs neighbors would have to walk past their apartments every single time they entered or left the building) formed twice as many friendships with those upstairs neighbors as the residents who lived in the middle-of-the-hall apartments.

Despite the fact that a person can pick and choose from a vast number of people to make friends with, such things as the placement of a stoop or the direction of a street often have more to do with determining who is friends with whom. -- William Whyte, The Organization Man

Why is proximity so important for establishing relationships? First of all, it matters that being physically close to others simply makes it more likely that you will come into regular contact with them. If you don't ever see people, how can you expect to become friends (or romantic partners)?

Second of all, knowing that you'll have to see certain people all the time (like...knowing that you share an office, or live next door to each other) makes you really want to like them. After all, it's much more pleasant to see a friend all the time than it is to see an enemy. This hypothesis was supported in one study where students were given two personality profiles, were told that they would be meeting only one of the students later, and then asked to rate how much they liked both of the profiles. No matter which one of the two students they thought they'd be meeting later, participants "liked" that profile significantly more than they liked the profile for the student they didn't think they would ever meet. If I think I'm going to be seeing you later, I'll really want to like you -- or else it's not going to be a fun experience for anyone.

And finally, according to the mere exposure effect, there’s a simple process at work in our minds and our relationships: The more we see something, the more we like it. This is presumably because seeing something over and over again makes it easier for our mind to process its presence – we get so used to something being around, our brains don’t have to put perceptual effort into making sense of it. Our minds like simplicity: The easier it is to process something, the happier it makes us. So, familiar people make us feel happy. And maybe even make us feel love. This doesn't just apply to love and relationships, either. Stock traders tend to over-invest in domestic securities, even when international markets offer better alternatives – why? Because the domestic companies are more familiar, so they just ‘feel’ better. Politicians with more public exposure get more votes, regardless of how popular (or unpopular) their policies are. And when non-Chinese-speaking people saw pictures of certain Chinese characters more often than others, they reported ‘liking’ the frequent characters more – even though they had no idea what the symbols meant.

The more we see someone or something, the more probable it is that we will end up strongly liking it – regardless of initial feelings. You may be fairly neutral towards your co-worker, classmate, or colleague now, but if you have to see them every day, you may be looking at your future best friend...or (gulp) spouse.

...And (Happily) Keeping A Partner

Once you're in a relationship, it's generally a good idea to make sure it stays happy. For married people, marital happiness is the strongest predictor of overall "life happiness," and it seems like this link between "a happy marriage" and "a happy life" is only getting stronger. (I would say something cutesy here about the "Happy Wife, Happy Life" maxim being true, but the link between marital happiness and life happiness is there for men as well...so really, it's more like "Happy Couple, Happy Life," which simply doesn't have quite the same sing-songy ring to it).

Given that it's sadly normal for marital quality to decline over time, Valentine's Day seems like as good of a time as any to put some work into our relationships to ensure that they stay happy. With that in mind, here are some research-tested "hacks" for improving relationship quality, all described & recommended in a recent paper by Eli Finkel and colleagues, that you can start putting into effect today.

1. The Marriage Hack. In one study of 120 married couples, half of them spent 7 minutes every 4 months writing about a recent conflict and reappraising it from the perspective of a neutral third party who "wants the best for everybody." Couples who engaged in this re-appraisal exercise of re-thinking their recent fights from this neutral point of view sustained their marriage quality over time, whereas the couples who didn't engage in this re-appraisal process fell victim to the typical downward trend in marital quality that most couples experience over years of marriage.

2. The Relationship Excitement Hack. Couples who were presented with ideas for "exciting activities" and encouraged to participate in these activities together for 90 minutes/week over a four week period reported more excitement about their own romantic relationships, more happiness, higher levels of relationship satisfaction, and even reported a sustained higher levels of relationship well-being four months later. So get up off your bums and go for a "couple's run," or explore a new city with your partner!

3. The Relationship Awareness Hack. Every week for four weeks, one group of couples watched a "relationship focused movie" together and then participated in a discussion where they were guided to think about their current behavior in their relationships, decide if their behavior was constructive or destructive, and become more aware of how they could identify those helpful and harmful behaviors in everyday life. Over the next three years, although almost 25% of the couples in the control group broke up, only 11% of these "intervention group" relationships dissolved.

4. Couple Time! Do these hacks seem like too much work? Well...hopefully they don't, as they're specifically designed to take a very minimal amount of time. But there could be an even simpler solution. Just spending more "couple time" together (defined as time alone with your partner, either talking or sharing an activity together) at least once a week is linked to higher levels of marital happiness, mostly because couples who spend more time together report higher levels of "need satisfaction" from their partners (namely, the needs for communication...and sex). This probably seems a bit obvious, but sometimes it helps to have a reminder anyway. Spend more quality "alone time" with your partner, and your relationship will be stronger for it.

So, go forth and celebrate your V-Day with some psychological spirit! If you're single and looking to change that, look around you -- your next relationship might (literally) be closer than you realize. If you're already committed, try doing something new & exciting with your partner today, or just spend some quality "alone time" together. And hopefully, you won't be spending your Valentine's Day in a fight -- but if you do, try re-appraising it from a "neutral" point of view or re-evaluating your behavior to become more aware of whether you're acting in a "constructive" or "destructive" way. Share in your partner's successes & excitements, react to positive occurrences in your partner's life with enthusiasm, ask follow-up questions, and avoid criticizing or ignoring your partner when he/she is trying to share something with you.

Also, eat chocolate. I don't actually have a formal citation prepared for that tip, but chocolate is delicious. (Tannenbaum, 2015).


The Power of Propinquity

Darley, J. M., & Berscheid, E. (1967). Increased liking as a result of the anticipation of personal contact. Human Relations, 20, 29-40.

Festinger, L., Schachter, S., & Back, K. (1950). The Spatial Ecology of Group Formation. In L. Festinger, S. Schachter, & K. Back (eds.), Social Pressure in Informal Groups.

Zajonc, R. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 1-27

The "Marriage Hack"

Finkel, E. J. (2013, May). The marriage hack. Presentation given at TEDxUChicago.

Finkel, E. J., Slotter, E. B., Luchies, L. B., Walton, G. M., & Gross, J. J. (2013). A brief intervention to promote conflict-reappraisal preserves marital quality over time. Psychological Science, 24, 1595–1601.

Promoting Relationship Excitement

Aron, A., Norman, C. C., Aron, E. N., McKenna, C., & Heyman, R. (2000). Couple’s shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 273–283.

Reissman, C., Aron, A., & Bergen, M. R. (1993). Shared activities and marital satisfaction: Causal direction and self-expansion versus boredom. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 10, 243–254.

Tsapelas, I., Aron, A., & Orbuch, T. (2009). Marital boredom now predicts less satisfaction 9 years later. Psychological Science, 20, 543–545.

Promoting Relationship Awareness

Rogge, R. D., Cobb, R. J., Lawrence, E., Johnson, M. D., & Bradbury, T. N. (2013). Is skills training necessary for the primary prevention of marital distress and dissolution? A 3-year experimental study of three interventions. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 81, 949–961.

Other Sources:

Finkel, E.J., Hui, C.M., Carswell, K.L., & Larson, G.M. (2014). The suffocation of marriage: Climbing Mount Maslow without enough oxygen. Psychological Inquiry, 25, 1-41.

Headey, B., Veenhoven, R., & Wearing, A. (1991). Top-down versus bottom-up theories of subjective well-being. Social Indicators Research, 24, 81–100.

Proulx, C. M., Helms, H. M., & Buehler, C. (2007). Marital quality and personal well-being: A meta-analysis. Journal of Marriage and Family, 69, 576–593.

Wilcox, W. B., & Dew, J. (2012). The date night opportunity: What does couple time tell us about the potential value of date nights? Charlottesville, VA: The National Marriage Project.


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