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6 Ways That Love Requires Courage

... and how being alone does, too.

Courage is recognized by philosophers from numerous traditions as one of our six core virtues* (Dahlsgaard, Peterson, & Seligman, 2005). It reflects persistence, bravery, and honesty. But how does it help people navigate love and relationships?

If you’re seeking to find and keep a healthy relationship, the following scenarios can all benefit from a little bit of courage:

  1. Starting a conversation. We tend to avoid talking to strangers in public places, such as when we’re commuting, but for no good reason. Evidence shows that this reluctance that most people feel about chatting with strangers gives way to greater happiness if they start conversations (Epley & Schroeder, 2014). While breaking the norm of solitude takes courage, the outcome is generally quite positive. These conversations may not lead to love—or even have that goal—but practicing conversational courage can make it easier to break the silence in a romantic context. So be bold and say, "Hello!" You'll probably be glad you did.

  2. Making a move. Asking someone out isn’t easy. As research suggests (Kunkel, Wilson, Olufowote, & Robson, 2003), people aren’t sure of others’ interest or attraction to them; they fear rejection or an awkward situation; and they worry about the social consequences of rejection if they share social or professional circles. Such concerns underscore the role of courage at the start of relationship formation.

  3. Saying “I love you,” first. Confessing your feelings is an important milestone in a relationship if you wish it to proceed to a deeper, more committed partnership. But who will be the brave one to speak up? Despite romantic notions of women as more sentimental, men tend to be the ones who fall in love sooner—and say “I love you” first (Harrison & Shortall, 2011). Perhaps this reflects the idea that women take a pragmatic approach to love, but it may also reflect how men are socialized to initiate in relationships. In either case, expressing genuine feelings of love can be risky and requires courage.

  4. Getting out. It seems logical: If you’re unhappy and the relationship is not satisfying, you end it. But what is clear and transparent in theory, often becomes messy in practice. Terminating an unfulfilling relationship is no minor feat, and some are able to find the courage to do it more easily than others. Recent evidence shows that people high in attachment anxiety (i.e., those who question their ability to be loved) are more likely to be committed to and stay in relationships that don’t meet their needs than those who have less attachment anxiety (Slotter & Finkel, 2009).

  5. Being single and happy. In a culture that emphasizes pairs and partnerships, it can take courage to celebrate your singlehood, be it temporary or permanent. This courage is often overshadowed by a fear of being single, which has potentially costly implications. For example, Spielmann and colleagues (2013) showed that people with a higher fear of being single were more inclined to settle for less desirable partners (those who weren’t as responsive or kind), while people who weren’t afraid of being alone were not attracted to those prospects.

  6. Taking a leap. Making a commitment requires courage: The future is uncertain, after all, and who knows what lies ahead? People often have uncertainties or concerns about communicating their desire to intensify a relationship (Kunkel et al., 2003). What if such a request terminates the relationship—you propose and your partner says no—or reveals that you’re not in the same place? Courage in this domain is taking action based on the belief that solidifying a relationship has benefits that outweigh the fear of a disappointing outcome.

In sum, courage is an often overlooked behavioral trait that has great importance at key moments in relationship formation. In a typical trajectory, courage is required for initiation, maintenance, and (if necessary) relationship termination. It's a virtue with much to offer on your road to relationship success.

* The other virtues are transcendence, justice, humanity, temperance, and wisdom.

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Dahlsgaard, K., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (2005). Shared Virtue: The Convergence of Valued Human Strengths Across Culture and History. Review of General Psychology, 9(3), 203-2013.

Epley, N., & Schroeder, J. (2014). Mistakenly seeking solitude. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(5), 1980-1999.

Harrison, M. A., & Shortall, J. C. (2011). Women and men in love: Who really feels it and says it first?. The Journal of Social Psychology, 151(6), 727-736.

Kunkel, A. D., Wilson, S. R., Olufowote, J., & Robson, S. (2003). Identity implications of influence goals: Initiating, intensifying, and ending romantic relationships. Western Journal of Communication (includes Communication Reports), 67(4), 382-412.

Slotter, E. B., & Finkel, E. J. (2009). The strange case of sustained dedication to an unfulfilling relationship: Predicting commitment and breakup from attachment anxiety and need fulfillment within relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(1), 85-100.

Spielmann, S. S., MacDonald, G., Maxwell, J. A., Joel, S., Peragine, D., Muise, A., & Impett, E. A. (2013). Settling for less out of fear of being single. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105(6), 1049-1073.

Photo credit: Fe Ilya