If there is a nadir of female existence in the U.S., it would have to be February 15, the day after Valentine’s Day. This is the day when single women who want a partner process their disappointment that they do not have one. It is a day when dating and married women evaluate the expressions of love they have received from their significant other, and often find them to fall short of their expectations. Many women agonize as to how their Valentine’s Day gesture to their special man was received, especially if there was a sexual component. Parents are often disappointed when their children ask for Valentine’s gifts, focusing on getting rather than giving. They feel like bad parents for raising self-centered kids. Certainly no person or institution plotted and planned it, but somehow a simple cards-and-chocolate day has morphed into a crucible for those in dating relationships; a litmus test of how caring someone is as a spouse, and a judgment on the personal worth and physical attractiveness of those who would like to find partners.
This whole dysfunctional phenomenon could have been questioned and challenged all along the way since the 1800’s, when Valentine’s day first began to be commercially promoted. The history of Valentine’s Day, of course, originates with St. Valentine, and weaves through the intervening centuries to include, most notably, the Victorian era, when handmade and mass-printed cards were exchanged. Because commercialization knows no bounds in our country, everything that is commodified will grow to its economically sustainable limit. What also happens in our free-market culture is that people tend to value things that cost money over things that don’t, and costly items over cheaper ones. As a result, as people have been able to afford to spend more on Valentine’s Day, everyone’s expectations of themselves and others have increased. People also want to avoid looking poor or stingy. Further, because our country has become more materially blessed and intimacy-starved, every scheduled opportunity to demonstrate love, or to have love demonstrated to us, has become heavy with meaning.
The following are a few of my questions relative to Valentine’s Day:
Since when did dating couples evaluate their suitability for a lifetime together based on one all-important day?
Since when did spouses only have the opportunity to express their love and appreciation to each other on only a few key days each year, such as Valentine’s Day and their anniversary?
Why do competent, attractive adults allow their self-esteem to plummet, in some cases for weeks, in the aftermath of a particular day of the year?
Don’t most parents already know that children can be selfish? Have their memories of the holidays been forgotten in six short weeks?
What can people do to feel better about Valentine’s Day, and restore it to its appropriate role as a fun excuse to tell people we care about them
The answer to all of these questions lies in the conscious development and daily maintenance of what I call “heart intimacy”. Whereas physical intimacy refers to human connection on a deep physical level, heart intimacy refers to deep hear-to-heart connection between people. Living in a very busy and very mobile culture creates a threat to heart intimacy. But a few key habits can strengthen and enlarge one’s capacity for heart intimacy, and improve one’s relationships all year round.
First, maintain relationships old and new on a daily basis. This may require less “chill time” spent on entertainment. But most people’s friends and family are more interesting than television and the Internet anyway. Certainly, shy people or very busy people face a challenge when they make the effort to maintain old and new relationships. Making small steps on a daily basis can ease the stress associated with initiating a connection with someone else. Simple efforts, such as spending ten uninterrupted minutes conversing with each of your family members each day, can provide a strong foundation of heart intimacy in your home. Contacting a friend who sent a holiday email, and enjoying some more in-depth conversation about each other’s year, can provide a sense of connection in a disconnected world. One exception here: no one should feel obligated to connect with anyone who routinely makes them feel guilty, angry, or depressed. It is healthy to stay in charge of whom to spend more time with, and whom to spend less time with.
Talk to the people you care about, and be a good listener too. Tell people what is happening in your life, and try to maintain close communication with at least one person who knows your failures, disappointments, and weaknesses. Learn how to listen to friends and family. Ask prompting questions, and listen to the whole answer. Empathize when possible, without attempting to solve the other person’s problem or dilemma. People think this kind of listener is very wise and caring, and they want to stay connected with someone who listens well. I once overheard two men talking as they walked down my street at lunchtime. The first man said, “My daughter’s soccer coach won’t play her”. The other man listened, then responded “Sucks, man.” This was good active listening, followed by the most pithy empathic statement I have ever heard. The first man nodded his head as he allowed his friend’s comfort to work in his heart. Maintaining relationships all year round, and being a good talker and listener, can go a long way towards protecting one’s self-esteem from the post-Valentine’s blues.
A few words for couples are in order here. It is very wise to practice what couples’ therapists call “turning towards”. This is simply a matter of noticing when you have a choice to turn away from your partner or towards your partner, and usually turning towards the other. So if there is a choice of eating right now or waiting thirty minutes to eat together, the healthy choice is to try to eat together. Similarly, if there is a particular piece of good news to share, or a difficult dilemma to be resolved, one’s partner should be the first to hear about it. Couples who turn towards each other on a regular basis, not just on Valentine’s Day and their anniversary, have a sense that they work as a team. Finally, couples should strive to have much more positive interactions than negative ones. Always to be avoided are such no-no’s as personal criticism, such as “You’re so lazy”; or cynical comments, such as “Sure, I’d love to take your mother shopping on Saturday morning, instead of sleeping in.” Dr. John Gottman and his co-writers have conducted extensive couples research, and have written several very useful books covering healthy heart intimacy for couples.
Parents are famously self-critical these days, and no more so than in the area of raising children who will grow up to be loving, kind and thoughtful adults. While their children make faltering steps toward this goal, it is important to remember that empathy is learned over the whole growing-up process, as children grow to feel empathy at deeper levels corresponding to their mental and emotional development, and their experiences of encountering people in need. It is important for parents to model and teach thoughtfulness with an emphasis on what positive things a child can do to reach out to others, rather than chastising a child for being selfish. Holidays such as Valentine’s Day are useful teaching times for parents, but caring can be taught any time the parent sees an opportune moment. There is little need to fear that a child will grow up to be callous, uncaring and self-centered, as long as the child receives appropriate care growing up, sees love modeled, and is helped and encouraged to extend kindness to others.
Doubtless, Valentine’s Day can be really trying for people who are in difficult relationships, are lonely, or who just feel repulsed by the commercialism of the day. It can truly feel like the nadir of existence, especially for women who feel that they don’t have enough control over what happens in their relationships on this holiday. It is reasonable that some people would want to see Valentine’s Day in its current form be banned, boycotted or abstained from. But I have hope that this “Hallmark holiday on steroids” can be restored to its simple role as a day to show love to those we care about, and to enjoy a little chocolate.