Valentine’s Day and the Problem of Undue Weighting

Yesterday evening, my partner related to me how his co-workers had been giving him flak. His crime? Unabashedly proclaiming that he and I aren’t doing anything ‘special’ to mark Valentine’s Day tonight. It is apparently beyond belief that he has not been spending his time making restaurant reservations, shopping for jewelry or plotting to scatter a path of candle-lit rose petals throughout our home. Surely he’s lying about our mutual lack of interest in such shenanigans.

Somehow, it’s more okay for singles to complain loudly about Valentine’s Day and the expectations that go with it than for couples to opt out entirely. I share the belief that there is not and should never be shame in being single, that ‘single’ is not a synonym for ‘alone’. It’s simply that, with my single days behind me, I find the insistence that once one is in a relationship certain dates should be a production or it’s not a ‘real’ to be more personally pressing.

We’re taught at an early age to mark our lives by the calendar – birthdays, Christmas, the first and last days of school. By adulthood, this often includes things like post-secondary graduations, wedding anniversaries and that age where, by popular account, a woman’s fertility falls head first off a cliff overnight. Being in a long-term relationship, settling down and having kids are, rightfully or not, weighted as the marks of achieving maturity and stability. Rather than highly personal and individual choices, they have become checkboxes toward the Platonic ideal of the well-lived life.

Valentine’s Day, being the annual Western ritualization of courtship, plays right into that ideal. It is a lesser reflection of the wedding anniversary that marks the traditional culmination of courtship, and expresses a desire for a long term relationship as much as for romance. By themselves, there’s nothing wrong with either – they’re both rooted in a celebration of the relationship between two people who have chosen to intermingle their lives. These kinds of rituals function as a social affirmation, and on that level can have tremendous interpersonal value.

They become problematic when those dates are given weight at the expense of the relationship, and couples are pressured to fit themselves into a cookie-cutter expression that may or may not reflect who they are, what they’re actually about, or even the genuine state of their lives together

In North America, there is a tremendous pressure to produce and demand jewelry, chocolate, lingerie, elaborate dinners out and similar tokens or preparations. These ephemerals, with all the stress that goes with them, are where couples are encouraged to put their efforts as ‘proof’ of their devotion and affection. I find this to be profoundly, distressingly misleading. No matter what the great marketing engine of capitalism tells you, the date is not the relationship and an elaborate display won’t fix anything if communication has broken down, individual goals have shifted, you’ve become two ships passing in the night, or you’re just plain having reservations about the other person.

Furthermore, not every person or couple values going out, expensive dates, elaborate food or shiny trinkets. Even if they do, there is nothing to be gained by shaming or pitying if for whatever reason it just doesn’t happen; there are plenty of other days in the year.

I speak from the luxury of a strong, longstanding relationship. It cannot be discounted, however, that my relationship with my partner is the way it is because we do not look toward the next big date, but rather focus on the day to day affirmations. The little things we do to appreciate and support one another add up to something far more significant than a few days of excess, stressed anticipation and forced romance ever will.

So, no. We’re not going out, we didn’t buy a bottle of vintage champagne, and there will be neither jewelry nor lingerie. We’re doing something that means much more to us: making a low-key dinner together and spending the evening enjoying one another’s company. There will probably be googly-eyes, mushy words and cameras panning tastefully away. What there won’t be is expectation or pressure. At the end, it won’t be a whole lot different from any other weekday, and that’s what ultimately matters to us both.

I love, respect and admire my partner. Our relationship works in no small part because this is reciprocal. We don’t need a special day of the year to let one another know that; all we need is to live it.