Valentine’s Day Blues
Wendy wrote us saying:
Valentine’s Day is coming up and it seems I always end up disappointed and feeling hurt. My husband, Joe, doesn't take the day seriously. I have told him a million times that Valentine’s Day is important to me and that it’s an opportunity to celebrate our relationship. To do something fun and to focus on each other. I look forward to it as a time I can dress up and feel special. But he doesn't understand and I‘m just dreading another Valentine’s Day disappointment. Is it just me?
Try to See It My Way
Hank: I’m sure it’s not just you, Wendy. And I’m sure it’s not just him, either. At the risk of sounding like something from Jurassic park, let me state a position that I think a lot of men may share. I hate Valentine’s Day. I think it is a phony made-up holiday put together by florists and card companies. I feel like I’m being coerced into being romantic. It’s not the being romantic part I dislike; it’s doing it on cue. A cue that’s probably being imposed on me for commercial reasons.
On this occasion I HAVE to buy flowers; I HAVE to buy a card, I HAVE to make reservations at a restaurant. It’s not a real occasion and chances are I am going to forget one of those things and stir up a hornet’s nest. Then I’ll hear all those "You don't love me’s.” I just don’t want to choreograph my love to a calendar made up by Hallmark. Plus I resent paying dues if I slip up.
Yana: OK that makes sense, however, it's different for me. Celebrating our relationship is exciting to me. I could do it almost everyday and when an occasion comes up specifically to do that, I feel happy. There are all those great Valentine’s Day cards. They are so much fun to read and it’s exciting when I find one that says “us” to me. On Valentine’s Day it’s never silly or over the top to be romantic. It’s OK to dress up and be in a whimsical, romantic mood. Valentine’s Day gives me a chance to do all that and it feels wonderful to have a break from our day to day routine, focus on loving each other, and block out everything else.
When I hear you say you feel coerced by the day, I feel sad. Don't you want to have an excuse for doing all those things for me and for us?
Hank: No. I don't need an excuse. I want to be spontaneous, to walk thru a store with you and if we see a sweater or a pair of panties you like I want to buy them for you right then and there. I don't care if Hallmark has told me to wait a month and a half.
I also don't want to do something, like sending a Valentine’s Day card, that feels ingenuine to me, especially if the primary reason I'm sending it is to avoid disappointing you and catching a lot of flak. There’s a thing in Intro Psychology called “aversive control.” It’s when you do something, not to achieve pleasure, but to avoid unpleasantness or pain. I don’t like that kind of motivation.
Yana: Wow. It's so different for me. I don't relate to feeling coerced plus there is this whole thing of anticipation. Spontaneous is wonderful and I do love it when you are spontaneous. But I also love anticipation. It’s fun looking forward to something and preparing for it. Experiencing it as being coerced is curious and feels somewhat hurtful to me.
Hank: “Hurtful” is a strong word and I guess that’s what Wendy was talking about. I don't feel coerced on your birthday or on Christmas or Chanukah. I do feel coerced on Valentine’s Day. It's the very epitome of gift-giving coercion.
We Can Work It Out
Yana: OK, so we see this quite differently. How do we create a win-win situation here? How do we allow Wendy’s feelings to be honored, and also make sure her partner’s beliefs or feelings are taken into account?
What if, together, they pick their own date each year just for celebrating their love for each other?
Hank: That would be a step in the right direction!
But Wendy seems to be feeling hurt about Valentine’s Day in particular. Her feelings seem very close to the surface (as do yours) and I want to be respectful of that. But I'd also like to honor my own feelings and beliefs, which may coincide with her partner’s.
Yana: Perhaps Wendy and Joe could alternate years. One year they can celebrate February 14 and the next year they can pick a date that has nothing to do with corporate America.
Hank: Your suggestion makes a lot of sense to me. Find something that my partner and I create together and then I’d feel a lot better about participating. Doing it that way you can still have all your anticipation and preparation and I don’t have to feel like I’m being scammed. But I have trouble even remembering to pick up the laundry. I started off saying I was afraid of the consequences of forgetting the occasion. What if I forget my own invention?
Yana: Give that job to one of the agenda apps. Even FTD can send reminders to guys like you.
Hank: That would help.
Yana: OK. Wendy would probably appreciate it if her partner took the lead on some of the arranging. Women feel good when their man takes charge at these times. It shows he cares about it too. Maybe in fairness Wendy could do some of the planning when the day falls on February 14th and her partner could handle things on the alternate years.
Hank: Good idea. That would help alleviate some of the pressure on Joe.
Yana: This is great so far. But I still have a concern.
What happens at work when the other women are showing off the things they got for Valentine’s Day? If that were me I think I’ll feel left out.
Hank: Couldn't she just say “Joe and I have decided we’re going to dance to our own drummer. We celebrate “Joe & Wendy Day” on our own date. We have a special meal, drink a bottle of champagne, and make love in front of the fireplace. That’s our day, we look forward to it and it is special to us.”
Yana: I guess she could do that. She would still have her memories and stories to tell from their day and those would help her feel part of it all.
Hank: Yes— it gives both people something important. I like this. I hope it would work for Wendy who sounded pretty upset when she wrote to us. I hope she wouldn’t still feel gypped by what we’re proposing. Would she feel like she had been shortchanged out of the official High Holy Day of Romance?
Yana: I don’t know. She might.
Hank: Well, Joe would have to do his share. He’d have to have a shower that morning, change his shorts, put on a clean shirt, and come down to breakfast with a smile on his face.
Yana: Would he still get her a card even on Valentine’s Day?
Hank: You betcha.
Yana: I think I would be happy with that. It might take Wendy once or twice to get with the new routine but it actually could turn out to be more special that way.
Hank: Just remember, if it is a couple where all the romance is gone, where they have shut down and there is resentment, then Valentine’s Day won’t fix this. That level of problem requires therapy to build back trust and safety. Once a year flowers and chocolates ain’t gonna fix it.
Yana: I agree, if a woman is looking to Valentine’s Day to be the spark that re-ignites the romance, she is asking for too much. This is for couples who are in love and just have different styles of showing it.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this column are a composite of Hank & Yana’s experience as a couple and those concerns expressed by their clients in counseling work. They do not necessarily reflect Hank or Yana’s personal attitudes.
Illustration by John James