Mark B. Borg, Jr, Ph.D., Grant H. Brenner, MD, & Daniel Berry, RN, MHA

Relationship Sanity

The Good, the Bad and the Lovely

3 keys to a loving, intimate Valentine’s Day

Posted Feb 11, 2019

Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope. —Maya Angelou

When I give I give myself. —Walt Whitman

I love you the more in that I believe you had liked me for my own sake and for nothing else. —John Keats

The approach of Valentine’s Day looms ever larger as a thing, year by year, largely due to how the digital-media-driven popular culture relentlessly prods us into thinking about our relationships—for better and for worse. Not only can we easily access merchandise and other commodities to show our appreciation to a loved one or smooth out relationship rough-spots, but we have more and more ways of disengaging from the pain of being alone or of feeling alone within our relationship.


Often the fixes we pick up to make things better only end up contributing to next year’s pre-Valentine’s Day anxieties, adding yet another episode of our irrelationship history of parental discord, disappointed romance and other types of dys-intimacy.

For many couples, V-Day is a test of whether one or both partners meet, or even can meet, each other’s fantasies of romance—fantasies that may include making me feel prized and desired enough to undo years of anxiety, disappointment, and fear of not being good enough.  With these in play, chocolates, roses, and dinner at a nice restaurant won’t answer—even if the restaurant chosen creates a stir of “wows!” among social media contacts.

‎Avoid distraction

Speaking of social media, they may add an additional challenge to cutting through irrelationship: our desire to post photos on our social media feeds that make our contacts envious can distract us from seeing and connecting with what is actually happening in our lives—in this case, between me and the person who is my romantic interest. Social media magnify our romantic fantasies and can prompt a preoccupation with impressing online contacts that distances us from the lives we actually live in—romantic and otherwise.

Thus, our “digital lives” become the epitome of irrelationship, accentuated on Valentine’s Day, when authentic connection is displaced by interpersonal performance routines we've developed with others—including romantic interests—to decrease our awareness of anxiety and the vulnerability we feel with one another.  By hedging ourselves off in this way, be cut ourselves off from the reciprocal give-and-take of a relationship, even to the point of being unable to experience ourselves as loving and being loved. Instead, we fall into a delusion of self-sufficiency that is devoid of the experience of intimacy.

Bending old patterns

As Valentine’s Day approaches, we suggest the following pointers for moving back in the direction of giving one another the gift of presence, and of loving and being loved, which the authors call relationship sanity:

1.   The Good. Make it about your relationship with your partner.  Even if you have children with whom you mark Valentine’s Day, keep the biggest piece walled off for just the two or you, and make a conscious decision not to make it a “media event” to show off to your associates—even the ones who are friends in the non-digital world. If you go out to dinner together, lessen the temptation to check in with your online contacts by putting the phone out of sight—or even (if you dare) leave it at home!  If you must take and post selfies, choose one or two and post them the next day rather than interrupting your opportunity actually to be with one another. Doing this will make the memory more precious when you review those pictures together in the future.

2.   The Bad. Consciously avoid old, maladaptive roles. In our work on irrelationship, the authors describe what happens with the approach of the prospect of intimacy.  Valentine’s Day can be a perfect storm for unresolved conflicts. So be on the lookout for what we describe as the GRAFTS behaviors: the compulsion to be Good, Right, Absent, Funny, Tense and Smart—each an avoidance behavior intended to make nice with or even fix our partner, which keeps you—both of you—from being yourselves. And that isn’t why you’re on a date together in the first place—right?

3.   The Lovely. Don’t be shy—talk it out: tell your partner what your hopes for V-Day are, including what you want to see happen for both of you. But stay open to the unexpected, which is exactly what is likely to happen if you can bring yourself to speak from your heart about your desires. But DON’T make it a pass-fail test! If the approach of V-day—or the day itself—starts to become too “loaded,” invite your partner to an open, hospitable conversation (the 40-20-40 is an ideal formula for this). If you find yourself swimming in fears based on past Valentine’s Days that were a bust, the 40-20-40 could be your best hope of dumping negative feelings and other baggage standing in the way of being in Today with someone you’re excited about. If you think that person is worth it, then taking the risk of 40-20-40 is definitely worth it.

So if V-Day is looking scarier each day as it approaches, give yourself the chance to leave behind old “make nice” song-and-dance routines in favor of relationship sanity. It’s a great opportunity for both a new beginning and to recover pieces of being together that you’ve lost or are afraid of losing. Now’s your chance: Hit pause, stop, think, and change your direction—together.