I always look forward to February and especially Valentine’s Day, but I’m well aware that not everyone does. I love seeing all the red hearts in the stores and enjoy the romantic commercials on TV for diamonds, perfume and lingerie.
It’s hard not to feel a bit overwhelmed by the media barrage to buy cards, flowers and presents.
There’s another way to look at it, however. Valentine’s Day can serve as a useful reminder to practice simple acts of kindness and to show appreciation for the special people in our lives.
While it’s easy to say that every day should be as romantic as Valentine’s Day, we often wind up distracted by all the things we have to do and don’t make time for what I call “relationship upkeep.” Work, routines, kids and other obligations take precedence, and our attention gets deflected everywhere but toward our one and only.
Beyond being a reminder, Valentine’s Day gives us permission to celebrate love and affection. It's the perfect excuse to have fun, be playful, rekindle passion or just appreciate the one you’re with.
I realize there are people who don’t enjoy Valentine’s Day — like my clients Shawna and Dan (or at least Dan). In January he asked me: “Can I just go live in a cave until February 15th? I can’t get away from this freakin’ holiday.” After acknowledging his feelings, I told him I’d give him some options that would be more fun and rewarding than pretending the holiday doesn’t exist.
Dan, 54, and Shawna, 51, will be celebrating their 12th anniversary this summer. Both of them are professional writers: She works on medical textbooks, and he’s a sports reporter for the local paper. They don’t have kids, but they do have two dogs, Ralph I and Ralph II, whom they love like children.
I asked Dan to elaborate on his Valentine’s Day anxiety. “I feel like Shawna's expectations are too high and that whatever I do, it's never quite right,” he said. "And I resent that the greeting card companies instruct me when and how to tell my wife I love her.”
What about Shawna? I asked. Is it an important day for her? “Honestly, I don't think so,” he said, “but I can’t really tell. I feel like she'd rather get a new vacuum than a bouquet of roses, or a box of inkjet cartridges instead of a box of chocolate truffles. But I also think she humors me by saying the whole thing is a lot of baloney. And yet if I were to completely ignore the day, she'd probably make me feel like a cad.”
(MORE: Relationship Rescue: Bringing Back the Passion)
Survival Tips for Valentine’s Day (and Every Day)
For folks like Dan, here are some strategies for surviving Valentine’s Day and even making it a positive experience. As you read these tips, add the words “every day” to the end of each one.
- Communicate expectations. Don’t get all worked up worrying about what your partner is expecting or that you’ll disappoint. Be direct. Say “I’d like to do something special, like go out for a nice dinner. What about you?” That doesn’t make the day any less romantic. You are both much more likely to be happy if you know what your partner likes and wants.
- Make it genuine and personal. I told Dan that a simple handwritten note telling Shawna why he'd still choose her if he had to do it all over again would say “I love you” much more than a dozen long-stemmed red roses. It’s a common misconception that the more expensive the gift, the more meaningful it is. Jewelry is wonderful, but a gift from the heart is so much better than one from Mastercard. Write your partner a poem or a song, or make a coupon that he or she can redeem for a special day (or activity) in the future.
- Make it “touching.” Saying “I love you” is nice, but kissing, holding and cuddling can be even nicer. You may not be into effusive public displays of affection, but remember that everyone responds to — and needs — a partner’s loving touch. I told Dan that merely making a date to watch a movie on the couch can be a great Valentine’s Day activity. Pick a romantic comedy, make a fire (or some romantic equivalent) and snuggle up — or at least hold hands.
- Fill a need. If mushy romanticism isn't your thing, come up with something your partner really needs. Get his car detailed. Replace her beat-up briefcase. That kind of thoughtfulness is a turn-on and shows you really know and care about your partner. How you give the gift counts almost as much as what you give. Instead of just handing Shawna a present, I told Dan to slip it, or at least a card, under her pillow before they go to bed the night before. Or he could send her on a mini-scavenger hunt around the house, with fun (and sexy) clues along the way.
- Give the gift of time. Don't think of Valentine's Day as a holiday created to sell chocolates and flowers. Consider it a day to spend quality time with your loved one. What you do could be something as simple as ordering in a pizza and playing cards or as elaborate as dressing up and going out dancing. Dan said: “You know, the truth is, I’m looking forward to hanging out with Shawna. It feels like it’s been ages since we planned a night together.”
- Talk it up. Want to know the most romantic thing you can do with your partner on Valentine's Day? Have a 10-minute (or longer) conversation about anything besides work, money, chores or kids. My long-term marriage study found that this “10 Minute Rule,” practiced daily, increases intimacy and happiness between couples.
Make These Behaviors a Daily Habit
Don’t forget: These should be everyday strategies. Partners need to feel taken care of, paid attention to and valued. When you make simple gestures from the heart, your partner feels special and loved and your relationship grows better and stronger. So don’t wait for Valentine’s Day to do these things.
Dan emailed me after our individual counseling session last week to say that Shawna was really excited about Valentine’s Day. Just as I was thinking they were headed for a romantic night out, I read:
“She found a recipe for doggie Valentine’s cookies, so she bought a heart-shaped cookie cutter, and it looks like we’ll be baking for Ralph I and Ralph II. I said I’d try to be a competent baker’s assistant as long as we have a nice bottle of wine and some steak while we’re at it. I hope your V-Day is just as fun!”