On Valentine’s day my youngest sister sends cards to seven of her friends, some of whom are single and some in relationships. She’s been doing it for years.
This simple gesture invites us to ask some profound questions. Why is it that days are set aside to celebrate one particular kind of love, but not others? Along with Valentine’s day we tend to recognise anniversaries of romantic commitments in a way that we don’t with other forms of relationship, with precious jewels and metals associated with reaching certain five and ten year points together.
Do such celebrations reflect (and reproduce) a kind of hierarchy of love that is present in our culture? And how might such hierarchies be problematic, both for those who are excluded from them and for those who are included?
The problems of exclusions are often more obvious than those of inclusion. I remember February 14th, as a teenager, when the day only served to exacerbate the pain of unrequited love. Certain songs on the radio still take me back to the cards that I furtively asked a friend to pass on to the object of my affections, only to receive nothing in return. Along with sentimental pop songs and the teen romance books that I wish I’d never discovered, Valentine’s day was part of a tuition into the vital importance of finding ‘The One’ and the sense of failure and self-doubt that accompanied not being able to do so.
The stigma around singledom only increases with age, such that many of those without partners are faced with a month or so of painful reminders of their not-quite-normal status as they pass gift shops, florists, and adverts for this year’s Valentine movie.
Single people are not the only exclusions. Valentine’s day usefully reminds us that the kind of romantic love that is assumed is heterosexual. The majority of cards depict images of heterosexual couples, or male and female animals, soft toys, and the like, in the same way that anniversary cards are almost entirely designed to be from a wife/girlfriend to a husband/boyfriend or vice versa. Sitting with a ‘same sex’ partner in a restaurant on Valentine’s night also feels different. Whilst most are now welcoming, there is a certain edge to the experience which isn’t there at other times. There may well be a similar feeling for others whose relationships aren’t considered quite as acceptable: mixed-race couples, couples where one or both doesn’t meet the ideals of conventional attractiveness, those with an age-gap, or people who want to celebrate with multiple partners on a night where every table is set out for two.
Romantic love is intrinsically linked to sexual love, and popular Valentine’s gifts include both the soppy (flowers, chocolates, and soft toys) and the sexy (underwear, sex toys, and erotic games). For this reason other exclusions may include those who are assumed not to be sexual (by virtue of being too young, too old, or disabled, for example), and those who are assumed to be sexual but in fact are not. The person who is asexual and romantic, or the couple whose relationship started sexual but is no longer so, may feel painfully aware of assumptions and expectations around Valentine’s night.
Turning to those who are included in Valentine’s day, there are difficulties here as well – although they may not be so obvious.
As I mentioned at the start, like anniversaries, Valentine’s day highlights the way we tend to prioritise romantic relationships over all other types. When my sister sends cards to her friends this is the assumption that she is challenging: why should this one person (a partner) be deemed more important than the others she is close to: people who, in some cases, have been in her life for years?
When we value romantic love so much more highly than friendship there are dangers that we will become isolated in a partnership. There is a sense of privacy around the couple whereby we aren’t meant to share what is going on with anyone outside of it. As well as exacerbating the sense of exclusion of our single friends, this can be damaging for those in the couple as they come to rely upon each other for everything, and feel unable to get outside support when they are struggling in the relationship.
Valentine’s day can add to the pressure for those who are going through the kinds of tough periods that all intimate relationships have from time to time. There are expectations and assumptions about how we must feel on Valentine’s day, and the kinds of declarations that we must want to make to each other, which may well not fit where we are currently at. Two common responses to such pressure are to assume that the relationship must be wrong and to bolt from it, or to focus on presenting an outside image which fits whilst denying (to others and to oneself) that we are struggling, until it has reached a critical point.
Knocking romantic love off its perch as the most important relationship could decrease the pressure upon it. It could also enable some fresh air to circulate as we are able to spend time separately and to talk about things in the relationship with other people in our lives. This kind of re-evaluation can also expand our understanding of what might be included in romantic love, in friendship, and in the blurry space in between (the friends-with-benefits arrangement, the romantic relationship which has developed into friendship over time, the friendship that has all the intimacy, passion and challenge of a romantic relationship).
I suggest that, rather than ignoring Valentine’s day and trying to get past it, or celebrating it in the conventional way, we might consider doing something different: Send a card to a friend. Watch an unromantic comedy. Celebrate celibacy. Spend the evening alone doing things you enjoy that your partner does not. Take time to recognise all the important relationships in your life. Think about how you might expand love for a partner out to include a friend, a stranger, even an enemy.