Each year when the calendar flips over to February, bringing flashy reminders of the looming national day of love, my patient *Gary begins hyperventilating. He fears that no matter what creative surprise he dreams up for his wife, it will never be good enough.  Exhibit A: In 2016 he snagged sold-out concert tickets to see Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden in New York City. For weeks afterward his wife berated him, “The concert was February 13th. If I really meant something to you, we’d have gone for a romantic dinner on the 14th!

For many couples Valentine’s Day is just another excuse to celebrate their love in a way that feels meaningful and fun to both of them—hopefully without emptying their 401Ks. But over and over I have witnessed this holiday become a trigger that burrows into the womb of repressed and/or unspoken feelings of unworthiness (“Not getting a good Valentine’s gift just proves again that I’m unlovable”), resentments expressed via passive aggressive acts (“I said I forgave her for kissing another guy four years ago. I believe it hasn’t happened since, but I’m still mad so I’m going to give her a sweater instead of the heart necklace she’s been hinting about”), anxiety (“I’m worried I can’t deliver the Valentine’s night of amazing sex she deserves”) and negative comparisons (“Everyone else’s Valentine’s will be so much better than mine”).

With all this out-of-proportion stress targeted around one little cupid, it’s perhaps not surprising that a 2010 study of Facebook “relationship status” declarations uncovered a huge spike in breakups right as the Valentine’s roses start wilting.1

A solid relationship won’t unravel due to a holiday gone haywire. However, a 2004 study2 conducted by psychology professors from George Mason University and the Arizona State University showed that when the relationship is on increasingly shaky ground a disappointing Valentine’s Day can be the final nail in the coffin. 

A Brief History of Valentine’s Day

Perhaps some of the relationship-killing potential of Valentine’s Day was ordained in the holiday’s roots in paganism and martyrdom. Allegedly on February 14th of different years in the 3rd Century AD, two saints named Valentine were murdered by Emperor Claudius II. Then there was the Ancient Roman feast of Lupercalia celebrated on February 13 to 15th and steeped in fertility rituals involving slapping women with strips of goat hide drenched in sacrificial blood. A match-making lottery followed the whippings: men drew women’s names from a jar and the newly-minted couples would go off and— uh—couple for the duration of the festival.

This snippet of Valentine’s history won’t be commemorated on a hearts-and- flowers-bedecked Hallmark card anytime soon. Demystifying a romantic ideal can be the beginning of a healthier self-analysis or inflated expectations. 

Heartfelt Love Advice for February 14th and Beyond

#1. Recognize your partner is an imperfect human, not a God sent to fulfill your every need. 

Your spouse’s job description includes this dictum: I will strive to always treat my partner with respect and kindness as befits the most important person in my life. It does not contain the codicil: I will never, ever make a misstep.

*Anna complained during our first session: “*Ron can make me feel like the most loved, amazing creature in existence, but the other night he destroyed me by staying out late with his friends.”

Yes, Ron should have texted he was running 20 minutes late, but this small thoughtless act became equated in my patient’s head with feelings of abandonment and betrayal by the person she believed responsible for her happiness and self-worth.

That’s way too heavy a burden to expect someone to lift, even for a beloved

#2. Accept and nurture those inner feelings of emptiness. 

As soon as we are ripped from our mother’s womb, feelings of dislocation and aloneness begin. Depending on myriad individual factors, the inner void can range from occasional mild currents of emotional distress to all-consuming, nearly constant maelstroms.

To quiet the storm, many people latch onto an ‘other’—be it a chemical substance, Facebook, shopping or a romantic partner. When the soothing feeling of connection fades, sufferers desperately seek another ‘hit’.

I counsel clients that, “No one and nothing else can ever make you feel whole except in brief spurts. The only way to be comfortable with yourself is to accept sometimes feeling uncomfortable.”

One suggestion is to close your eyes and initially for just a few minutes, breathe into your emptiness, feelings of fear, and perceived flaws. It’s okay to cry, rant, throw unbreakable objects, and start being curious about what this pain can teach you versus drowning in it.

This is difficult work but once you start accepting rather than running from these secret ‘shameful’ parts of yourself the emotional toxins you’ve been accumulating for so long start being released.

#3. Ask not what your partner can do for you, but what you can do for your partner

Studies3 show the healthiest relationships are those in which partners are compassionate toward one another. Bonus: being kind to your other half increases your own happiness!

So, task yourself to do at least two considerate things for your partner each day. These can range from bringing him or her coffee in bed to texting to asking (in a sincere way) how a dreaded meeting went to watching a TV show you’re not crazy about because it’s your partner’s favorite

The key is have low expectations and remember: Any Valentine’s Day that does not include a blood-soaked goat hide is a step up!

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Last Updated: Sep 8, 2020