The Valentine’s Day Millstone

I don’t know anyone who really likes Valentine’s Day. Do you?

Valentine’s Day — or Hallmark Rip-off Day, as I like to call it — just squats there on our calendars, in the middle of the dreariest month of the year, and taunts us. More than any other day, even New Year’s Eve, it serves as a signpost, reminding us where we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going. It poses questions that most people have no desire to answer.

There’s a strange dichotomy in our thoughts about Valentine’s Day. On one hand, for people in relationships, particularly males, it’s a weighty millstone, a day wrought with artificial expectations. Guys dread the day because they know that their significant others — what a weird term “significant others” is; it doesn’t make a jot of sense, really — will be anticipating something romantic and touching and special. Women dread it because they’re smart enough to know they shouldn’t have such high hopes for one silly day and nevertheless can’t help but be disappointed when those hopes inevitably fall short. (And they always do.) For people in relationships, particularly those in the early stages, Valentine’s Day is a day to be endured, to be survived. On the two occasions I actually let myself be bothered, I certainly woke up on February 15 with a sigh of relief. She’s still lying next to me; I couldn’t have screwed up too horribly.

Some time ago, I had been dating a woman for about a month when Valentine’s Day came up. This is the absolute worst time for Valentine’s Day to appear; I liked her, and she liked me, but we certainly weren’t in any position to start making googly eyes at each other and pouring our hearts out. Plus, you know…

As if we were actually trying to become case studies of humans’ inability to overcome our natures through logic, we decided to be pragmatic about it. She told me that I had no Valentine’s Day obligations, that the day was entirely unnecessary, and I, stupidly, agreed. We are intelligent people, we told ourselves; what is one day, really? Valentine’s Day is so fake. Let’s stick two fingers to the system!

You can probably guess what happened next. Her friends started asking her what she was doing for the big night — another mistake: Thinking an anti-Valentine’s Day policy will actually work with a woman who shares a house with about 10 other females — and as the day grew closer, she began to suspect that my easy adherence to our rules somehow reflected on her, and how I felt about her. Well, surely he’s just planning a big surprise on Valentine’s Day. He’s such a romantic, I’m sure he’ll pop out of thin air with flowers and a nice bottle of wine. She had psyched herself out of her own plan. The big day showed up, and passed, with no roses or mushy poems. I received a call at 10 p.m. Not only had I failed in my duties, but some other guy — an idiotic, dodgy guy we both knew — had sent her flowers with a card attached. “I know you’re seeing David, but I wanted you to have some flowers on Valentine’s Day. I hope that’s all right.” Awwww. How sweet! Our relationship didn’t make it to the next Valentine’s Day. Shit, it didn’t even make it to Easter.

That said, Valentine’s Day is probably hardest on some single people. The very same people who grit their teeth under the pressure of Valentine’s Day when they’re in a relationship are often the ones who are all weepy and depressed when the day comes and they have no one with whom to spend it. This is natural, of course; the tendency to romanticise relationships, the fear of being alone trumping truthful remembrances of paranoia and neuroticism, is one of the cuter things we humans do. But somehow Valentine’s Day becomes this one day a year where it’s not OK to just be on your own, doing your own thing, no strings attached. For some people it’s a constant reminder that when the lights are out, and their head’s on the pillow, only they care what they did at work that day, and only they care what mood they’re in. It’s dark, and they’re the only one in the room.

In fact, Valentine’s Day has gathered such animosity over time (from me, at least) that it’s almost impossible not to be cynical about it. It’s just so forced. Those in relationships get flowers and go out to dinner and hope the other party doesn’t analyse things too deeply, and those who are single try to pretend the day isn’t happening at all.

I mean not to assassinate the day. Like New Year’s Eve, another day where people feel so coerced into “fun” that they invariably rebel against it, Valentine’s Day, at its core, is a pleasant enough concept. How many days a year are devoted to something happy, something that we are all searching for, whether we wish to admit it or not? That someone at Hallmark even thought of Valentine’s Day is proof that we subconsciously sway closer to optimism than pessimism. We should appreciate it more.

But we should do a lot of things. The irony of having a day devoted to love is that, in practice, it becomes the one day a year we try not to think about love. The next story I hear from someone who was made to feel more in love because of Valentine’s Day will be my first. Valentine’s Day is like that woman at work who is always a little too excited when someone has a birthday. Yes, she’s coming from a good place, and you know she means well, but when’s the last time you sang Happy Birthday to a co-worker with feeling? It’s always more effective when you just pop by their desk and tell them happy birthday in person. No need to make a big production out of it. Doesn’t it mean more that way?

But no. We always go through the singing and blowing out of the candles, because it’s tradition, because it’s what we’ve always done. That in itself says something, and I’m not sure it’s something bad. Cynicism aside, it always is a nice gesture. And, I suppose, so is Valentine’s Day.

Having said that, I have no plans for tomorrow. (Or Tuesday, or Friday, or the day after that… or next week… or anything.) But a lot of you will go out and should. And guys, when you do, try to make her feel special and cared for and that the night is a really, really big night for you, and for her, and at the end of the night, you will both breathe a silent sigh of relief that on Tuesday, everything can go back to normal.

And so, perhaps, that’s the only thing that might make Valentine’s Day a little bit worthwhile. Any couple that endures and survives it just might end up staying together after all.