A close friend assumed I would be writing about Valentine’s Day this week. Actually, I hadn’ t planned on it. Why not? I could see the question on my friend’s face; her expression was puzzled and playful. Immediately, I began thinking about the answer, and –of course—my plans changed. After all, it seemed a shame to skip the one romantic holiday of the year unless, well, that’s the interesting part.
As a child, I looked forward to Valentine’s Day because it was an unparalleled opportunity to eat LOTS of chocolate and pastel colored hearts. The downside was that I had to write Valentine cards to all the girls in my class at school—even the ones I despised. Of course, I received similarly insincere expressions of affection (hearts and doilies) in return. We all understood that our parents were teaching us to be kind and inclusive (however tedious) in exchange for extra candy. It was NOT a big deal.
All of that changed when I became a teenager and young adult. Before I was married, Valentine’s Day morphed into a really big deal, the definitive commentary on my love life. If I had a boyfriend, I expected him to send flowers, buy a card and be especially passionate and romantic on that day. It was a stain on his character if he forgot or didn’t believe in such gestures, a sure sign that he wasn’t THE ONE. I’d grown up with a father who always delighted my mother with flowers, romantic cards and gifts, not just on Valentine’s Day but all year round. Why should I settle for anything less?
If I didn’t have a boyfriend, Valentine’s Day was usually a sad, lonely affair. I’d come home from work and see all the flowers downstairs with the doorman for Elizabeth, Rebecca, Alison… but not one of those lovely, fragrant arrangements had my name on it. Another year was passing without even a secret admirer. I opened my mailbox knowing there wouldn’t be a pink or red envelope “sealed with a kiss” waiting for me. No hearts or flowers (or sex) for me. Valentine’s Day was a cruel reminder that I was alone. Time to dive into the deep end of the self-pity pool: Nobody loved me and (quite possibly) no one ever would.
Now that I’ve been married for 25 years, Valentine’s Day is sweet and fun, but certainly not the big deal it once was. Henry and I exchange cards with hugs and kisses and inside jokes. And like my dad, Henry brings me flowers, not just on Valentine’s Day, but on other days too. Sometimes he’ll bring home roses to cheer me up, or if I’m sick, or just because a particular bunch caught his eye. In some ways, those flowers are more special and romantic, because they are not part of an obligation, a tradition, or a commercial holiday. They are just about us.
It bothers Henry (and me to a lesser degree) that the same flowers he could buy any other day of the year are marked up $10 for Valentine’s Day. We both hate the fact that so many restaurants create “special Valentine’s Day” dinners” for tremendously inflated prices. Restaurants turn Valentine’s Day into another price gauging opportunity, like New Year’s Eve. Henry and I make a point of going to restaurants with normal a la carte menus. Being ripped off is not our idea of a romantic evening or celebration.
However, I don’t mind supporting the greeting card industry. It’s fun to pick out the “perfect” Valentine’s card. Sometimes the cards express exactly how I feel in pictures and words; on other occasions a card is a wonderful starting point to express my own thoughts and feelings. It’s all about taking a few minutes (at minimal expense) out of our busy demanding , lives to say “I love you,” something we could all do more often.
I guess Valentine’s Day has different meanings, depending on where you are in your life. To judge from the cover article, “Sexless but Equal,” in The New York Times Magazinethis past Sunday, it seems to me passion and romance may be foundering. The article quoted a study called “Egalitarianism, Housework and Sexual Frequency in Marriage.” The study found that when men did “feminine chores” like laundry or vacuuming—couples had less sex, even though this is exactly the housework many women ask their husbands to do. Moreover, women reported better sex with husbands who performed so-called “masculine chores,” like taking out the trash or mowing the lawn. It wasn’t just sexual frequency that improved. At least for the wives, greater sexual satisfaction was reported when the husband concentrated on masculine chores instead of feminine ones.
Even more surprising to the author (a marriage therapist) was that “no matter how much sink-scrubbing and grocery shopping the husband does, no matter how well husband and wife communicate with each other, no matter how sensitive they are to each other’s emotions and work schedules, the wife does not find her husband more sexually exciting, even if she feels both closer to and happier with him.” With more women working outside the home, and more men helping out at home, perhaps it is becoming more difficult for two exhausted equals to meet each other’s sexual needs.
Husbands in the article were also baffled. One said: “I know what a 50-50 marriage should be like. But what is 50-50 sex supposed to be like?” According to Jules Brines, author of the chores study, “the less gender differentiation, the less sexual desire.” Our efforts to become gender-neutral may have backfired in the bedroom.
Couples therapist Esther Perel, who wrote “Mating in Captivity,” explains that “egalitarian marriage takes the values of a good social system—consensus and consent—and assumes you can bring these rules into the bedroom. But the values that make for good social relationships are not necessarily the same ones that drive lust.” She added that “most of us get turned on at night by the very things that we’ll demonstrate against during the day.” Does that mean it’s becoming more difficult for couples to switch gears and indulge in dominance and submission fantasies? By blurring or erasing the lines between masculine and feminine, have we somehow ruined the mystery and arousal that goes with exploring differences? Maybe it’s true that opposites attract (but perhaps don’t make the best marriage partners).It’s an interesting and complicated question.
Where does that leave Valentine’s Day? I’m not sure, but I still love those flowers.