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Challenging the cultural norms of Valentine’s Day

Last Modified: 2/12/2021

Valentines Day

This post was written by Courtney L. Washington, PsyD, CSAYC, HSPP, clinical training director, Parkview Health.

As the old lyrics go … “In Napoli, where love is king. When boy meets girl, here’s what they say. When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore…”

It’s a classic tale as old as time, girl meets boy, falls for boy, develops epic expectations for Valentine’s Day and boy drops the ball. This inevitability erupts into a massive fight rooted in miscommunication and mismanaged expectations. For me, Valentine’s Day is a lot like New Year’s Eve; tons of hype with little chance anything (no matter how wonderful) will live up to the expectations. Is this amore?

Let me be very clear. I’m a loving person and I firmly believe in communicating this love to the people I care about. Further, as a psychologist, I know the importance of meaningful relationships, human connections and companionship for our well-being. But I can’t help but wonder why our culture places such emphasis on “romantic” love from a heteronormative lens. Why do we need a day to celebrate this love? Why do we place so much pressure on celebrating love in a prescribed way?

Within our culture, we are sent constant and consistent messaging about shoulds, musts, and expectations. We are told what it means to be male and female, how to express these qualities, what relationships should look like, how to act and how to behave. While some of these messages can be helpful in creating agreed upon rules and guidelines for society (which are needed for large groups of people to coexist in communities), often these messages pigeonhole people into boxes or categories that can feel restrictive or oppressive.

The heteronormative script of relationships is one example of this restrictive lens. The concept of heteronormativity stems from the idea that much of what is considered “normal” in our culture has been developed based on a heterosexual, white, male perspective. This perspective has contributed to the development of gender roles, the bifurcation of the genders as polar opposites of each other (boys like blue and girls like pink), and other stereotypical beliefs about gender and relationships.

As far as holidays go, on a scale of 1 to 10, Valentine’s Day takes these gendered pressures and stereotypes and turns them up to an 11. Within our culture, there is an overt playbook that couples are “supposed” to follow. Gifts are divided into his and hers, he has to plan the date (think of every sitcom bit where he is scrambling for a last-minute dinner reservation because he forgot to book in advance), and she wears sexy lingerie. The myth that we are sold is, if something, anything goes off script then it must mean the relationship is lacking or one person does not love the other person enough. I ask again, is this amore?

Of note, much of the undue burden to provide a perfect Valentine’s Day falls on men. One hypothesis for this gendered expectation is connected to how men are anticipated to express and communicate their love on a day-to-day basis. This is connected to how men are socialized in our culture with regard to connection to, awareness of, and open expression of their emotions. The idea of expression, outside of anger, is frowned upon. This often leaves them feelings disconnected in their relationships (romantic and platonic alike) and the people who love them questioning their feelings, availability and connection.

From this lens, Valentine’s Day (and other clearly defined dates such as anniversaries and birthdays) are the equivalent of the classic phrase “putting all of our emotional eggs into one basket.” This is to say, we expect people to communicate all of their love and affection on these special days with special gifts, as our culture tells us that love is communicated through consumerism and expensive tokens of affection. I don’t know about you, but this feels like a lot of pressure and expectation that is doomed to fail.

Managing expectations

So how do we set ourselves, our partners and our relationships up for success? What do we do if our relationship does not align with these roles and expectations? Here are five steps to managing and reframing expectations:

  1. Openly communicate about the value you place on the holiday.  If you love Valentine’s Day and it’s important to you, this is OK. Share these beliefs and values with your partner. This can help you both be successful in meeting your expectations for the holiday.
  2. Engage in reflection about your values and expectations.  Practice a journaling activity and ask yourself: How do I believe love is communicated? Where do these beliefs stem from? What do need to feel valued? How do I expect this value to be communicated? Do I want to continue to believe and place value on these things? Are there any outside pressures that are contributing to my expectations?
  3. Challenge yourself to reframe your expectations.  Life is not a fairytale or scripted movie. Things often do not go as expected or planned. It’s important to practice flexibility, understanding and limit the pressure placed on any specific day, gift, experience, connection or relationship. 
  4. Know your and your partner’s love language.  Dr. Gary Chapman developed a theory about the five love languages people use to express and receive love. They are: acts of services, words of affirmation, shared experiences, receiving gifts and physical touch. Knowing what languages are most important to you and what fits best for your partner can be essential in effectively and successfully communicating affection to one another. This knowledge can help manage expectations around holidays.    
  5. Do things together.  Shared experiences are key. Despite the pressure to engage in consumer-based gift giving, all of the research regarding materialism and consumerism disproves that things bring people any additional happiness. What is known is that shared experiences have an exponential impact on people’s subjective well-being and self-reported experiences of happiness. Doing things together fosters deeper connection and meaningful memories that when reflected on continues to bring joy. This is contrary to material items, which lose their luster over time.  
Things to remember this Valentine’s Day

Most importantly, there is no one way to celebrate love. You and your partner get to decide and define what celebrations look like for you. Try and take a step back from the cultural pressure and negotiate for yourselves what a meaningful day looks like.

Romantic love isn’t the only love that deserves to be celebrated. Love and affection takes all shapes and forms. Communicating our affection to the people we love is important. Leslie Knope, off the hit show Park and Recreation coined “Galentine’s Day,” celebrated on February 13th to highlight the important role of female friendships in women’s lives.

Find little ways to share your love and appreciation to anyone who matters in your life on a daily basis. This communication is key to the success of any meaningful relationship. Sprinkling these affections into your daily life will assure the people know that they matter to you, shows regular gratitude, and plants and waters the seeds of a healthy relationship. 

Lastly, if you are looking for a different way to celebrate V-Day, join One Billion Rising, a mass movement to end violence against women. The campaign was launched on Valentine’s Day 2012 and is a call to action based on the global statistic that 1 in3 women are beaten or raped in their lifetime. Each year since, they have hosted global campaigns on Valentine’s Day. Take some time to learn about what they’re doing and how you can help.


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