Have you ever felt deeply disappointed that your partner failed to meet your Valentine’s Day expectations? If so, you’re not alone. Over the years, I’ve known many women, including me, who tried not to care about a “stupid Hallmark holiday” yet when push came to shove could not stop their feelings of disappointment. I’ve picked many a fight and stewed in “poor me” feelings because I felt unloved or unappreciated on Valentine’s Day. And it’s not just women who suffer on this holiday. My heart also goes out to men, who traditionally bear the burden of trying to guess what might please their partners — and these dynamics apply to couples of all identities. My point is that the roles we find ourselves in, either hoping for some specific treatment or feeling pressure to intuit our partners’ wishes, cooks up an unnecessary recipe for conflict. There is a better way than surrendering to antiquated roles imposed by stereotypes.
Two of my clients in my psychotherapy practice — let’s call them Jonathan and Rebecca — fought on every Valentine’s Day over the five they’d been together. The holiday was so fraught that they both started getting anxious as soon as February rolled around. Rebecca told me that Valentine’s Day was important to her. Her parents made a huge deal of it. Every year her mother and father went out for a romantic evening. Memories like these leave lasting impressions on how relationships are supposed to look. When we move from our family of origin to our adult relationships and things don’t look the same, it can be confusing. Rebecca harbored feelings that Jonathan didn’t love her as much as her father loved her mother.
Jonathan came from a highly accomplished family. His parents met at an Ivy League University and valued high academic achievement. Jonathan was not that good at conventional school — he learned better by “getting his hands dirty.” Not only did he feel enormous pressure from his parents, but he was also ashamed that he didn’t measure up. The more pressure he felt, the more anxiety and shame he experienced. Shutting down was the best way he could cope with his overwhelming feelings. Even though Jonathan is now an adult, he still folds under pressure, like the pressure to meet Rebecca’s high Valentine’s Day standards.
Childhood experiences — reinforced over years of life — form very strong brain cell networks. That’s the reason why the past affects us so much. Out of consciousness, we are often ruled by young parts of us acting from old memories, emotions and beliefs.
You might see now why Valentine’s Day created the perfect emotional storm for Jonathan and Rebecca. Rebecca desired a holiday that matched what she saw in her childhood. The pressure to please Rebecca on Valentine’s Day reminded Jonathan of the pressure to please his parents. It was overwhelming and caused him to withdraw. The couple was seeing and reacting to each other through old lenses born of childhood experiences.
Many couples don’t think to share their past Valentine’s Day experiences or sentiments in a calm way, or they never learned how to listen without reacting. As I tell my patients in couple’s therapy, “All there is is talking!” Effective and skillful communication is the solution. Couples can benefit from talking to each other about their Valentine’s Day hopes, dreams, dreads and anxieties, discovering new things about each other. They can share how their parents celebrated or ignored Valentine’s Day and the beliefs their parents held about the holiday. I have suggested to couples that they can make up silly games like Valentine’s Day 20 Questions — then, after sharing in whatever way they choose, to take advantage of the power of two to design a mutually satisfying holiday.
I sometimes suggest setting ground rules for discussing tender subjects like promising not to interrupt or making sure to take turns talking, mirroring back what one person says until they feel fully understood. The goal is to work together to first understand each other, and then to create a win-win plan for the holiday based in compromise.
I asked Rebecca if she was open to trying something different this year. I suggested they work together to plan a mutually pleasurable Valentine’s Day experience. This was her opportunity to help Jonathan plan an evening she wanted.
“My dad always planned a wonderful Valentine’s Day for mom. They looked so happy I just thought that’s what a man who loves a woman does. And I always dreamed of someone doing that for me,” Rebecca said with her head hanging down, tears falling down her cheeks. She would have to mourn the loss of her Valentine’s Day fantasy. When we mourn for what we wished for from our adult partner but cannot have, we are freer to find new ways of relating.
Following Rebecca’s emotional release, she came up with an idea: “I’d like Jonathan to make a reservation at a restaurant. I’ll pick my top three choices and he can surprise me with one he chooses. I’d like him to bring home a dozen yellow roses.”
“Jonathan is that something you can do?” I asked. Jonathan nodded an emphatic yes and thanked Rebecca for taking the pressure off. They both left willing to try something new this Valentine’s Day.
When two people who love and care about each other find themselves in the same fight over and over again, childhood feelings are likely involved. Slowing down to contact deeper emotions and listening to each other with curious — not defensive — open minds can help couples overcome stalemates. At its best, Valentine’s Day is about love. And love is about mutual caring and communication. What could be more symbolic of an equal, loving and interdependent relationship than co-creating a day to celebrate your bond?