For a holiday named after a condemned priest — in Catholic records, one “Valentinus the Presbyter,” a man sentenced to death for marrying young couples during Roman emperor Claudius II’s second century lockdown on marriage — Valentine’s Day still somehow conjures the warm fuzzies like no other. While most holidays still retain some clear-cut religious or political content, Valentinus’ evolution into a secular figure may have produced the least somber, most life-affirming memorial of them all: an annual excuse to brandish flowers, write love letters, and eat at a prohibitively fancy restaurant with someone you love.
Still, as national celebrations go, February 14th has long been a psychic sweatbox for the male gender, and not just because its baubles and sweet treats hearken back to a whole Shakespearean universe of courtly love, hetero-normative affection, and members of the landed male gentry flashing their cash. Unlike other gift-oriented holidays like Christmas, Valentine’s Day’s popular expectations tends to be pretty stark, begging expensive default romance (flowers, chocolate, and jewelry) from men while encouraging passive acceptance and implacable expectations from women. Three waves deep into feminism, it’s hard to defend V-Day’s usual portrayal as a one-way social street.
According to Baltimore psychologist Ann-Marie Codori, part of the problem is the holiday’s limited view of affection. A couples therapist who deals with long-term relationships, she suggests the holiday’s yellowing tropes amount to a fundamental misunderstanding of what love requires.
“We have a hard-wired need to feel safe and secure with someone,” explains Codori.
She, meanwhile, winces at Valentine’s Day’s emphasis on romance, pointing out that each gender has roughly the same emotional needs.
“Anniversaries are important,” the psychologist says. “But once relationships are established, romance is not a huge issue. What tend to be bigger issues are things like feeling important, feeling like you matter, feeling like you come first.”
In lieu of V-Day’s enforced romantic attention, Codori recommends something more direct. “The best way to express your love is just to say it,” she says. “The words are less important than having an emotion attached to the words.”
Of course, basic human needs aside, most Valentine’s Day enthusiasts — this author included — cherish the holiday as a flimsy pretext for going overboard. For us, DC Matchmaking and Coaching owner Michelle Jacoby suggests staying the usual gifty course while also understanding the holiday’s romantic overtones as a team effort.
“Women usually expect gifts and don’t often think about what to give the man,” she says. “A lot of guys put a lot of thought into Valentine’s Day, and I think sometimes they feel a lot of pressure. I think it should be fifty-fifty. It doesn’t have to be about spending money, either. It would be really nice if a busy executive woman took off work early or cooked her man dinner, right?”
Jacoby warns that expecting an expensive V-Day to fix months of neglect can be a deal breaker for either gender, particularly if things are already on the rocks. Recently engaged, she suggests sticking to a routine of daily relationship maintenance instead of betting the proverbial farm on a high-stakes holiday.
“When you’re in a relationship, you should wake up every day and ask, ‘What can I do to make my partner feel special?’,” she says. “Men just want what women want. They want your attention and they want your thoughtfulness and affection. They want us to completely appreciate and accept their gestures, whatever they might be. Valentine’s Day is a day to celebrate your relationships, whether they’re your friendships, your family, or this person you’re in love with.”
Jeff Colosino, a local poet, agrees. In his mid-20s and raised, like much of his generation, on Eve Ensler and egalitarianism, Colosino joined his girlfriend in hijacking Valentine’s Day long ago, upending its rulebook by creating their own: an unsexy, hosted meal of turkey loaf, banana pudding, and creamed corn casserole with close friends and family. What began as a shared in-joke blossomed into an annual custom.
“I don’t know if anyone I know truly does do Valentine’s Day in a ‘normal’ way, the way you see it in a commercial for jewelry,” he says. “Something about my age group, it’s just something we make fun of. We distance ourselves from Valentine’s Day but, in our irreverent acknowledgement, we celebrate it. We’re still spending it with people we love, even if that’s the ‘extended family’ of people we love and not the narrow romantic version.”
Ironic as Colosino’s tradition appears, though, its relaxed, glib mood has helped him see Valentine’s Day’s potential for bringing people together. It’s an interpretation worthy of Valentinus himself.
“It’s not a mockery,” he says. “A mockery of the day would be doing nothing at all. And it wouldn’t be okay for us not to be with each other Valentine’s Day. It’s still important that we take some time to recognize each other on that day.” He laughs. “In that regard, Valentine’s Day has won.”