Valentine's Day Blues

Valentine's Day just doesn't feel right to me anymore.

Before you start chastising me for this statement, let me explain. What should be a beautiful reminder to cherish our loved ones, especially our significant other, seems to be just another opportunity for retailers to get us to open our wallets and purchase tokens and trinkets out of some sort of social obligation. It’s not to say that gift giving is wrong but I find obligatory gift giving heartbreaking.

V-Day didn't used to be that way. The use of handmade poems, letters and cards to mark the occasion have been commonplace since the 17th century, but the 1950s marked the start of our more prevalent present-day behaviours. 

Valentine's Day is getting harder to love. 

Social expectations regarding what is an acceptable gift have now grown to include not only greeting cards but sweets, jewelry, flowers, eating out, getaways…to the tune of $20 billion dollars in the US alone! According to IBISWorld, the average expenditure on V-Day is $135.00. This sum includes not only spending on a significant other, but also family, friends and co-workers. (I have to admit that I was a little puzzled by that last category, but upon reflection, I have been known to bring heart-shaped chocolates to the office.) And, if you’re single and/or dating, it’s likely to be $20 to $30 more, because you’ve got more at stake in impressing the object of your affection. Yikes!

I’ve already written about how the diamond industry created a demand for diamonds by building tradition out of thin air. V-Day is no different. 

The marketing message is clear:

How much you love someone is measured in dollars. And if you choose not to spend a tidy sum? You’ll pay the price in other ways that might hurt more than an empty wallet.

This message is so convincing it's created a guilt-and-angst-causing obligation out of thin air! If you don’t believe me, ask a woman who didn’t receive anything on V-Day how she feels or ask a guy who forgot to get his girlfriend/wife something how the day turned out. 

Any purchase that’s driven out of fear or loss-aversion is likely based on a need that’s pure fiction.

The good news? If it’s not real, it can be changed!

You can take it from a reformed V-Day observer that it can be done. We were once known to spend on romantic getaways and lavish dinners to mark the occasion*. But all it took to change our ways was a conversation. I don’t remember when it happened exactly and how we went about it, but we agreed that we didn't need to spend money on the social requisites to show how much we love each other. 

You don't have to spend money to show someone how much they mean to you. 

I don’t want to receive a gift from my husband because he has to get me something. It's an empty gesture and it doesn't feel good to me as the recipient. 

What really sends my heart a flutter? Here’s a short list:

  • He notices something I’ve done for him, or for us, and says “thank you”.
  • He proactively takes care of something around the house (extra bonus points when it’s something on my "to do" list).
  • He shows genuine interest in knowing more about, and sometimes even helping out with, something I’m working on.
  • He acknowledges and helps me celebrate small victories and he offers comfort when I have setbacks.
  • He offers an unexpected compliment.
  • He supports me when I want to try something new and/or scary.
  • He brings home something that I’ve been wanting for a while but just would not go out and get for myself.

Why do I prefer the above? Because these actions show he makes a genuine effort to consider what I want and need on a regular basis (and most of it’s not “stuff”). And he does it because he  wants to.

Even more powerful is that it also tells me that he knows me well. He knows what I care about and what I appreciate him acknowledging. That makes me feel the warm and fuzzies in a way a teddy bear, chocolates and flowers can’t.

In short, these little things offer me a much richer experience as his spouse than if he purchased the requisite gifts. And yes, they require more of his time and attention than just checking off the holiday/special day to do list. That’s why it means so much.

So what’s one to do? 

If you don’t have this understanding with your significant other, you’re probably hooped for this year because it’s just going to sound like you’re being cheap by trying to get out of a set expectation to spend. 

Instead, my suggestion is to try to go with something particularly thoughtful—read not expensive but that you’ve put a lot of thought into—and, maybe some time in March, you can casually bring up the topic by suggesting that maybe “we” don’t buy stuff just because it’s V-Day and suggest another approach instead. That way, even if your partner isn’t sold on the idea, you have a whole 11 months of actions and thoughts ahead of you to convince your partner that this is a winning proposition.

And what if you’re single?

I suggest you don’t start something you don’t believe in with a new flame. Show him or her how you feel by doing something thoughtful—and yes, that can include a purchase. What's important is that it's genuine, thoughtful and from the heart.

No matter how you plan to celebrate V-Day this year, I hope it feels right to you and your loved one because, in the end, that’s what matters.

*We usually combined V-Day with our anniversary celebration, which resulted in opting to travel or go out to dine to celebrate both occasions in one fell swoop. We still do those things when we want to, but no longer out of a sense of obligation.