There is one day of the year that is meant to fit the marmite cliché perfectly; Valentine’s Day. We are apparently meant to be either firmly in the love-it camp or the hate-it camp. Very few are meant to be indifferent to it.
For most of my adult life I have been mostly indifferent to Valentine’s Day and all it represents. Maybe if you know me you presume I pretend to be impervious because I am pretty much the human embodiment of a long-term relationship repellent. But, no, that is just not true. The reasoning behind my general eye rolling around this most holy and sacred of days / day to be ridiculed, is a lot more complicated than that.
It is true; I am not known amongst any circles for my success in affairs of the heart, so I should probably dread Valentine’s Day on that basis alone. My oldest friends have recently announced they wish to form a committee and interview any of my new potential partners, as they sincerely believe I am unable to choose my own wisely. In the last decade I have been the subject of two jokes in two family wedding speeches about my perpetual singledom (that was fun!!).
But the fact is, despite all of this, I believe in love. That doesn’t automatically follow that I believe in Valentine’s Day as it is. I don’t really hate it; I just don’t think it has much to do with love any more. Love with a capital L. It represents so much that has to do with what society tells us love should be like – love with a little l if you like.
So now I am ready to shake off the indifference and sound a war cry against love with a little l – and reclaim 14th February as a day to celebrate real, big Love.
The last time I sent a Valentines card to a romantic partner it was done from a place of duty and expectation. This particular partner expected Valentine’s Day to be celebrated every year, no matter my indifference and dislike of the ritual. To not take part meant I didn’t believe in love with a big L, that I was a cold, bitter cynic; a romance Scrooge if you will. I did put my foot down though, and refuse to enter the depths of Valentine’s day hell; crammed into a shitty restaurant paying double for a crap bottle of wine, eating an unimaginative set menu, with my elbows touching the couple sat next to us in not-so-companionable silence, with a blithe “why don’t I cook a steak instead?”
I kept that card and it is now an excellent reminder of the ritual’s vacuousness and insincerity. Of how shit and anodyne it is to love with a little l. I remember having to choose the words I wrote in that last card carefully and settling with “I can’t imagine what my life would be like without you in it”. And I wasn’t lying; I couldn’t. He was the father of my children and our lives were interlocked at that time. It seemed to do the job and kept that annual worshipper of St Valentine happy, but it didn’t mean much to him once he took it down off the mantelpiece and slung it in the kitchen drawer, where it stayed untreasured until I moved out six months after he did. Which kind of sums the commercial version of Valentine’s Day up for me really; it is something you need to do to keep your partner happy if they are a subscriber; but means nothing in the long run.
Imagine my relief when the subject of Valentine’s Day came up with my next serious romantic interest; he was as lacklustre about it as me. He was in the hate camp. I remember him apprehensively asking me towards the end of January one year what I was doing on Valentine’s Day, which that year fell on a weeknight, and as we lived and worked in different cities would have meant an after work train journey for an enforced night of hearts and flowers. And, er, there was this really cool gig on in his home town. I remember his tangible relief and visible relaxation of the shoulders when I replied “I will be alone at home crying all night, obviously”. And our mutual lack of enthusiasm for celebrating our relationship one prescribed day of the year did not stop me believing in his love for me and how much I loved him for the time we were together.
So you see, I DO know how to love and what romantic love should be like. In my opinion real love with a big L is guts, is courage, and is strength, and honesty, and trust. It takes a deep breath and letting go. It is overcoming fear and tearing open your softest, bloodiest parts and showing them in broad daylight to the person you love. It is an every single day thing. Love is being there for someone. It is tenderness and putting their feelings first. It is sharing and freedom, adventure and boredom; warm touches and dark spaces. It’s not a fucking padded card.
Love is hard to do sometimes, and it is never lazy. Sadly, love didn’t stick around long that time. Strong, courageous, solid, abundant, messy love is the one I am still looking for, and I am pretty sure I am not going to find it in whatever the version of Valentine’s day we have nowadays is trying to sell me every year.
The Love I want is the exact opposite of the prescribed romance promoted every February across the western world. It is easy to pick up some cellophane-wrapped carnations from a garage and a shitty card and consider that your job done for the next 12 months. But that isn’t love; that is unimaginative duty and brainwashing. It is lazy. It is a poor, dowdy cousin of Love.
There are other types of real love as well. I now send two Valentine’s Day cards a year, one to each of my children, celebrating the wonder that is Storge love (/ˈstɔːrɡi/, from the Ancient Greek word στοργή storgē). It is a kind of family and friendship love. Storge is the love that parents naturally feel for their children; the love that friends and family members feel for each other. Storge love is unconditional and accepts your flaws or faults. It’s committed, sacrificial and makes you feel secure, comfortable and safe.
Then if it is your bag, why not celebrate agape love ((Ancient Greek ἀγάπη, agapē); the highest form of love; a spiritual, charitable love, this Valentine’s Day? Or any of the other types of love according to the ancient Greeks; the affectionate Philia love we feel for our friends, the ability to stick around and watch love grow as celebrated by Pragma love, the playfulness of Luda love and (no sniggering at the back please) that most important type of love; Philautia, or self-love?
When my son was four we spread ourselves out on the floor that Valentine’s Day and made the most ridiculous mess with glitter, glue, feathers and red paint, stuck to a massive stack of cards. Then he started the slow, arduous task of writing inside each one. I asked him “Who is your first card for?”. “It’s for me Mummy, I love myself first”. The wisdom of babes, indeed.
The Valentines cards I send now are proudly signed Mum, and are a little reminder of what I tell them every day. I love them with a massive L. It is not romantic love at all. And they enjoy Valentine’s Day for all the sweet, fun stuff it represents to a child, and that is okay.
So, why don’t we keep Valentine’s Day, let’s not sneer at it – but let’s reclaim it – make it a celebration of the different faces of love? The Agape, the Philia, the Storge, the messy and crazy, the true love, the secret declarations, the quiet love, the love from and for the kids in our life. Anything but the anodyne, the asinine, the thoughtless, the unimaginative, the “best-grab-some-wine-and-flowers-on-the-way home from work” kind of love it celebrates nowadays. This is the furthest away from where love should be. Eros love has stolen the show basically, and run away and shut off the lights, leaving in its wake something very watered down and quite unpalatable.
So, on Valentine ’s Day this year, without wanting to sound like a dick of a wellness guru, think about the love you have in your life, the love you want, how you can love yourself more. And leave off the pre-wrapped and preconceived, or just damning of the day in its entirety. It could be fun. And it may stop St Valentine spinning in his grave.
First published in February 2020 for The Everyday Magazine.