little pink vw bug with a giant heart tied to the top like a tree

Valentine’s Day is a big deal. Here’s how to get it right.

In addition to being a Marriage Counselor, I have been married for nearly twenty years. Our marriage is broken-in and soft, like a pair of jeans that have been washed so many times they’ve become velvety and slightly transparent in the knees. In this stage of marriage, Valentine’s Day is not even a concept. We roll our eyes at each other when manipulative Valentine’s Day commercials come on, and sometimes I jokingly demand a diamond bracelet or a new car with a bow on top as proof of his love. He volleys back with offers (threats?) to buy me an edible fruit arrangement, or maybe a pajama-gram. Then tells me I should buy him a Ural motorcycle with a side-car, but… I’m not sure he’s kidding.

Because we know each other so well, I know that he knows that if he ever actually purchased a super-expensive gift for me I would be very upset. I am a first-generation American, with a father so thrifty that he would spend three hours rummaging around the garage and taking old appliances apart to find the screw or wire he needed rather than spend two bucks at the hardware store. To this day I feel mildly nauseous when I buy anything that isn’t second-hand.

If Mat Bobby wasted our money on a diamond bracelet I would be absolutely furious. But I kind of like it when he gets me a little potted orchid from the grocery store, or some fancy tea. Sometimes I’ll get him a chocolate bar, or a lottery ticket. We know each other well enough to not show up with diamonds or make a big deal out of V-Day, because our values lie elsewhere. So we’re good.

But I know as a couples counselor, that in some relationships presenting one’s beloved with eight-dollar flowers from the grocery store and a lottery ticket would be grounds for divorce. Glittering, expensive things are expected. And that is totally okay, as long as both partners feel good about that. In other relationships, Valentine’s Day is an event eclipsing New Year’s Eve, with couples creating a multi-day experiential love-fest with plane tickets and dinners and champagne and new clothes and lots of sex. They are happy too, and I am happy for them.

But MY husband (who does not blink an eye over spending money on having a good time) would view spending several days of his life laying around a pool at a fancy resort watching me sip fruity cocktails as a meaningless experience. Certainly compared to sitting around a campfire eating reconstituted Chicken-Ala-King out of a foil pouch after a full day of crashing adventure motorcycles into the mud. He would do a resort-thing if it was important to me, because he is generous and kind, but I’d probably hear at least one mournful “We could have bought a Ural…” over the course of the weekend.

So how in the heck do you negotiate the potentially relationship-ruining mine-field that is Valentine’s Day? Because we all know that V-Day can be a very big deal, fraught with meaning, and it’s important to get it right. But the perfect Valentine’s Day for one person would be completely traumatizing for another. Here’s how to not screw it up:

1) Honor and Respect Your Partner For Who They Are.

No couple is made up of two people who are exactly the same. (How boring would that be?). You are both fascinating, unique individuals with different values, dreams, personalities, and tastes. It can be very easy, particularly in the early stages of a relationship or marriage, to believe that your fascinating and unique way of being is somehow better or more “correct” than that of your partner. I’ll admit to having fallen into that line of thinking myself on more than one occasion over the last twenty years. Here’s what I’ve learned from my experience as both a long-time married lady, and a marriage counselor:

You have three options.

It can be hard to have empathy for the needs, feelings, and perspective of another person. But your ability to do so will make all the difference between not just a great Valentine’s Day and a disappointing one, but a fantastic marriage and an unhappy (and possibly short) one. Let empathy and understanding be your guide in all things related to Valentine’s Day.

So even if you think that fruity cocktails are gross, or would not be caught dead riding in someone’s sidecar… be generous, be kind, and show your partner that you love them in a way that is meaningful to them. (Not sure the best way to show your partner love? Take the love languages quiz together!). 

Remember that the success of your Valentine’s Day will depend on your ability to consider what is meaningful and important to your partner. That sounds simple, but in fact it is quite difficult because we automatically assume that the things we enjoy are universally enjoyable. Thankfully, your capacity for self-awareness and empathy is greater than that of your cat, who drops a bloody mouse on your bedspread and waits to be praised.

You, on the other hand, can reflect upon the reality of who your partner actually is, and then use that understanding as a guide for your demonstrations of love. When gifts fail, it’s always because the receiver feels unknown, and uncared for. Show your partner that you know who they are and that you care about their feelings, and whatever you do will go over well.

Here are some questions to ask yourself, to help get clarity:

  • What do they tell me they want or need from me? (The answer I’m looking for here is emotional, by the way: to be loved, appreciated, desired, respected, supported, etc.)
  • What do they get really happy and excited about?
  • What gift or experience would represent a convergence of their emotional needs and their joy?

If you answer these questions correctly, you’re golden.

2) Remember That Your Partner is Not Telepathic.

I can’t tell you how many suffering couples I’ve worked with where at least one person has been under the delusion that their spouse should know what they are thinking / wanting, and then respond to that without them having to actually say it out loud. Part of being in a healthy, adult relationship is authentic communication about things that are important to you. Your partner will have a very difficult time carrying out the work of step one if you are not using your beautiful voice to let them know who you are, what’s important to you, and how they can please you.

It can be uncomfortable sometimes to speak your truth in a direct way, but — trust me — it’s really much less unpleasant than stewing in disappointment and frustration. (Or, for your partner, feeling that their efforts have been terribly disappointing and having no idea why).

3) Practice Gratitude, and Perspective.

You will ruin Valentine’s Day in a snap when you allow your expectations about “what you deserve” to become more important than the feelings of the person you are in a relationship with. If you’re hoping for some grand gesture on Valentine’s Day and your partner shows up with a potted orchid from the grocery store, you are in vulnerable territory already.

But when you start comparing your flower to your best friend’s trip to Greece and entertain thoughts like “I’m not loved as much as …” or “This means they don’t care….” you’re going to feel entitled to be mean because you’re feeling hurt. If you act on those feelings you’ll have a horrible day, your partner will feel like crap, and it could take you both until Easter to recover.

Alternatively, you can use V-Day as an opportunity to strengthen your love through compassion and empathy. Be appreciative of the values through which your partner shows their love for you, even if they are different than yours. If you wanted a glittery bracelet, and he shows up with a tandem bicycle and matching jerseys, you can view his offering as the ultimate expression of love in his language. Be gracious, be accepting, and be kind. Here is yet another opportunity for you to practice unconditional love

Also, put this into perspective. I’d encourage you to focus on your partner’s daily expressions of love for you, rather than getting hung up on one day. Because when you focus on the the fact that you have not scraped the ice off your own windshield or cleaned a litter box (or a toilet) in six years, and that they are always there for you when you’re having a hard day, your little orchid will seem like a cherry on top of a big bowl of awesomeness.

With love to you this Valentine’s Day,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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