I got a notification this week from the app I use to beautify my selfies asking how I would “survive” Valentine’s Day. It was just one of many scaremongering messages dispatched around this time of year bemoaning the very existence of the holiday.
But contrary to popular belief, Valentine’s Day is not a disease or a night in a haunted house. You don’t have to survive it. If you hate it, you can just pretend it is a regular day the way you always do on holidays for faiths and cultures to which you don’t belong yet have always managed not to get worked up about! But if, like me, you like to be a bit hopeful and a bit hopeless about romance, you should be going all fucking out for Valentine’s Day.
There is an insidious subgenre of Valentine’s Day hate specifically aimed at people who are in new relationships or in the phase of dating where they’re not quite sure whether things will become serious. Advice articles range from activity-focused ways to make it “less awkward” (“9 + 1 Things To Do On Valentine’s Day In Montreal With Someone You Just Started Dating”) to fear-inducing gift guides (“Spread the love! Valentine’s ideas for every stage of your relationship”), all of them taking it as a given that you don’t want to spook anyone into thinking you care too much about them early in the relationship. These poor, unfortunate souls are advised to be in an absolute panic that a romance-centric holiday is coming up if their romantic lives are anywhere between nonexistent and lifelong partnership.
But not taking advantage of opportunities for romantic gestures and experiences early in a relationship means you’ll miss out on the ripest time to uncover the ridiculous, miraculous ways of love. One reason so many long-term couples are not super-stoked about Valentine’s Day is that they are dialing it in after a while and aren’t ever feeling especially romantic. On the other end of the spectrum are couples so secure in their romance that a more elaborate celebration of that love seems redundant to the thoughtful ways they already show their love on a regular basis. But when a romance is uncertain or new, it has the highest potential for unexpectedly romantic happenings. The novelty makes all the fanfare of Valentine’s Day tolerable: An expensive prix-fixe menu tastes better before you realize the extent of your partner’s financial worries; a weekend getaway is way more fun before you come to dislike their driving habits. So on this winter day that we’ve selected to honor and celebrate romantic love, consider surrendering pragmatism to make room for possibility.
After Hilary and Matt spent a year and a half dating on and off but never officially coupled, Hilary was delighted when Matt asked her to be his “Valentine” for a romantic night out on February 14, 2015. But in the grand tradition of parents killing buzzes, Matt’s parents sprung a surprise weekend in the city on him and made dinner plans for Valentine’s Day. Matt told Hilary that she was welcome to join the family, an invitation that a more timid damsel might have declined. Not Hilary, though; Hilary knows a fabulous opportunity when she sees one. “I was like, ‘Absolutely I’ll come to Valentine’s dinner with your parents!’ So I did, and I was literally the most charming girl on earth, and it was great. So great, that I probably had a little too much mezcal,” she recalls of the night that segued into dancing and drunken revelry.
Hilary and Matt ended the night in a platonic shower together (as one does), where Hilary finally felt comfortable being straightforward about her confusion about the status of their relationship. And well, Cupid was present and accounted for that magical night because Matt showed up in a way he never had. “He grabs my arms and says, for the first time, ‘I love you. Of course I love you! I always have. I’ve been so terrible. I want to make this work,’” Hilary told me. This Valentine’s Day, the two are celebrating their one-year anniversary as a couple because love is real and St. Valentine is benevolent!
Before Fox started dating Jonathan, her two previous boyfriends had the most ultraboring excuse for dismissing Valentine’s Day. “Both of them claimed, ‘Why only express love and devotion on one day of the year, when you should be doing it all year long?’ While reasonable in theory, in practice it meant that they would not express love through any grand gestures or even slight gestures on any day,” Fox explained of her years spending Valentine’s Day and her own birthday alone despite being in relationships. But she had never articulated how much she missed those celebrations, even to herself.
When Fox woke up for a work shift on her first Valentine’s Day with Jonathan, she found the room filled with heart-shaped balloons, chocolates in a heart-shaped box, several gifts from her Amazon wish list, and a sappy card with a dog on it. “Even though I didn’t express it, he knew me well enough to tell that it meant a lot to me,” she says now. “I don’t think I realized how much Valentine’s Day and blatant displays of affection meant to me, or how much they had been missing in my life, prior to that day.” This potential to learn something unexpected about yourself as well as the person you’re dating makes these gestures more than the sum of their little heart-shaped parts.
The first Valentine’s Day together is often the one couples remember best. Molly and her wife were long-distance when their relationship started ten years ago, so Molly ordered flowers online. Molly knew her now-wife loved the flowers, but didn’t realize how much until two years ago when they bought a house together and Molly found the box that the flowers had come in all those years before. “She’d put [inside] all the little notes and letters we’d write each other and hide in pillows and beds and pockets, all just trying to be with each other.”
But even if a relationship doesn’t last forever, a first Valentine’s Day together should be a fond memory. In my first long-term relationship, I went to a photo booth at the mall and took four photos holding up pieces of paper that spelled out “I LOVE YOU RYAN.” I then haplessly carved a rib-eye steak into the shape of a heart. He knew that I felt like a lost cause in the kitchen and found the intention sweeter than the execution. Things ended between us, as they usually do, but I still have fond memories of going well beyond my comfort zone with sentimentality and finding his love more comforting than I expected.
Some people might read these stories and get upset worrying about whether their romantic prospect will fail to deliver a memorable Valentine’s Day, or if they will be open to the idea of celebrating it at all. But this fear is more about a lingering sense of how well or how poorly things are going more broadly than it is about the holiday itself. If you’re afraid your new flame won’t want to celebrate, aren’t you just worried they aren’t really open to an opportunity to love you someday?
Avoiding Valentine’s Day lest you betray the fact that you know that romantic love exists at all is more of a losing prospect than playing it cool in perpetuity. This is one of the few days when we are allowed to be vulnerable and expressive in a horrible world plagued by ironic detachment and blasé courting patterns. The willingness to take a chance that a grand gesture might be fun — even if not fateful — will speak volumes about your new person’s willingness to go the extra mile. And far more arduous to survive than a corny holiday is more time wasted with someone who hopes for anything less than a hopeless romance.