I’ve always hated Valentine’s Day.
From the age of 10, when my grade school offered Valentine-o-Grams that could be sent to (or received from) our crushes, I balked at the oppressive weight of societal expectations and malleable personal value based on perceived desirability (a mature stance for a preteen, I admit). By the time I was in my 30s, divorced and dating again, I no longer felt the weight. Instead, I felt resigned to the holiday and all the implications behind it — from the aisles of Hallmark cards to the storefront displays everywhere you looked urging men to “show her how much she means to you.” I purchased every available book on the market (Why Men Marry Bitches, He’s Just Not That Into You, even, shudder, The Rules) to try to navigate how not to let all that weight crush me.
And now, at 41, on my second marriage, I observe the weight from a more Buddhist perspective and realize that it’s true: Desire really is the cause of all suffering. Desire for stuff like chocolates and jewelry and $100 floral displays. Desire to be as desired as someone who receives the flash-mob Valentine’s Day proposal or the $55,000 Miami Beach holiday-themed getaways or the art-directed Valentine complete with personalized candy messaging. Desire to be desired.
My understanding of the power dynamics at play has given me some peace as the holiday approaches. Long considered the unofficial guide of hip-hop and Hollywood, Robert Greene’s 1998 manifesto 48 Laws of Power is a must-read for anyone who has ever dealt with a manipulative person — or, say, a manipulative holiday. In anticipating February 14 this year, it hit me: The Laws of Power were practically invented for this shit holiday. From Law 24 (“Play the perfect courtier”) to Law 48 (“Assume formlessness”), V Day is rife with the deception, the game-playing, the crass exploitation of basic human strengths and weaknesses that 48 Laws employs.
So how do they translate to V-Day? Very nicely, it turns out.
Many of them need no further explanation (consider Laws 28–30: “Enter action with boldness,” “Plan all the way to the end,” “Make your accomplishments seem effortless”). These are the basic moves of a person trying to either receive or impress a partner with a garish display of roses, five-star dining, jewelry, a luxury hotel, and, most importantly, a story to tell. (Think season two of Mad Men when poor Betty and Don Draper have their sexless evening at the Savoy Hotel.) But for the sake of space and time, let’s focus on the first ten rules to show how twisted our relationship is to this holiday whose origins are as bloody, dark, and violent as any epic power struggle.
Law 1: Never outshine the master.
“Always make those above you feel comfortably superior,” Greene writes. “In your desire to please or impress them, do not go too far in displaying your talents or you might accomplish the opposite — inspire fear and insecurity.” This is a wonderful edict to remember for a day dominated by insecurity. Are you getting roses? Should you buy something? What about that new guy? Is it too early to celebrate the day? But this rule offers a tidy metaphor. Think of your partner as the masterful one you want to please and appease. What would make her happy?
Law 2: Never put too much trust in friends, learn how to use enemies.
“Be wary of friends — they will betray you more quickly, for they are easily aroused to envy,” Greene writes. Here’s all you need to know about this law when it comes to V-Day. Say you’re Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds just gave you a ring worth $2.5 million. It’s beautiful, you’re super-stoked, and that’s awesome. But know which of your close friends actually enjoy celebrating every success along with you and those who might be a tad jealous, and it’s easier just to demur a more muted, “Oh yeah, I mean, it’s a pretty nice ring.”
Law 3: Conceal your intentions.
“Keep people off-balance and in the dark by never revealing the purpose behind your actions,” Greene writes. I mean, duh. Surprise her.
Law 4: Always say less than necessary.
“When you are trying to impress people with words, the more you say, the more common you appear, and the less in control,” Greene writes. My husband once wrote me a card that offered a sweet, sincere, and succinct compliment I’ve never forgotten. “You’re constantly entertaining,” it said. I loved it. I saved it. Not a word wasted.
Law 5: So much depends on reputation — guard it with your life.
“Reputation is the cornerstone of power,” Greene writes. Even though the glorious days of Lulu’s ridiculously unhinged man reviews are no more, women do talk. Develop a reputation as someone who gives good Valentine’s Day gifts.
Law 6: Court attention at all cost.
“Everything is judged by its appearance; what is unseen counts for nothing,” Greene writes. Has there ever been a better description of Valentine’s Day? This could practically be the slogan. It reminds me of a millionaire ex of mine who one V-Day showed up with some floppy old bodega flowers. I should have written him a thank-you card that just said, “Got the message.”
Law 7: Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit.
“Use the wisdom, knowledge, and legwork of other people to further your own cause,” Greene writes. “Not only will such assistance save you valuable time and energy, it will give you a godlike aura of efficiency and speed.” Shorthand: Use a virtual personal assistant to book your evening.
Law 8: Make other people come to you — use bait if necessary.
“When you force the other person to act, you are the one in control,” Greene writes. Make a solid plan. Don’t be wishy-washy. There is honestly nothing more attractive.
Law 9: Win through your actions, never through argument.
“Any momentary triumph you think you have gained through argument is really a Pyrrhic victory,” Greene writes. Don’t quibble over whether you taxi or walk it. Should you get the apps or no? Just do whatever she wants.
Law 10: Infection: Avoid the unhappy and unlucky.
“You can die from someone else’s misery — emotional states are as infectious as diseases.” So yeah, this may seem an odd one to include, but here’s how I view it. Avoid the unhappy and unlucky small stuff moments on Valentine’s Day. So you dropped the chocolates in the sink and they’re ruined. So your dress rips. So you’re pregnant and you’re not sure if it’s his. Move on.
Because you know what? You’re going to crush this Valentine’s Day. You’ve got the power.