Regardless of whether I considered myself in a relationship on Valentine’s Day, the holiday never used to make sense to me. I always thought it was a day to acknowledge loved ones around you with candy or teddy bears from the local convenience store. As someone who does not really like candy and having more than a handful of teddies seemed excessive, I thought “what was the point?”
As children, we are taught it’s a day to give heart-shaped treats to classmates and teachers in an effort to show equal attention to everyone and not single out one person over another. I can remember wanting to give my elementary school crush a special Valentine to show that I liked him. All in favor of this adorable childhood romance, my mom drove me to a store to pick out what I knew was his favorite type of candy. I wrote a special note with the word “Love” as if I knew what that meant. When he received the secret Valentine in his locker, he opened it up, smiled, and then immediately hugged the girl he liked (not me), showing his 9-year old appreciation. I felt humiliated, wanting to crawl in my own locker and never come out, but I still liked him nonetheless.
Later on, as I would think about giving Valentines on the holiday, when we were not required to give every person a gift, I would single out the boys I thought were cute. Somewhat of a flirt in middle school, I would find the cutest boy and let him know that I was interested. Those efforts often backfired, as it seemed the moment I showed interest, the same boy that I thought liked me back would completely ignore me. Left in utter confusion I would resist talking to him ever again and started to question my own self-worth.
When I was in high school my dad enlightened me on what Willard Waller termed the “principle of least interest,” in which the person who has the least interest in a relationship has the most power. Fascinated by this theory, I decided to test it out. At times, I would purposefully show indifference to guys who I knew I had flirted with the previous day, just to see how they would respond. Sure enough, I suddenly became intriguing to them. In more colloquial terms, “I was playing the game.” They would offer to carry my books, or would argue over who would sit next to me in class. I had all of the power. I began to realize I was worth fighting over. During my adolescence, as my identity was developing, the power of self-love was like a secret weapon I used to survive the hormone-ridden battles of high school.
This idea is akin to the psychological term of the pursuer-distancer phenomenon, in which person A pursues person B, causing person B to distance themselves from person A. Then it’s person B’s turn to pursue, person A distances in response. This cycle continues as the pursuer tries to reach the distancer to achieve more connection and the distancer tries to get away in an effort to achieve emotional space, neither with much avail. The space in between them allows for autonomy and closeness. To Harriet Lerner, this is called “The Dance of Intimacy.” How comfortable each person feels with autonomy and closeness is what gets negotiated – it becomes a dance in which each person’s movements contribute meaning to a relationship. Ultimately, it is the job of both individuals to choreograph their relational movements by communicating needs, and utilizing their separate identities together. How that is achieved varies and requires constant attention. When emotional intimacy is not cultivated, relationships fall flat, and the meaning of love shifts.
On this Valentine’s day, I’d encourage you to think about how you navigate relationships, whether romantic or otherwise. Are you the pursuer? The distancer? How do you know? What impact is that role having on your relationships and degree of happiness? Now, Valentine’s Day to me is a reminder of how far I have come in relationships – how I can show and receive love on a daily basis that does not need to be in the form of candy and stuffed animals. That change has happened because I have learned the degree of emotional space I need, how to communicate it, and how to complement the similar needs of my partner comfortably. To me, loving myself allows me to love others. Valentine’s Day can be viewed as a self and relationship check-up, a way to jump start relationship dynamics that may have died, but need not be the only day of the year where love is nurtured.