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love and everybody else

February 13, 2023

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, and according to research, it’s a holiday of extremes: people either love it or hate it.

I once dated a guy who hated it. He’d say it was a corporate scam, created by companies to sell more chocolate. He resented a holiday telling him when to show love: only he would decide when to dish out (and apparently withhold) affection.

On the one hand, he had a point. The holiday can feel contrived. But his arguments weren’t totally convincing either. The origins of the holiday date way back to before Russell Stover was an idea. And celebrating Valentine’s Day doesn’t curb anyone’s freedom to say “I love you” on any other day of the year. I mean… it’s not like it’s got a gun to your head.

I rarely think about that guy anymore, but every so often, around Valentine’s Day, I’ll remember his rants. And I’ll roll my eyes, because it was always obvious that he was trying to get away with doing nothing for me. As if I couldn’t see through that.

Sometimes we’re so convincing to ourselves that we don’t realize how dumb we sound to other people.

Whether the holiday is silly or not, and whether or not we hate it, one thing holds true for a lot of us: we feel bummed when we don’t get to celebrate it – whether it’s because we’re single or with someone who’s boycotting.

But it’s not (just) because we don’t feel loved. It’s bigger than that.

Valentine’s Day isn’t a private holiday; it’s a public holiday. We tend to think it’s about us and our partner, but really, it’s about everyone else. It’s the only day a year when we’re all supposed to be in it together, celebrating romantic love at the exact same time.

Shared social experiences and rituals are social glue. It’s why we bond together over the Super Bowl, throw Oscar parties, and have backyard barbeque’s on the Fourth of July. It’s not just the football, the films, or the birth of our nation that matters. It’s sharing these experiences that counts. It’s knowing that all over the country, people you don’t know are doing the exact same thing you’re doing at the exact same time – and because of that, you feel part of something bigger. You feel closer to people who are otherwise stranger, and that’s important for social harmony.

Being excluded from these experiences can feel painful for social creatures like us. Even when on some level we know not everyone else is celebrating, our social natures, coupled with what we see in advertisements, lead us to believe that the majority is doing something. Which can lead us to feel socially left out because we’re not part of it all.

It’s one thing if we choose not to participate; not everyone is going to care about the Oscars and not everyone likes football. But when you’re blocked from that sense of belonging when you don’t want to be – because you’re single or because your partner wants to watch a Jeffrey Dahmer documentary (the polar opposite of a rom com) rather than do something sweet – things can get a little achy.

So, if you’re with someone this Valentine’s Day, do something nice for them. It doesn’t have to be contrived, costly, or inspired by a commercial. Write a love note and throw it in their underwear drawer so they’re sure to see it. Text them heart emojis or funny love gifs every hour on the hour. Don’t risk making them feel like they’re not part of the bigger picture.

And don’t worry about getting it wrong: something is better than nothing.

If you’re single, then remember this: a lot of us out here are in the same boat, and we’re all feeling left out in the same way, at the same time. There’s no special holiday for us, but we don’t need one to know that we’re also in it together.

This Valentine’s Day, I’ll be thinking about all you other single folks out there. I hope you do your version of buying yourself some flowers or having yourself some chocolate. I hope you take a moment to think about all the ways you’re awesome. Because being single on a day of love isn’t great, but when you know you’re not alone in it, it can feel better. And that’s not nothing.

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