Unhappy Valentine’s Day

lonely hopperIt’s a made up holiday, the purpose of which is to help the greeting card, chocolate, and flower industries. Not that there is anything wrong with that. We’re all about helping the economy. Besides,capitalist or not, it’s still nice to have a day to celebrate our love partners. Like Christmas and Thanksgiving, we can say that we should do this every day of the year, but we don’t. So let’s not be too cynical about Valentine’s Day.

So what should we do to celebrate? Perhaps we should take this day as an opportunity to opine about love. But what can one say that hasn’t been said so many times before? People have been jawboning about this subject since Socrates and his pals sat around in the baths 2500 years ago, as memorialized in Plato’s great dialogue called the “Symposium.” As usual for Socrates, his final statement was akin to Justice Potter Stewart’s quote about pornography – “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”

Others have tried to nail this thing called love through the millennia, and one of my favorite attempts is Erich Fromm’s in The Art of Loving. Everything important about love can be found in that little classic. The Greeks thought Love was a god, some of us think it’s a feeling, but Fromm contends it is an act, something we choose to do. I like that.

So, if there is nothing new to say about what love is, what is there to write about on this minor holiday?

One obvious thing is to remind all the dopey guys out there to give their partners something sweet on this day. OK. That was necessary, but done. Now what?

As I was musing on this, one of my psychotherapy clients entered my office who does not have a sweetheart. She has no love in her life. Valentine’s Day, which is supposed to be a source of joy, is a painful day of the year for her.

She’s not the only one. We live in a culture where more Americans are living alone than any time in recorded history, growing from 6% of adults in the 1920s to more than 27% today. Despite the connection revolution brought about by the internet and Facebook, people are feeling more lonely than ever.

Why aren’t these people pairing off? Some don’t want to. They like it that way. Some folks are just unlucky, and can’t find someone to love. Others are widowed, or divorced. Some haven’t found the right person yet. Some folks find Valentine’s Day the perfect day to break up with their girlfriends.

But though there are many factors, including socio-economic ones, that impact our ability to form primary romantic love bonds, for many, there are psychological reasons why they are not in a committed relationship.

Joan says it this way. It’s like I missed that day at school. It’s like my volume knob only has two settings. Either I’m invisible, or I’m pushing people away. You don’t learn how to connect with people – it’s something you just get when your mother connects with you when you are a baby. And I didn’t get that. She didn’t connect with me, so I just don’t know how to connect with others.

Patricia puts it like this. I am all alone in the world. I hate sex. I let people treat me however they want, because that’s what I deserve. I had sex with my father, and I can never forgive myself for that. No one has ever been nice to me. I can’t even imagine being in a good relationship.

Paul says, My mother screwed around with this drug addict. I’d go into her bedroom and they’d be nodding off. Then, I’d have to take care of her. Now, nobody is ever quite right for me. My life would be so much better with a partner by my side, but instead, I’m lonely.

Finally, Stephanie. I hate Valentine’s Day. You are supposed to be happy. Everywhere around me, couples are smiling and kissing. And me? I’ve gone out on a thousand dates, and nothing. Why am I always attracted to guys who aren’t into me? There’s got to be something wrong with me. I loathe this holiday. It just reminds me how screwed up I am.

Researchers in Attachment Theory indicate that there is something to the notion that how we are parented in earliest childhood can have long lasting effects on our ability to bond in later life. These patterns can be very difficult to change. And one must admit that the art and science of therapy is an imperfect one in knowing how to change these abiding habits of being. Nevertheless, since this is a cause of so much suffering for so many, my clients and I are committed to the work of solving this problem. Sometimes, there are breakthroughs, and people change. That proof, and the faith it inspires, is what keeps us going.

I can only hope that everyone who wants love will one day have it. But while there are still lonely people in the world, let’s have this day of love also be for them.

Let’s acknowledge that for many, it is an unhappy Valentine’s Day. Let’s spread our love around a little, and see if we can’t give it to some folks who may be a little more difficult to love, or who seem to run from taking it in. They may just be scared, or do not love themselves.

And if you are someone who is holding back your love, remember that this is the greatest gift you have to give. There is someone in the world who is dreaming of you – who wants and needs your love, and is willing to give you their love in return. So, on Valentine’s Day, make a commitment to give it up. What were you planning to do with it anyway?

This should not only be a holiday for those in relationship to celebrate their partners, but should be a holiday that honors love itself. It should be a holiday where we all make a promise to take a chance, to be vulnerable, to open our hearts, to give our love freely, generously, passionately.

Lord knows, someone out there needs it.