Valentine’s Day. For those who are romancing, it is a day for declaring love and devotion and for showering one’s beloved with sentimental gifts, candy, and cards. For those of us who are not in the thralls of new love, all those hearts and cupids can make us nostalgic or mildly, maybe even wildly, resentful. It’s like watching somebody else’s party and not being invited. It’s like peering through the window of a candy store where someone else is getting the candy. It’s like not being chosen for the team.
Here’s the problem: The way our culture generally celebrates Valentine’s Day has made the characteristics of the new-in-love into a standard for everyone. New love is gooey and sentimental and overdone. It’s a wonderful, intoxicating time that everyone should be blessed to have at least once in life. There’s nothing like it for silliness, happiness, and wonder. But new-in-love isn’t (and shouldn’t be) forever. New-in-love is just that – new. It’s the beginning of a process of loving that, given commitment and time, evolves into other phases that are just as interesting, just as precious, and just as worthy of acknowledgement.
A New Kind Of Card Gallery
If it were up to me, the card gallery in the local supermarket would not be an endless aisle of romantic sentimentality for the month before Valentine’s Day. Instead, it would be divided into sections that would honor the many kinds and stages of love. Imagine browsing through choices like these:
New-in-Love: The cards say: “You’re wonderful. You’re perfect. You’re just like me.”
This is the infatuation stage. I remember when my 20-something daughter, all agog with new love, declared that she was sure that she and her boyfriend were the same person in a former life. No, she doesn’t believe in some strange reincarnation theory. She was just amazed and delighted to find someone with whom she shared so many things.
New love focuses on how we’re alike. New love looks for the endless fascinating coincidences and similarities that reassure us that this person, unlike any other, can understand and be understood. New love isn’t blind; it’s just selective in what it sees. And what it sees most are the ways that the beloved is a flattering mirror.
The Second Stage – Embracing Differences: The cards say: “You’re not who I thought you were, but it’s even more interesting this way.”
No relationship can sustain blind intoxication forever. After a few months of being gaga, reality begins to assert itself. With reality inevitably comes some disappointments:
“You mean you don’t like sushi? Football? Dancing?”
“But I’m sure you don’t really believe that (because it’s not what I believe).”
For some people, this stage becomes a reason to bail out. For them, the emotional high of new-in-love is like an addiction. Once their feet hit the ground, they hit the road. It’s a shame. They’ll never find a life partner. Life partners only come out of learning to love our differences. It’s our differences that enrich us. It’s differences that increase the couple’s range of emotions, interests, understanding, and activity. It’s embracing those differences that makes a couple strong.
Moving to “We”: The cards say: “We’re the best.”
This is when healthy couples move from “I”-ness to “we”-ness. This is the making of a partnership, the time when we find that the whole really is more than the sum of two parts. Being together makes us feel that we can handle the challenges of life. Being together makes us feel safe. Being together is what counts. This is the stage when couples make a commitment to themselves and their dreams. Many move in together. Still more marry. In healthy couples, the next year or two is about making decisions and compromises about how they will be together, what each of their roles will be, and what they can expect of each other. This new “culture of two” is the foundation for a family.
Benign Neglect: The cards say: “What cards?” This section is largely empty. The few that are there are “belateds.”
Young kids. Careers. Home care. Community involvement. Overwhelmed by all there is to do in a day, the couple’s “coupleness” goes on the back burner for a while. It’s okay. Healthy couples that moved to “we” developed the solid foundation they need to tolerate some benign neglect. The focus of their love and their energy right now is on maintaining a home, raising healthy children, participating in community, and balancing work and family.
Smart couples know better than to reserve their declarations of love and caring for a big splash on Valentine’s Day. [Note: If they do go out to dinner, chances are they end up talking about the kids or figuring out how to afford a new roof.] Instead, they find little bits of time nearly every day to check in, to share affection, to solve problems, and to affirm that they are a team.
The Very Married: The cards say: “We’ve made a good life.”
Love between the very married is comfortable. Secure and at ease, both partners know who they are and what to expect of each other. They can share a living room for an evening without saying a word and yet be warmed by each other’s presence. They know each other’s habits, stories, and jokes. The things that irritate them about each other have been irritating for years. The things that please them are equally familiar.
Settled love is not as exciting as new-in-love. But settled love has richness and depth. If this couple goes out to dinner on Valentine’s Day, new-in-love couples may misinterpret their lack of conversation for lack of interest. Not so. Their communication is on a much deeper level.
Other Categories of Love
My card gallery would also have room for many other kinds of love that nurture and sustain us all:
The playful love of children for their best, best, best friends;
The innocent love of children for their parents and caregivers;
The confused first attempts at love during adolescence;
The steady love of good friends for each other;
The complicated love of extended family;
The respectful love we have for those who have taught us the things that really count;
The courageous love of those who try again after a failure of love; and
The quiet love of old age.
None of these are about cupids and arrows. All are vitally important in our lives. Let’s make room on Valentine’s Day to value and honor all the kinds of loving available to us. Whatever stage or kind of love we have in our lives, we are fortunate indeed.