When I was a teenager, Valentine’s Day was a very big deal for a clique of girls who referred to themselves as the Sweet Sixteen. There were 16 of them, and they were (apparently) sweet. On V-Day, they would go out of their way to show the other girls in the group how much they were adored on love’s big day.
Girls would open their lockers to find piles of Valentines (think Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), balloons and streamers lining the inside. One year, they all wore bright red, matching t-shirts emblazoned with their logo (yes, a logo) and the names of everyone in the group written on the sleeves. In 11th grade, one of the girls even dressed up as Cupid complete with a quiver full of chocolate arrows that she distributed to her friends in between classes.
Their celebrations were all very theatrical, made to remind us that their friendship was so much deeper and more special than any of us could ever know. But this show of affection put a triple does of pressure on their boyfriends.
The guys would regularly spend a few hundred dollars on flowers, chocolates, gifts, jewelry and dinners out. Plans would be feverishly discussed during morning classes, “Am I spending/doing enough? Sure that bracelet costs a full week’s salary, but should I buy the matching pendant?”
They would plot and plan like their lives and their relationships depended upon it, trying to one up each other. They filled car trunks with red balloons. Wrote messages of love on the blackboards of 1st period classes. They drove two or three hours to nice restaurants in other towns. It was madness. But the guys, their girlfriends and the cadre of underclassmen who longed to be like them, thought this was normal. They wanted this to be normal.
My senior year, I had classes with several of the Sweet Sixteen girls, and on the day after Cupid’s Big Day Out, the clique’s Alpha Leader decided to grill me about how I had spent my evening. After all, my boyfriend was in college, so my plans were expected to live up to a certain standard.
When I told her that we ate Chinese food and spent less than $20 on our gifts (he gave me a book of Pablo Neruda poetry, I bought him balloons and a dessert), she was scandalized. “If (insert name of flavor of the month jock, here) ever gave me a book, I would pitch it at him,” her group of girls cackled like a coven.
“Well, I guess the difference between you and I, Alpha, besides 20 IQ points and 30lbs, is that my boyfriend actually loves me.”
She was dumbfounded, and furious at the insinuation that her heart pendant didn’t mean that she and the jock were going to spend the rest of their lives together. Though I think, in actuality, she was a lot more angry that I had called her fat than she was that I questioned the depth of her boyfriend’s feelings. It’s a miracle that I didn’t get jumped in the hallway after school.
Ever since then, I’ve held a negative opinion about Valentine’s Day, and a particular dislike for big, showy displays of affection. Bigger and better gifts don’t mean that he loves you more. In fact, I am of the belief that if you need to make February 14th mean something with a big gift/night out/trip then you are probably doing something wrong the other 364 days of the year.
I was fine with Chinese food and roses because I knew that Mr. Wonderful (this is what my Dad called him, it stuck) loved me. Since high school, I have received several more V-Day gifts and only one cost more than $30.
That gift, given by a man who is now referred to as The Asshole (first name) (last name) in all conversations, bought me a Tiffany bracelet. For weeks afterward, his friends and colleagues kept coming up to me (even if we’d never met) and asking how I liked the bracelet. It made me very uncomfortable that everyone knew what he’d bought me, because a) he clearly thought this was a status symbol, b) the bracelet was festooned with heart pendants and I hated it, tough I pretended to adore it, and c) by then I’d found out that he was once again cheating on me with his ex and had sold the bracelet on eBay after a screaming fight in a parking lot.
This was not a love story that I wanted to cherish for decades with a white gold charm bracelet, no matter how much it cost.
Over and over, throughout my life, I have been reminded that people who need to make a show on Valentine’s Day don’t really love you. (People who want to, but don’t have to, are in another class entirely.) People who love you don’t need to plan the perfect V-Day for weeks, and their success or failure doesn’t hinge on getting the biggest gift or the best dinner reservation. And the man/woman who really loves, knows and respects you, doesn’t live in fear that the gift will be wrong because in theory, you love, know and respect him/her enough not to care if it is.
If you want to buy your beloved an expensive gift or drop three bills on an impossible-to-get dinner reservation, that’s one thing. But if you’re convinced that you need to, you’re in a lot more trouble than you know.
So this Valentine’s Day, skip the big show and do something simple, quiet and sweet that will be remembered long after the calories are burned off or the jewelry is tossed in a drawer (sold to pay the power bill on eBay). Because then, even if the relationship ends, you get a nice memory that you can feel good about a decade later, and those are hard to come by.