Valentine’s Day: A Personal History

What if I don’t get any cards?

It’s been nearly 35 years since I was last in elementary school, but I can still remember the anxiety that accompanied the February 14ths of my childhood. Though the practice has ended in many American schools, when I was growing up students were expected to give a Valentine’s card to every other classmate. Our parents bought the cheap cards in bulk (25 or 50 to a pack) at the drugstore, and each Valentine’s eve, we would stuff the cards into envelopes to be distributed the next day. Each year teachers pleaded for universal displays of affection; every child was to give an identical card to every other child. 

Though our parents generally cooperated, it never worked as intended; kids hid or destroyed Valentines addressed to other children they didn’t like—and snuck stickers or other extra treats into cards addressed to their friends. From second grade on, Valentine’s Day was a cruel popularity contest, a reality that in more recent years has led many schools to ban the exchange of cards and gifts altogether.

Things got worse in junior high school, even without the compulsory card exchanges. By seventh grade, it was clear that a privileged few had boyfriends and girlfriends; February 14th was now about them and them alone. For most of my teens, I loathed this day, as the absence of my very own “Valentine” just seemed to reinforce my predictably adolescent sense of being uniquely unlovable. (It was only years later that I realized how many of my classmates probably felt exactly the same way.) I remember that once, perhaps when I was 15, Valentine’s Day fell on a weekend, and I was intensely relieved. Of course, the popular couples in my high school simply marked the holiday on the previous Friday, and my sense of alienation and loneliness was as great as ever.

But things changed for me. I got into my first romantic relationship just before Christmas break my senior year of high school. When February 14th rolled around, I leapt enthusiastically into all the rituals I’d both disdained and envied for so long. I bought that first girlfriend a rose and a card, making sure to give them to her right before her first class so she’d be able to display them all day long. I’d joined the ranks of the romantic exhibitionists who make Valentine’s Day insufferable for so many. Participating in public displays of partnered affection can be an especially unkind and especially irresistible way of proving you’ve at last joined the relationship “haves.”

Since that first partnered V-Day in 1985, I’ve been single on February 14th only once, in 1993 not long after my first divorce. Through four marriages and a series of other relationships, I’ve been with a girlfriend or wife for every other Valentine’s Day of my adult life.

As a child, I saw Valentine’s Day as a painful test of popularity I was sure to fail. As a love-struck teen, I saw participating in it as an opportunity to prove that I was worthy of being loved. Later, I grew to resent the expense of meeting the expectations of girlfriends, wives, and the culture itself—even as I enthusiastically spent money I didn’t have in order to prove publicly that I was a good boyfriend or husband. One of my exes told me that she expected at a minimum a card, flowers delivered to her work, dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant (at which a separate gift ought to be presented), and orgasms at the end of the evening. She wasn’t kidding. I had both sexual and financial performance anxiety for days leading up to the occasion.

My fourth and final wife and I have been together since late 2002. Our marriage has grown stronger over the years; we’ve worked hard. Having finally figured out that the fear of being alone is never sufficient reason to be with anyone, I’ve invested in this relationship more completely than I ever imagined possible. Though nothing is certain, I’m quietly confident that what my wife and I have built together will last.

This year, we mark our tenth February 14th as a couple. The first few were lavish. One year, we flew to Paris, stayed at the Crillon and ate our Valentine’s dinner at L’Arpege, using the Christmas bonus Eira had received following the best year in her company’s history. It was as glorious, romantic, and unnecessary as it sounds. More recent Valentine’s Day celebrations have been far more modest; this year, we’re getting a babysitter and going out to dinner at a quiet local place we know well.

Like so many busy parents, my wife and I work well shoulder-to-shoulder and oar-to-oar. We text each other our plans and schedules; our household life is well choreographed, centering (as is the case for so many contemporary American middle-class families) around the children and their happily inexhaustible needs. For married parents like us, Valentine’s Day serves as a very public reminder to put everything else aside for a day or an evening in order to focus on the most important relationship in our lives. It’s a day to stop rowing shoulder to shoulder, pull the oars in, and turn and face one another as lovers and as friends. It’s not the only day a year we do this, but it’s the one day where doing this kind of reconnecting is planned well in advance.

Valentine’s Day isn’t about expensive obligations any more. I don’t have to wrack my brain and go into debt to come up with creative and expensive ways to prove my love. Rather, V-Day has become one particularly important occasion to recharge the battery of our marriage, of our love affair, and of our friendship. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted.

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