Valentine's Day. The day that happy couples exchange kisses and chocolate and go out for a candle-lit dinner. And unhappy couples feel worse about their marriage than on any other day of the year.
With all the pressure to be romantic and passionate, to feel like starry-eyed lovers, to somehow resurrect the mystery and allure you felt in the early days of courtship -- after a long day of work and a race home to pick up the kids, after picking up their pizza and your dry cleaning and double-checking with the babysitter -- even reasonably happy couples may wonder if they're happy enough.
And struggling couples? All the hype and heart-studded hoopla can push them over the edge.
Valentine's Day generates record-breaking flower sales and the exchange of over a billion boxes of chocolate. It also triggers a dramatic increase in the number of calls made to divorce attorneys. Online searches for "divorce" and "divorce advice" increase by as much as 40 percent in the weeks that surround this supposed celebration of love.
One explanation for this is that unhappily married people hold out through the holidays, and by January or February, they're ready to act. Another is that Valentine's Day makes a clear distinction between the haves and have-nots: those who have love and romance (and a dozen red roses) and those who do not.
Valentine's Day is the relationship equivalent of standing in a fluorescent-lit dressing room trying on swimsuits: every dimple, flaw and bit of flesh out of place is magnified tenfold. The forgotten bill or the snappish attitude, the trash left un-emptied, the "not tonight dears" or the sex that lacks spark -- the things that we tolerate (even if just barely) can, on this one loaded day, transform into deal breakers.
Hold any relationship up to an ideal and there will inevitably be ways that it won't measure up. Assume that one person can be everything we wish for, expect sparkle, pizzazz and unflagging enthusiasm, and the sweet, ordinary aspects of married life can seem second-rate, when they're not.
The things I love most about my husband have very little to do with romance: The fact that he'll go out of his way to get the tangerines that I like, that he'll let me put my cold feet on his slightly warmer ones at night, that he's wildly appreciative for the simple things that I do, like bringing him tea, or helping him make plane reservations, or putting tulips in a vase on the dining room table. Best of all, he looks as cute to me now as he did when we were young lovers in our twenties.
For many people, Valentine's Day can be a pass-fail test of love and devotion and, under such rigorous scrutiny, even some of the best marriages might fail the test.
Valentine's Day should, instead, be a reminder to focus on what we have, as opposed to what's missing. It can warn us that comparisons are dangerous, especially when we're comparing ourselves to some idealized relationship that cannot exist. Not for us; not for anyone.
Love is about acceptance. It's about adjusting our expectations and not demanding perfection, or even seeking it. Love is about noticing what's good and nurturing it, as well as noticing what needs repair and attending to it.
A few years ago, a client came in after Valentine's Day with the following story:
"There we were, in a restaurant, surrounded by couples. Everyone sipping champagne and eating chocolate-dipped strawberries. Some couples looked happy. Others looked bored. And I found myself wondering, when was the last time that couple had sex? Yesterday? Last weekend? Month before last? Then I wondered how many of them were going to down the last bite of their sundae, go home, tear off their clothes and have hot, passionate sex? I used to assume it was all of them," he laughed. "Even the bored couples. I used to assume everyone was living in wedded ecstasy except Angie and me."
It was then that I thought we need a new holiday. One that recognizes that marriage is about the everyday, not the one-day-a-year.
Nowadays, much of life can appear, well, larger than life, more dazzling than life. Looking at Facebook, it can seem as if everyone's gotten a fantastic new job, along with a gargantuan raise, traveled to somewhere exotic, cooked a dinner to die for, and seen THE ABSOLUTELY BEST sunset, bar none. Compared to that, your regular old life can seem dreadfully flat.
Who slaps together a meatloaf sandwich and posts a photo of it on Instagram? Who shares a snapshot of their beautiful new couch and includes the never-ending basket of unfolded laundry that sits on it -- and is even willing to mention the struggles that surround folding it? Why not have a holiday that says "This is what married life is actually like and it's good and satisfying enough, as is?"
My vote is to call it "Ordinary Relationship Day" -- a day when couples acknowledge the un-edited, un-photoshopped truth about life with their partner, including the good, the bad and the ridiculously absurd.
What a relief it would be to see a photo of the beautiful new duvet cover on your friends' unmade bed, the takeout Chinese food dinner that they ate at 9 p.m., straight from the containers, one spouse crashed out with their four year-old who's been having trouble sleeping, the other wondering whether to wake her or just let her sleep.
People often grouse about the everyday annoyances and disappointments, the repetitive frustrations that make marriage a challenge. I say, let's celebrate the whole lot of it: the triumphs, the struggles and the lessons we learn from them.
Real love is messy and complicated, delightful and sweet and worth more than anything we might get, once a year, in a pink, heart-shaped box with a sparkly bow.
Please share your thoughts!
For more love and relationship advice visit my blog: Speaking of Marriage.