02/14/2014 10:59 am ET Updated Apr 15, 2014

Have a Happ(ier) Valentine's Day

What words come to mind when you think of Valentine's Day? Romance? Intimacy? Trouble? As a couple's therapist, I know that the annual day of love and hearts, chocolates and diamonds, can be hazardous for couples. For many people in relationships, February 14 may conjure panic, dread, and fear. That isn't the way it has to be!

Karen, 29, a smart, independent woman, was head over heels in love with Greg, 33, a banker. Their relationship had all the makings of real intimacy. They spent their weekends together and knew and liked each other's friends. They were beginning to understand each other's vulnerabilities.

Often, couples will avoid confrontation early on in a relationship, and this couple was still in that phase. They hadn't told each other about some of their disappointments. For example, when Karen had the flu, she felt but never told Greg that he hadn't called "often enough" to see how she was or stop by with orange juice and snacks. When Greg invited Karen to an important dinner with his boss, he felt -- but never said -- that she was "too quiet" and not "interesting" enough.

Enter Valentine's Day. As do many women, Karen set her sights high, fantasizing about a romantic dinner at a charming restaurant a few towns away. (He didn't even know it existed!) She imagined flowers waiting for her at her apartment when she walked out the door in the morning. (Really?) She even thought Greg might do a little scavenger hunt with small gifts hidden around her apartment! (Great expectations!) In other words, her wishes were unrealistic and way off.

Meanwhile she got them tickets to an off-Broadway play in New York and bought herself some new sexy lingerie.

Greg was scratching his head, trying to figure out what to get for Karen. He loved her but didn't really know what she wanted. While walking around the mall, he passed jewelry shops and department stores. He looked at handbags and scarves; at lingerie ("too obvious," he thought). Then he saw a funky hat that he thought she would look great in, and without a second thought bought it. He was proud of his purchase -- it was whimsical and fun! He pictured Karen wearing it at the beach that next summer. He made dinner reservations at one of their favorite neighborhood restaurants.

How do you think Valentine's Day went? Well, at first Karen was very disappointed. She initially perceived his gift as "not enough." Why hadn't he given her something, well, expensive? Something dazzling? She tried to hide her disappointment, but he could tell something was wrong. He was upset that she didn't appreciate his gift. So he explained to her that he hadn't wanted to get a generic gift -- he'd wanted to do something special that was just for her. To him, the hat had captured something wonderful about her personality that was unique to her -- and that he loved.

Karen realized that his gift reflected a choice for her, not for just anyone. It was personal and loving. She leaned over and gave him a big hug. Greg was thrilled with her gifts and pleased that she appreciated that he was thinking of her and her alone when he bought the hat (whew!)

The moral of the story:

Valentine's Day is just a day -- it is not the definition of your relationship. Make it small and special!

Rein in your fantasies.

Appreciate the unexpected.

Show your love and appreciation of your partner daily--don't save it for special occasions!

Don't break the bank with expensive gifts. Money will never substitute for genuine love and caring.

Sonya Rhodes is co-author with Susan Schneider of the forthcoming book The Alpha Woman Meets Her Match: How Todays Strong Women Find Love and Happiness Without Struggling, April, 2014.