Candlelit dinners replete with a fine bottle of wine, diamonds, roses or imported chocolates. If you haven’t planned or purchased something from this list, you’re more than likely going to have a horrifying night (and you won’t get lucky either) this Feb. 14th. Why? Because unrealistic expectations are not just about women, but men too. We all fall into the Valentine’s Day trap and beyond. The problem with romantic fantasy is that it starts long before our first big Valentine’s purchase or even before our first kiss. We’ve been hearing the “happily-ever-after” fairy tales since we were in kindergarten and we’ve grown up with a steady diet of the diamonds-are-forever commercials.
The commercialization of Valentine’s Day has given rise to great expectations and just as often great disappointments if the gift giving is not enough to meet our romantic fantasy. These expectations have evolved over time and, with the help of jewelers and car makers, have encapsulated our longings to be loved with an equally open wallet. This profligate giving of expensive tokens has become the opportunistic statement of our enduring emotional wishes. We all want someone to think we’re special, that we can’t live without them! What better means of satiating our need to be loved than coughing up a diamond or two. The problem is that we may not have the means to meet the need.
So it is with Valentine’s Day. As our expectations soar with the coming of this much ballyhooed holiday, we can make out the problems that may come with it. It is not that gift giving is bad or that we should not give them but if we are making a connection between the size and cost of the gift with the quality of our love, we are creating an expectation that can cause a deep emotional rift in what may be an otherwise healthy relationship.
Ted Huston, a professor at the University of Texas, developed a project in 1979 that followed 168 married couples for 14 years to see what factors were present in successful long term marriages. He found that couples who entered their relationship with high expectations were far more likely to experience conflict and disenchantment.
Huston found that even though there is a change from courtship to marriage in the adage that “all finance’s love football” it will not ultimately ruin our relationship. He concludes that the greatest harbinger of hope for couples is, of all things, friendship. It appears that those couples who managed to keep their expectations realistic and concentrated more on the way they interacted with each other proved to be a winner over the long haul.
When we think about friendship with our lover, what immediately springs to mind is: what’s friendship got to do with romance? Long term love is sustained not by romance alone but by the daily activities of following through on promises, showing up, being there when we are needed, owning up to our responsibility for our part in an argument, and first and foremost, by being the kind of person who is worthy of being loved.
So we ask ourselves how in the world can I be best friends without losing the romance? Not so easy. To do that we need to find out what makes romance and what breaks it. The critical piece that ruins relationships is the inability to resolve conflicts. Here’s where it gets tricky. When conflict arises what do we traditionally do? Usually we get defensive. The best offense is the best defense. Of course if we expect our mate to be romantic and it does not happen, we find ourselves complaining and then the defenses come out like July 4th. The key is to express our disappointments in a way that doesn’t feel critical to our mate. Conflict is normal but our ability to resolve difficulties without alienating our partner is the key to long term romance. Here are just of few our my favorite defenses to avoid.
- Globalization: “Everybody does that.”
- Blame-Shifting: “And you do the same thing but worse.”
- The Victim: “I’m so good to you, and you treat me so badly.”
- Gas-lighting: “I was just kidding; Can’t you take a joke?”
- Entitlement: “You are the one who made me angry; You deserve it.”
- Denial: “I’m not angry.”
- Displacement: “Just because you had a bad day at work, don’t take it out on me.”
- Guilt: “I work my ass off to give you everything and you can’t even make me some tea.”
- Shame/Blame: “You are a human slug; you never do anything.”
- Stonewalling: “This is the way I am, take it or leave it.”
- Projection: “You think I’m stupid, don’t you?”
- Devaluation: “You really could lose some of that extra weight.”
If we can avoid these toxic defenses we are most of the way there. We have also found that the most common reason for alienating our partner is the inability to be influenced or just plain old not listening. If our mate tells us that Valentine’s Day is really important and that flowers say it all to them about being loved and we can’t find the momentum to pony up a few buds then we have not been listening.
The next big thing we need to know for Valentine’s Day is showing appreciation. Valentine’s Day is a great occasion to thank our partner for all the good things they do throughout the year that we really do appreciate. Bringing home the bacon, cooking dinners, being a good friend and taking care of business are all great attributes to acknowledge to our partner. It also doesn’t cost a whole lot to write it all down in a card.
How is it then that we can tell the difference between realistic expectations and what we have come to believe is our romantic due? Central to our Valentine wishes is the reality of what it takes to make it work. Making sweet music is only a part of the equation. Love over time is something we create, we make it from whole cloth, we fashion it from what we find in ourselves and within one another. If we can pay attention, be a safe and secure person to be with, be willing to find a compromise when needed and being a caring mate will get us where we want to go. It is the common touch, the helping hand, being reasonable, fair, open and emotionally connected that are the ingredients of true romance. When I speak to women about love, what they say is not so much hearts and flowers as it is about someone they can depend on. A good sense of humor and a positive attitude more often than not will trump romantic ideals.
When we add it all up it is not so much the loot we come up with but how we treat one another that will ultimately save our relationship. Respect cannot be bought, and it’s the same with friendship. Our ability to be kind, empathic, compassionate and tender will determine the strength and durability of our relationship over time. Relationship success is inevitably linked to our knowledge of what we truly need from one another and for having made peace with our own fantasy expectations.
These basics of love and relationship are fundamental to a lasting intimacy and knowing the fundamentals is a critical component for all great teamwork. Relationships are all about being a good team player. By being there for each other, for tenderness and warmth, we provide lasting proof of our commitment to making it work. Interestingly enough Ted Huston found that men who exhibited what were termed “feminine” traits were more often successful in their marriages. It appears that positive behaviors like nurturing, tenderness and caring actually do work.
I remember early on in my marriage my wife gave me a very generous Valentine’s Day gift. After expressing my displeasure at the over-the-top nature of the gift she said to me “but I want to make you happy.” What I said to her in response made her stop in her tracks. I said “It’s not your job to make me happy, that’s my job.” She was stunned and relieved at the same time. Feeling like we must make our mate happy is a tremendous weight to carry and many a Valentine is based on that premise. Valentine’s Day is a celebration, not a responsibility. If we can carry that in our hearts and make each day a special Valentine by being the kind of person we are proud of, we are doing the every day Valentine’s Day work that makes love last.
Enduring love does not solely lie in gift giving or in the lovey-dovey cooing and oogling of lovers. Love is the exhaust from the small things of every day life. Being there at times when we are needed, showing appreciation and helping out more often carry the day. So much for great expectations. To that end a rose in your teeth, a song in your heart and breakfast in bed are not a bad start.