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Monday, April 15, 2024

Commentary: Redefining Valentine’s Day

There’s no rule to relationships

With the great holiday of Valentine’s Day recently passed, I’ve taken some time to reflect on the heteronormative and strictly defined social constructions of relationships left in its wake. 

From a very young age, we are taught a specific set of ideas about love and relationships. Whether it be from books and movies, our families or just observing the world around us, there lies a clear consensus by the time we start engaging in romantic behavior. Most of us learn the following: We are all meant to end up in a relationship. With this person, you will have a bond like no other, and you will call it “love,” and if it isn’t right the first time, you will one day find your soulmate. 

That’s where Valentine’s Day comes in. Commercials are centered around love: Magazines feature gift guides “for him” and “for her,” and supermarkets are overflowing with teddy bears and pink. Every Feb. 14, we celebrate our special someone with material goods, remembering the gendered expectations of relationships on the day Saint Valentine was buried. (Note: This guy was only deemed romantically relevant some 1,400 years after he died. So it makes sense that a possibly false notion that the saint had anything to do with love upholds the socially manufactured norms imposed on us by the holiday.)

I don’t mean to say that anyone who celebrates the holiday is being fooled by capitalist interests or that we don’t need a day just to appreciate our significant others. The day itself isn’t the real problem here, but rather what it represents about the ideals we operate under during the rest of the year. 

In a jewelry commercial I saw recently, a woman tells her husband that she doesn’t want anything for Valentine’s Day, and he says to himself that he knows she’ll be livid if he doesn’t actually get her anything. The notion that women aren’t communicative or are so materialistic as to hate their partner for not buying them a gift is one of many false and disrespectful representations of the ways relationships work. These perceptions perpetuate gender roles and sexist concepts in relationships.

This day of love also highlights our obsession with monogamy. Monogamy is a concept that arose with civilization, and it’s not as innate as we tend to believe. Humans are sexual beings, and it’s normal to want to be with more than one person after a while — most animals do. It’s becoming increasingly clear that monogamy isn’t always necessary to sustain a healthy and happy connection. For some, it can even be the downfall of a relationship. Vox’s Netflix show “Explained” has an episode on this topic if you’re confused or intrigued. 

Beyond the enforced interplay within romantic relationships, there is also a sentiment behind Valentine’s Day that we’re supposed to be in love. It’s there to remind us that that is the ultimate goal. 

The UC Davis Love Lab passed out condom goodie bags last week, including a strip of paper with the statement “You are a worthwhile human being, whether or not you are in a relationship.” At first, I found this to be ridiculous. I’m pretty sure most people don’t define their self-worth on the basis of their relationship status. Upon further consideration, though, I realized that the need they felt to include this disclaimer among the condoms was representative of a bigger issue: The holiday’s aggressive push of romantic love and relationships can leave people feeling less loved than usual, even those who feel fulfilled while single. It’s kind of counterintuitive. 

On the holiday of love, shouldn’t we be encouraging kindness, compassion and all types of love — romantic or otherwise? If we participate in this holiday in elementary school, before we understand what romance really is, then its basis must reach beyond just romantic relationships. If it doesn’t, then we shouldn’t be celebrating it with children. 

We should use this day to encourage loving friendships, too — in particular, the idea of platonic intimacy. We’re taught that romantic relationships are where you should be most emotionally and physically vulnerable with another person. There is, however, an opportunity for this with friends as well. The way you open up to a person is likely different with friends than it is with partners, but that doesn’t make one form of vulnerability more profound than the other. The bond between people is immensely stronger when we can be our authentic selves and this is supported by intimacy in both romantic and platonic settings. This type of love can be just as impactful.

My point is simple: There is no rule to relationships. Our romantic relations are just as individual and effortful as our friendships. Standards vary from person to person, but so long as all parties involved agree on what’s expected from one another, the way you choose to engage is no one’s business but you and your partner’s. 

Valentine’s Day doesn’t create this narrow definition of relationships — all of us do. But the holiday props up an idealized version of human connection that impedes the progression of a culture that should be allowed to explore the diverse interests of humans without judgement. 

Humanity constantly touts our emotional intelligence and social capacity that surpasses that of most of the Animal Kingdom, but we are conforming to a dynamic that is more restrictive than what those same, emotionally inept animals practice. If we’re able to love and feel in such varying and complex ways, why don’t we celebrate it? 

In the wise words of the Beatles, “All you need is love.” The only thing I would add is “Love that is equally represented and free of conventions” — and I’d like to think they would agree. 

Written By: Allie Bailey — arts@theaggie.org


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