We all know that Valentine’s Day is a contrivance of greeting-card companies and florists. We all know that even those who have nice relationships aren’t really enjoying February 14, as there is nothing particularly romantic about eating overpriced heart-shaped ravioli in a restaurant full of unhappy couples on the coldest night of the year.
And yet, the holiday still manages to make us feel like shit.
Every stupid drug-store box of chocolates, every generic bouquet of deli roses, every Macy’s ad hawking tacky jewelry and embarrassing underwear is all basically saying this: Everyone is buying this crap, knowing full well it’s crap, because there is someone out there who they love, and they don’t want that person to be left out. You, on the other hand, are being left out.
That’s why we see so many stories telling us “How to Be Single on Valentine’s Day.” We get cheerful lists and slideshows: Get a massage! Sing karaoke! Buy yourself a new purse! These chipper suggestions are accompanied by pictures of extremely happy singles: great-looking 20somethings laughing and raising giant glasses of wine, women dancing alone in their apartments or blissfully soaking in candlelit bathtubs. These singles aren’t going to let Valentine’s Day bring them down—nuh uhn!
I spent many years writing magazine articles that aimed to help women feel better about their lives—I interviewed hundreds of psychologists, and read countless self-help books. It wasn’t just academic to me: I was single for most of my 20s and 30s and was particularly interested in how one handled the pain and indignity of The Search. So I often road-tested the advice I gathered. One solitary Saturday night, rather than my usual pasta in front of the TV, I cooked myself a pan-seared salmon with sautéed spinach and pine nut couscous. I opened a nice bottle of wine, flipped on the classical music station, lit a candle—the whole blissfully single nine yards.
I was trying to prove to myself that I didn’t need a relationship, that I could be “happy alone.” The problem was, having a candlelit dinner alone didn’t make me feel better: it made me feel much, much worse.
What happens when those twitchy feelings you’re trying to douse with new clothes and funny movies and herbal body wash show up anyway? What happens if instead of being rapturously single on Valentine’s Day you feel other things: loneliness, frustration, anxiety, depression?
During my years of involuntary singlehood, I gradually learned that the most empowering action I could take was to let those unfashionable emotions in. When I didn’t try to push the pain away, when I simply noticed that queasy sensation in my heart, I realized it wasn’t that bad. When I stopped being embarrassed by my sadness, the actual experience of it was quite manageable. The fear of the feeling was worse than the feeling itself.
I’ve got nothing against a having a Valentine’s spa day or celebrity crush movie marathon. But those perky Valentine’s listicles have always bugged me because they protest too much. Underneath all that pep is an underlying panic: Distract yourself! Distract yourself! The truth is too painful! Let a trace of sorrow creep in and then that’s another thing you’ve failed at. Not only are you unable to find a partner, but you also suck at being single.
What if, instead of celebrating yourself on Valentine’s Day, you just were yourself? What if you simply acknowledged that being alone on February 14 can be difficult? I’m not saying wallow in it. I’m saying acknowledge that it is hard in the same way that married people brag that marriage is hard. You’re going through something kind of challenging. You’re being reminded that other people have something you want and don’t have. This doesn’t make you a loser—this makes you about average. It has been many times before, but it bears repeating: We all have our stuff.
Not that I advise contemplating the unhappiness of others—as many articles geared toward singles do. In my experience, this is not an effective path to happiness.
Here’s the main point: It doesn’t have to be a big deal. Whatever particular cocktail of feelings you have on Valentine’s Day will pass. They will pass whether you spend the evening at the greatest party in the world or cleaning the bathroom. They are temporary neurological sensations. You don’t have to be afraid of them.
In the Buddhist tradition I study, this is called being a warrior. That might sound weird, but in a culture where so much is designed to distract you from your life, actually being in it turns out to be sort of ballsy. And as with any act of courage, it’s hard at first but at a certain point you realize, “Hey, I’m doing this. And I’m fine.”
So do what you like on Valentine’s Day—have a great time, have an awful time. On February 15, the flowers will start fading, the balloons will start puckering and the chocolates will be half price. It will be an ordinary day, just like the one before.