By Peggy Mackenzie

Valentine’s Day was served up to be a very big deal back when I was a young, shy second grader. Filled with only recently acquired ideas about romance and the possibility of being thought of as “special” to someone, I was in a frenzy of expectation. The week before the big day, each child in the class decorated beautifully personalized “mailboxes” made of red construction paper with paper doilies and hearts pasted on, each with their name emblazoned on the front. We hung them up in a row on the window wall of our classroom, awaiting the little valentines our classmates would “deliver.” How inexplicably sweet were my expectations. And being special to someone didn’t mean just anyone, I’d already learned that. It had to be The One, even if that person was completely unknown at the time. Totally unrealistic, of course. But I was seven and was still new to how easy it is to manipulate expectations.

For me at the time, Valentine’s Day seemed to be about possibilities and unexpectedness.

Most people agree that Valentine’s Day is a good, if somewhat random, opportunity to shower loved ones with affection. At the same time, people also seem to resent the holiday’s obligatory nature. People in new relationships felt more obligated; and men felt more obligated than women.

If you’re a married man, research tells us, you might not have to worry so much about Valentine’s Day. But be careful if you’re unmarried and in a committed relationship. Researchers say the romantic aspect of the day appeals to unmarried women in committed relationships but not so much to single or married women. And some women in those long-term dating relationships expect the lavishness of the gifts they receive to increase each year.

People in new relationships feel more obligated to give gifts than those in established ones, and even couples who were fighting at the time said they’d probably buy something because they knew the other person would.

Others expressed a sense of disgust that an emotion as pure as love could be monetized and sold back to them:

“I love the concept of the day, but HATE how it is one of those corporate holidays,” one man said.

Anti-Valentine sentiment has been termed by social psychology theory as reactance. We expect to have the free will to make our own decisions about purchases. But when society, or Hallmark, or our high-maintenance partner tells us we must behave a certain way on a certain day, we feel like that freedom of choice has been restricted.

A survey of 6,400 people by the National Retail Federation found that fewer people are expected to participate in Valentine’s Day this year. Those who do take part will drop $134 on the day’s festivities. Perhaps those who still want to celebrate – but feel reluctant to shop instead should go for a gift that’s – um, free.


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