Here it comes, before you know it, sneaking around the corner of the holidays every year: Valentine’s Day.
Cuffing season begins just after Halloween, and Valentine’s Day serves as the punctuation mark, the big bright pink exclamation point. This season marks the long cold autumn and winter months that have the capacity to make even the most confidently single people crave a cuddle buddy — because even when you’re happily untethered, the holidays and the weather and the absolute overwhelming abundance of couples and couples activities can be enough to make you feel left out and deeply, deeply lonely. Just being on the outside when it comes to love and partnership is hard enough, and with couples activities being kind of the name of the game this season — it can be all the more painful. And just when you got over having to kiss no one or your cat on New Year’s, here come the unavoidable hearts and sentiment that reiterate that yes, love is seemingly everywhere except with you.
Valentine’s Day and the season overall can be painful and uncomfortable for many different reasons, which can manifest in different degrees.
There is a lot of pressure this season to be in a relationship, especially for women, who more heavily confront the patriarchal construct that they are not valid unless they have male approval. Capitalism also pushes the heteronormative relationship construct. Modern Western constructions of romance are typically deeply patriarchal and rooted in rape culture: romanticizing dependence and obsession, maintaining that women are expected to perform emotional labor and men are supposed to passively receive or reciprocate with material goods, etc. Media is a big culprit here, and it gets even worse around this season.
We romanticize unhealthy dynamics.
One of the longest, most involved relationships of my life was with a man who emotionally abused me, and I was repeatedly taught that his actions were born out of “love.” I know better now, but I burn for all the individuals who still have not been taught what actual love looks like.
Still, even if you know that the “true meaning” of Valentine’s Day has been overshadowed by capitalism and patriarchy — it can be lonely. No matter who you are, this season can trigger some very valid pain. These experiences can be exacerbated if you already live with depression, if you’ve had your heart broken since the last Valentine’s Day, or if you’ve had your heart broken ever, really.
I also know from experience that the 14th can also be especially distressing if you are in a relationship, but due to your own mental health, past experiences, or current unhappiness, the date only serves as an upsettingly saccharine reminder of what you still don’t have.
Amid the chocolate and florals, this season can be one of serious grief.
I know it’s not okay. It hurts. To cope with trauma, be it from your distant or not-so-distant past, your own mental chemistry, or a combination of these factors, can be to see the flimsiness in “okay.” I know that to be saturated with Valentine imagery when your heart is heavy or breaking can make it feel like nothing else matters but the overwhelming pain and shame.
I have never been the ender of a relationship, not really, not cleanly. Now I can recognize that though I have found beauty and new angles of myself in the moments I have shared with my partners, I have almost never been in a good romantic relationship.
I don’t want to consider whether or not they’ve been “worth it” because my suffering is not quantifiable; neither is the joy some of them have given me, neither is what I’ve learned. All I know is that these very real wounds build on top of each other and scar, and I can never anticipate when a wound will be ripped open again, and how many others will bleed when it does.
How can we love when this is inside of us? How can we love when our default mental state is pain? How can we undergo the patterns and practices of courtship when we know from lived experience that those paths have led exclusively to suffering?
There is no one answer. I cannot make it okay, there might not be an okay. There is no “way out” from this reality, and I can’t speak for you, but it hurts me all the more to search for one.
I am here with you. I am sad and angry and lonely and I don’t want to be told I shouldn’t be. I hate that this season makes me miss something that I don’t even want, because I don’t want patriarchal constructions of romance. I don’t want any permutation of “chivalry,” I don’t want a love that thinks shiny things are apologies, that claims possessiveness is romantic, that prescribes how I dress or work or fuck. Because you know what? That’s not the love I seek. That’s not the love I have to give. That’s not the love I am made of, and my love is the one I will celebrate this Sunday and all other days I can.
Not all love is romantic.
Real love looks like truth. Real love looks like communication, kindness, respect. Real love looks like partnership and equality. Real love looks like mutual understanding, mutual effort towards mutual goals. Love isn’t easy, but it’s worth it if your partner is a teammate, not the competition. Love is looking into every bit of a person that they can share with you, recognizing their pain, their scars, their insecurities, their vulnerabilities, and seeing the wholeness of that person — understanding that you want to share every bit of them, even if you don’t love every bit of them. You want to help them learn and grow like they help you learn and grow, and that means they need to see your darknesses too — they need to commit to all of you. Real love combats the intersectional power structures of the patriarchy by affirming that you, all of you, is valid.
Even if your love is heterosexual, real love combats heteronormativity and prescribed roles, to establish a fair and chosen partnership between individuals. Your emotions, your baggage, your past, everything you carry makes you uniquely you, and real love embraces that wholeness. And what we need to recognize is that the most important partner in love you will ever have is you.
I’m not going to say that “you can’t be with another person until you love yourself.” Yes, I believe that within love, you can’t expect another person to solve your problems, and you must work towards self-love before you can support another person; but the process of learning to love yourself is often even more complicated than learning to love another person, and if your partner understands where you’re at, more power to you! But overall, that rhetoric can be dangerous, especially for people like us.
Love is a process, radical self-love is a process, and it can be one you share with other people, learning to love them as you learn to love yourself, to love who you are when you are falling in love. We must remember that internalized victim blaming and negativity are symptoms of rape culture and emotional abuse. We must recognize that if your brain chemistry defaults you to anxiety and depression, no amount of love, Hallmark or otherwise, will ever negate that truth. These experiences are valid, and they will not necessarily go away, ever. But love can coexist with them.
It’s not about ignoring your pain. Hey — you’re reading this. You clicked it. You know you’re not alone, and you’re seeking community and reassurance. That’s already a really big, beautiful step towards acknowledging that you can (and certainly deserve to) love yourself.
In the meantime, here are some suggestions for self-care this weekend and this season:
spend time with friends and family (or pets!) doing activities you truly want to do
watch or read media that celebrates real and radical love, like Americanah, Shadowshaper, Under the Udala Trees, Her Story, Steven Universe, or Parks & Rec (extra bonus for Galentine’s Day episodes!)
watch or read media that doesn’t concern itself with love at all, but whatever it is you’re interested in: space, cowboys, spies, Mordor, mystery, penguins…
spend time alone doing whatever your thing is, that thing you don’t share with anyone or that uniquely makes you feel good: be it writing, singing, hiking, coding, or drinking wine and marathoning old TV
spend the day affirming yourself, reminding yourself that you are a beautiful and powerful soul, that your worth is yours and has nothing to do with other people’s standards.
don’t apologize for spending Valentine’s Day alone or with friends! There is nothing to be guilty or ashamed about when you’re making the choice to engage in radical self-love and celebrate yourself
If you are happy today with your honey(s), I am so, so happy for you. I don’t hate or deride true love, only the patriarchal approximations we’re supposed to want, and if you’ve found something outside of that, thank you for reassuring me that it’s out there.
If your love is founded on mutual trust, respect, and understanding, I celebrate you today. Appreciate what you have, revel in it however best suits you and yours. True love is a seriously magical thing, and I am so happy for you: you who exists in this wild and brilliant experience.
For the rest of us, I wish we could get together and turn all the sugary “I’m yours”es into “I’m mine” and celebrate our individual power — celebrate our collective, individual power in response to a system that tells us we’re not valid unless we’re a partner. If you seek a loving relationship, I keep my fingers crossed for you between now and the next cuffing season, but just know that you deserve to hold out for real love, radical love.
(Featured Image: A person sits on top of a mountain overlooking a brilliant sky.)