This Valentine’s Day, let’s reflect on the power of all kinds of love
Romantic love isn’t the only kind of love worth making a fuss about. It’s time to expand the concept of love, as well as how we celebrate it
I am, frankly, a bit of a killjoy around most holidays. This is partly a result of the trauma of my Christian nationalist upbringing. Religious trauma makes Christmas and Easter somewhat fraught for me, to the point that being fully present and able to enjoy even strictly secular celebrations and the ‘festive’ atmosphere is difficult.
I’m also unable to set aside my discomfort with the colonialist elements of certain holiday traditions – particularly those associated with Thanksgiving – and/or the rampant consumerism associated with holidays such as Christmas and Valentine’s Day.
America being America, the consumerist spectacle here is probably particularly gauche compared to most countries, and that undoubtedly colours the way I think and feel about holidays. Christmas is by far the worst offender here, with spending on Christmas dwarfing spending on Valentine’s Day. But for most of my life, I have low-key resented Valentine’s Day – at first, because I’ve rarely been partnered up to celebrate it.
The constant bombardment of romantic imagery made me feel somehow ‘less-than’. But as I’ve aged and matured – recognising and processing the queerness I had repressed due to my evangelical upbringing; learning that it’s OK and even necessary to love myself, and not ‘selfish’ and ‘sinful’ as evangelical Christianity had taught me; and learning that I don’t need a significant other to be whole and happy – I became less concerned with not having a special someone to mark the day with.
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I also became more concerned with the way Valentine’s Day messaging not only valorises romantic love as the key to human happiness, but also reinforces toxic masculinity, heteronormativity and traditional gender roles.
Valentine’s Day messaging reinforces toxic masculinity, heteronormativity and traditional gender roles
While Valentine’s Day advertising, gifts and greeting cards still mostly sell us the same old notion of romance, American adults are increasingly rejecting the traditional nuclear model altogether. According to data from the Pew Research Center released last October, 38% of US adults aged 25–54 are “unpartnered” (defined as neither married nor living with a partner). That figure was 29% in 1990.
And this increase is happening despite the fact that economic policy (in the US, at least) strongly favours the married through tax breaks, access to health insurance benefits from a spouse’s employer and so on. Also, Professor Paul Dolan, a behavioural scientist at the London School of Economics, has made the case that while men benefit from marriage, women, on the whole, do not, and that single women without children report the highest levels of happiness.
This must in some substantial part have to do with the fact that women married to men still do twice as much domestic labour as their husbands, usually in addition to working outside the home. In the US, we also lack federally mandated paid parental leave, in stark contrast to… well, basically everywhere else. Meanwhile stay-at-home dads are still both relatively rare and subject to stigma.
In conclusion, patriarchy is alive and well. And the mainstream approach to Valentine’s Day in the US doesn’t exactly challenge patriarchal attitudes and norms.
A love lesson from Disney
However, in addition to opting out of marriage, many Americans have begun to consider just how unrealistic it is to expect one other person to meet all their emotional, intellectual, sexual and relational needs.
In fact, this notion has even become a pop culture staple. Disney animated films have dropped the trope of ‘prince saves princess with true love’s kiss’ in favour of identifying the love between, for example, sisters – as in 2013’s ‘Frozen’ – as the source of the magic required to overcome adversity.
Disney’s new hit animation ‘Encanto’ goes further, making the source of magic family love and harmony in general. The musical’s story also indicates that the magic will die if one family member’s narcissistic tendencies force others to live inauthentically, hiding their true selves.
I’m a queer person who felt compelled to hide the truth about my religious and political views – as well as my sexual and gender identity – from my conservative Christian family for many long years. I also felt the need to put considerable geographic distance between myself and them as I processed. And because of all that, the message of ‘Encanto’ resonates powerfully.
As I see it, ‘magic’ can be found in all kinds of loving relationships. I hope that someday I’ll live in a society that not only celebrates the power of the whole spectrum of loving and socially supportive relationships (without valorising a one man/one woman relationship culminating in marriage as the gold standard), but also provides the kind of economic fairness that facilitates the formation of multiple intimate friendships and valued connections.
Celebrate Galentine’s Day instead
This year, as Valentine’s Day approaches, I find myself in a much better place than I’ve been in many previous years. I share my life with a roommate who is also my best friend and chosen family, with a small dog who is very cuddly, and with a handful of close friends and family members who have come to accept me both near and far.
My bestie – who is a bit more than a decade younger than me, and much more of a sister to me than my only blood sibling (who can’t, at this point and likely ever, truly accept that I am transgender) – comes from a similar fundamentalist Christian background, so we ‘get’ each other on that level. We’re both queer and happily divorced, and we’ve enjoyed watching ‘Encanto’ together multiple times, bonding over the fact that we both consider ourselves to be the Bruno of our families. (If you haven’t watched it, you must!)
She and I have both declared the dog to be “our valentine”. We also plan on celebrating Galentine’s Day – the unofficial holiday invented by a character in the US sitcom ‘Parks and Recreation’ – by going to a restaurant that’s special to us. Observed on 13 February, the day before Valentine’s Day, Galentine’s Day is a day for “ladies celebrating ladies”, for revelling in the joys of female friendship and showering your girlfriends with love – and its popularity seems to be on the rise.
Meanwhile, despite our differences, my parents have sent me a heart-shaped box of chocolates every Valentine’s Day for decades now, something I have come to appreciate more and more for the recognition that all kinds of love are valuable, and that the celebration of love on Valentine’s Day need not be limited to romantic love.
If you do have a hot date with a spouse or significant other next Monday, I don’t begrudge you that; I hope you enjoy it. I also hope you might consider ways of celebrating love that exists outside the heteronormative mould, and to let the people you care about know how much they mean to you.
After all, we could all benefit from expanding the ways that we frame the concept of love, in addition to the ways that we celebrate it.
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