Ahhh,Valentine’s Day. Of all the Hallmark holidays, it’s the Hallmark-iest. Much like Thanksgiving and Christmas, everyone thinks that the rest of the world is having a much better Valentine’s Day, and people can get discouraged and even depressed if they feel that theirs falls short. Social media doesn’t help, as people post pictures of their gifts and sing the praises of their partners while yours shops at the last minute for a “To a Lovely Person” card and a Snickers bar. Unfortunately, Valentine’s Day also comes not long after New Year’s Eve, another holiday where to not have a date is to wonder what is wrong with you.
We all have Valentine’s Day memories, good and bad. Eddy Shea, after pledging his undying love for a couple of months, stood me up at a subway station with a plate of heart shaped cookies (we were 15). Notification Day for my most important internship fell on Valentine’s Day 1994. One year, I sat waiting for AAA for HOURS after a pothole shredded two tires. Come to think of it, I don’t really remember one good Valentine’s Day over the next, but I do remember the ones that were, for whatever reasons, not great. I guess with a nod to Tolstoy, all happy Valentine’s Days are alike, unhappy Valentine’s Days are unhappy in their own ways.
Loyal readers know I work with and really enjoy teens and young adults. Through them I witness and often recall the emotional ups and downs of the search for identity, the quest for love, and the lessons of heartbreak. I once had a 16 year-old girl walk into my office and immediately break down sobbing. She was so hysterical I feared that she had just gotten news that one of her parents was gravely ill. Turns out, she had been dumped by her boyfriend.
Some people would have told her to get over it, but I remember getting dumped at 14 after having believed, thanks to bodice-ripping novels and rom-coms, that because my feelings were intense and the relationship had lasted four whole months, it had staying power. I also believed that we would “always be friends,” and told my well-intentioned mother that she knew “nothing about life and less about love.” Yes, as an adult, I can look back and laugh over my naïveté. Yes, as an adult, I know that teen romances can, and usually should, be short-lived. But at 15 or 16, those losses are devastating. We’ve all been there, and if we think back, we will realize that they are devastating not only because at that age our emotions run on all eight cylinders, but also because we have no point of reference. As an adult, having been through other relationships, you have the perspective that allows you to move on. But the high-schooler who has just been dumped thinks his heart will break in a million pieces. That is an overwhelming feeling, to think that the pain is so severe that A: you will not recover, B: it is proof of the depth of your love, and C: you can’t imagine feeling this way for another human being. Adults know love hurts; kids can’t imagine surviving the kind of pain that causes you to deteriorate into a trembling heap on your therapist’s couch.
If not for heartbreak there would be no opera, Fleetwood Mac wouldn’t have put out one of the greatest rock albums, there would be few novels, no Iliad, no Aida, and Van Gogh would have died with two ears.
When I talk to kids about young love, I tell them that I see the purpose of those relationships as “practice” for when they are mature enough to have a real relationship. Through our exploration as kids, we figure out what type of person we like, how much privacy we want in a relationship, how much togetherness, and we learn to fight fair and learn what we will tolerate. The goal is not to settle down at 16–very few people do–the goal is to use the process to figure out what we want…and to have fun, of course….kids, kissing is underrated!
In the 35 years between standing at a subway station with my plate of cookies and now, the Valentine’s Days I remember are the ones that stood out for other reasons—flat tires, the next step in my career, going out with a friend whose husband was working, the chocolates my dad used to buy me when I was little, and the one, only a few years ago, where I was down for the count with a fever. So, I guess the lesson is that for the most part, one Valentine’s Day blends into the next (note: guys should still buy a card and chocolates, but the pressure we can put, especially the young, on making it perfect and Instagram-worthy only keeps us from simply enjoying the moment). With the right person, eating pretzels in a freezing car while waiting for a tow truck can be a great Valentine’s Day. It certainly is a memorable one.
As for me, I still bake for the people I like, despite the bad feeling of being stood up with my cookies at 15. Life and love go on.
Barbara Kapetanakes, PsyD. Practices psychotherapy in Sleepy Hollow