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A Curmudgeon's Valentine's Day Primer for Guys

Many of us men liken Valentine's Day to an IRS audit -- you know you're going to lose something, you just hope to reach Feb. 15th relatively unscathed.
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For Julius Caesar in ancient Rome, the Ides of March was not the best of days. For modern American men, it is mid-February that portends relational danger.

Greeting Card manufacturers, florists, confectioners, warm climate travel agents, jewelry merchants (diamonds are, again, a girl's best friend) and as a sign of the day, apps sellers, combine to define February 14th a day of heightened anticipatory romantic celebration, with a focus on certain gifts, primarily for women. By contrast, many men experience it more as National Damage Control Day. Many of us liken the day to an IRS audit -- you know you're going to lose something, you just hope to reach Feb. 15th relatively unscathed.

What about this day named for one or more erstwhile martyrs and Saints, creates such relationship friction?

Indeed, what is it about romantic comedies in today's media that require some suffering, distancing, anger and breakup (46 minutes into the formulaic feature film) before love can flower? Usually it revolves around a misunderstanding. Well, thank goodness for V-day, because no event is so rife with misunderstanding than today's version of Cupid's favorite holiday.

It's hard to imagine any more perfect storm for a relationship than a combination of 1) enhanced expectations on the part of one's sweetheart; 2) a discrepancy between those expectations and reality; and 3) a refusal to communicate the precise nature of the desire, because "if I had to tell him, it wouldn't count." The resultant volatile mix is potent enough to spawn relational damage.

In my long practice as a psychotherapist, I have seen couples come to discord, even break-ups as a result of the discrepancy between what she expected in the way of romance on this day and what he intended as a romantic gesture (although to be quite truthful, sometimes her upset has been occasioned, because like her birthday, Arbor Day and their anniversary, he has just forgotten what day it was).

On Valentines Day, 2007, Mary was unimpressed by the 18 long-stem red roses her husband of 10 years brought home, when she was envisioning "a single yellow rose as a gesture of love." Their V-Day fight continued into my office three days later. Despite some very effective marital therapy, hard work and a positive outcome for them as a couple, John's mind-reading ability showed no sign of improvement.

Similarly, Charles, planning to propose on Valentines Day, "pulled out all the stops." He made reservations at three high-end restaurants and told Lisa she could choose her favorite and have anything she wanted, regardless of price. Lisa sadly reported she expected for her engagement that her fiancée would plan for everything and surprise her. His asking her to participate in the decision "ruined the whole thing." The engagement was postponed until June and three months of couple therapy.

Two years ago, the straw that broke Elly and Rob's marital back was his asking her to get a sitter for their three children so he could take her out. Elly opined, "If he wanted to take me out right, he would have called the sitter." They filed for divorce in summer, still arguing over what he called "the Valentine's Day Massacre."

Perhaps these examples seem extreme. They may be. After all, they were selected to prove the point. But are they really that extraordinary? Many couples' high expectations for love and romance actually find that on this special day, Cupid's arrow may cause more than a flesh wound.
Is there a way for a guy to do it right and to turn the potential negative tide to a day of true love and romance?

One thing he can do is redefine the situation by "carpe-ing" this particular diem. Although the formula is fairly simple and straightforward, it just might work.

First of all, men need to understand some less obvious nuances in male/female relationships:

1) Your sweetheart may be responding more to the emotional and fantasy sides of life rather than on rational (unromantic) expectations for V-Day.

2) Although she expects to be surprised, the proper content and delivery has been scripted out of your awareness. To your amazement, she has been thinking about this for some time.

3) She has told her girlfriends and discrepancies from the anticipated could cause embarrassment in later reporting.

4) She may well share her disappointment at any discrepancy between the expected and your actual gift in ways and with strength you might not have foreseen.

What's a perplexed guy to do?

1. Begin by overcoming her myth (and possibly yours) that value and sincerity of the gift is lessened if she tells you what she wants and you actually get it for her. In fact, make it a mutual fantasy game -- something that underscores togetherness.

2. Avoid extraordinary surprises, unless she has already told you what she is hoping for or you know her so well that you cannot go wrong. Simply being more extravagant may be a poor substitute to specific thoughtfulness.

3. At least a few days before V-Day, sit down (better yet, go for walk together) with your special lady and have a conversation that conveys:

a) that you care for her and want to make Valentine's Day special for both of you
b) Immediately confess to being a terrible mind reader and inform her that you need her to tell you what she is thinking
c) If it is true, tell her that your relationship is very important for you and that you prefer to defy conventions and make some day this week very romantic because you feel loving; not because of a contrived heart holiday

4. Tell her directly what you feel comfortable with and what your budget constraints might be. For example, for most of us the only affordable diamond may be at a baseball game.

5. Keep in mind that a pleasant memory or romantic outing might be more durable than the shop vac, mud-flaps or NASCAR memorabilia you were planning to buy her. Those will be a surprise for her, as will her reaction be towards you!

6. Be reasonable. Tell her what you want. One of my former clients planned a trip out-of-town with his male buddies in mid-February each year. He always celebrated his return with a special romantic evening with his wife. Because they have already celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, one has to think he knows something.

7. If you are really uninterested in some V-Day event yourself, you could consider giving her a special night out for girlfriends only. Maybe the most romantic thing a husband and dad can do is to take care of the kids, while his partner has a night out with self-minded others.

8. Follow through on whatever you agree to. Unkept promises cause far more discord than unmet expectations.

9. If you insist on surprising her with a new power tool, giant screen HDTV or kitchen appliance, you might want to accompany it with a very carefully chosen card.

As you read this, you may be thinking that at least when it comes to Valentine's Day I am a bonafide curmudgeon. I am also a true romantic. This year, I am pulling out all the stops for my wife (of 32 years) and going big in the gift arena. She doesn't know it yet, but her (surprise) romantic gift this year will be a new paper shredder. I can't wait to overhear the complimentary stage whispers "he went to Office Depot."

Jerrold Lee Shapiro, Professor and Chairman of Counseling Psychology, Santa Clara University, and a Licensed Clinical Psychologist. His latest book is Finding Meaning, Facing Fears in the Autumn of Your Years (45-65).