On average, we each spend upwards of $100 on Valentine’s Day, our mid-winter orgy of sentimentality. And science shows our hearts are on target. St. Valentine has blessings to offer couples far beyond flowers and chocolates.
Right about now, North Americans are busy sending 190 million cards – some sappy, some sincere – and splurging up to a billion dollars on sugary candy. It all started as a wild pagan party called Lupercalia, so popular that the early Christians just couldn't resist commandeering and renaming it. This they did in the 5th century AD, using a man called Valentine who was executed by the Roman Emperor Claudius II for conducting clandestine marriages. Well, he was discouraging men from joining up in Claudius’s army.
Valentine’s Day still has a big impact on relationships. Couple therapists gird their loins for the rush of enraged partners who didn't get a card or a box of chocolates or perfect sex. But it’s not all sales and sentiment gone astray.
Valentine's Day and science? Believe it!
If we look through the lens of the new science of love and bonding, this celebration takes on a whole new meaning. We are first and foremost
bonding mammals – wired to live within a web of support and connection where others will come when we call. These irreplaceable others are usually our mates. We're more likely to bond with sexual partners; after all, we are flooded with bonding hormones like oxytocin at orgasm. On Valentine’s Day we are nudged to celebrate and acknowledge what for most of us is our strongest adult bond, the heart of our family – our connection with our partner. In a busy world that is built for distraction and disconnection, taking a day where we agree en masse to pay attention to our love relationships has to be a good idea.
Why face time matters
This kind of celebration, schmaltzy or not, is more important than ever. We depend on our partners for social connection to an extent that would have seemed bizarre to my grandmother’s generation. She probably spent about three hours a day just talking to others, and had about a dozen friends and family to turn to and confide in, while we spend less and less time in face-to-face interaction and the number of people we have to confide in is on a steady, downward trajectory. Isolation and loneliness are at record highs and we know that to be isolated is — for bonding mammals — to live in a chronic state of threat!
For many of us, our partner is our only safe-haven relationship – our only buffer against the toxic effects of unwanted separateness. We find in brain scan research that, even when you're waiting for an electric shock to your ankles, once a safe-haven bond is established, just holding your partner’s hand shifts your brain from red alert arousal into a state of quiet calm, and reduces the physical pain of the shock.ozen friends and family to turn to and confide in, while we spend less and less time in face-to-face interaction, and the number of people we have to confide in is on a steady, downward trajectory. Isolation and loneliness are at record highs, and we know that to be isolated is, for bonding mammals, to live in a chronic state of threat!
Celebrate the closeness
Close relationships are worth celebrating. They are our greatest resource. Scientific evidence overwhelmingly finds that a loving bond is the best recipe for almost everything that makes life worth living, including physical and mental health, resilience to stress and a strong sense of self. Such bonds even seem to offer us the best antidote to aging! One of the great lessons of the revolution in relationship science is that lovers have more impact on each other than Hollywood ever imagined.
Cheaper (and more dear) than chocolates
Tracy tells Mike in a couple therapy session, “I don’t need the big box of chocolates. I need those slow kisses on my forehead in the morning, and that voice you use when you say my name when you first come home. I need you to reach for me after a fight and show me I am special enough that you'll risk coming close again. I need reassurance that I'm your special one, even when I'm down and feeling small. Only you can do that.” Mike laughs, “I am going to write those down and we can make them into my Valentine’s promise to you. Cheaper than chocolate, more lasting than flowers. I can do all that.”
What we know from our years of research is that if Mike can respond to his wife this way, with focused, open emotional connection, and she can ask for what she needs, chances are that they will have a lifetime of Valentines. And that is worth one wild and very sentimental celebration.
Dr. Sue Johnson is the author of Love Sense.
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