On Valentine’s Day we are, quite literally, bombarded by a deluge of nonsensical language. For this reason, I hate this superficial, highly choreographed “holiday” that tells us how love should be expressed. Rather than emotional support and having (a) partner(s) who act(s) as (an) ally(ies), love is reduced to an economic transaction. I’m neither the first nor the last person to comment that Valentine’s Day does more harm than good: it polices who we love, how we love and what shape that love takes.
Not only that, but these directives on love are inextricably intertwined with and reinforce established norms about sexuality and sex: i.e. sexuality and sex are legitimate and sanctioned when they happen between two people who will eventually reproduce and who are heterosexual, able bodied and white. We don’t hear anything about informed, enthusiastic consent. And we definitely don’t hear about reciprocal pleasure.
Know what else gets silenced in this saccharine tsunami of chocolates and roses? Intimate bonds that aren’t sexual, but are nonetheless fulfilling and deep relationships for all parties involved.
So, here’s what I wish I’d known when I was in high school as candy grams were passed out: there is no one way to express your sexuality. Shame, blame and guilt—what Jaclyn Friedman calls The Terrible Trio in her amazing book What You Really Really Want—are destructive emotions. Instead of searching for validation through rigid expressions of love and sexuality, first you should fall in love yourself. And then you should fall in love with your friends.
We live in a culture that devalues friendships. Friendship functions as as a stepping stone between childhood and adulthood, before we meet our mates. From the time we’re children, we’re led to believe that unless we enter into a romantic bond, we have not really experienced intimacy.
Well, that’s a bunch of crap.
Instead of focusing on the polarizing debates that surround Valentine’s Day, let’s affirm the ways we express our love to those in our lives. From simple gestures to kind words, loving someone absolutely in a way that’s all your own is worthy of celebration.
My own experience with friendships lost and found again speaks to the power of these bonds. At the end of high school I felt bereft and without moorings for a number of reasons, but the main one, I’m sad to say, was because of a romantic partnership. One of the ways I avoided working through these feelings was by cutting myself off from a group of friends that had been the defining part of the last five years of my life. I felt that if I started university completely on my own then maybe, just maybe, this sadness would dissolve. It was deliberate and it was drastic and in the end, it was futile. My assumption that ceasing these relationships would somehow make any melancholy go away did the opposite. I didn’t get that fresh start devoid of memories for which I’d hoped, so a little down the road, I realized I had to confront my feelings honestly and allow myself to actually feel them, unpleasant though they were.
Once I did this, life got easier: I was open to meeting new people and the new friends I acquired were amazing and insightful and funny. Best of all, we’re still friends, even though most of us live in different cities. But there was always a persistent voice in the back of my mind that wondered what happened to these people? Who had they become? But most of all, I missed them.
So imagine my surprise when years later, I ran into one of these old friends one afternoon. We started talking and like all wonderful friendships, it was like picking up where we left off. Losing these friends was, without question, one of the hardest experiences of my life. I felt, quite literally, like I’d lost some part of myself, as though nobody else would ever know me the way these people had.
On the flip side, the second stage of our friendships has been one of the great, unexpected joys of my life. Getting to fall in love with your friends all over again is nothing short of amazing. Laughing with someone through adolescence and adulthood is not only fun, it really is an intimate, powerful experience.
The other day on the radio I heard a psychologist recommend that when choosing a partner, look for someone you would have played with at recess. This is by no means the worst advice I’ve ever heard. But whether you want (a) partner(s) or not, let’s take the time today to tell the people we actually played with at recess – or play with now – how special they are.