Pros and Cons of Valentine’s Day
I have mixed feelings about Valentine’s Day. On the one hand, having a holiday dedicated completely to the savoring of romantic relationships seems a likely way to enhance and cultivate positive emotion, express gratitude, and even feel gratitude. And I’m sure there are many who have lovely romantic Valentine’s Day celebrations.
On the other hand, even the most loving relationships go through ups and downs, and dedicating a holiday to highlighting romance and passion might cause stress for people because we can all fall victim to social comparison: it’s easy to assume that everyone else is feeling close to their spouse and that there must be something wrong with our relationship if we are not lovey-dovey.
I’m not a cynic. In fact, I have cultivated the practice of optimism to such a degree that some might say I’m Pollyanna-ish. So don’t take it the wrong way when I say that romance is overrated. There’s nothing wrong with you if your Valentine’s Day is not Hallmark-worthy, and there may not even be anything wrong with your relationship if you would rather spend Valentine’s Day by yourself, soaking in a tub and reading a good novel, than get dressed up and engage in stimulating conversation with your spouse. Maybe your idea of the expression of love is contained in the activities of daily life – the sharing of and active responding to good news, helping your spouse by unloading the dishwasher or picking the children up from soccer practice, or painting the kitchen together. There’s nothing wrong with this.
Be Wary of Maximizing
Barry Schwartz has written in The Paradox of Choice that we make ourselves supremely unhappy when we maximize – that is, search and search for the “perfect” object or decision. We set ourselves up for disappointment because the amount of time and energy we invest in this process makes us subconsciously expect a level of happiness with our final decision that is highly unlikely. This is true when researching the best dishwasher, and it is also true in relationships. Barry states that we are most happy when we set for ourselves a limited set of criteria that we are looking for, and quit looking when we have satisfied those requirements. He tells us: don’t second guess your decision, and avoid comparisons to others as much as possible (except for downward comparisons, which can make us feel better about our circumstances).
Schwartz’s advice is perhaps relatively easy to follow when buying a vacuum, but it’s not so easy to remain as satisfied with one’s spouse. Conflict is inherent in all relationships, and the negotiation of the complexities of merging two outlooks and lifestyles incites people to periodically question whether or not they have made the right choice of spouse. It’s easier said than done to set criteria for that choice and then not look back. It is possible, however, to achieve a great deal of contentment and peace with your spouse if you practice mindfulness in your relationship.
Mindfulness in Relationships
What does this look like? In my last article, I stated that mindfulness is “attending nonjudgmentally to all stimuli in the internal and external environments,” and it turns out that this is arguably the greatest pathway to satisfaction in relationships. Raising awareness nonjudgmentally about your irritations over your spouse’s spending habits, awareness of your spouse’s need for more support with household chores, your perceptions of the expectation of your mother-in-law about holiday traditions, and conflicting ideas about ideal parenting practices allow you to be a dispassionate observer of your inner and outer circumstances. “There’s that irritation again,” you might say to yourself, avoiding labeling it as “bad,” a practice which activates the sympathetic nervous system to prepare for fight or flight.
It might seem that this approach would lead to passivity in the relationship, but that is not what happens. James W. Carson and colleagues at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have found that people who engage in a mindful approach accurately assess the best ways to express their emotions, and when to do so (pdf). Conflict is not avoided, but navigated more successfully. Also, a clearer assessment of behaviors and dynamics leads to a greater chance that you will take action in unhealthy situations (e.g., your spouse is spending the grocery money at the casino). (See Carson article listed below.) The mindful approach also does not preclude the expression of joy and passion, but leads instead to unconditional love. (See Leon article listed below.) But it does promote, most of all, contentment, a positive state that gets a bad rap in our culture. Contentment is a powerful emotion, and is associated with high levels of well-being. (See Gilbert article listed below.)
So I’d like to propose a mindful approach to Valentine’s Day and love in general. Why not do what makes sense in your relationship? Maybe it’s a dozen roses and a night of passionate lovemaking, but maybe it’s an amiable chat or a few hours spent doing separate but meaningful activities. And, most of all, excuse yourself of any expectations of the way love is supposed to be expressed.
Editor’s note: This article is included in the Love and Be Loved chapter of the Positive Psychology News book, Character Strengths Matter.
Carson, J.W., Carson, K.M., Gil, K.M., & Baucom, D.H. (2004). Mindfulness-based relationship enhancement. Behavior Therapy, 35, 471-494.
Frewen, P.A., Evans, E.M., Maraj, N., Dozois, D.J.A., & Partridge, K. (2008). Letting go: mindfulness and negative automatic thinking. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 32, 758-774.
Gilbert, P., McEwan, K., Mitra, R., Franks, L., Richter, A., & Rockliff, H. (2008). Feeling safe and content: A specific affect regulation system? Relationship to depression, anxiety, stress, and self-criticism. Journal of Positive Psychology, 3(3), 182-191.
Leon, I., Hernandez, J.A., Rodriguez, S., & Vila, J. (in press). When head is tempered by heart: heart rate variability modulates perception of other-blame reducing anger. Motivation and Emotion.
Lyke, J.A. (2009). Insight, but not self-reflection, is related to subjective well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, 46, 66-70.
Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. New York: Ecco.
Thayer, J.F. & Lane, R.D. (2009). Claude Bernard and the heart-brain connection: further elaboration of a model of neurovisceral integration. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 33, 81-88.