The changing face of Valentine’s Day

How Millennial values are redefining the landscape of love
Written by Megan Melissa Machamer

Red roses, representing the color of passion. A pink box of chocolate to color code budding love and desire. A diamond necklace in a velvet, heart shaped box. You sit alone on your couch, frustrated that the last three commercials have not been directed at you—you are just trying to watch the game! Unless you are planning on buying yourself roses, chocolate, and diamonds to prepare for the coming holiday, it is immediately clear that these marketing tactics are not at all concerned with your current situation. You are interested in the hockey game, the Margaret Atwood novel on your bedstand, the new Beyoncé song, and that unopened bottle of champagne in your fridge (which you are not waiting for Valentine’s day to drink). You’re single, and modern marketing just doesn’t care this month.

Approximately 50% of American adults in their 20s are single on Valentine’s Day—a day meant for celebration of personal romantic unions. This marks a major social transformation, considering in 1950 only 22% of this population was single. It also marks a point of reflection: it seems that a holiday that focuses on only half of the “20-somethings” population while silencing the other half by failing to represent these individuals in any way, needs some critical evaluation. Love and intimate relationships are important and desirable events in one’s life, but is this traditional holiday keeping pace with the rapid changes to expressions and conceptions of love occuring in our society?

I have focused my research on marriage and romantic love in the U.S. and U.K., and looking first hand at how marriage and intimate relationships are not always “mainstream” or “traditional” has allowed me to consider the complexities of intimate relationships in unique ways. My ethnographic observations, conversations, and interviews have led me to believe that Valentine’s day is an out-dated, exclusive practice that speaks primarily to heteronormative, monogamous, and traditional ideologies. For many Americans this holiday is a recursive relic of 1950s relationships which are in literal contrast to modern marriage and gender norms, and liberalized values as they stand today. Partnerships not only hold new meaning, but appear in more new dynamic forms than they did in the 1950s. Not only is same-sex marriage now legal in the U.S., making it an option for those in love, but other forms of partnership such as polyamory and polygamy are beginning to be socially recognized as well. In addition to this, the reality is that more and more adults are choosing to be single.

We live in a time where our heart may have a strong desire to be in love earlier on than our brain can make an informed decision about who could actually be a stable and positive partner to spend our lifetime with. Feelings are no longer enough, timing is also an important component in our increasingly individualistic lives. According to a survey I conducted in 2013[1], in response to the question: “What is the most important aspect of a successful romantic relationship?,” the top five answers were trust and honesty, communication, sexual chemistry and compatibility, matching goals/values and lastly “being in love”. The desire to be in love is culturally represented all over film and television, social media, print, artwork, and commercialism. More importantly however, it is not just that we want to be married—we want to be happily joined with someone, hopefully for life. Some scholars (such as Hirsch, J. S., & Wardlow, H. 2009)[2] have called this partnership phenomenon “companionate love”—we want to marry a companion, a friend as well as a lover—someone who shares our goals and values while also remaining sexually appealing to us, communicating, being honest, and who we are deeply in love with. Kinship and family life is no longer enough, we would rather be single-parents, divorced, or cohabiting than be in an unhappy marriage. We want someone who meets our entire set of criteria and someone who we could ultimately share a life with—that is quite a tall order! It is no wonder so many Americans are single. Which brings us to Valentine’s Day 2016.

Being single is often a choice, not a situation of loss, in a society which so highly values individualism, this system of reward and exclusion makes no sense.

While love is still a central ideal in many people’s lives, the actual situation is slightly more complicated. More people are delaying or avoiding marriage to pursue their own individual goals—which may involve traveling, advanced education, and/or long hours at work. Some envision a life which allows for multiple serious and long-term partnerships over the course of their life, what I would like to call “serial monogamy”—these individuals may not fully commit or marry until they find “the one” who will support their goals and dreams while also being ambitious and hardworking themselves. What we are seeing today is that more people are single than are married in their 20’s. Individualism has grabbed the millennial generation, for better or for worse. Which makes our collective love story a complicated one.

To complicate things even more, individuals who delay marriage, or in other words, wait for a time in their life where they have achieved career and financial stability and are ready to “settle down”, are actually more likely to remain married (or less likely to get divorced). They are also likely to have fewer children and be able to emotionally and financially support the children they do have. Many are opting to be their own heads-of-households through their 20s and even into their 30s, until they find someone who meets all affective desires of love and sexuality while also meeting pragmatic desires such as being financially stable and ultimately committed to a relationship. People that are waiting, pursuing education or career goals, and not rushing into love are demographically the most successful lovers in today’s cultural climate[3].

As someone highly focused on an academic career, I am surrounded by many talented 20 & 30-somethings who are single on this holiday. It is a bitter sweet day, where you want to be happy for all of those friends and family members who are in loving and fulfilling relationships—and yet, many of us will be studying, seeing the new film How to Be Single, or making plans with friends instead of having a dozen roses delivered to our doorstep.

Unfortunately, the holiday is framed in a way where single people feel like they are missing something or failing at love, rather than feeling whole and accomplished for all of the other things they are taking-on in this moment. This is clearly a unique cultural framing that we grow up with, we undergo a transformation from making valentines for everyone in our class at school, to being excluded or included based on our relationship status as adults. This holiday perpetuates the trope of “single and alone on Valentines” where single people are expected to dread and feel bad about being “alone,” and yet simultaneously rewards and positions those who are committed in traditional “accepted” ways. Being single is often a choice, not a situation of loss, in a society which so highly values individualism, this system of reward and exclusion makes no sense.

Maybe it is not that we need to eliminate a holiday that is so attached to a value we hold central to our collective Western ideology, but perhaps we need to reframe, redefine, and readdress what the holiday really means and who the holiday is for. If we look at the commercialism which surrounds Valentines day: advertisements, suggested gifts, and typical greeting cards, the visual representation make clear this holiday’s limited audience. In other words, the holiday and what it stands for has not caught up to changing relationship dynamics in the Western world.

Love is not exclusive. U.S. values are progressively shifting to allow for more inclusive systems of love and marriage. How do we welcome this change and watch it transform into a social practice which encompasses diverse expressions of love? Perhaps we can begin by critically evaluating the day that marks the collective value we seem to address and consider so often. How does this holiday include or exclude individuals, couples, and dynamic relationships that exist in the context of modernity? How do we give all who desire to love and be loved a voice?

[1] PRI Radio interview http://www.pri.org/stories/2014-09-14/singles-now-outnumber-married-people-america-and-thats-good-thing [2] Undergraduate project entitled: “Factors of Attraction and Contributions to Relationship Longevity”, survey took place in London, UK and San Diego, CA, USA (n=200 people, in person survey distribution) [3]Cherlin, A. 2010. “Demographic Trends in the United States: A Review of Research in the 2000s.” Journal of Marriage and Family 72: 403-419

Megan Machamer received her Bachelor of Arts in sociocultural anthropology at The University of California, San Diego, and is currently a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Her senior honors thesis at UC San Diego examined love, migration and relationship longevity from perspectives of South Asian immigrants in London, England. In addition, Megan has done both qualitative and statistical research on love in the Western world. Her research interests include: marriage, pair bonding, companionate love, family, immigration, ideological transitions, cultural/psychological anthropology, and ethnographic film.

Photograph by Anthony Delanoix

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  • Rhonda Page

    How about this. What if Valentines day was about self love?? That seems to be something even more important that’s missing from our culture.