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Be Loved on a beam

Photo by Elijah Macleod on Unsplash

Valentine’s Day can be challenging for those without a partner to shower them with tokens of affection. The holiday also sets up expectations for those in romantic relationships—expectations that may backfire.

Kristin NeffProfessor Kristen Neff in Educational Psychology., associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education, studies the impact of self-compassion on people’s emotional and psychological health. She says that Valentine’s Day can present a terrific opportunity for people to show themselves self-compassion, which can lead to greater emotional satisfaction and actually improve intimate relationships.

According to Neff, people who are not partnered can “ask themselves what they need and want from a partner. They may come up with answers like love, being heard, being seen for who they are. They can make a list of those things, and they can give those things to themselves.”

She recommends that people also give themselves validation and appreciation verbally.  A person can say to themselves, aloud, “I’m here for you. I care about you,” and meet that need for themselves.

Research also shows that self-touch impacts the body and mind positively. “The warmth of human touch has a positive impact, even if that touch is from your own hand,” says Neff. She recommends placing your hand over your heart while speaking words of kindness to yourself. “Doing so can help ease the sadness a person may feel about not having a partner.”

People often have high expectations of days like Valentine’s Day. Neff recommends letting go of those expectations. “A supportive and open-hearted attitude for the particular situation can be especially helpful,” she says. “And if a person is not in a relationship and wants one, it’s important for the person to accept that desire, have compassion for the struggle, and also remember that relationships can bring both joy and pain.”

In the end, says Neff, “Meeting your own needs and showing yourself compassion, acceptance, and kindness are important activities that also lead a person to be more kind and supportive to their sweetheart too.”

Self-compassion, she says, “is not only good for individuals, it’s also good for relationships too.”

Valentine’s Day is a day for romance—cards and chocolates, flowers and dinner dates. It’s a day to celebrate love and affection.

But are men really that into it? Or are they just going along to keep their partners happy?

Aaron Rochlen researches men and masculinity, with a focus on men’s mental health. He’s a program director and professor in the Department of Educational Psychology in the College of Education. He offers his perspective on how Valentine’s Day is perceived by many men who identify as heterosexual. He also discusses why it may be hard for some men to express their feelings openly.

Is Valentine’s Day an Obligation?

“Speaking in broad generalizations, women in relationships are perceived as embracing the romantic element that Valentine’s Day reinforces,” says Rochlen. “Women may be seeking an emotional connection they don’t always receive, or at least not as much as they’d prefer, from their male partners.”

“My sense is that men have this same emotional capacity, but accessing and expressing emotions may be more difficult to many guys,” says Rochlen.

The pressure to express that emotion may add to a sense of obligation some men feel about making a big deal about Valentine’s Day.

Rochlen says that personally, he’d rather not be on a timeline for expressing closeness and generosity. “When men feel there’s a specific date to express emotions—like Valentine’s Day— hanging over them, it’s tricky. Many guys would rather take out their partners for dinner or be romantic at other points in their relationship, when it comes more naturally or spontaneously, instead of being dictated by a calendar.”

Rochlen says he’s seen that pressure from family, friends, and even significant others can influence a man’s perception of masculinity.

“Men often are reinforced by culture to equate love with sexuality versus relational closeness and affection,” says Rochlen. “Men are socialized in troublesome ways to be sexually dominant and demonstrate power over women.”

There’s Hope

Yet men may feel that they scorned for being too masculine, but ridiculed for not being masculine enough. This Catch-22 can influence how they see Valentine’s Day.

However, Rochlen says he’s noticing a cultural movement that’s redefining masculinity—it’s becoming more acceptable for men to express their vulnerable side, even with each other. “There’s a shift toward men deciding ‘let’s embrace each other—metaphorically and literally.’”

Rochlen’s recent op-ed in Psychology Today, “A Positive and Refined Masculinity,” takes a look at how physical and emotional contact among men is changing. He references the NFL’s 2018 Super Bowl commercial featuring Eli Manning and Odell Beckham, Jr. “It shows us a different message of masculinity — one of playfulness, creativity, closeness with other men.” The NFL wouldn’t have considered airing an ad like this even five years ago.

Photo of Aaron Rochlen

Aaron Rochlen

Rochlen says the NFL may be opening up a new playbook on masculinity that a lot of men could follow.

Are we seeing men’s perceptions of Valentine’s Day changing? Maybe.

As more men begin to think it’s acceptable to express vulnerability and care, maybe their perception of Valentine’s Day will shift too. Says Rochlen, “And that would really be something to celebrate.”