Valentine's Day Isn't About Love—It's About Obligation

Admit it: You don't want to go out tonight, specifically. You're doing it because you're expected to, and that's making you resentful.
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Today is the day of unmet expectations. It's the day for rushing to make your way-too-early dinner reservation, only to be wedged between two tables of loud talkers. Or of trying hard not to hope for surprise flowers because you're not officially boyfriend-girlfriend yet. Or of trying to find a last-minute gift, only to make a desperate run to CVS to buy some crappy little thing.

Most people agree that Valentine's Day is a good, if somewhat random, opportunity to shower loved ones with affection. At the same time, people also seem to resent the holiday's obligatory nature. A survey of 6,400 people by the National Retail Federation found that fewer people are expected to participate in Valentine's Day this year (54 percent compared to 60 percent last year). Those who do take part will drop $134 on the day's festivities.

And yet, people expect that their significant others will spend more on them for Valentine's Day than they themselves want to spend. As Martha C. White pointed out in Time, both men and women who are in relationships want their lovers to shell out an average of $240, yet men themselves say they plan to spend $98, and women just $71.

For many, Valentine's Day showboating just doesn't evince the same excitement that, say, Christmas dinner or a surprise birthday does. 

Angeline Close Scheinbaum, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, has found that there's a significant amount of anti-consumerism associated with the holiday. Shoppers may be spending $13 billion annually on heart-shaped boxes and flowers, but they're doing so out of duty, not devotion. Here's Scheinbaum quoting one of her research subjects in the Journal of Business Research

Most (63 percent) males and some (31 percent) females feel obligated to give a gift to their partner for this holiday. Some couples discuss their frustrations; yet they still buy:

"Valentine's Day is a way for retailers to get you to spend money in their stores. People get caught up in the B.S. and I should not have to spend extra to show I care, and my girlfriend agrees. But we both still spent plenty!"

People in new relationships felt more obligated to give gifts than those in established ones, and even couples who were fighting at the time said they'd probably buy something because they knew the other person would.

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Single people, meanwhile, told Scheinbaum that they felt like not enough time had elapsed since the consumerist assault of Christmas to deal with yet another compulsory holiday.

"Well, it has been almost two months since Christmas, and us single folks are finally recovering from the psychological damage making it through the holiday season does to us," one single respondent said. "I would like to extend a warm thanks to Hallmark, the official sponsor of Valentine's day, for reminding me that without a significant other, how truly worthless my life is."

Others expressed a sense of disgust that an emotion as pure as love could be monetized and sold back to them:

"I love the concept of the day, but HATE how it is one of those corporate holidays," one man said. Yes, one of those.

A 1994 study of 105 men found that though they primarily associated a feeling of love or friendship with Valentine's Day, a sense of obligation was a close second. Asked why he thought it was necessary to purchase gifts, one respondent said plainly, "Your significant other will get pissed off if you don't."

Scheinbaum and others chalk up anti-Valentine's sentiment to a social psychology theory called reactance. As consumers, we expect to have the free will to make our own decisions about purchases. But when society, or Hallmark, or our high-maintenance partner tells us we must behave a certain way on a certain day, we feel like that freedom of choice has been restricted. And the more that other option—not buying the box of assorted truffles—feels out of reach, the more we want to go in that direction.

Indeed, there is something a little North Korean about a day of required love. Perhaps those who still want to celebrate—but feel reluctant to shop—instead should go for a gift that's, ehrm, free. 

An online opt-in survey by the coupon company RetailMeNot found that two-thirds of men and one-third of women would prefer to have sex than get a gift on Valentine's Day. That's not very good survey methodology, but something tells me it's pretty much correct nonetheless.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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