As submitted for publication in Recorder Community Newspapers, March 14, 2008. Published as: For Singles, February can be a long month; Learn to accept love, support from family, friends and yourself this Valentine’s Day

She looked awful—such a contrast to her usual bright, charming self. “What’s wrong with me that I’m not in a relationship?” bemoaned my patient, a forty-something woman. This was the first sign in my office that Valentine’s Day is upon us. As many single people will tell you, Cupid is not the innocent do-gooder that he appears to be.

While Cupid’s arrows cause the hearts of couples to ache for each other, they cause a different kind of pain in single people. Some pierced hearts sting from unrequited love. Others hurt precisely because they have not been targeted. And most of us know from personal experience that both situations are deeply painful.

Valentine’s Day, society’s tribute to love, can cause doubt and despair in even the most hopeful, unattached adults.  Just as you are recovering from making it through the holidays alone, BAM! You are assaulted by the Valentine’s Day blitz.

While I don’t know of any scientific evidence about the characteristics of singles who are able to transcend this problem, I have been fortunate enough to work with those who have maintained a healthy attitude about the day—some have even enjoyed it. These individuals approach this potentially difficult holiday with an inner strength; a quality worth looking at more closely. So, I would like to introduce you to some of them*. As I do, consider the attitudes that have helped them to survive and even thrive during Valentine’s Day.

Brenda, a forty-one year old executive began brightly, “I had such a wonderful day playing with my niece…and you should see the Valentine’s Day card she made for me.” For Brenda, Valentine’s Day is a time to rejoice the love in her life. While she was sad about not having a spouse, she chose to focus, instead, on the love she did have—what a wonderful role model for all of us.

Follow her example and celebrate the love that exists in your life. Send a heartfelt card to someone you love or who has inspired you. Take a friend to lunch. Or, have a “Valentine’s Day party” with a niece, nephew, or friend’s child.

Nancy, who was generous to a fault, approached Valentine’s Day in a different way. She planned to turn her attention to herself. “After calling my friend to thank her for the Valentine’s Day care package, I’m going to have a warm bath in my favorite scented bath oil. Then I’m treating myself to a pedicure.”

Once upon a time, Nancy would not have dreamed of indulging herself so—ever. She had always been much more comfortable giving to others; so much so that she felt like “a nothing” when she wasn’t helping someone. Although she would never complain, Valentine’s Day was a painful reminder that she didn’t have a special someone—she felt unloved and alone. After a lot of hard work in therapy, she realized that she was all about giving love to others; she was not open to accepting love from others, or even from herself.

Now she thinks of Valentine’s Day as the perfect time to cherish the love you receive from others and from yourself. If you, too, are “addicted” to giving, you might want to celebrate this day like Nancy does. Send cards, wish others a happy Valentine’s Day, and do whatever else comes naturally. But save the best of yourself for you—which, by the way, will be much harder than it sounds.

Truly acknowledge the love others have expressed to you and the love you have for yourself. Read cards, letters, or emails sent to you that express love and friendship. Also, pamper yourself with life’s pleasures (my preference is savoring chocolate covered cherries) while you revel in the thoughts and memories of the love in your life.

Yet another way to approach Valentine’s Day was taken by Gary. He reflected a lot about his relationships in the past year. He thought about how he had run from a relationship when it got too close and how he was much more open as he got to know another woman. Although neither situation worked out, he knew he was getting better at “this relationship thing.” He felt hopeful as he reflected on having told friends that he was open to being set up on a blind date. He was also reassured by plans he made to participate in some activities for singles (though he drew that line at “speed dating”).

By sunset on Valentine’s Day, Gary was optimistic about meeting someone special, leaving him to enjoy dinner out with friends. His perspective of this holiday is straightforward: Review what you are doing and need to do to invite a romantic relationship into your life.

It’s important to realize his approach was part of a larger effort during the year to improve all of his relationships and to focus more generally on what would make him happy. By pursuing these goals, he invited more positive experiences into his life and increased his chances of finding a partner. So, a corollary to Gary’s perspective is: You are more likely to find a partner if you are fully, actively and happily involved in life.

For Barbara, Valentine’s Day was painful. She had just broken up with her boyfriend, and she grieved for her loss. Despite her desire to hide, she accepted the support of family and friends. So, although she remained sad, she also felt loved and cared about; this made the day and her situation more tolerable.

If you are going through a painful time, do what Barbara did: Allow this to be a day of sadness, and accept support from others.  Fighting the pain or pretending it’s not there will only make the pain deeper. If someone you love has died, you might accept Valentine’s Day as a bittersweet day of grieving and celebrating the love you once shared.

No matter what your circumstance, being single on Valentine’s Day can be an emotional obstacle course. There are innumerable reminders of the life you want, but don’t have. It’s up to you to dodge the pain brought by Cupid (or rather by the army of Cupid caricatures that occupies our lives this month). But if your resolve begins to weaken, there are always chocolate covered cherries.

*Names are not actual people, but rather composites of several patients and their experiences.

The Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Basking Ridge, NJ