Sunday is Valentine's Day, the Hallmark holiday of love. Depending on your position, it's either the most romantic day of the year or a 24-hour waking nightmare of petty arguments, devastating loneliness and tragically mismanaged hopes.
For the single and/or broken-hearted among us, V-Day is a reason to stay in bed and pull the duvet up high. And for those of us who are members of the non-exclusive club called Marriage, Valentine's Day is the bourgeois equivalent to cage fighting - a high-stakes, low-rent staged competition that involves as much flashy Lycra as it does blood, sweat and gnashed teeth.
The object of the game is not to trounce one's spouse, but to ever-so-slightly one-up him or her, thereby gaining maximal moral high ground (or what I like to call the Valentine's Edge) for the rest of the year. (I have defended my title as uncontested champion for the past four years running simply by keeping a calendar beside my desk.)
The downside of Valentine's Day, of course, is how an opportunity to display affection and appreciation often turns into an orgy of disappointment. And let's face it: It's usually the women who come to resent their men rather than the other way around.
To them, I offer this singular piece of advice: Suck it up. Be glad, if you're married, that you have a husband. Provided he's not a violent, gambling drunkard who just got off with your best friend, I'll bet that he's just fine. In any case, you made your bed, so lie in it. Better yet, roll over and make love to it. You may not think you're in the mood, but, trust me, you'll be happier if you do.
I have come to these conclusions, among others, after speaking with American writer Lori Gottlieb, the author of Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.
After having a baby on her own with donor sperm in her late 30s, Gottlieb re-entered the dating market in her early 40s only to find that all the good guys had already been snapped up. Her book, which is a meditation on choice, disappointment and the importance of managing your expectations in the modern dating market, also chronicles Gottlieb's profound regret at having been too picky and hypercritical in her single youth. "It seems great to have all these choices," she told me in a recent phone interview, "but the question is, can you pick wisely?"
Interestingly, Gottlieb points to cultures that favour arranged marriages as a guide on how to pick a mate based on practical criteria that will sustain marriage and children - a proposition she describes as not unlike "running a small, tedious, non-profit business" - rather than the modern notion that marriage should be based on everlasting, bodice-ripping passion.
"People expect their marriage is always going to be this thrilling, exciting thing, but that's not real life. I think that the great benefit of marriage is the safety and commitment and having a teammate and a home, just the love and the warmth. It's not that exciting, but it's what people crave at their deepest level."
Leave it to a hard-up single mother to appreciate what so many unhappily married women cannot. Gottlieb's point about arranged marriages brought to mind another interesting observation, this one found in Elizabeth Gilbert's new book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage.
In her follow-up to the mega-bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, divorcee Gilbert is sentenced to marry her exiled Brazilian boyfriend for immigration purposes. As they await their impending nuptials, she contemplates the history and cultural purpose of marriage from a point of view that is diametrically opposed to Gottlieb's - i.e., she doesn't want children and has no interest in tedious non-profit work.
Perhaps the most interesting observation in the book is that, historically speaking, a successful marriage has nothing to do with love. In the course of her research, Gilbert notices that, across cultures and history, the divorce rate spikes as soon as people start choosing their spouses for themselves. "By unnerving definition," she writes, "anything that the heart has chosen for its own mysterious reason, it can always unchoose."
I, of course, would never have allowed my parents to pick my husband - they're divorced, so the whole thing probably would have blown up into a huge argument between them and among us - but it does bring new meaning to my mother's observation that "all marriages are basically the same - it's just how you approach them that matters."
When she said this, I remember thinking how hopelessly unromantic she was being, but now that I'm married, I see that her advice is actually quite hopeful. If you don't value your own choices, no one else is going to value them for you. You chose your spouse, so now it's your job to love them. For better or for worse. Or, at the very least, on Valentine's Day.