If you are wondering this week what, exactly, is the purpose of Valentine's Day then I have the answer for you. The purpose of Valentine's Day is to assure your romantic partner that all the time and energy that he or she is investing into your relationship is not being wasted, and to give them enough confidence to continue investing in your relationship into the future.
This was a lesson I, myself, learned on a Valentine's Day a few years ago. My then-boyfriend and I had been together long enough for me to believe that on Valentine's Day he might make a grand romantic gesture, and yet not so long that the need for grand romantic gestures had already passed.
What actually happened that Valentine's Day was this: absolutely nothing. Which is not to say that the romantic gesture wasn't grand enough, there was no romantic gesture. Not even a phone call to wish me a happy Valentine's Day and, to be fair, I didn't call him either.
When I pointed out our lack of communication to him the following day his response was an honest "I didn't think you were into all that consumerism," which is absolutely true. But, I wasn't looking for expensive gifts and overpriced dinners. I really just wanted a sign that he was committing to our relationship and, ultimately, the signal that I received was that our relationship was on the road to nowhere.
According to evidence collected from Facebook status updates (specifically searches for the phrase "We broke up because …") the month following Valentine's Day is one of the most popular times of the year for relationships to end. I suspect the reason for this is because Valentine's Day encourages us to think honestly about the future of our relationships; it gives us information that we might not otherwise have about our partner's level of commitment.
Romantic relationships suffer from problems that are created by asymmetric information; you may know what's in your own heart, if you are lucky, but it is impossible to really know what is in the heart of the person you are dating.
Our partners might tell us that they are committed to our relationships, but talk, as they say, is cheap and investing time and energy into a relationship – without knowing our partner's true level of commitment – exposes us to the possibility of being hurt when we later discover that they are less committed than we thought.
When there is no credible sign of commitment to a relationship, we are tempted hedge our bets and look elsewhere for a partner who shares our level of involvement.
A signal's credibility is directly related to the cost the signal imposes on the sender. If the cost is low the signal conveys very little information, but as the cost increases so does the assurance to the receiver that they are not being deceived into thinking that their partner is more committed than they actually are.
Just for the record, "cost" here does not necessarily mean buying expensive gifts and massive bouquets of flowers. The best signal of commitment is one that demonstrates that the sender really understands the needs of receiver. I know it sounds cliché, but the best gifts are those that show the most thought.
Not surprisingly the relationship I described above was over in a matter of weeks. It didn't end because Valentine's Day was such a flop. Instead, Valentine's Day was a flop because that relationship was already coming to an end. We just needed a little more information to know that was true.
Marina Adshade is the author of The Love Market: What You Need To Know About How We Date, Mate and Marry. She teaches at the University of British Columbia's Vancouver School of Economics.