I do not enjoy the romantic, expectation-laden version of Valentine's Day. I used to participate in it anyway because I thought that's what I was supposed to do. Like going to college, getting married, and having 2.3 children. In my experience, attempting the Hallmark version always resulted in a day of unmet expectations instead of just a day to do something special for someone you care about. And I'm just not into that.
I am a sentimental person, though, so I am definitely into the grade-school version of Valentine's Day. Everyone gets to decorate their own little mailbox, and everyone is basically your Secret Valentine Santa while you are everyone else's Secret Valentine Santa. It's fun to make little cards and it's fun to deliver them. The stakes are low, and romance doesn't hang in the balance. It's just nice to get a tangible little reminder that someone thought about you, even if it was only for 5 minutes while they wrote something generic or cheesy.
After my divorce, I started asking people how they wanted to participate in Valentine's Day (if at all). I told people how I wanted to participate in Valentine's Day. I invited the people I dated and all my friends to make valentines together. Part craft project, part safe space to express love and caring. Mostly an excuse for people to be together and avoid the weight of societal expectations for what single or coupled people should be doing on the most romantic of holidays.
With February 14th fast approaching, I started to think this week about secret and not-so-secret expectations. They are everywhere. Online and IRL. Every place we work, play, and live there are protocols. Codes of conduct. Some we openly agree to, like the rules posted on the wall of the gym or the swimming pool. Some are points of decorum we pick up through context, like the proper way to ask someone to dance at a tango social.
A great many of the ways we think we should be living are handed to us through repetitive, and often unspoken, societal messaging. For instance, nobody ever said to me "you are a fem-presenting human, so it's your responsibility to make everyone around you feel comfortable," but I got the message somehow. I also got the message that I needed a college degree to be a valuable worker. And that I should avoid gaining too much weight after I got married.
I heard a story this week on the BBC about why young people are having less sex today than the twenty-somethings of decades past. The reporter, Anoushka Mutanda-Dougherty, talked to people in multiple countries with different gender and sexual identities. She consulted experts on relationships and sex. Through all the interviews, one theme stood out prominently to me: societal expectations are getting in the way.
One person said his potential partners expect him to pay for things, and since he doesn't feel he can offer financial stability at this point in his career, he hasn't dated anyone (or had sex) in five years. Another person grew up in a religious community where the expectation of her personal sexual purity meant for her that she could not be physically intimate with another person until she was certain that person could be a life-long partner. And two other people described the situationships they are having to avoid the attachment to their partners and other expectations that come with being in a relationship.
I am not convinced that young people are actually having less sex than people my age did when we were in our 20's. I think the framing of the question of whether and why today’s youth are sexing less often effectively answers itself under a little scrutiny. In all of the studies on this topic, there is a clear assumption of what sex is and a clear expectation of what having regular sex means. And I think they are all missing the larger point.
Sex and relationships today don’t mean the same thing they did ten or twenty (or more) years ago. Society isn’t the same place it was ten or twenty (or more) years ago. We now have expanded language for sexual identities and relationship preferences. Marriage is not required to have a socially-recognized family. Sex is not required to have a meaningful and fulfilling romantic relationship. And talking about all these things out in the open is much more mainstream.
Young people today are doing exactly what the rest of us did: trying to navigate the complex web of societal and community expectations in a way that leads to as fulfilling a life as they can manage. That’s true in fashion choices, music trends, and everything else. Just look at the sheer volume of make-up tutorials available across every online platform. People of all genders share tips and techniques for everything from glamming-up to blending-in. There are even folks who wear their makeup in a way designed to confuse facial recognition software, which was definitely not a widespread issue when I was a twenty-something.
We are all just doing our best to navigate this expectation-laden world we’ve created. And we’re doing it while facing a very uncertain future. The exact impact of climate change is unknown, just like the longevity of the unsustainable economic model our entire society is currently built around. We have spent the last two years living a completely different pandemic reality than the life we all had before.
The only thing I actually have any control over is my own internal world. And it’s leaps and bounds easier to cope with the tumult and uncertainty of the rest of the world when I am grounded in my own being. It’s time to shed some light on the mysterious and hidden expectations we all live under because some of them make us miserable.
In order to do that, we each much look inside ourselves. Dredge up our own assumptions and examine them. Peeling back those layers and acknowledging how each has served you up to this point is how you find all the parts of your Self. Getting to know all those parts and learning how to love and appreciate them is how you get to a more full and complete and genuine you. And that you, the you that sometimes hides under all that other bullshit, is the most beautiful you.
Information and Inspiration
Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.