Valentine’s Day turns the spotlight on relationships and many people do not like what they find.
So what should you do if you’re dreading Valentine’s Day? I have advice if you’re single or in a relationship.
Single and unhappy
Instead of comfort eating or drinking, use the evening to take stock of your dating patterns. To help with this process, select a picture of each person that you have had a serious relationship with and spread them out in front of you. At first sight each of your X files – will seem very different.
Most people don’t have a type and will have dated people with different looks, jobs and backgrounds. Instead uncover the underlying similarities. For example:
- Were they all difficult – where you enjoyed the challenge or drama of never knowing what to expect?
- Comfort dating – they that wrapped you in cotton wool but bored you?
- Trophy dates – impressed your friends but ultimately there was no connection.
- Wounded birds – they brought out your protective side?
- Knights or Ladies in Shining Armour – they promised to solve your problems or look after you but ended up being controlling?
Be aware that going for the opposite type is not moving on, it is normally playing the same dilemma from a different angle. For example: if you have been cheated on in one relationship, playing fast and lose in the next. The second most common reason for toxic dating patterns is not leaving enough between the end of one relationship and the start of another.
After a painful falling-out, being fancied is a great boost to the self-esteem but unfortunately it tempts us to date before the old wounds have healed.
The first step to breaking unhelpful patterns is recognising them. This is especially important if the build-up from toxic dates has left you either with a black and white view of potential partners (all men are bastards or all women are manipulating) or if you have turned on yourself (I’m hopeless, unattractive etc.)
Next detox and avoid dating for between three and six months, depending on how stuck you feel. Use this time to work on yourself, this could be reading self-help books, going on a retreat or taking an adult education course. A good way of boosting self-esteem is doing some voluntary work. Offering to fix the guttering for an elderly neighbour or volunteering for a kid’s adventure training holiday will not only divert your attention from your own problems but the praise and thanks will make you feel better.
Finally break the general patterns: seek new hobbies, interests, go out with different mates or simply change your route to work. If you do the same old things, your life will stay the same.
When you are ready to start dating again adopt a fresh attitude. There are three types of dates: getting to know you (first three to five), fun dates (enjoying each other’s company) and courting dates. You cannot get to the third type without moving through the first two. This approach will not only stop you getting too serious too quickly, but also allow you to step back and judge the suitability and compatibility of a potential partner.
Without this distance, it is possible to project an ideal relationship onto a date and ignore all the evidence that does not fit the fantasy. Generally, the secret is to enjoy yourself. Sometimes a fun relationship, where you relax and find pleasure in each other’s company, can be very healing and positive – even if it does not lead to a serious long-term relationship.
Together and unhappy
Many couples who go through the motions of Valentine’s Day find their relationship does not match up to the celebration. It is not that they hate each other, in a way that would be easier, but their love has dwindled to just liking each other. They get on, but there is no passion left and certainly no romance.
As a relationship counsellor, I am seeing more and more couples who are brother and sister / best mates rather than partners. Major life changes – like turning forty, redundancy, children leaving home or the death of a parent – can also make someone question what they are doing with their life and highlight problems, which had previously seemed small in a relationship.
Instead of smiling through gritted teeth, use 14th February to be more honest with yourself and stop pretending. Take stock and work out where your relationship went off track. Alternatively, share your disappointment with your partner and make a commitment to improving things between the two of you.
The number one reason for passionless relationships is not arguing enough. Many couples suppress what irritates them about each other in return for an easy life; anyway, the pressures of modern living mean they have neither the time nor energy to disagree. However without rows, couples never sort out their differences. The resulting pain does not simply disappear, but is shoved into cold storage.
Slowly, all feelings are numbed – even the positive ones the couple sought to protect. In counselling, arguing is normally the first sign that a relationship is improving. This is because it takes a certain amount of closeness, or engagement, to fight rather than indulge in low-grade bickering or to ignore each other.
So what makes for a productive argument? Complain about the behaviour not the person (for example: don’t leave wet towels on the bed, rather than you are lazy), deal with one topic at a time (rather than throw in another if you appear to be losing) and when all the anger has been expressed to aim for a compromise or a trade – where each partner agrees to change something for the other.
Once work, commuting time, sleep and watching TV have been deducted out of a normal week, the average British couple spends little time in each other’s company. According to the Office of National Statistics, around three and a half hours a week is all that is left for shared social life; sport; hobbies and interests (or just twenty- four minutes a day).
Even a small amount of extra time together can pay dividends. Professor John Gottman of the University of Washington, who studied several hundred married couples interacting in a special laboratory to discover what made marriages work, proposes an investment of five hours a week to make a profound difference.
It might be difficult to make this big a leap in one go, but start making good habits: eat together in the evening, find a baby sitter or just turn off the TV. It is amazing how these small changes can ultimately reap great rewards.