I feel sorry for men on Valentine’s Day. It’s sexist of me, I know. The day isn’t gender-specific but my feelings are. They’re the result of observations I’ve made over the years since I was first made aware of the red envelopes, unlikely handwriting and whispering. The talk seemed to be a female thing. The onus for a declaration and flourish was on the boys.
There will always be some who relish it. For them, there will be nothing fluffy or impromptu about their plan: the day is an opportunity to make thoughtful arrangements. But for everyone who has managed to pick out beautiful jewellery or smuggle a marriage proposal into an unopened cereal packet, it’s safe to say there will be a silent majority who, on their way home on the 14 February, tag on to the end of the queue to buy one of those single roses, seemingly suspended in cellophane tubes. There’s a resigned stoicism to the purchase. It’s like Christmas Eve with extra romantic pressure.
Those same queuers might have glanced awkwardly about at work, and been prompted to send texts to partners when the inevitable, more considered gifts and larger bouquets appear on the desks of colleagues. (This year, Valentine’s Day falls on a Sunday, so that particular aspect is spared them, but the sense of it remains.)
Then there’s the evening plan. To go out is to fully embrace the idea of the heart-shaped menu. To stay in risks looking miserly. And this year, the fact that the day falls at a weekend will bring the possibility of buying those mini-breaks or “escapes”, which almost never are.
Of course, the cards and the consumer exhortations to surprise her or him with gifts of jewellery or underwear start appearing well before the day itself. For at least the length of January, they lurk beneath the last Happy New Year wishes, reminding you not to forget – and this is without the additional hints from partners or others.
So the possibility of organising something is always there, and this is the least appealing aspect of it all (for me at least). The idea of an overly slick performance, and excessive forward planning, pre-Valentine’s Day is somehow unappealing. Perhaps the awkward last-minute rush has to be part of it, a necessary evil.
There is the literal cost of the day to resent too. Last year’s estimated spend on Valentine’s Day was in the region of £1.6bn in Britain, and the overall finding is that men will spend more than women and in greater numbers.
Perhaps a clearer, prescriptive element can help those men to whom the “beleaguered” label seems to fit. In Spain, the equivalent to Valentine’s Day falls on 23 April and is a public holiday. On El Día del Libro (The Day of the Book), the men give single roses and the women give a book. For the men this might allow you to bypass some of the “imagination” element, though not the need to participate.
For those not in relationships there’s a different anxiety. Single men will be a part of the “panic dating” peaks signalled by various dating websites around Valentine’s Day. For both sexes, the lonely experience of the Christmas party season can be echoed in February, because you will experience the day alone, while not wanting to be.
Within this group I feel for men particularly because it seems they experience the scrutiny of being solo, in public, more keenly. Anecdotally, and in my own experience of online dating, it has been men who say “we needn’t reveal how we met”.
It seems to me that Valentine’s makes some men both uncomfortable with being single and acutely conscious of the forced rituals required of them in order that they not be. On the one occasion I attended a Valentine’s party, the men were there under sufferance “because a friend begged me to come along last minute”. Their discomfort was clear. Among the single women I know, there tends to be an accepting pragmatism alongside their sensitivity at finding themselves alone.
Perhaps the rituals of would-be Valentines highlight to men the idea (or burden?) that they should be the ones to make the first move, be it a simple Valentine card, or a marriage proposal.
Like the glorious moment when a child breaks out in a huge grin but only after it has its photo taken, I wonder if there might be a particular armistice for romantic Valentine gestures by men – perhaps the day after: a moment without focus, after the flash has gone. Either way, this Sunday my heart goes out to all of them, every time.