Our caveman ancestors weren’t known for gifting their chosen mate with a stuffed bear, selection of sugary treats or bouquet of wildflowers picked from the nearest mountainside on any particular day of the year. So how has Valentine's Day now become such a cultural staple across the globe and how have our patterns of courtship changed since our pre-historic roots?
St Valentine himself was a relatively obscure 3rd century Roman saint martyred on the 14th February. The plethora of handed-down fables and stories-turned-legends that surround him portray him as a heroic character, sympathetic to the hardships of star-crossed lovers in their various permutations, but these tales are hard to prove with any empirical validity. It seems that through a combination of his martyrdom, coinciding with February’s bird mating season, Chaucer’s literary influence in 14th century England and Christian attempts to supersede the pre-existing Pagan fertility holiday of Lupercalia, have propelled him into universal stardom and historical immortality.
Caveman culture was, as far as evolutionary anthropologists can tell, polyamorous and promiscuous. Our ancestors did not mate for life, right up until the last millenium. The invention of modern monogamy and the focus of courtship on one individual made way for the establishment of traditions and rituals that us humans are still so fond of today.
Courtship, even over the last 100 years, has changed so vastly that behaviours which would have been considered scandalous to downright obscene - such as unmarried men and women being alone together - are so commonplace today that it seems laughable to the contemporary Western dating world. Courtship has grown from being a family affair with the express goal of marriage, where first dates were conducted in the parlour of the family home, to today's more casual dinner-and-a-movie format, with future marriage relegated firmly to a list of taboo conversation topics. While cultures differ in their adherence to and maintenance of these old traditions across the globe, Valentine’s Day in the Western world has become an opportunity to woo a new mate or delight an existing one.
The fundamentals of Valentine’s Day appeal to us on the most basic of human levels - the human need for love. We are social creatures, and social creatures that have a psychological need for love and belonging. Affirmation of this love can only be constructive to our self-confidence and rewarding for us and our partners, so it’s only natural that a festival celebrating such has prospered in our increasingly romance-focused society. From the troubadours, poets and bards of history to modern fine dining and luxury weekends away in Paris, Valentine’s Day gives an excuse for lovers everywhere to show each other what they mean to them. In our fast-paced world, excuses such as these should not be taken for granted.
Understand: Each partner in the relationship should play an equal role. There should be a balance in what the two parties contribute to the relationship in order to create a workable status quo. You do not have to contribute the same things; the key is to show that you are putting in as much as you would like to receive in terms of love, support and communication.
We’ve all heard the well-worn phrase “men are from Mars and women are from Venus” but when it comes to problem-solving in relationships, this isn’t far from the truth. The ways in which men and women typically tackle conflict are vastly different, right down to a cerebral level.
The main differences and the major source of contention in most relationship conflicts boil down to discrepancies on the emotional level. When a man is faced with a problem, he will tackle this by objectively looking for solutions. However, for women in a relationship, finding a solution to the problem is only half the battle. Women need to feel that they are understood and met on the emotional level by their partner before they can begin to solve the problem in a way that satisfies them. Wife wants Husband to empathise with her, before suggesting solutions that she could have come up with on her own.
But why is this so? Well, men’s brains tend to perform tasks predominantly on the left side – aka the side associated with logical thinking and reasoning. Female brains, however, are highly connected across the left and right hemispheres, and women therefore tend to operate from both sides, which is why they are normally better at communication and social thinking. Women also typically have a larger limbic system than men, which makes them more in touch and expressive with their emotions. Men think more logically, and their decisions are affected much less often by emotion than women’s, hence the mismatch between how the two sexes approach conflict.
Evolutionarily, this can be explained by tracing our species back to our origins and looking at the differences in the roles men and women played back in the day. The personality strengths required for the hunter-gatherer position (typically filled by the man) versus the traits that made a successful caregiver and childrearer (typically taken on by the woman) were very different. Natural selection favoured those good at their roles as this aided the survival of our species, as did the diversity between the sexes.
These theories of how men and women approach conflict are generalisations, of course, and not true of all relationship dynamics. Interestingly though, research has shown that discrepancies over problem-solving are consistently reported as less of an issue in homosexual and same-sex relationships than heterosexual ones. This can, perhaps, be attributed to the increased fluidity and blurring of gender roles in non-heterosexual relationships.
In conclusion, both sexes can benefit from a little leniency in the other’s direction. Learning from each other and allowing each other to influence your actions makes for improved communication, cooperation and a healthier, more equal partnership. Because, after all, in most everyday conflicts, finding a satisfying solution to end the conflict between you and your loved one is ultimately more important than winning the argument.
The resolutions have been made, you’ve decided what you will change to become the person you want to be for the forthcoming year. It’s at this point you turn to your partner and assess what they should improve upon to become their better self. You’re helping your partner, simply lifting them to higher levels, it’s all for their benefit, or is it?
Trying to change a partner doesn’t say much about the partner but more about the individual who is trying to modify their loved one’s thoughts and actions. It exhibits an egotistical thought pattern whereby they believe the way they do things is the right way and so their partner should accommodate themselves to fall in line. It also suggests a lack of appreciation for your partner’s thoughts and opinions and diminishes their individuality. Distinctiveness in a relationship is incredibly important, contrary to some people’s beliefs. Though you may work as a pair, it is essential to remember that you are two wholes who have chosen to come together rather than two halves making a whole. Your partner may have similar interests, values and way of life, but they are still a separate person, whose opinions will at some point differ. This by no means is a negative and allows you and your partner to have healthy debates and to equally challenge one another.
Regardless of whether the reasons for wanting to change your partner are rooted in what you believe to be compassion for that person, the consequences of trying to change someone frequently result in the opposite of what you were trying to achieve. Instead of gratitude, appreciation and admiration you will receive anger, resentment and bitterness. A distance is created that may not have been there once and overcompensating for this gap may only make it bigger. If you are looking to have a successful relationship with that person, then there needs to be an acknowledgment that although changes may need to be made, they may be ones you need to make in yourself, as opposed to changing others. Instead of directing your energy, focus and motivations on the misconception that you have control over someone else, turn those efforts internally and you will find a positive difference in yourself.
Positivity in yourself and understanding that we cannot change someone without being manipulative, self-serving and controlling, will allow you to be free of the burden of seeking perfection or the ‘ideal’ partner. A happier you equals a happier relationship and you may just find that those behaviours you sought to change in your partner become endearing. After all, no man or woman is perfect, and we must remember to love all of someone, even their quirks, if we are to find true love.