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Beyond Valentine’s Day

A reminder to tell your loved ones that you appreciate them.

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As we all know, not too many people get excited about Valentine’s Day. Fond memories of “Will You Be My Valentine?” cards passed around childhood classrooms have long since been replaced by cynical references to V-Day as a pseudo-holiday created by chocolatiers and greeting-card companies. For some, February 14 is a stark reminder of what it is they may not have yet most desire—
a loving partner, a supportive and enriching intimate relationship, or perhaps even just a dinner date.

With some reconsideration, the barrage of candied hearts can serve as a different kind of mental and emotional prompt. Instead of Valentine’s Day representing all that may be missing from our personal relationships, this holiday can serve as a reminder of the importance of telling the people who are present in our lives how much we love and appreciate them.

Do Heart Emojis Count?
In a recent conversation, I asked a group of people about the last time they heard or said the words “I love you.” Perhaps not surprisingly, many in the group said they might go one to several days without hearing or saying those words. In spite of frequent communication with close friends or family via text or social media, expressions of affection were doled out more sparingly than one might think. In fact, some people said they sometimes go several days without receiving a hug or supportive touch from another person.

While most of us agree it is important to express and receive affection from those we love, it can still be pretty difficult cultivating relationships where that love is consistently and explicitly stated. Text messaging has radically shifted our style of communication, and while texting can make it easier to let people know we care, does a heart emoji land in the same way as actual spoken words? Studies would suggest they do not.  Despite our increased online connectivity with others, people are reporting higher rates of loneliness and feelings of isolation.

Why’s It So Hard to Say I Love You?
Perhaps you grew up in a home environment where expressions of love among family members were not encouraged, because showing emotion of any kind was viewed as a sign of weakness. If your feelings are repeatedly invalidated by others who are close to you (such as parents or caretakers), then you learn pretty quickly that it isn’t safe or acceptable to share much about anything, including ourselves.

Demonstrating affection is not always supported outside of the home, either. Even in relationships with friends and chosen family, while it may be a bit easier to express caring, taboos remain about those verbal expressions of love since beliefs about weakness are not limited to family relationships.

When growing up in a society where LGBTQ affection and sexual desire is seen as pathological or immoral, you are literally taught by the broader society that your love, as well as your way of loving and expressing love, is wrong. LGBTQ folks are encouraged by society to hide their love, to deny it, and to push it or pray it away. Suppressing natural desires for love, affection, and closeness in an effort to mask sexual orientation, or to desexualize one’s self in order to literally preserve physical safety (as with trans and/or nonbinary people) is the reality for many—both prior to and after coming out.

Mentally and emotionally, the suppression of LGBTQ love and desire doesn’t just end with curtailing outward expressions of affection in front of people who do not identify as LGBTQ. It is extremely difficult to limit this type of repression to just one domain of life. The skill of suppression, which might literally be lifesaving for some, does not turn off quite so easily. Suppressing one’s feelings can continue into our most intimate relationships, preventing us from being fully and authentically present, or causing us to stay quiet when we feel strongly towards others, including platonic love.

How Do I Communicate Love?
While it may be important to say “I love you” via social media, texting, or even in casual conversation, there is something deeper and more meaningful in fully expressing how much we care. We should not take for granted that people want to hear that they are loved.

Expressing love with others is like any other skill: it can be practiced and mastered over time. Part of this skill includes selecting those people who are open to receiving our messages of love. It would be overly optimistic to think or expect that all people to whom we express affection are ready to receive it in the spirit with which it is being given. Choose carefully.

Remember, we don’t always know who is in need of a kind and loving word. So if you happen to be someone who receives lots of verbal expressions of love, pay it forward. The gift you give by saying “I love you” might be the only one your friend or family receives.

So, instead of asking, “Will you be my Valentine?” ask someone, “Did you know you are loved?”

This article appears in the February 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Daryl Shorter, MD

Daryl Shorter, MD, is a Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and is board certified in both general and addiction psychiatry. His clinical practice focuses on veteran care, and he lectures widely on LGBTQ mental health. Dr. Shorter can be reached at [email protected]

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