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How to Find Love on Valentine’s Day When You Are on Your Own

Instead of pining for roses, do this.

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illustration of woman sitting on couch watching tv, cuddling with pets, eating her favorite food
Aart-Jan Venema
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Oh, Valentine’s Day. Hearts. Chocolate. Roses. Red and pink tissue paper everywhere. I’ve been a sucker for every bit of this holiday since I started sending Snoopy cards in first grade.

I’ve learned, however, it’s not the cards or gifts that matter. It’s not the day itself. Traditional romance doesn’t cut it, either. These things have nothing to do with love.

Valentine’s Day is — first and foremost — about money. More than 161 million Americans spend roughly $27.9 billion on this sentimental holiday each year, according to credit.com. But this celebration of love is more than a made-up capitalist marketing occasion designed to drain our wallets. Cupid’s chokehold bears valuable lessons, if you let yourself see and feel them.

Try this: Make a list of the truest romances in your life — the ones that still make you cry with gratitude. For most of us, it’s not a romantic partner except in our imagination when a sappy old song comes on the radio. And if you do have that one-in-a-million romance, my heartfelt congratulations. You won the love lottery.

For me, what comes to mind first is my friends. The boys and girls who laughed with me until Moa-Moa Punch came out our noses after school at Baskin-Robbins. The ones who grew into men and women who listened to me, long-distance at 5 a.m., crying adult tears until snot came out that same nose. I never had a lover or partner do that for me.

Second, there is no romance to equal the love I feel for the kids in my life. The only unconditional love I’ve ever experienced, the purest emotion, is the love that children have expressed for me. Their pudgy hands in mine. The way their whole bodies soften when they see me at the airport gate waiting for them. The conviction that I make the world’s best Thanksgiving gravy, even though it comes from a powder that costs $1.99.

What about the strangers who’ve saved us? The freshman dean’s secretary who confronted me about my anorexia and drug abuse and took me to the self-help group that taught me how to save myself. (Not kidding, her name was Hope.) The airport rental-car employee who, while seeing me struggle after a long flight with three kids under age 5, an absentee husband who made me feel invisible even when he was right next to me, a cart of luggage and two car seats, bumped me to the front of his line. The locksmith who told me he’d be at my apartment in five days, but when I confessed I’d just broken up with a man who had been physically abusing me, responded, “I’ll be there in 20 minutes.”

And the pets? The ones who sleep on my chest every night? Lick my hand when I’m watching a scary movie on the couch?  Sheesh. There’s no romance like that.

Or the random moments of beauty that life tosses our way. The wildflowers on the highway. The first red leaf in fall. A cardinal poking for seeds in the snow. A visit to your childhood home. Graffiti that feels written just for you.

Instead of pining for a red rose and then being surprised by its thorns, consider these Valentine’s Day ideas. 

Send a surprise valentine to 10 people who’ve helped you at key moments in your life.

Organize a girls night out for your single pals.

Volunteer at a soup kitchen and hand out chocolate kisses along with hot soup.

Host a Valentine's Day sleepover for the children of a beloved couple who want a romantic evening alone.

Plan a date night with yourself: Your favorite food. The movie you want to watch. Your pajamas, instead of that itchy dress and compression shorts.

We are not idiots to glorify romantic love with its own holiday. It is glorious. Maybe the only thing besides ice cream worth living for. But we are fools to define it narrowly, a one-on-one love that leads to happily ever after.

I’m not sure why I would want a lover for Valentine’s Day, anyway. Lovers can be deceptive and messy and destructive. Cupid, after all, comes with a bow and a painfully sharp arrow. Romeo and Juliet died! I left my second husband when I realized that, if I were on my deathbed, instead of holding my hand as I transitioned to the afterworld, he’d be scanning his phone. The most delicious-looking chocolates sometimes have black-licorice centers.

Stop and think: How long does happily ever after last, anyway? How foolish are we to believe that life is going to end for us in a shower of pink hearts and rainbows? I’m old enough to have seen death, and that’s not what it’s like.

Love is far more complicated, and at times mysterious, than any romance novel or fairy tale would lead us to believe. Love often comes disguised and in unexpected forms. It’s up to us to see love and to trust that we are worthy of receiving love, and giving it, even when it doesn’t arrive on February 14 wrapped in a red bow.

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