The One True Thing About the Perfect Valentine’s Date

Is that it doesn’t exist. Because the perfect Valentine’s date doesn’t seek perfection. It seeks reality. It acknowledges who we are as individuals and where we are as couples. Which means, the most loving Valentine’s date could happen in a restaurant. Or in a therapist’s office…

perfect Valentine's date

Photo Credit: nicoledreher via Compfight cc

I’m a marital therapist

And I’ve worked on Valentine’s night.

While couples across the world were dining by candlelight, riding in carriages, and sprinkling rose petals—attempting to orchestrate the perfect evening and the most romantic moment—I’ve sat with couples in the midst of their pain and sorrow. On the most romantic night of the year, I’ve sat with lovers while they got as honest as possible about who they are, turned over rocks most people won’t even look at, fought to forgive, and dug deep to find empathy and intimacy.

On the most romantic night of the year, I’ve sat with couples while they got real.

In other words, I’ve been a witness to the most Romantic Valentine’s dates of all.

Yes, that’s Romance with a capital R.


Recently, Nicholas Sparks, the prolific and beloved romance writer, announced he and his wife of 25 years are getting divorced, and the public reaction speaks volumes about how we’ve come to view romance. The Twitter-sphere lit up with disbelief, as Sparks’ readers declared love to be dead. One dismayed young woman wrote, “If Nicholas Sparks is divorcing his wife there’s no hope for any of us.” Clearly, we’ve invested a lot of faith in romance-with-a-small-r. We believe in storybook romance, with brief moments of heartache thrown in to crank up the tension, followed by happy endings replete with euphoric togetherness, easy intimacy, and eternal guarantees.

Romance-with-a-small-r keeps us waiting on and striving for perfection.

Recently, in an interview, philosopher Peter Rollins had this to say about Romance:

The more I say my marriage will be perfect and great, the more it will be problematic and difficult…[The reality is] this probably will fail because most relationships do…If you can embrace all that and still say, “If I was sensible I’d walk away from you right now and never see you again,” and then you say, “Will you marry me, will you spend the rest of your life with me?” that’s romantic. We’ve taken the most romantic thing out of it. The most romantic thing about a proposal is the madness of it. If I could bring a DVD back from the future of the very moment when you and your partner break up and it all goes awful and you use the kids against each other and stuff like that and then you just snap the DVD and say, “I don’t care, I’m going for it anyway,” that’s romantic.

Recently, a DVD from the past reminded me about Romance-with-a-capital-R.

Ordinary, Imperfect, and Real

I was sifting through old home videos, and I came upon a scene in which my wife’s belly was round with our first child beneath her old pajamas. (We were in graduate school and about to have a kid. We were broke back then, and everything we wore was old.) From behind the camera, I was making stupid comments about how beautiful she looked. I was trying to make her laugh and she was, for some reason, actually laughing.

As I watched the scene, I noticed the date stamp.

February 14, 2003.

As I watched the video, I recalled the first Valentine’s Day of our married life. It had been a disaster. I had tried to make it perfect and when it failed to meet my expectations, we ended up in a fight about something ridiculous. But the second Valentine’s Day of our marriage was beautiful. Not because we tried but because we didn’t.

It was ordinary and imperfect.

It was real.

In other words, it was Romantic-with-a-capital-R.


Across the nation this weekend, some couples will enjoy elaborately orchestrated Valentine’s dates. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Sometimes, such a date is a very real acknowledgement that, “Hey, we’ve been through a lot and we need a port in the storm.” Sometimes, it’s a way of saying, “We’re really firing on all cylinders; let’s go celebrate that.” But for many, the perfect Valentine’s date will be sophisticated storybook denial.

It will be romance-with-a-small-r.

This year, Valentine’s Day falls on a Saturday, which means I won’t be spending my evening in my therapy office with couples getting real and Romantic-with-a-capital-R. However, though I won’t be with them, they will be with me. I will think of the beautiful people who have had the courage to get real in my office, and they will remind me how real Romance and true Love really work:

Love doesn’t seek a perfect moment; it seeks a real moment.

Love knows we have to embrace reality before we can truly embrace each other.

Love knows we can’t be perfect, but we can abide in the midst of imperfection.

Love knows the only way this lasts forever is if we’re broken together.

Love knows how to turn romance into Romance.

Question: Do you have a favorite real but Romantic Valentine’s memory? You can leave a comment by clicking here.


Please Note: Our next series of Courtyard Conversations—“Hanging in the Balance: How to Live With a True Self and a False Self”—will begin this weekend. If you haven’t joined us before, this will be a great time to begin enjoying the warmth and wisdom of this welcoming community! To find out more about it, and to find out how to join the Conversation, click here.


Next Post: What My Kids Have Taught Me About How to Love

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

11 thoughts on “The One True Thing About the Perfect Valentine’s Date

  1. Your blog prompt solicited real and Romantic Valentines memories, and those are wonderful and close to my heart. But what is tugging on my heartstrings this year is watching in closer proximity and greater detail the labor of love that goes into preparing thoughtful and inclusive, uplifting Valentines celebrations in an elementary school as parents, teachers and staff work on letter boxes, small gifts, and parties and kids with their openness and vulnerabilities hope for messages of acceptance and affection with unrestrained enthusiasm while crafting the same for their friends and less-favorite classmates alike.

    I am loving Valentine’s Day in a whole new way this year for how much broader this Love is than date nights and candlelight.

    • Shel, what a beautiful observation and reflection. Thank you for sharing it. I remember all the angst of grade school Valentine’s parties, when there was no regulation of who got what cards and you’d watch the social dynamics play out in pink and red cardboard. Grateful we’re more aware now.

  2. I’ve never been a fan of Valentines Day. I enjoy the little fun cards
    the kids fill out and getting them a small bag of goodies, but when it
    comes to the love between my significant other and I, the day
    seems….almost silly. I will stand in the aisle at
    the card store and read about 25 cards that represent the shallow, silly
    way society has defined love. And I will walk away empty handed and
    disgusted that I cant find anything that really says how I feel. I’ll
    walk through the store looking for something that will show him how much
    I love him, and giant pink teddy bears and boxes of chocolate seem to
    almost mock me.
    On Valentines Day, I am acutely aware that the word
    “love” is overused and undervalued. We throw it around carelessly giving
    little thought to what the word means. The Greeks knew love was so huge
    they had 5 different words for it. The english language uses the same
    one word to describe our fondness for cake and the devotion we have
    toward our significant others. Maybe it’s just me, but when I tell him
    “I love you”, it just doesnt seem to accurately describe what Im
    actually feeling. Because on my birthday, when I sit down in front of a
    huge chunk of my grandma’s carrot cake, I’ve been known to tell the cake
    the same thing. And I certainly have deeper feelings for Brian than I
    do for delectable baked goods.
    Really loving someone is hard. It
    requires you to be gut-wrenchingly honest with yourself. And I’ve
    learned this the hard way. I have two failed marriages under my belt.
    Two. Maybe that gives me no right to tell anyone what love is, but I
    certainly know what love isnt. Love cannot come with conditions. There
    cant be any “I love you ifs…” or “I love you buts…” Love doesnt
    require us to change who we are to fit the image someone else has of who
    we should be. And that applies to our kids as well. Real love is
    accepting the imperfections, the faults, the mistakes, and understanding
    that all of these things make up this wonderfully complex human being
    who, for whatever reason, we want to be with. Love is saying “You’re
    not perfect, but neither am I. Im human and I make mistakes and I will
    inevitably piss you off and drive you nuts at some point. I’ll say the
    wrong things, I’ll forget to pick up your dry cleaning, I might burn the
    dinner sometimes, and you may come home one day and find me crying in
    the closet. But I love you. I love you more than your quick temper, more
    than your dirty socks that CANNOT seem to make it inside the hamper,
    more than the messes you leave and the way you wait until I sit down to
    ask me to bring you ice cream. I love you more than the money you make,
    the house we have, and the car we drive. I love you even when I dont
    like you very much. In loving you, I CHOOSE to accept you with all your
    flaws and to help you and encourage you to become the very best version
    of yourself. Because loving you this way makes me a better me.”
    matter how hard we try, we cant change anyone. Going into a relationship
    with the expectation that we can change this person or mold them into
    our ideal man or woman is silly and setting the stage for disaster.
    Real life is not like a Nicholas Sparks novel or a romantic comedy. Real
    life is a never ending roller coaster you ride in the dark. There’s no
    way to see what twists and turns are up ahead, no preparing ourselves
    for the quick drops that send our stomachs into our throats. But love is
    that hand we can hold during the really scary parts. And I dont need a particular day of the year to celebrate it. Because I want him to know it EVERY day.
    you’re wondering, I did buy something for him. I filled a box with what
    I called a relationship survival kit. Super glue for when he feels like
    leaving. Baby powder for when I rub him the wrong way. Advil for when
    Im a pain in the neck, Preparation H for when Im a pain in the butt, and
    Pepto for when he’s sick of me. Bandaids for when I hurt him, and duct
    tape for when I talk too much. 🙂

    • Your comment beautifully sums up everything I feel about my marriage of 21 years. It’s as if you took all of my thoughts and feelings and put them into words I didn’t have. Thank you!

    • Ditto what Jenny and MIchele said, Shannon. That Valentine’s gift box is the best I’ve ever heard of! Thank you for sharing your thoughts so eloquently.

  3. You mentioning Feb.14,2003 reminded me of the first Valentine’s Day that I wasn’t with my husband. My son had just been born the day before and the hospital had a special menu that you could choose a nice dinner for you and your spouse to share. Well, dinner came and it was beautiful but my husband never managed to make it. He was home with our two year old daughter and I guess it was a little much. The hospital had moved me to a wing that didn’t have a nursery because they were overflowing with births. When he called and said he was not going to make it, the tears started and I felt so alone. Then I realized I had this new baby boy by my side who needed to be loved and I thought, well, I guess we are in this together, a new boy in my life to love, not to replace, but to enlarge my heart, our love.

    • Thanks for this reflection, Karen, and I hope your now not so little boy had a good birthday yesterday!

  4. I totally like your differentiation of “R”omance and “r”omance! I chuckled at what the world expected for Nicholas Sparks!! How about Robin Williams? Of course he had a great mind in “unrealistically” defining what love is….or should I say “r”omance! Funny how the world assumes that the people who come up with these thoughts in their novels are actually good at putting them into action. Maybe they are! But in an unreal never-lasting way! I agree with Shannon on Valentines…it is soooo overrated? It is such a temporary moment that some people use to say “I love you” and yet what they really mean is “oh I almost forgot I love you” or “sorry I forgot to say I love you during the other 300+ days of the year”!! I don’t make a fuss and if my husband’s too busy for it we just act like the other 365 days…no biggie!! Although I’d encourage those who do make a big deal out of it to use it as a stepping stone to a better relationship…to try to put the actions of that day into the rest of the year, at least 4 times minimum…actually I don’t know what’s a good minimum.

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