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Parsing Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day can be more complicated than just gifting roses and chocolates. (photo by Temari 09 via Flickr)

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Geoffrey Chaucer may have been the first to link romance to St. Valentine’s Day, in 1382’s Parlement of Foules, but hundreds of years later the day instantly evokes images of pink and red hearts, cards, chocolates and flowers.

What does it all mean? U of T News asks University of Toronto experts.

Valentine’s Day has long involved gift-giving, and confectionary has been a popular part of that tradition. But what’s so special about chocolate?

“One reason people crave chocolate is that they often try to deny it to themselves when they are dieting to lose weight. We showed that if we get people to avoid eating chocolate for a week they crave it and then eat it more when allowed to eat it again,” says Professor Janet Polivy, eating behaviour expert from U of T Mississauga’s Department of Psychology.

Interestingly, researchers did not find the same results when depriving subjects of vanilla (and vanilla-flavoured) foods for the same period, Polivy reports.

“There seems to be something special (and possibly irreplaceable) about chocolate for people who like chocolate, so when they try not to eat it, they just crave it until they wind up eating even more of it.”

By the 18th century, publishers were targeting lovelorn men with guides to writing Valentine’s Day verses. And by the Victorian era, paper valentines were being festooned with ribbons.

Today, is a simple poem or card enough?

“Traditional couples will keep Hallmark and Lindt in business for a while yet, and I always admire creative couples who find non-traditional ways of recognizing and celebrating their relationships,” says Associate Professor James Cantor of the Faculty of Medicine.

For many same-sex couples, there can be special meaning in adopting the traditions reserved for heterosexual couples, says Cantor, a clinical and research psychologist who specializes in human sexuality.

“The worlds of love and sex have a rich diversity that few of us ever think to picture, and people in non-traditional relationships find ever more wondrous ways of celebrating not only their loves, but also their uniqueness.”

But it can be wise to plan ahead, says Blake Woodside, a professor with the Department of Psychiatry,and  a clinical member and approved supervisor for the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy.

“Couples normally develop a pattern, which may change over the duration of the relationship, as to how they wish to mark the day,” says Dr. Woodside. “Some will choose to celebrate more or less, but couples who have dramatically different ideas about how to celebrate will, of course, have trouble on a day like this.”

For some people, Valentine’s Day requires a little time on Facebook – from a status update to an overhaul of the friends list.

Research by social psychologist Amy Muise shows that people who are more satisfied in their relationships, and feel closer to their partner, are more likely to have a couple-oriented profile picture on Facebook. She has also found that on days when people experience boosts in relationship satisfaction they are more likely to post about their relationship or their partner on Facebook.

“It seems that sharing information about your relationship or posting pictures with your partner may be a modern day expression of relationship happiness,” says Muise.

Research also suggests that another way to prepare for Valentine's is to delete former partners from friend lists, she adds.

“A recent study found that the more time you spend “creeping" your ex-partner on Facebook, the more difficult it is to get over the break-up,” Muise says, adding people who continued to follow ex-partners on Facebook felt more desire and longing for them and, as a result, experienced more negative emotions and less personal growth.

“I also know from my own research that one trigger of jealousy on Facebook is when a romantic partner interacts with their ex-partners.”

While some people are plotting romantic gestures and escapades for their sweethearts on Valentine’s Day, others are preparing to fly the coop says Samantha Joel, PhD student from the Department of Psychology.

“Research shows that people are in fact more likely to break up within a couple of weeks of Valentine's Day compared to other times of the year,” says Joel. “Two and a half times more likely, in fact!”

But it’s not the fault of Saint Valentine – it’s the relationship itself.

“It seems that Valentine's Day is not so much a cause of breakups as a catalyst,” says Joel. “Around Valentine's Day, relationships are on people's minds; the holiday prompts people to take stock of their romantic lives. And so, for people who aren't feeling very fulfilled by their current relationships, Valentine's Day can provide the motivation that they need to actually call it quits.”

“We don't usually realize it, but we humans are members of the most social of all species,” says Keith Oatley, Canadian novelist and professor emeritus of cognitive psychology. “But we are not just like bees or sheep, which do what their genes command. We can choose to be on our own, or choose to be with others, or choose to be with just one other.

“We are perhaps fascinated by love because it is a state of ultimate cooperation: being with another person so that what we do together is more important than anything we could do by ourselves.”