Romance Revisited

Ciao’s resident sex therapist and relationships columnist, Cat O’Dowd, interrogates the Inner West’s hot and cold affair with Valentines Day.

“Cupid rhymes with stupid!”
“Valentines Day isn’t about romance anymore it’s about rules and doing what you’re told.”
“… commercialised to death.”
“Valentines Day sucks because of the pressure to buy gifts which are heavily marked up and way too expensive.. Ads tell us spending money is romantic.”
People shouldn’t do nice things for you on days that are socially acceptable, they’re just obeying the rules and trying to fit me into a social mould. I’m aromantic.”
“I’m not religious or a Capitalist so I won’t celebrate it!”

Woah! Hang on a minute! Such crushing cacophonies of disenchantment disavowing romance and Valentines Day! Interviewing locals I realised that disillusionment looms large like a cloud blocking out Cupid’s arrow in the Inner West.

Men spoke of ’emotional scars’ and many women I spoke to said they had never had a partner do anything special for them on Valentines so now they hate it. Unfulfilled expectations on Valentines Day lead to massive disappointment which then led to heartbreak and break ups in a vicious merry-go-round.

Anti-Valentines Day events have capitalised on this mass cynicism – this year you can watch horror movies all night at Newtown’s Dendy cinema in an orgy of “Up Yours” to love and romance!

Romancing right

As a sex therapist and relationship counsellor, everyday I see the importance of romance and ritual in happy relationships of my clients. Romance acts as the glue that keeps two humans bonded for the long term. Romance is a magical alchemy between the ecstatic highs and lows of arousal and passionate love and the peaceful bonding of companionate love.

However antiquated romance might seem, it is what has guaranteed the survival of our species. People forget that the tendency to overlook the celebration of romance with cynicism towards mass-produced products, or the lack of sincerity in consumer culture, can be overcome with hand-made gifts or shared experiences. Since early history social-exchange rituals that involve gift giving or goods exchange have been deeply ingrained in our discourses of sex and partnership.

Humans are essentially ritualistic creatures, searching for narratives to find meaning. Rituals are sets of symbolic languages that operate periodically and pay homage to meaningful parts of our life.

Rituals are symbolic ways of expressing emotions in a non-verbal fashion. Our instinctive unconscious understands rituals better than our rational consciousness. We cannot psychologically survive, individually or collectively, without rituals because we have a need to experience life beyond the mundane. It is as essential to us as our need for love, shelter and food.

Scientific research reveals that rituals increase confidence, minimise anxiety and they are especially helpful

in times when risk or rewards are high, or things are out of our control. Research shows that meaningful rituals in a relationship help strengthen bonds, improve intimacy, trust, belonging, satisfaction and improve the overall health of a relationship.

Sharing Valentines Day together is important because acknowledging the significance of your relationship is pivotal to constructing deeper and longer lasting bonds.

Talking with a friend or therapist, listening to your intuition and brainstorming with your partner is a great way to invent meaningful romantic rituals. Set aside a time and space for honouring your relationship with your partner and with yourself.

The ultimate ritual

Valentines Day originates from a pagan, pre-Christian festival called Lupercalia. The Ancient Romans celebrated fertility, sexuality and purification in a three-day spring cleansing ritual that started on the 13th of February every year.

To honour the god Lupercus (known as Pan to the Ancient Greeks), men would run naked through the city whipping women’s bare bottoms with goat hide. Women offered up their buttocks willingly, as lashes symbolised fertility, infertility cures and healthy births.

One custom ensured no one spent the festival alone – the singles’ ‘lucky dip’. Names were pulled from a jar and coupling commenced for just one night, a week, and sometimes these new relationships lasted for years.

As the Church gained power, Pope Gelasius banned the Lupercalia Festival in 496 AD. When he was still unsuccesful  at stamping out the popular celebration two years later, he declared February the 14th to be

Valentines Day and changed the lustful theme to saintly   love and sacrifice. However, the popularity of the ‘lucky dip’ persisted for centuries until the disapproving Church changed it into a saints name guessing game.

Some kill-joy scholars argue there is no connection between Lupercalia and Valentines Day, and we’ll never know for sure, but it’s a fun way to expand our awareness of ritual and romance.

Valentines through the ages

St. Valentine was a sacrificial martyr with a cult following through 14th and 15th Centuries, until Geoffrey Chaucer transformed him into a symbol of romantic love. Chaucer wrote poems of birds mating, lovers pining and the beginning of spring. His symbols captured the collective imagination of Valentines so well that they survive to today.

In the 17th and 18th Centuries “drawing lots” or ‘divinatory match making’ to choose a valentine was popular. Names were put into a jar on Valentines Eve. It was a good omen for the ‘lucky dip’ couple to eventually marry.

Other customs included women creeping into the churchyard at midnight to discover omens, or putting hemp seeds under their pillow for dreams of their future husbands. Young people took to the streets singing in exchange for gifts, and there was sexual license and festive indulgence.

Small businesses started making cards in the 1820’s, but it was the cheaper postage that propelled the card giving custom! By the 1840’s bigger companies started catering to the demand.

Hallmark didn’t invent Valentines Day, sending cards was already a symbolic way to express emotions when courtship followed such strict social formalities. Cards were sent to friends, family and anonymous teasing cards sent to wrongdoers!

Try celebrating Valentines Day in the spirit of the 1700’s when hand written Valentine notes on plain paper were popular. It’s quite intimate and sensual following the handwriting of your lover in our digital age. Try creating your own rituals like in Europe where couples write their names on a padlock and lock it onto a bridge. Couples throw the key into the river as a symbol of their love.

Above all, view Valentines as a celebration of love, not responsibility!

Catherine O Dowd

Sex Therapist —Relationship Counsellor — Expressive Arts Psychotherapist!

Our cover “couple” (who coincidentally share similar last names), Jim Townsend from Batch Brewing Company in Marrickville and Elaine Townshend from Cash Palace in Leichhardt, reflect on romance through the ages.

Have you ever written a handwritten love note?

J: Yes when I was around 16 years old. I had chemistry with a girl but we couldn’t quite get it together… because we were 16. I think if I read it today I would be deeply ashamed.

E: Never.

Have you ever had a memorable Valentines Day?

J: Hopefully the upcoming one! We’re going to the first restaurant we ever went to.

E: Never. But I can talk about something that I did for someone. I met a young man, I’m talking 35 years ago, and he was overseas in New guinea and coming back to Australia. I got a four-string orchestra to play and I cooked a dinner for him for when he arrived back. And I had a waiter all dressed up in a black and white suit – so I guess that’s something romantic.

What does the word ‘courting’ mean to you?

J: I think it’s recognising an interest in someone, being open as well as recognising boundaries.

E: Fantasy, I guess, not knowing somebody and trying to find out about them. That would be an interesting proposition.

What would make for a bad Valentines date?

J: Running into my ex girlfriend.

E: I think a drunken man swearing and becoming abusive, that would be a really bad night. Because some guys get nervous and drink too much and make a fool of themselves.

Have you ever used online dating sites or Apps?

J: I’ve experimented with tinder for a couple of months, like all of us have because I was curious. But ultimately it didn’t change anything.

E: Never. I like to catch my fish with my own hands… not that I’ve caught any fish for a long time.

What do you think of them?

E: I think they’re terrible, I’ve never used them. I know some people swear by them. I think for my age group, I know people do it. But I’d rather know somebody and have a normal face-to-face relationship rather than a cyber-space, because in cyber-space you know no truths. It’s all lies and fantasies. You can always tell everything by looking into people’s eyes. There are too many risks involved and I’m risk-adverse these days.

Do you think Valentines Day is important?

J: No not really, because I try and make every day Valentines Day. If every day I’m caring and conscientious it makes for a healthier relationship rather than a minimal effort one day of the year would do.