Despite capitalism's best efforts, you can still have a meaningful Valentine’s Day

Amid the terrifying tat and horrible heartbreak, genuinely heartfelt gestures do still have a chance.

Valentine’s Day, with all its trials and tribulations, is surely at risk of a rebranding – and Singles Awareness Day, or SAD for short, has already been suggested. Ever since Chaucer and then capitalism upped the ante and transformed the religious feasting day into a commercial celebration of all things saccharine, the run-up to Valentine’s Day is always wrought with anxiety. Did you spend enough money, or not enough? Did you pick the right gift? Or, perhaps more depressingly, why are you alone after yet another year? Why don’t you have someone special to present with commercially-motivated, manufactured romance tat at a restaurant with uncomfortably close tables festooned in glittery heart-shaped confetti?

The mass genocide of roses, the polyester petals on the bed, and the admonitions by magazines to spend £400 on a new set of luxury lingerie as “a present for him” (but which presumably you wear) are all examples of how humanity throws itself forcefully into idiocy every time 14 February comes around. All too often, the date can turn the most soft-hearted romantic into the most hardened cynic, especially after years of being given the same teddy clutching a heart. By the time a woman is 25, it’s not uncommon for her to have a whole cupboard wherein they lurk like the murderers in some Valentine’s themed Nineties teen horror, just waiting, knife in hand, to go for the jugular. All this manufactured love certainly can be difficult to bear (sorry).

Could it be that, with so many clichés abounding, actual romance really is dead? Much has been made of the 7p Asda Smart Price card (the Asda Smart Price logo is emblazoned within a green heart, and inside the message reads: “My love for you is priceless!”), being a sign that romance is dead, but it seems more of a PR stunt than a genuine attempt to make V-Day affordable for all. Meanwhile, a New Zealand robot-themed card for computer science enthusiasts that states: “You’ve Downloaded My Heart” is actually quite sweet, and certainly more heartfelt than much of the tat on the high street. Indeed, one couple’s annual quest to present one another with the vilest cards that graphic design can offer always turns up some corkers. A mutual appreciation of ugly fonts – now that’s love, that is.

As far our own experiences of Valentine’s Day are concerned, they’ve been a bit of a mixed bag. Holly had her expectations crushed early, when her first serious boyfriend presented her with a “To My Husband” card for laughs and then split the bill with her over a Pizza Hut buffet. Meanwhile, her own sickeningly romantic and ridiculously expensive gift languished back in the car, only for it to be driven away by one of his drunk friends. Rhiannon, while living in Paris, found herself on a blind date with two identical twins that her Texan friend Amberley had met on Craigslist. The twins, who were somewhat diminutive in stature, took both girls to a boat on the Seine which turned out to be the venue for a traffic light party. Somewhat insultingly, both twins picked green, and Rhiannon went home, only to find a recent ex waiting outside her apartment in his car, reeking of Stella.

The best way to find out whether or not Valentine’s Day was as an unedifying experience as it has been for us was to ask the general public, who predictably responded in disgruntled droves. Leonie described her worst Valentine’s Day as being the time that “my ex couldn’t afford dinner so we went to McDonald’s. Both our cards were rejected (we were students). I cried with hunger.” Meanwhile, Eve recounts how, while working at Sainsbury’s, she received a card from a “chicken boy Dan”, whose identity still remains a mystery. Singletons complaining about receiving cards from their parents purporting to be from their pets were at fever pitch this year, although by far our favourite “joke card” anecdote came from Lauren, who said: “my sister sends me a card ‘from’ Les Dennis every year because I once kissed a picture of him aged 6.” We do love it when someone invests time and effort in mockery.

Alongside the hilariously eccentric there were also tales of heartbreak and woe. Rejection at an early age was a common theme, with rather a lot of romantics having had their efforts mocked and derided by crushes from their schooldays. Joseph said: “Thirteen-year-old me gave a girl a rose in the playground and said that I liked her. She threw it on the ground, stamped on it, and walked off.” Meanwhile, Georgie won the award for the most devastating realisation. Having had sex in a hotel room, her lover left to buy a bottle of wine. “He never came back,” she said. “I paid the bill. I later discovered he was married.” Illness was also common, with Captain Frantastic’s boyfriend “giving himself food poisoning from a badly reheated Gregg’s steak bake”, while Megan “went into anaphylaxis and spent the day in hospital after I had an allergic reaction to eating too many love hearts.” A contributor who wishes to remain anonymous because of their work with children said: “I decorated my bedroom like a garden and planned an indoor picnic. Took some acid when my boyfriend arrived, had a bad trip and cried until I passed out.”

Of course, there were also the fatal errors and misjudgements: the card which said “you mean everything to me” after a mere three days of being together, or the letter Louisa received “about how wonderful I am in many ways, but which signed off with a cockle-warming ‘and now that I’ve said all these things, maybe you’ll agree to anal?” Perhaps even more dispiriting was Stacey’s present of a biscuit which had once read “I’ll be your slave”. Unfortunately the “s” and the “e” had fallen off.

Then there’s the steam carpet cleaner offered as a present, or the 58p in coppers shoved inside the card. It’s difficult to know where to pitch your Valentine’s day gifts, as the advice is always changing (“giving something is better than giving nothing” has been replaced in 2013 with “the last thing she wants is cheap flowers”). In the media they’re seen as almost almost exclusively as the domain of the woman, with men complaining loudly about supposed female expectations. Yet the most successful Valentine’s Days we’ve heard of seem to be the ones which ignore corny tradition entirely and concentrate on who the person you love really is, whether that means a hamster given instead of chocolates, a snog in a grimy alley with your work colleague (Lorena and the gentleman in question are still together after 21 years) or the best friend who turned up to your job at Spud-u-like with a giant bouquet of roses (the New Statesman’s very own Laurie Penny.) All of which goes to show that, despite capitalism’s best efforts, the most important aspect of all remains the person performing the gesture, and the love you feel for them, whether it’s platonic, romantic, or your mum pretending to be your gerbil. Happy Valentine’s Day.

 

Did you spend too much on the gift? Are you alone for another year? V-Day is fraught with emotional problems. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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I am special and I am worthless: inside the mind of a narcissist

There's been a lot of discussion about narcissists this week. But what does the term actually mean?

Since the rise of Donald Trump, the term “narcissistic” has been cropping up with great regularity in certain sections of the media, including the pages of this journal. I wouldn’t want to comment about an individual I’ve never met, but I thought it would be interesting to look at the troubling psychological health problem of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

People with NPD (which is estimated to affect about 1 per cent of the population) have a characteristic set of personality traits. First, they have a deeply held sense of specialness and entitlement. Male NPD sufferers frequently present as highly egotistical, with an unshakeable sense of their superiority and importance; female sufferers commonly present as eternal victims on whom the world repeatedly inflicts terrible injustices. In both cases, the affected person believes he or she is deserving of privileged treatment, and expects it as a right from those around them.

Second, NPD sufferers have little or no capacity for empathy, and usually relate to other people as objects (as opposed to thinking, feeling beings) whose sole function is to meet the narcissist’s need for special treatment and admiration – known as “supply”. In order to recruit supply, NPD sufferers become highly skilled at manipulating people’s perceptions of them, acting out what is called a “false self” – the glittering high achiever, the indefatigable do-gooder, the pitiable victim.

The third characteristic is termed “splitting”, where the world is experienced in terms of two rigid categories – either Good or Bad – with no areas of grey. As long as others are meeting the narcissist’s need for supply, they are Good, and they find themselves idealised and showered with reciprocal positive affirmation – a process called “love-bombing”. However, if someone criticises or questions the narcissist’s false self, that person becomes Bad, and is subjected to implacable hostility.

It is not known for certain what triggers the disorder. There is likely to be a genetic component, but in many cases early life experiences are the primary cause. Narcissism is a natural phase of child development (as the parents of many teenagers will testify) and its persistence as adult NPD frequently reflects chronic trauma during childhood. Paradoxically for a condition that often manifests as apparent egotism, all NPD sufferers have virtually non-existent self-esteem. This may arise from ongoing emotional neglect on the part of parents or caregivers, or from sustained psychological or sexual abuse.

The common factor is a failure in the development of a healthy sense of self-worth. It is likely that narcissism becomes entrenched as a defence against the deep-seated shame associated with these experiences of being unworthy and valueless.

When surrounded by supply, the NPD sufferer can anaesthetise this horrible sense of shame with the waves of positive regard washing over them. Equally, when another person destabilises that supply (by criticising or questioning the narcissist’s false self) this is highly threatening, and the NPD sufferer will go to practically any lengths to prevent a destabiliser adversely influencing other people’s perceptions of the narcissist.

One of the many tragic aspects of NPD is the invariable lack of insight. A narcissist’s experience of the world is essentially: “I am special; some people love me for this, and are Good; some people hate me for it, and are Bad.” If people with NPD do present to health services, it is usually because of the negative impacts Bad people are having on their life, rather than because they are able to recognise that they have a psychological health problem.

Far more commonly, health professionals end up helping those who have had the misfortune to enter into a supply relationship with an NPD sufferer. Narcissism is one of the most frequent factors in intimate partner and child abuse, as well as workplace bullying. The narcissist depends on the positive affirmation of others to neutralise their own sense of unworthiness. They use others to shore themselves up, and lash out at those who threaten this precarious balance. And they leave a trail of damaged people in their wake. 

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times