VALENTINE'S DAY: Good or Bad for Health?
A New Look at an Old Holiday
Painted Heart Well, it's almost Valentine's Day, a celebration of love, and particularly of passionate, sexual love with a beloved person. Is Valentine's Day a time to rejoice in your adoration of your sweetie? Or are you left out, because you are one of the sizable group of Americans who haven't experienced sexual love with another since last Valentine's Day?
In a survey by the National Opinion Research Center (Smith, 1991) 22 percent of adult Americans 14 percent of men and 28 percent of women-- had not had sexual relations during the previous year. Not surprisingly, many of those who abstained were single. If you are in this group of 22 percent, should you care? If you care, is there anything you can do to get more love in your life? And what's the relationship between loving attachment and sex, anyway?
Valentine's Day highlights the potent combination of attachment, emotional intimacy, and sexuality within human relationships. If you are at a point in your life where you are just interested in casual sex, or if you have never wanted to combine attachment and sexuality, you might not give a hoot about February 14th.
But if you're not in a relationship now and you want to be, or if you've always wanted a loved one and you just can't make it work, Valentine's Day can be a painful reminder of failure, the way Mother's Day and Father's Day are to infertile couples.
It's pretty easy to make the case for why you should try to get more love in your life. The rewards of being in love include feeling liked, loved, and validated, physical affection, emotional security, sociability, good communication, and sex. Furthermore, there are the self esteem and social benefits of having a partner, being part of a couple (Hatfield and Rapson, 1995).
It's difficult to separate love from sexuality. As one researcher said, it is like trying to separate fraternal twins: they are certainly not identical, but in any case, they are strongly bonded. Love and sexuality are quite linked to each other, certainly universally in women, and to both the physical and spiritual aspects of the human condition.
Having another person to love and depend on also is linked to happiness. Psychologists have amassed a mountain of data indicating the people are happier when attached to other human beings, rather than independent. Repeated surveys in Europe and North America have consistently found that compared to those who never marry, and especially compared to those who have separated or divorced, married people report being happier and more satisfied with life.
The rewards of accepting and expressing your own sexuality with a loved person cannot be overstated. Research from the Touch Institute in Florida has proven that just being touched enhances our immune system. Being romantic and sexual actually has health benefits! Being sexual with a loved one is such a powerful experience that it can overcome many negative feelings, even pain, illness, isolation, or anxiety.
When we talk about being sexual, "sexuality "is NOT a reference to some textbook-perfect experience of the Master's and Johnson sexual cycle with another person: desire-arousal-climax-resolution. In my book, SexSmart, I noted that "Sexuality includes a wide range of activities (mental and physical) that may provide sexual delight: a gaze, a conversation, flirting, a dream, a thought, dancing, hugging, kissing, sensual massage, light touching or tickling, genital stimulation, the intense merging of two bodies and selves, or intercourse. Orgasm actually isn't necessary for sex to be intensely erotic, lusty or significant, and neither is intercourse."(And if you are doing these things with your loved one, I wouldn't consider you to be in the 22 percent who hadn't had sexual contact in the last year.)
In the U.S. today, it's easy to forget the spiritual aspect of sex. In the media, sex is something that is used to sell us things---to make us feel inadequate the way we are, if we're not young, rich and gorgeous. But that's total hogwash. You don't have to be perfect and rich and young to create a special time and a sexual bond with a loved partner. The sexual experience can be a complete break from the travails of ordinary life, a re-creation, an almost-religious experience of being part of something larger than yourself. The ability to let go and trust your body and your emotions, to be naked and to be vulnerable to another person, is a powerful experience.
So why would you choose not to have romantic love in your life? Some people simply have no sexual interest in anyone, male or female. In Kinsey's (1948, 1953) studies, half a century ago, there were groups of men and women who preferred to refrain from sex, or engaged in it only reluctantly. Even today, some people choose abstinence, for a number of reasons. Some find the idea of sex unappealing. Others may be single but be abstinent for romantic, moral, or practical reasons. For example, they may be worried about sexually transmitted diseases. Some may be too old or too ill to engage in sexual activity. Some may not be able to find a partner.
Some 86 percent of widowed men and women had not had sexual contact with anyone in the past year. On the other hand, maybe Valentine's Day is not your favorite day because you are what I call "romantically challenged." You're afraid of attachment and/or commitment, and you certainly don't want to combine them with sexual passion.
Romantically challenged adults who have ongoing trouble forming committed emotional and sexual bonds to others tend to have certain elements of past family life in common with each other. These include: not feeling loved or not experiencing empathy from your parents; feeling controlled; lacking permission to explore yourself, your body and your sexuality; and witnessing unhealthy or distasteful relationship patterns between your parents.
If you are concerned about your lack of a love life, perhaps you can take this opportunity to explore your inner feelings. Old family issues may hold part of the key to how you feel. First, look at what you learned about touch from your family.
Did your family teach you to associate touch with safety, soothing and emotional attachment? If not, what are your word associations to touch? (e.g. "strange," " suffocating", " abnormal," etc.) Take some time to spell out your feelings about physical contact and how you would like to feel about your body and about touching others.
What did you learn about trusting others? Are you one of the 76 million Americans who grew up in homes affected by alcoholism? Did your parents ignore your feelings and wishes? If you couldn't trust your parents, it may be too scary to become emotionally dependent on another person. Write down a list of the events that taught you that it isn't safe to depend on others to fill your emotional needs.
Was there violence in your family, either between your parents or between a parent and the children? If so, explore the link you may have made in your mind between love, and "control", or danger.
Did you live in a family that never discussed sex, ignored your emerging sexuality, or actually told you sex was bad and dirty? If so, you may need to get help in overcoming these blocking beliefs.
If romantic love has eluded you for many years, maybe this Valentine's Day is a good time to make a resolution to fix the situation. Don't just accept it. Love can come along at any age and under many circumstances when you are open to it.
Are you open, or are you defensive and cynical? You know, people who are living for a long time without love and touch and sex tend to " numb out," to create lives without romance, to forego the pleasures of touch and attachment, and to tell themselves that they are just fine.
That's a good defense, but all the medical and psychological research on happiness and health proves you wrong! If you are afraid of getting emotionally attached, or you cannot accept your own sexuality as a good thing, it is time to figure out why. Don't stay left out of the party on Valentine's Day.