VALENTINES represent a kind of Dow Jones of the heart - a modest gauge of the changing state of love and marriage over the years.
Cards and suitors have come a long way from the shy sentiments of a Civil War valentine reading, ``Wilt thou love me?,'' to the bold enticements found this year under the heading ``Passionate Promises.'' Equally great is the leap from a demure ribbons-and-lace Victorian offering - ``For my fond love, happy thoughts'' - to this month's breezy ``Hey, Hubby'' valentine, which sounds more like a request to take out the garbage than a term of endearment.
After two decades of what could be called a bear market for matrimony, marked by record divorce rates in the 1970s and '80s, it may be too soon to predict that Americans are becoming bullish on long-term marriage. Still, a valentine shopper surveying the hearts-and-flowers motifs filling card shops this week may be heartened by verses that go beyond trite superlatives to express a determination for a lifelong commitment, come what may.
One card, labeled ``Difficult Times,'' makes a vague, sad reference to ``this time we're going through,'' then concludes: ``Together on life's journey we will find our way somehow.''
Another, addressed to ``my fiance,'' ends, ``All I want is to grow old with you....'' A similar card for a fiancee states, ``I cantell you I love you too often; But I can promise to spend the rest of forever trying.''
Even that promise from a husband-to-be may reflect a modest change in valentine habits. Men ``still are not as comfortable about expressing love as women are,'' an executive at Hallmark Cards says, ``but they are narrowing the gap'' at the card counter.
A more quantifiable measure of changing attitudes comes from two recent polls. In a survey released by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company, an astonishing 85 percent of married people say they are sustaining a happy marriage. Young people are particularly idealistic. Over half of 18-to-29-year-olds, the survey reports, consider staying together for life ``extremely'' important in a marriage - far more than the 38 percent of those over age 60 who say the same.
And in a separate survey by Harlequin Enterprises, 93 percent of married American men state that if they had it to do over again, they would marry the same woman.
What's going on here? If all these respondents are so content, who are all the unhappy couples in divorce courts keeping the divorce rate in the United States higher than in any other nation? Somebody must be stretching the truth, saying either what they think pollsters want to hear or what they wish were true.
Yet even allowing for the usual ``margin of error'' disclaimers by polling firms, these figures may hint at a noteworthy fact: The good news about love and marriage seldom gets reported. Most days it remains buried under a mountain of grim statistics and headlines about domestic violence, divorce, infidelity, and ``dysfunction,'' leading readers and TV viewers to wonder: Are there any normal families and happy couples left? Of course. They just happen to be one of the nation's best-kept secrets.
One Valentine's Day a year, with all its forced commercialism and manufactured sentimentality, is enough. But maybe the occasion, despite its excesses, serves as a useful reminder that enduring love has not yet become extinct.
Will the idealistic young lovers of the 1990s - many of them the children of divorce - be more likely to make good on the ``always'' and ``forever'' promises their valentines express?
It's too soon to predict. One skeptic is William J. Goode, author of ``World Changes in Divorce Patterns'' (Yale University Press, 1993). He cautions that ``most of the scenarios that lead to a diminution of the divorce rate are imaginable but implausible.''
Maybe so. But in this week before Valentine's Day, a romantic heart can be forgiven for hoping that Dr. Goode and other experts are wrong - and that greeting card manufacturers are right.