When did Valentine's Day become a duty?

Journalists who write about families as well as social and cultural issues can count on receiving an annual barrage of public- relations pitches for Valentine's Day.

The PR blitz begins right after Christmas and continues almost until the big day itself. Daily, sometimes hourly, e-mails pop up on my computer screen, as publicity agents propose stories on a variety of love-related subjects.

Some suggest traditional topics: How about interviewing the author of a new book on how to find the perfect mate? Or what about a story offering ideas on the best gifts to give to your heartthrob?

Other suggestions take a thoroughly modern approach to romance. Publicists would be happy to provide information about the newest matchmaking website or the hottest dating coach. There's even a "psychic medium" who promises to tell radio and television audiences about their "current and future relationships."

Individually, these story promotions could be taken for what they are: just another day, another client, another dollar in the life of publicity agents. But collectively, they signal more than simply a desire to capitalize on a holiday that has mushroomed into a $17 billion industry. In their varied forms, these promotions reflect the urgency of the quest for love and companionship in a society where one-quarter of all households now consist of single people.

These pitches also serve as a measure of how much Valentine's Day itself has changed. They can impel long-married observers to look back with a certain nostalgia to a time several decades ago when Feb. 14 didn't carry such intensity – and when courtship didn't cost quite so much.

That was a time before men were expected to spend two months' worth of their salary for an engagement ring, before men and women decided they would settle for nothing less than a "soul mate," and before it was necessary to seek advice from an army of self-help gurus bearing titles such as "relationship and interpersonal communication expert."

That was also an era when many hopeful Prince Charmings could show their love with a card or a heart-shaped box of drugstore chocolates, and when even a single rose could melt a young woman's heart.

What a contrast to today, when anything less than a dozen long-stemmed roses can risk making a sender appear frugal, and when an ardent suitor who wants to make an impression will buy chocolates from Belgium, whatever the cost.

This year the average man will spend $120 and the average woman $85, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF).

Is this love, or obligation? For some men, it might even include a bit of guilt. As Tracy Mullin, CEO of the NRF, notes, presumably with tongue planted firmly in cheek, some men "may be looking at Valentine's Day as a way to make up for that HDTV they splurged on for the Super Bowl."

As one public radio station announcer put it during a Valentine's Day fundraiser offering long-stemmed roses, "This is a perfect way to fulfill your Valentine's obligations." Another host making a similar appeal urged listeners to "take care of your Valentine's Day duties."

And if you don't? One relationship expert quoted in a Valentine's Day press release offers the stern warning that "if a guy doesn't come through on Valentine's Day, it means he doesn't care about you," so just say goodbye and move on.

But assuming he does care, another PR firm suggests a high-tech approach to the day. "This year, think outside the box and send a Video Valentine!" the e-mail pitch begins. "Too shy to say those three little words in person? Profess your love on video! Or use your cellphone to record yourself shopping for the perfect gift." Diamonds, anyone?

Whatever the approach, couples might do well to follow the advice of a group of husbands in Japan who say they know the answer to wedded bliss. In an effort to communicate better with their wives, they offer Three Principles of Love: Say "sorry" without fear, say "thank you" without hesitation, and say "I love you" without shame.

It's a trio of sentiments that women could adopt as well.

Thursday all the unsold Valentines with their declarations of love and affection will disappear from card racks, to be replaced by Easter messages featuring eggs and bunnies. Long-stemmed roses will begin to open, boxes of chocolate will be nibbled away, and cards with sentimental messages will be propped on desks and dressers.

Whatever hopes and expectations are fulfilled – or not – Wednesday, the celebration offers a touching reminder that when it comes to matters of the heart, the approaches might change, but the yearning for love and companionship doesn't. Above all, it offers this comforting reassurance: Cupid lives.

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