Valentine’s Day is known for exchanges of romantic interest, intention, and gifts. In fact, the history of giving cards, flowers, and chocolates in the name of love extends back to least five hundred years and has been commercialized in the United States since the 1700s. Valentine’s Day is an interesting time to consider some potential psychological impacts of how gift giving or communicating love is an act of relational exchange. There is an inherent relational exchange occurring that is supposed to create feelings of love, care, interest, vulnerability, or more intimate feelings among those giving or receiving Valentine’s day gifts. However, this does not always work out the way it is intended.

Despite how much thought, deliberation, work or care is put forth (or isn’t), the best intended gift does not always have the desired impact. Valentine’s Day, in and of itself, can create significant feelings of loneliness, sadness and other feelings that are opposite of what it was intended. This is most evident for an individual who is single or an individual who has recently undergone a relational loss. Who isn’t frustrated when they have a good intention that comes across with the opposite impact? Similarly, who doesn’t recognize the irony of the intense loneliness that comes from seeing everyone else but you having someone to love on Valentine’s Day. It is a perfect example of the difference between intention and impact.

Intention vs Impact

There is much we can learn from recognizing what happens when our intentions do not have the desired impact. Valentine’s Day is a good example of this phenomenon, but it extends far past gift giving into almost any type of communication that goes awry.

As a therapist, I frequently witness the hurt, frustration, and loss on a daily basis when intention and impact do not mesh. The asking partner, in an attempt to share their needs for help, support, or care; is greeted with defensiveness, disconnection, and even anger, when the impact of their ask is not received with positive intent behind it. When this happens, the next move, I observe, is for the asking partner to defend their intentions and telling their partner they got it all wrong. They focus on defending their intentions. The receiving partner, who did not view the asking intent as a positive is feeling dismissed for having a strong reaction to the asking partner and left with feeling like they did something wrong. They are left feeling an impact from the ask and being told to stop feeling that at the same time because it wasn’t intended. This is a devastating set of dance steps that when repeated over time shuts down communication and paves the way for disconnection.

What can we do instead?

As I work with couples who are attempting to connect, I offer the following advice. You can always work on your contribution to any attempt at communication, even gift giving.

For example, I often encourage the partner who communicates an intention and did not get the expected impact to step back and focus on taking care of the impact instead of defending their intentions. Explaining or defending even the best of intentions can wait. The intention doesn’t actually change because of how it was received. Instead, ask questions, focus on figuring out what went wrong, validate the other’s feelings, sit with the strong emotions — then, if it is needed at all, go back and attempt to share your intentions. Often, this is unnecessary because the receiving partner, feeling heard and cared for in their response often recognizes the intentions were good entirely on their own. Making a change like this paves the way for connection, achieving the goal of communicating in the first place.

A partner who feels heard is much more likely to work toward whatever was intended instead of focusing on how they were impacted.

So as you consider using Valentine’s Day as a way to show how much you care or love someone, I encourage you to take a few moments to ponder how your intentions will be received. Or if you are receiving a gift, try to focus on the intentions rather than on the impact. This will help your Valentine’s Day be one focused on love rather than disconnection.

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