Valentines for the 3 Phases of Love

Not until the Middle Ages was Saint Valentine’s Day [SVD] associated with love, romance, and devotion when written Valentines were exchanged among lovers and friends mostly in England and France.   In the 17th century, SVD began to be more popularly celebrated.  In America, in the 1840’s Esther A. Howland [“Mother of the Valentine”] allegedly was the first to sell mass-produced Valentines, elaborate creations with real lace, ribbons, and colorful pictures.   

But what if you are not a sender or a receiver of one of the approximately one billion Valentines cards sent each year? [That number, from the Greeting Card Assoc., is second only to the estimated 2.5 billion cards sent for Xmas.]  How do you think and feel about  yourself in the narrative of  “what is love?”  

After 35 plus years as a Psychologist working with couples in therapy trying to recapture their love,  also as a mediator and divorce coach helping partners “uncouple” from love,  I’ve begun to think about the question “what is love?”  in  3 phases:

  • Phase 1:  Love is blind:  limerence
  • Phase 2:  Legends of love in transition
  • Phase 3:  Love ‘til death do us part.  

Before I tell you my proposal for these 3 phases, I highlight  the history of the 3 Valentines whose name,  and themes,  echo through this day.  My point is that love is not just flowers and poems and chocolate and smiles in the dark and swept-off-your-feet hugs …. Love,  as you’ve discovered, is serious business.  Serious.  Business.  Both.  Not what you expected or experienced in Phase I when you “fell”  in love.   But I’m getting ahead of myself.  


History reveals murky facts behind the legends of Saint Valentine.  All 3 of them:  the Catholic Church has 3 different martyred saints named “Valentine” or “Valentinus.”  The most popular narrative is that he was a priest in 3rd century AD  Rome.  Or he may have been the Bishop of Interamna [modern Terni].   One legend is that Valentine refused to sacrifice to pagan gods.  Or, that he was killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons. While imprisoned, his prayers healed the jailor’s daughter’s blindness. Another story has him falling in love with her.  At any rate, the day he was executed, he signed a letter to her  “From your Valentine.”  

A more detailed narrative tells of Roman Emperor Claudias [Gothicus] II  pronouncing an edict that prohibited young men to marry.  This was based on the hypothesis that UNmarried soldiers fought better, since they were less afraid of what would happen to wives or families if they died.  Valentine thought this decree unjust, so he secretly performed marriage ceremonies.  Valentine was caught imprisoned, tortured, finally beheaded in 269AD… or 270AD… or 280AD.  A man named Asterius was either his judge or his jailor. Valentine laid his hands on [Asterius’ ] blind daughter’s eyes,  and the child’s vision was restored.  As a result, Asterius [and maybe his whole household] courageously became Christians.  

So getting married, especially as a Christian, in those early days of Christianity, was serious business.  It may have been less about love, and more about “dodging the draft” in the Emperor’s wars, since a young married man would be less likely to be conscripted into the army than an Unmarried one.  

Fertility and procreation was also serious business.   The pagan celebration of Lupercalia,  in mid-February, was dedicated to Faunus, the Roman God of Agriculture,  as well as to Rome’s founders Romulus and Remus.   One reference notes that in 496AD Pope Gelasius I declared Feb. 14 to be St. Valentine’s Day to “Christianize” the pagan rituals.   By the Middle Ages, is was also believed that mid-February was a time in Europe when birds mated.   And so it was that written Valentines, as tokens of affection between lovers and friends, began to appear around 1400,  after which time Valentine became one of the most popular saints in England and France.

The point is, it took hundreds of years before several cultures viewed Valentine as a sympathetic, heroic,  and alas!  a romantic figure.  


Just as there are different stories about Saint Valentine,  and his Day,  so there are different stories about the questions: “what is love?”.  How do you get it? Deepen it? Keep it?  Here are some thoughts for you to ponder.

Phase 1:  Love is blind:  limerence.  Operas and poetry are famous for their impassioned expressions of limerence.   Defined in some dictionaries as the first 3 to 6 months of falling in love, and seeing only the idealized aspects of one’s new love.  Love-at-first-Sight… across a Crowded Room… of hormones popping… head in the clouds [or in the sand].  For the majority of couples, this time does not last too long.   Eventually,  novelty wears off.  Realities of personality traits clear through the fog of passion.  Differences in the Other become less Cute, and may trigger insensitivity, even conflict.   

Phase 2:  Legends of love in transition. Enter greater differentiations between Self and Other.

Just as there are at least 3 saints called Valentine,  there could be at least 3 stories of Love in Transition:  the Good, the Bad, and the Blah.   This transition may last many years, or forever. A couple  may or may not “cross the Rubicon” to Phase 3, a committed safe and secure relationship.  The divorce rate in the US tells us that about 50% of couples can not experience some [or all] of the following capacities which help anchor a deep loving friendship and romantic relationship.

  • These capacities are within each individual,  a n d  get played out between partners:
  • Hold safety between you, often as a transition “play” space.  
  • Tolerate ambiguity.  Making meaning includes taking a perspective other than your own.
  • See and keep Self-Other boundaries.  Includes tolerating the Other’s  separate reality [realities]
  • Mourn the idealized unattainable parts [aspects] of Self & Other.  We loose aspects of ourselves as we grow & change [ esp. with age, we loose good looks, our body changes,  resources [emotional, financial] can shift.   Other side of this coin is accepting fallible [non-idealized] aspects of Self & Other.
  • Balance INdependence [self-reliance, self-esteem …] of Self with DEpendence on the Other.

People are complex.  The world is complex.  These capacities are complex.  I believe that “enough” of these capacities need to be experienced and shared between the partners to get “across the Rubicon.” And that differs for each couple. 

Phase 3:  Love ‘til death do us part.  

This is a phase of commitment and resolution.  A secure committed relationship where trust, mutuality, respect reign.  Where values and meanings are shared and sustained.  

If you did not make it to this phase,  you are not alone.   Half the marriages in the US did not make it “across the Rubicon” either.   Many partners did not grow up in homes where they saw parents functioning in a secure committed way.   Where they saw their parents differ, even get angry, but then repair and soothe the other.   Some partners did not know their relationship was in trouble until it was too late.  Others did not find a competent [enough] couples therapist to guide them through the rough waters.  

OK.  This time you did not cross to the other side.  But you still can.  Keep at it.  You may still yet find your very own special Valentine.