Whether you’re single, hooking up, dating, married, or experiencing any other permutation of romance, Valentine’s Day creeps up every year with the same pressure to affirm, declare, and perform acts of love. Aisles of greeting cards explode with red, white, and pink declarations of love phrased every imaginable way. The cuteness can be nauseating, and the dizzying repetition of tired clichés often feels totally inadequate to describe how special it is to share your daily routines with someone who cares about you.
As my first Valentine’s Day with my boyfriend approaches, we’ve carved out some time to talk about our plans (nice dinner; no gifts), but we’ve also been thinking about the ways we might take each other for granted. In the rhythm of a long-term relationship, it can be easy to forget the things that amazed you early on. Part of the way we’ve chosen to love intentionally is to be careful with our language.
Ever notice the way women will sometimes refer to each other as “you guys”? This semester, my Women and Gender Studies professor banned that phrase from our classroom on day one. Although the phrase is typically used innocently and affectionately, it has a creeping power.
“Now think of the phrase ‘wife-beater,’” my professor told us. “What do you picture? A white, ribbed tank top, or a perpetrator of domestic violence?”
The pet names that adorn glittery, lacy Valentine’s Day cards aren’t so different. That very phrase conjures a dependent animal, owned by a person. Suddenly, the status quo seems a little less endearing.
When my boyfriend and I were newly dating, I quickly outlawed pet names. “Doll” brought to mind a beautiful, inanimate plaything. “Babe” or “baby” were infantilizing, and “boo” and “bae” sound like they are missing vital consonants—much like the baby talk we spew at infants and puppies. And even Humphrey Bogart’s famously sultry declaration, “Here’s looking at you, kid” overtly reinforces gender roles by demoting his fully grown lover to the status of a child.
Nonetheless, we liked the idea of silly nicknames and continued to bring it up from time to time. One night while we were watching “Chopped” on his laptop, I sneakily pressed an icy hand against his bare arm.
“You monster!” he cried, rolling away as I cackled.
“That’s it,” I said suddenly sitting up. He looked at me, questioning.
“Monster,” I replied, beaming. “That’s the pet name I want.”
It sums me up when I’m at my worst, like the days I’m burned out from juggling my thesis and job search with graduation on the immediate horizon. At times I’m indecisive, and I can be a totally mischievous instigator. I’m an intense, driven person, and anxiety is ambition’s sidekick. None of those things make me a bad girlfriend or an inadequate person—actually, they just make me a human. And I’m lucky enough to have found someone who has witnessed the moments that suck yet sticks with me anyway.
By embracing the thornier sides of our personalities early in our relationship with love and sly humor, we set a precedent for honesty that has carried us through inevitable misunderstandings and disappointments that come when two people attempt to weave their lives together while keeping our foundation growing ever stronger. Spoken ironically, with the understanding that it’s said lovingly, I like to think that the nickname we choose intentionally is safer than language that’s carelessly tossed around.
You might decide that you actually love pet names, and maybe your honey or boo thing or sweetheart does too—and I think that’s totally okay. But take a moment to pause in the greeting card aisle this Valentine’s Day, and make sure that the slogan on the card expresses what you really intend it to.
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