Today, Americans and many others throughout the world celebrate the memory of St. Valentine with greeting cards - upwards of 1 billion, surpassed only by Christmas mailings - confectionery, romantic dinners, gifts or professions of love, or at least great affection.

Karen Kayser
Affirming one's love for another might seem a particularly meaningful gesture this Feb. 14, given the events of the past several months. But Assoc. Prof. Karen Kayser (GSSW), who has studied couples and their ways of coping with serious illness within the family, wonders how much we really need a Valentine's Day after Sept. 11.

"One of the most common sentiments voiced in the wake of 9-11 was how important it is to appreciate our partner, spouse or lover every day, not just on occasions like Valentine's Day," said Kayser, author of When Love Dies: The Process of Marital Disaffection.

"Women I've talked to who have battled breast cancer say much the same thing. They value their time with their husband or lover in ways they didn't before, whether it's an evening of conversation or a one-hour walk. They don't say, 'Well, since my cancer appeared, Valentine's Day has been really special.'"

But Kayser, who has shared her expertise with the Boston Globe, Hartford Courant and Boston Magazine, among others, also notes that even crises like a serious illness do not necessarily strengthen the bonds between couples.

"Whether stressful events or a crisis brings family members closer together depends on the quality of their relationship before the stress," said Kayser.

"For those families or couples who already have strong and close relationships, the stress tends to elicit their care, compassion, and emotional support for each other, which enhances their relationships. When family members do not have supportive and caring relationships to begin with, the stress will likely put an added strain on their relationship, which only exacerbates the problems between them."One critical question for a couple confronting a crisis, Kayser says, is how both individuals' perceptions of the problem align with one another.

"Perhaps the wife sees the crisis as something that affects them both almost equally, while the husband views it as having an impact more on one of them than the other. Perhaps the problem is seen in emotional terms by one spouse, while the other regards the situation more in terms of how it will change the household routine.

"Just because they have different views doesn't necessarily mean they don't have a good relationship that will help sustain them through the crisis, either. The point is, you just can't assume that, somehow, 'love conquers all' when a couple is dealing with a serious matter."

-Sean Smith


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