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Can V-Day survive shifting roles?

By Amy Spencer, Special to CNN
  • Amy Spencer worries that cultural changes are upending long-held relationship roles
  • She says women leery of romance with career, men's recent job losses affect dynamic
  • But biology still draws people together, no matter how impractical or confused we are
  • Spencer: Put away modern concerns and give in to primordial rules of love

Editor's note: Amy Spencer is the creator of and the author of the new book "Meeting Your Half-Orange: An Utterly Upbeat Guide to Using Dating Optimism to Find Your Perfect Match" (Running Press). She's written for Glamour, Harper's Bazaar, In Style, and Real Simple.

Los Angeles, California (CNN) -- I worry for romance.

In a culture in which gender roles are moving not just from either extreme toward the center but in some cases switching sides; in which science is working to isolate the cause of love, like cells in bone marrow; in an economy where whimsical purchases are slashed from the budget, people could not be blamed for looking at Valentine's Day with increasing cynicism.

And I fear that romance is up against it.

Those 5th century fans of St. Valentine's Day could not have imagined how un-stereotypical our relationships would be now, or that the handwritten love notes behind the holiday have famously turned into a $14 billion industry that moves 1 billion cards and 36 million cheap red cardboard boxes of chocolates.

So why worry? Because lurking beneath the surface of all those red velvet valentines is a big change in the dynamics of our relationships. All kinds of cultural signifiers seem to be upending our long-held ideas about romance and who's supposed to do all that biologically determined wooing.

Consider: A Pew Research Center study last month found that women and men have reached a new peak of role reversal in which about 1 out of 5 wives are now better educated or make more money than their husbands -- up from 4 percent of women in 1970 to 22 percent of them today. This is a welcome and overdue development, of course, in so many ways.

But for good or for bad, it presents a new challenge to the enduring American way of romance -- the one that no matter how evolved we think we've become, keeps turning up in song and story.

(Really, can it get any harder for those breadwinning women -- working long hours to help support their stay-at-home or less-moneymaking men -- to find the energy for a candlelit dinner, a quick change to a lacy negligee and an evening of unbridled romance?)

Studying relationships is the "beat" I assigned myself long ago, and I've spent years looking into the topic for magazines and a book. What I see all the time in hardworking, successful women is a resistance to romance, which they mistakenly see as cliché, old-fashioned and sometimes insulting.

I attribute this to an unintended, lingering effect of the women's movement, when women realized that in addition to marriages and families, they could/should also have careers. But when the pendulum swung from the home to the office, sometimes it got stuck behind a desk, and women who were becoming self-reliant "career women" (good), were deferring romance (not as good).

And men? Things are changing for them.

After all, we are still in the middle of what's been called a mancession -- three-quarters of the job losses in the last two years are among men. And men's supportive status in the home is rising; another Pew study of women and men found that "sharing household chores" was the third most important factor in a successful marriage (behind faithfulness and sex). Ask any woman: This, too, is a welcome development.

But for many men, it may feel like a disorienting tweak to their gender role -- their standing in the relationship, and in the romance.

If you caught any of this year's Super Bowl commercials, you saw a surprising representation of how conflicted men are (at least TV-commercial men) between feeling like traditional car-loving, pants-wearing tough guys and emasculated, moisturizing purse holders for their ladies.

Katie Roiphe has noticed: She wrote in a recent essay for The New York Times Book Review that men have gotten too sensitive, with today's male writers approaching sex from a place of ambivalence and anxiousness and cuddling, rather than in the raw and virile way that Updike and Roth did.

Add to the mix all the gay and lesbian couples in which relationship roles can become equally ambiguous, and you have to wonder: Is Hallmark ready for all this?

This is why I worry. How is the wooing supposed to work?

Here's one idea. On Valentine's Day, at least, I say we begin by affirmatively rejecting the new departures from the old, primordial rules on love.

For relationships to take hold, there have to be elements of hopeful romance in the mix, places for traditional gestures of affection -- yes, even the kind that make us vulnerable or conflict with our economic setups.

Love, after all, is the great equalizer. Whatever role you play at home and whichever tax bracket you're in, there is no denying that relationships make basic humans of us all: We've all had palm-sweating, stomach-churning crushes. We've fallen hard; fallen wrong; had our hearts broken and understood what all those love songs are about.

And face it: It's natural. For all the scientific research that's been done, we still don't know exactly what drives us into the arms of our mates anyway.

"Why We Love" author and anthropologist Helen Fisher has been on the case for decades. In studies with researcher Arthur Aron, she's done neuroimaging on couples in love, finding that the sensation activates the ventral parts of the brain associated with "reward" systems and feel-good surges of dopamine.

Another study found that some couples in love after 20 years show similar surges of neural activity as teenagers in lusty new love. Why? Who knows? That's precisely what makes it so special. Love is still a carrot in front of us, a mystery in the face of so much solved.

We may resist it, feel confused by our new roles in it, or just feel too overworked to give it a shot. But we demonstrate anyway, over and over, that our society has sap in its veins. What movie finally knocked "Avatar" off the top of the box office after seven weeks? "Dear John," a swelling epistolary love story that racked up $32.4 million in its opening weekend.

That's because finding someone who gives you butterflies, who makes your logical brain satisfied and your soul sing at the same time, that's big stuff!

And if nothing else, Valentine's Day is a reason for us to put down our smart phones long enough to show that we get it.

Especially on Valentines Day. It's useless to resist.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Amy Spencer.