From DINKS to polyamory, the guide to how people spend Valentine's Day

It doesn't hurt to use Valentine's Day as an opportunity to step up your game and show you care.

Story highlights

  • What couples do on Valentine's Day depends on the stage of the relationship
  • For new couples, it's a good opportunity to set the record straight for expectations
  • Valentine's Day can be an opportunity to reclaim life as a couple

Valentine's Day evokes a variety of expectations. Some look forward to a romantic dinner or a special gift, while others treat it like any other day.

Whatever the case, how you approach this nationally recognized "holiday" reflects your expectations within your relationship, experts say.

"It varies from couple to couple, but usually the way you feel about it is a metaphor for your expectations of the relationship," said family psychotherapist Fran Walfish.

If someone's more easygoing and has low expectations, it says something about his or her ability to be flexible and adaptable, she said. On the other hand, if a husband expects the wife to surprise him with dinner at a restaurant he's secretly dying to go to, it shows that he sets the bar high in the relationship and expects her to deliver, Walfish said.

It doesn't hurt to use Valentine's Day as an opportunity to step up your game and show you care, but don't let the relationship live or die based on this day alone, she said.

"The affirmation and declaration of love is not in a gift or in one day. It's a 365-day year experience of feeling like your partner has an interest and desire to know your wants and comfort level."

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What couples do also tends to evolve depending on the stage of the relationship. CNN's team of feature writers and producers solicited feedback from Facebook and beyond on how folks plan to observe Valentine's Day, if at all, with bonus information on nontraditional relationships.

Young love

For new couples, Valentine's Day is a good opportunity to set the record straight as far as expectations, with an open, honest discussion, which could help determine whether the relationship's going to work, Walfish said.

Among our Facebook friends, that means dinner or drinks at a place they've been dying to try. A card, candy, or a thoughtful gift might be involved to let your partner know you're serious.

If Valentine's Day occurs early in the relationship, the female tends to expect more from the guy, and he's probably stressing out over the situation, said Blaire Allison, "The Love Guru," who coaches people in matters of the heart.

"When you're first starting a relationship, there's always that fear factor involved because the guy doesn't want to disappoint the girl, but he but doesn't want to do something over the top that'll scare her off," Allison said.

The DINKS (double-income, no kids)

Married or not, this ain't their first rodeo, and they tend to know what they want out of the evening. Plus, having no kids means more time, money and flexibility to do whatever you want. To us, it kind of seems like the best situation for doing something for the holiday, as it elicited the most diverse responses.

For some, it meant date night at Carnegie Hall or steak frites and a night in a hotel. A friend who's a vegan chef is making a special meatless meal for her sweetie, complete with chocolate cookies with raspberry jam centers.

Eatocracy managing editor Kat Kinsman says she and her husband buy each other Scotch or Madiran wine, and he cooks the same meal every year: steak (the first year, it was heart-shaped), pattypan squash, hen of the woods mushrooms. Another constant: "There is NEVER a restaurant involved."

When money is tight, a bouquet of flowers does the trick, one friend said, as they're "cheaper than jewelry and healthier than chocolate."

Speaking of thoughtful and unhealthy, one person who flew home from a conference in Chicago brought a deep-dish pizza back to her significant other.

Married with children

Children might change priorities in a relationship, but that makes Valentine's Day the perfect opportunity for a couple to reclaim some time just for themselves, Walfish said.

"Many people who've been married for a long time can get lazy and stuck in a rut and don't want to take the energy and initiative," she said. "If there's no time to get away, after the children go to sleep, plan to be together and not in pajamas and take the time to make good eye contact and commit."

Things are a bit different for one friend now that he and his wife have a toddler. But he still writes a poem for his wife and they make handmade gifts for each other. Another friend and her husband have cut back on dinners out since the birth of their daughter and purchasing a new home, but they still exchange cards.

The long haul

Eventually, the children grow up and leave the nest, if all goes according to plan. For some, it's an opportunity to reclaim life as a couple.

Dinner and flowers are generally a part of the celebration, with special enhancements when possible, said a relative who lives in Europe. In recent years, the couple have spent weekends in Barcelona, Spain, and Oxford, England. The husband bought a picture for his wife of two people walking in a park together that reminded him of them.

"All the more special since I gave it to her on Valentine's Day," he said. "Still my favorite picture."

Nontraditional relationships

Not every relationship fits into one of those categories, but that doesn't mean nontraditional lovers don't want to celebrate their relationships just like the rest. Take, for example, polyamorous "families," which consist of multiple romantic partners, from as few as three to north of 20 in some instances.

"Each of my partners is like those in any monogamous relationships," said Shara Smith, a representative of the Polyamory Media Association, which provides members of the press with information and spokespeople on how polyamory works. "There's really no difference between how I feel about my current partners or how we relate to each other. The only difference is I didn't have to break up with one to start the other."

Smith, her three male partners and their additional "metamors" are going out for dinner at a nice steakhouse in Tampa, Florida. All told, there will be six of them around the table.

"I don't personally observe Valentine's Day, but my partners' other partners do," she said. "The holiday's not important, but making my loved ones feel that I care about them is important."