1. Give as Good as You Get
It can be bought, it can be made. Regardless, a gift at Valentine's Day is like tipping -- whatever the circumstance, it's really never unwelcome. Even someone who makes a pretext of being offended by a tip will usually still take the money. Same goes for Valentine's Day. You're in a much better position if the worst you face is, ''We said we weren't going to get gifts for each other,'' rather than being ambushed by some tender token.
The easy go-to gifts are candy and flowers. You won't win, however, being predictable. There will be points earned, yes, just not many. And where your relationship is concerned, Valentine's Day is as make-or-break as an anniversary, so put some thought into it.
Does the object of your desire seem to care more for a pet than for you? No problem -- get the animal a gift. It's a good show of support. Maybe your relationship is more hot than homey. If you'd like to keep things that way, Valentine's Day is the perfect time for offering a sex toy. Nothing says ''I'm hot for you'' as well as a vibrating egg or flavored lube. Whatever gift you choose, it's going to carry more weight on Valentine's Day, so choose carefully.
Is your relationship rocky? Then lucky for you that this day gets blown out of proportion. A V.D. fail is no more likely than a V.D. win, so choosing the just the right gift can take you from unwelcome to wanton in a snap.
Maybe you're trying out a long-distance relationship. From airlines to buses to trains, chances are good you can find a gift certificate that – even if falling short of full fare – reminds your honey you'd rather be sharing the same space.
The Valentine's Day gift is your big chance to say, ''I get you,'' a far more respectful sentiment than ''Be mine.'' If you truly do, then a little effort should lead you to the perfect present. As important as the gift is your presentation, just in case the meaning is not immediately apparent. ''A bottle of wine? Enh.'' ''No, dear, it's a bottle of wine from the year you were born.''
2. Break Bread
Sharing a meal is one of the most primal experiences in life. From the piranha swarming collectively over some struggling waterfowl, a pride of lions coming together for the hunt, or a cow nursing her calf, nourishment is intimate.
The key to an appropriate meal on Valentine's Day is that, one, it not be too filling, and, two, at least some portion of it is eaten by hand. The first part helps ensure you're not feeling heavy and bloated, which could ruin the rest of your night. The second part – whether it's picking up oysters to slurp or biting into an apple in your hand – primes your appetites' pumps. Should your partner, however, have table manners that irritate you, keep it to yourself, at least for this one day. Or, even better, take the lead. She eats with her mouth open? Keep stuffing it with strawberries and you'll hardly notice. He holds his fork incorrectly? Find excitement in his savage disregard for pretense.
Cooking the meal yourself could earn you points if you know what you're doing and you can live with leaving the dishes till Feb. 15. Getting your hands sudsy together might sound romantic, but that particular flame gets fully doused in application.
It may be of even greater importance for single people to share some fellowship with a Valentine's dinner. On this particular day, ''soup for one'' tragically becomes ''soup for lonely.'' Instead, revel in your singlehood with a night out with other single friends. Look for blissful couples at the venue you choose and entertain yourselves by imagining what secrets they keep from each other, or how their relationships will eventually end.
3. Revisit a Memory, Explore a Wish
There's nothing wrong with spontaneity, but neither is there anything wrong with a little planning. So go ahead and prepare some talking points for Valentine's Day.
For the couple who have been around the block a few times together, be thinking of a memory of some amazing shared experience. Maybe you once watched the sun come up together. It could be the first time one of you professed love for the other -- all the better if it was on the same occasion. Nothing tops the memory of the first time you saw your partner, as long as you embellish appropriately and talk over questions to which you don't recall the answer. ''Do you remember what I was wearing?'' ''I remember your smile took my breath away.''
With new couples -- or triads, or what have you -- the conversation to start is one about where you hope to go, literally or figuratively. It needn't be heavy. Don't hijack Valentine's Day to suggest a visit to your parents and ring shopping. That's all too, too risky. Instead, talk about where the two of you might like to visit, making sure it's not a place that's already been vetoed. Better still is to mine your partner to figure out what adventure she might like to take, and then bolster that. Remember, shy of making any commitments, you're simply making conversation. If she says, ''I really want to compete in the Iditarod,'' you shouldn't have any problem responding with, ''I've always wondered what Anchorage might be like in winter.'' Even if you haven't. Save the skepticism and indulge in a daydream.
Singles should do the same. Chances are, you won't be alone forever. Valentine's Day is your alarm that, possibly far sooner than you think, you'll be accommodating a partner's wishes. That's part of the bargain. For now, think about what you want to do while you can still do it. Want to go to Comic-Con? Maybe now's the time. Up for whitewater rafting in Oregon? Your next partner very well may not be. Valentine's Day also exists to remind singles to enjoy their single status. And if that new beau wants to go to Burning Man just as much as you did, then just go again and be his guide.
4. Pony Up, Put Out
This is the no-brainer. A meal is nice, but it ain't nookie. Certainly, there is no guarantee that this will be any great sex. Quite the contrary. Valentine's Day sex is as obligatory as honeymoon sex, but without the trappings of a fabulous honeymoon. The cat will still be trying to climb on you. The neighbor's car alarm will still be going off. Like a regular Tuesday, you'll still be dragging in after work, coming home to bills in the mail. And you've got to do dinner on top of that? Yes, you do. And you've got to have sex, because if you don't, it's the last thing you'll think about as you fall asleep: ''We couldn't rally for Valentine's Day?'' That just seems sad. But no pressure.
However, there's no need to go overboard. You don't need to set up the sling or strew rose petals all over the bed. You just need to be able to fall asleep with the sweet satisfaction of knowing you went through the motions, even if it was just a handjob.
If your relationship is as open as the day is long, shut the doggie door tonight and focus on your primo.
This is a no-brainer for the singles, too. Get laid. Exercise your freedom and get busy. Better yet, kick Valentine's Day in the balls and pick up a couple.
5. Three-Word Throw Down
This may be the hardest part of Valentine's Day. At least, it is the most important part -- the whole point, really. But when the spotlight is on us to profess our love, a case of stage fright may follow. Or, professing one's love on Valentine's Day might seem affected or forced, and the stubborn among us will resist.
You do so at your peril.
Whatever your inclination, omitting ''I love you'' from your Valentine's Day repertoire is akin to a steaming pile of ''I think you're okay.'' That absent phrase will be the elephant in the room. Say it firmly, with conviction.
Then again, maybe you're not at that stage. Maybe this bridge has not yet been crossed. Well, there's no better time to discuss it.
With the St. Valentine's steamroller running you over, mercilessly, this is an opportunity to discuss your budding relationship without subterfuge. The world is begging you to talk about love, so go ahead and do it. Communication is crucial in any good relationship, so dive in and talk about the subject at hand: love. An honest dialogue about where the two of you (or three, but who's counting?) are in terms of your relationship is healthy. If you're not in love, that's not necessarily a problem. Nor is it if one of you is and the other isn't. They're your feelings and you're entitled to them. Same goes for your date. Whatever you're feeling, let it out. Own your feelings, whatever they may be, and be respectful of others' feelings. If you love him and he's not certain he feels similarly, so be it. Whether or not you love someone need not be contingent upon her disposition. Be embarrassed if you're too frightened to be forthright about what you're feeling, but not for the feelings themselves.
On Valentine's Day, singles can be reminded of heartbreaks and take comfort in knowing that being single is better then being in a bad relationship. But, like those couples, it's your day, too, to say, ''I love you.'' All you need is a mirror. If, however, you're just not feeling it, you've got some work to do. Through death, disinterest or worse, all relationships end. All, that is, but the relationship you have with yourself. So if you don't love yourself, you'd best figure out what it will take to get there. Otherwise, you're in for a lifetime of depressing Valentine's Days