It's more important than ever to spread a little love this Valentine's Day

At any other time, celebrating Valentine's Day might mean getting a babysitter for the kids and hitting the town for a romantic date, or gathering with your fellow singles for a fun night out. In the time of COVID-19, the usual traditions may need to be reconsidered, but it's still important to take the time to honor the holiday. In fact, it's more important than ever, says Justin Garcia, executive director of the Kinsey Institute and the Ruth N. Halls Associate Professor of Gender Studies.

"Valentine's Day is a time when we stop and focus on our relationships, whether it's with a new or long-term partner," Garcia said. "While it can sometimes feel overly commercial, it's also a moment that reminds us to invest in our relationships. We need that relationship focus more than ever right now."

It's relationships that have helped people survive and even thrive during the lockdowns and social-distancing needed during the pandemic, so we should all be celebrating Valentine's Day this year and thinking about the relationships that matter most to us, he said.

"We're seeing that close relationships -- from marital partners to good friends -- are helping people deal with loneliness, depression and overall life satisfaction during this pandemic," Garcia said.

In fact, more couples are doing better than are doing worse.

Preliminary data collected by researchers from the Kinsey Institute's Condom Use Research Team shows that the majority of married couples, 74 percent, feel the pandemic has strengthened their marriage, and 82 percent said they are feeling more committed.

"Couples that are using this crisis as an opportunity to communicate and turn toward their partners are seeing their relationships blossom," Garcia said.

For friends, partners and couples who want to mark the special occasion, it's important to plan a celebration that makes everyone feel comfortable because feelings of worry about the pandemic aren't good for relationship dynamics. If dining out at a restaurant causes anxiety, avoid pressuring others to engage in activities outside their comfort level; try an alternative like ordering take-out to enjoy at home or sharing a virtual meal.

Garcia suggested that partners make an evening at home feel more like a romantic night out. Don a cocktail dress or a tie and suit, set the table with special china, light candles and turn on some music.

"Our research shows that mood setting and novelty is good for maintaining passion in a relationship, especially for long-term couples," Garcia said. "Do something that allows you to focus on your partner and consider creating a new tradition."

It's also important to simply have fun.

"Above all, what people want in their relationships is a partner who is kind and someone who can be playful at times," Garcia said. "It doesn't need to be overly serious."

He said couples could surprise each other with what they are wearing or with a special dessert to make the occasion more exciting and fun.

Valentine's Day isn't only an opportunity to focus on romantic relationships, either. Garcia suggested sending a message or card to parents, getting children involved in making a special treat or craft, or reconnecting with a friend virtually.

"It's a time to spread a little love," he said. "That's something we need in the world more than ever."