Valentine From the Margins: How Underrepresented Women Navigate Love During the Season and Beyond

Written by Shalom Esene

Amidst the fervor of peak romance season, where expressions of love abound among families, friends, and lovers, a prevailing narrative dominates the cultural landscape. This narrative is one centered around straight, monogamous, and physically intimate relationships. Peddled by mainstream media, markets and services, it often leaves individuals such as single mothers, asexual women, those in long-distance relationships and non-monogamous partnerships feeling overlooked, as though their stories don’t deserve the spotlight. 

The women in this story preferred that their names be kept anonymous. 

“Imani”, a university student, has never spent Valentine’s Day with her boyfriend. “Our relationship will be three-years this year, and we’ve never spent the day together. But we’ve come this far because we don’t let the distance stand a chance. We compromise, and we’re always intentional.” Imani and her boyfriend are also big on gifts. He often secretly plans with her friends to surprise her with presents, and Valentine’s is no different. “Our first Valentine’s Day, he sent me a food basket and this really lovely note. I got him a shirt and a note too. All the things we exchanged were stuff we actually talk about over the months, which we bear in mind and then put into gifts and special occasions.”

Their second year together, Imani asked her boyfriend to be her ‘Val’ on the 31st of January. “From the first to the thirteenth of February, I sent him loved-up texts. On the 14th day, the text was grand! He sent me some money, and a note that made me swoon, while I gifted him accessories from his favorite brands.”

Imani notes that she and her partner were friends before they evolved into something more. “We were long-distance friends before we became long-distance lovers, so when we started dating, nothing changed much.” While being in a long-distance relationship is not without the days spent missing and yearning for each other, it also makes Imani and her partner intentional about each other. “We make concrete plans, we anticipate our next visits. The trust and bond goes deeper during the times we spend together.” They might not be together physically on most days and on Valentine’s Days, but their love for each other holds strong and firm. “As long as he and I are together, we can glide through anything.” 

“Jinye”, a policy and development worker, navigates being asexual in a society that prioritizes straight love, especially during Valentine’s. “I don’t care for physical sex, neither do I for romance,” she says. Publicly, Jinye’s asexuality and people’s perceptions and ‘worry’ for her is exhausting, but privately, “it’s so chill.”

Jinye celebrates Valentine’s with her closest friends. “My friends and I have a ‘Galentine’s tradition’ that’s not limited to just women. Our male friends also show up, and we do lunch, karaoke, and games. It’s lots of laughter and so much fun. It’s usually a day before Valentine’s Day.” On the d-day, Jinye takes a seat backstage, and helps in running errands for her coupled-up friends, and offers help to surprise their partners with gifts and gestures. “I’m happy to see people being loved right, but romance and sex is not for me,” she says. Initially, it took Jinye’s friends some time to get used to her sexuality. “But now I enjoy acceptance from my loved ones, and that’s where my peace is at.” 

“Destiny”, a customer success manager with an eight year-old daughter, talks about being in a long distance relationship as a single mum. “It can be difficult, especially because of the time difference,” she says. “His country is three hours ahead of mine. It seems minor, but it really isn’t. But he’s coming to visit me in a few weeks.” To keep their fire alive, Destiny and her partner initiate voice calls, video calls, and even exchange sexy pictures. “But I try not to go too deeply into sexy talk,” she says, “Because then what would I do with myself after I get all horny? I occasionally masturbate, but that’s not enough. It can be tough.” A single mother, Destiny hasn’t been coupled-up for years. It took her a long time to unlearn the pressures to be with a man just to dispel some of the stigma that single mothers suffer in her culture. “I had to sit down and do the work of choosing for me. Not to please people or society. To be with a man because I like him. Because I want him.” While Destiny has some hopes for her relatively new relationship, whether it works out or not, she’s mostly just happy to have known her partner and to have finally chosen for herself after a long time. But she is looking forward to his return in a month. “We have a vacation planned,” she says, “and I’m really excited about it.” 

25 year-old graduate trainee, “Simone”, has never celebrated Valentine with anyone. “I’ve never been in a romantic relationship,” she says, “and not by choice. I’ve faced more rejections than I can count – it can get depressing if I think too much about it.”

While being happy for others, Simone can’t help feeling weird and awkward during Valentine’s season. “All the fuss makes it feel like something is wrong with you for not having a partner.” But it’s not always been all difficult seasons for Simone. “I think a positive Valentine’s memory was back in university when my friends and I attended this hangout on Valentine’s Day for people who weren’t booed up. I got to meet cool people, the vibes were just on another level, and it was truly exhilarating,” she says. “I didn’t feel alone that day.”

“Liv”, a single mother and writer, shares a similar experience about feeling alone on Valentine’s Day. While her son’s dad has plans to hang out with a bunch of friends this Valentine’s, Liv is staying home with her son. “He’ll be out there having a great time at an event I would have loved to attend as well, and I’d be home, watching our child and helping with homework,” she says. “Things are quite tight right now. I can’t afford a sitter to take care of our son while I hang out with some friends for Valentine’s.” It’s hard for Liv not to feel resentful, but she plans to soften her day by doing something, however little, for her boy and herself. “A movie night probably,” she says, “and some gifts.” 

“Zara”, a journalist and songwriter who’s been in and out of non-monogamous partnerships for three years now, is going ‘plan-less’ for this Valentine’s. “There’s a lot of pressure to be partnered up during the season, and by ‘partnered up’ I mean monogamy. There’s also pressure to have plans, to make plans, to be doing and expecting.”

Zara is surrounded by people who can’t wrap their heads around her romantic preferences, and often make side comments about it. “It’s never really in a condescending way. They’re just puzzled. Some people also see it as ‘irresponsible’ and ‘wild’. It’s the world we live in, everything is singular, this or that, black or white.” When Zara initially accepted that she was non-monogamous, she was told she would get bored some day, and would want to ‘settle down’. “It’s been three years. I’m not bored.” Zara says she is full of love and wants to  share it with all the people that she cares about. “We don’t keep just one friend. Why should we keep one romantic partner? That’s the way I’ve come to see it anyway.” 

For Valentine’s, Zara is determined not to make ‘grand’ plans. “I won’t go out of my way to enable an occasion that’s become highly performative. I might make a scrapbook of favorite memories with my partners. Or something more intimate, and less ostentatious.” Whatever Zara decides to do eventually, it’ll certainly be a great day. “I know because I’m surrounded by cool friends and the best partners,” she says, “and not only on Valentine’s Day, but all year round.” 


Shalom Esene is a journalist with works appearing in Black Ballad, Lolwe, OkayAfrica, Black Girl Times, and elsewhere. She emerged runner-up in the Abebi Inaugural Award for Afro-nonfiction for her essay ‘Untimely’, and won AMAKA Studio’s creator grant for her essay ‘Time to Address the Eldest African Daughter Syndrome’. She lives in Nigeria. 

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