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Come Back, St. Valentine

St. Valentine was a third-century priest martyred for marrying soldiers at a time when Roman Emperor Claudius II had decreed single men made better fighters. Other lore suggests St. Valentine was killed for attempting to help Christians escape Roman prisons where they were tortured. Regardless of its exact roots, Valentine’s Day honors loving relationships — romantic, platonic, familial or collegial.

About those loving relationships … Even though our Valentine’s Day expressions keep growing — more than 150 million Valentine cards will be sent this year — the depth, duration and number of authentic relationships they celebrate keeps shrinking.

The numbers reflect a flight from relationship — at home, work, in politics, in faith — that is stunning.

At home, marriage is down 50 percent, divorce has doubled. In 2012 over 50 percent of children were born to unwed mothers under 30 living at five times the poverty rates of their married counterparts. Our number of close friends, according to the American Sociological Review, has declined by a third in the past two decades and those with no close friends have tripled.

At work, employee turnover in skilled and management positions in the five years prior to the recession of 2008 doubled. Since the recession, high unemployment has isolated large numbers of the formerly employed from work colleagues. Customer defections have risen 30 percent in recent years, and 86 percent of consumers trust corporations less than five years ago.

In politics, defection from political parties has doubled over the past 50 years, and Standard & Poor’s cited political gridlock as a primary factor in downgrading the U.S. government credit rating from AAA.

In religion, the exodus from spiritual affiliation has doubled over the past 20 years.

Despite all this, the systemic nature of our relational unraveling has often been under-reported because relationship information is siloed — making it hard to connect the dots. Social scientists study family and community, business experts focus on organizational relationships, political scientists analyze politics, and theologians study our connections to organized religion. The only thing more fragmented than our relationships is our reporting about them.

Yes, we could use a relationship advocate like St. Valentine these days. What might he advise?

• First, I think he would conclude that the cumulative effect of our relationship decline is a larger, more costly problem than we admit. He might even say we’ve gone over a “relationship cliff.”

St. Valentine might present evidence that relationships are our most valuable and value-creating resource: Depression among divorced men is six times and among divorced women 3.5 times greater than among their married counterparts. Men with “bad bosses” are 20 percent to 40 percent more likely to suffer heart attacks. Male heart attack victims who return home to live alone are four times more likely to die from a second heart attack than those who live with others.

St. Valentine might cite Gallup research that shows business units scoring above the median in engagement with customers and employees perform 3.4 times higher on a key set of financial measures, and that FORTUNE’S “100 Best Companies to Work For” produced four times the returns of their counterparts over seven years.

St. Valentine might remind us that customers with strong relational connections have 49 percent higher retention rates, recommend providers twice as often and purchase 46 percent more than those who are merely satisfied. He might warn that it is unrealistic to think we can build better lives and a stronger society on the back of crumbling relationships.

• Second, St. Valentine might observe that no one started out 50 years ago intending to undermine our relationships. Rather powerful advances — such as breakthrough technology — have yielded unintended consequences. It’s no surprise that isolation is a big problem when our 8- to 18-year-olds average seven hours and 38 minutes per day on their electronic devices and active Internet households experience 70 fewer minutes of interaction per day. The American Academy of Pediatrics has coined the term Facebook Depression, and the Menninger Clinic now diagnoses and treats Technology Addiction.

Even worse is the use of technology to wound others through the vitriol of cyber-bullying, talk radio, cable TV and the blogosphere. Unfortunately, research shows that beyond a certain point more information increases our confidence and possibly our arrogance, but not our discernment. As the head of software development at my old company used to say, “If you give a fool a faster tool, what you get is a faster fool.” Technology has made us all faster fools.

• Finally, St. Valentine would advocate making relationships a higher, more strategic priority in our lives. He would advise us to budget relationship time as assiduously as we budget our work time and money — to ensure that we are “investing” in relationships.

Author John Ortberg has said, “It is better to eat Twinkies together than to eat broccoli alone.”

Unfortunately, the company that makes Twinkies, Hostess Brands, has had some nasty management/labor disputes and is in bankruptcy. If we don’t get our act together, we are headed for “relationship-ruptcy.”

St. Valentine’s Day is a good time to follow the martyred saint of love and recommit to our most precious resource — our relationships.

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