They arrive at sunset. The couples appear in clutters of arms and legs, looking for a seat in the park, in any park, on any bench – in Parque Morazán, Plaza de la Cultura, La Sabana, Plaza de la Democracia. The pairs begin caressing, kissing, wrapping each other in embraces that block out the rest of the world.
From my own bench nearby, I wonder how awful I must look.
First of all, I am sitting alone. But even worse, I’m studying these couples. I’m disheveled after a full day in the office. My hair unkempt, shirt creased, all in all, I probably look like someone wanted by the police.
In a city where public displays of affection lurk everywhere, being single can drive you a little crazy. However, for Valentine’s Day, my plan seems rather rational.
This year I approach my 20-something peers who occupy parks in San José and ask them: “Why do you have to be so brazen about being in a relationship?”
The first couple offers no answers. Instead, they ask me to go away. The boyfriend waves at some far corner of Parque Morazán. His girlfriend, with her head pressed against his chest, takes a phone call as I shuffle off in another direction.
At another bench I meet Nain Guzmán and Lucia Romero, who receive my interruption with more ease. Both 27, the couple had their first date in the park a month ago. They rendezvous here two or three times a week. Guzmán, a slim man with short, fuzzy hair that divulges a slight scar on his forehead, cuddles up to Lucia, whose abundant red hair falls into his lap. Each has piercings (him: nose ring, her: bottom lip). They look enamored with each other.
And like most young Costa Ricans, they live with their parents. The park – public spaces in general – turn into a type of private getaway.
“Sometimes you need to be somewhere more passionate or private, where you can talk just to that person and you don’t have brothers, cousins, parents and grandparents around you,” Guzmán says. “That time you are dedicating just to your other half.”
Others I talk to agree. In Latin American culture, where the nuclear family dominates many aspects of life, relationships thrive anywhere but the home. Park benches, restaurants and karaoke bars, the backs of buses and taxis are popular spaces for full-on make out sessions.
In the Feb. 12 edition of La Nación’s Sunday magazine, the publication presented Valentine’s Day research on Tico relationships. The magazine called it “La Odisea de Encontrar una Pareja” (“The Odyssey of Finding a Partner”), and inside editors polled 1,200 Costa Ricans about what mattered in a relationship. The results of the survey seem to support – well, nothing particularly unusual:
•Sixty-five percent of women and 60 percent of men say they find it difficult encountering a significant other in the country.
•What women want most in a relationship: fidelity, financial stability and a responsible partner.
•What men want: fidelity, financial stability and, ho-hum, someone attractive.
Costa Rica paralleled the United States in other figures:
•The 2011 Costa Rican census finds that the country has 51 percent women and 49 percent men, mirroring the U.S. gender ratio on a much smaller scale. (The U.S. has 300 million residents, Costa Rica has 4.3 million.)
•Six out of 10 Costa Ricans believe the ideal time to marry is between the ages 26-30. That follows a similar trend in the U.S., where the average age of marriage is 29 and 26 for men and women, respectively, up from 23 and 20 in the 1960s, perhaps reflecting in both cultures a pull away from nuclear-family-driven lives to ones more focused on careers.
•Also, 30 percent of Costa Ricans would rather cohabitate than marry, which is not far off from the 39 percent of U.S. citizens who do not want to marry, according to the Pew Research Center.
•Homosexual rights remain limited in Costa Rica, and gay marriage is outlawed. Yet in the poll, 55 percent of Ticos supported same-sex marriage – once again, a similar percentage as the U.S. – and that figure increases to 60 percent when surveying Costa Ricans between 18 and 39.
To better understand relationships and love itself, I decide to see a psychologist.
I meet Eugenia Ocampo at her office in Tibás, in north San José. Ocampo, with wavy dark hair and black nail polish on her fingertips, specializes in couples’ therapy. Two cozy chairs and a large sofa with cartoonish throw pillows decorate the room where Ocampo discusses relationship woes. She explains to me how Costa Rica’s dating culture has transformed into a masquerade.
“It is part of what couples want,” Ocampo, 40, says. “It’s a social event. They announce it, even when they’re only 15, they say: ‘I’m in a relationship and everyone has to know.’”
This manner of courtship has many positives, Ocampo says. Younger generations tend to be more open about relationship problems. They tend not to discriminate against homosexual relationships. The Latino stereotype of machismo (male chauvinist) culture weakens. And when out with friends, there is no anxiety about bringing along a date.
I tell another couple I encounter at the park that I find it odd to see couples acting so hands-on when spending time with a group of friends. Andrés Gonzales, who is spending time with his coworker and girlfriend Milena, feels the opposite. He tells me that being affectionate with a girlfriend around friends is a sign of respect.
“Nobody is pointing at you like ‘Look at that couple, they are kissing,’” Gonzales says.
The flipside of this candor is the downfall of many Costa Rican couples: rampant, explosive jealousy. Jealousness thrives in the U.S. and everywhere else. But when a relationships is placed so out in the open, situations prone to create jealousy are more frequent. Couples sometimes feel like they have to do everything together, Ocampo says. They attend soccer matches together, trips to the mall, friends’ parties. They can’t spend a minute apart.
This past Sunday, at Mall Multiplaza in Escazú, I saw a young couple holding hands in the bookstore. The woman moved back and forth, browsing the latest in the fiction section. The man looked disinterested, but he stuck to her nonetheless, like their palms were bolted together. She hauled him around the bookcases. Finally she told him: “You can let go of my hand while I look for books.” He continued holding her hand.
With the Internet making it easier and quicker to boast about a significant other, Ocampo has witnessed an explosion of couples reaching breaking points over social media like Facebook and Twitter.
“The question with Facebook is always: Who are your friends with?” Ocampo says. “These are things new in couple conflicts. If a boyfriend adds a new female friend, this can be a real source of problems.”
Ocampo emphasizes to patients that they cannot, at every moment, be the most important person in their partner’s life. “And they need to accept it,” she says.
The psychologist had to learn to balance family, friends and a boyfriend in her own life. She divorced her husband before remarrying him. They’ve been together for a decade now.
Relationships that work demonstrate how saccharine lovers can be.
A station called Radio Musical has thrived on playing only Spanish love ballads since 1951. From the swooning schmaltzy love rock of Maná to the melodramatic cries of Gloria Trevi, to old traditional romantic ballads, they play it all. More impressively, program manager Alberto Rivera says the station pioneered one of the most sugary-sweet radio programs to ever hit airwaves.
The concept of “La Hora de los Novios” (“Lovers’ Hour”) follows a simple formula. A caller proclaims fanatical affection for his or her partner, and then dedicates a love song. “The most positive message is love, love, love,” Rivera says.
I scour the Radio Musical Facebook page on Wednesday and watch the mushiness bubble over. Men and women alike comment on the songs that make them weepy. They type their favorite sad lyric with giddiness, and ask for tissues. In all caps a man shouts for his “beautiful princess Silvia that he loves very much.”
It’s a bit overdone. More pomp than prose. I scroll through the Facebook comments, fighting disgust. I realize I’m doing it again – gawking at the couples in the park. I close out the Facebook page.
I turn the radio to Radio Musical. A man and woman are singing a duet in Spanish through crackling speakers. The song sounds like it was recorded 150 years ago. Trumpets vibrate woefully in the background. The lyrics are hokey, absolutely over-the-top.
I hum along:
I never dreamed of finding the faith that you have given me.
But today, I have you beside me and I’m in love.
Do you love me?