There is a hidden message contained in this vintage Valentine, which predates the Civil War. It is part of the collection of Lloyd Levin in Mount Prospect, Ill. (Joe Lewnard/AP)

Let’s face it: If love is a battlefield, then choosing the right Valentine’s Day card for your sweetheart is a minefield. And no wonder: Stress and valentines go way back. The first-ever valentine was reportedly sent in 1415 by Charles I, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. During the American Revolution, battle-hardened soldiers popularized the practice of sending valentines to loved ones.

From Hallmark to handmade and “be mine” to “nice behind,” there are seemingly endless choices when it comes to telling that special someone you care in card form. In an effort to help you navigate in your own search for the perfect Valentine’s Day card, we’ve complied a list of dos and don’ts with tips from Washington area residents who spent this week scouring the shelves for the perfect missive.

DO: Trust your own words. Whether or not your valentine is for a friend, a relative or a romantic interest, it’s unlikely that text in a conventional store-bought card can accurately sum up your relationship. Look for a card with blank space, says Danny Boitel, 31. Oftentimes, he adds, “I’ll want to write my own message.”

DON’T: Let the card do all the talking. “You can’t just use the card message and then sign your name at the bottom,” says Brianna Curran, 19. “Definitely go for a personalized message. Something honest.”

DO: Feel free to get creative (artist skills not required). “It can look terrible,” says Boo Devanny, 18. “But the fact that you tried makes a big impact.” If you go with a store-bought card, aim for one with text or pictures that have personal significance, says Elaine Bodlander, 62. “Look for ones with clever sayings.”

This vintage Valentine, also part of Levin’s collection, has the wording "From One of Your Victims," from a man to a woman. (Joe Lewnard/AP)

DON’T: Lean toward overly effusive language. “I’m looking for something sweet and simple,” says Jackie Yevoli, 45. “Not too mushy or corny.” Including poetry, says Jim Geraghty, 36, runs the risk of your message seeming unoriginal or recycled. “My wife would think someone else took care of that for me,” he said.

DO: Incorporate humor, if it suits your relationship. “I’m looking for something that’s a little funny with some underlying sweetness,” says David Meeker, 39. A little humor can also help take some pressure off of Valentine’s Day, says Molly Morabito, 19. “I’d look for a card that reflects that.”

DON’T: Explore uncharted territory when it comes to jokes. Steer clear of humor that borders on being sexist, racist or otherwise offensive. If you choose a store-bought card, “you’ve got to work with the humor of the card,” says Patrick Reed, 19. “You don’t want the medium to go to waste.”

DO: Look for a card with special significance for the relationship. Choose one with writing or illustrations that evoke fond memories, for example. “I would want something that tells me about my rapport with [the recipient],” says Nick Taber, 22. “Something that has to do with our relationship.”

DON’T: Use the card as an attempt to accelerate or scale back the relationship. Know your boundaries, says Kathryn Davis, 27, and don’t use the card as an attempt to test them with large, unprecedented gestures, such as saying “I love you” for the first time. The same rule applies to initiating a breakup or expressing displeasure.

ALWAYS: Avoid the view that the fate of a relationship is hinging on a single holiday, or a single greeting card, for that matter. “Just because it’s Valentine’s Day,” says Virginia Zhao, 19, “don’t believe you have to pick just one day to validate people.”