The Anatomy of Romance

The Anatomy of RomanceRomance is very hard work; anyone who says otherwise is lying or not very good at it. To do so with reasonable hope of success demands intention, creativity, and humility. Romance doesn’t ‘just happen’ as Hollywood and Men’s Health want us to believe. The reason for this is simple, romance, before all else, is about the other person, to consider her wants and desires more than our own. Romance demands sacrifice; it means giving up things we want – something we aren’t naturally good at doing.

To be romantic also implies knowing something about the other person; to remember she likes back rubs but thinks flowers are a waste of money; that Russell Stover’s is vulgar and fattening but Godiva is decadent and worth the calories. To be romantic demands we listen and often read between the lines. As any man knows, what a woman says and what she actually means can be as different as rain and sunshine.

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The twenty first century makes romance even more difficult. Don Juan didn’t have to concern himself with modern technology. He didn’t have to bother with rising before dawn just to make sure he was the first person to text, comment, or post ‘Happy Birthday/Valentine’s Day/ Thanksgiving/Yom Kippur” to the one he loved. Not that the object of his affection necessarily expected it, but because everyone else would.

These are some of the realities anyone in a modern relationship, or at least anyone happy in a modern relationship, comes to understand. Yet there’s another fact about relationships that’s conceded but never publicly acknowledged – romance is a river that only flows one way.

Reciprocity is a principle that, like engine oil, reduces friction. A quid pro quo that keeps delicate parts from wearing out too quickly and allows relationships, and marriages, to go farther without expensive scheduled maintenance. He mows the lawn, she doesn’t gripe at him watching the game. She buys a sexy negligée and he doesn’t freak at her new Jimmy Choo’s. For any relationship to work, and work well, there is always a give and take, a back and forth, a negotiation of sorts where neither always wins the jackpot but both are satisfied with what they got.

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Romance doesn’t usually work that way. While most aspects of a relationship move along that two way street, romance moves unapologetically in one direction. Perhaps the greatest wisdom I will leave my son is to accept that any discussion about romance, and specifically about the need to be more romantic, will always be directed to him and his shortcomings, simply because he is male.

When we consider what is universally thought of as romantic, what characteristics we believe possess the grandest feelings of amore, invariably they are feminine in nature. Craftsman tools aren’t considered romantic, bubble baths are. Mulch doesn’t bring to mind feelings of love and devotion, yet a two-carat diamond tennis bracelet never fails no matter how many she owns. A candlelight dinner is synonymous with romance; a McDonald’s hamburger on the back of a pickup truck is anything but.

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I think this distinction is important for men and women to understand and remember. Accepting that romance is the ‘man’s job’ ought to lead a woman to appreciate her man’s romantic efforts, no matter how insignificant they may be compared to a Nicholas Spark’s character. It should also remind us that romance, in the real world, doesn’t go off a script. It’s often clunky, sometimes ugly, and routinely uninspiring. That’s because to be romantic drives most men to mental exhaustion; that much outside-the-box thinking isn’t natural for the average male, which is why so few are good at it.

Frankly, it’s an often unrecognized accomplishment for the average guy to be a husband, father, boss, employee, and still remember his wife hasn’t had flowers or a massage in months and out of nowhere go do something about it, just because. That kind of intentionality and contentiousness doesn’t happen by accident.

I’ve been engaged twice. Without question those two events were the most stressful moments in my life. Not because of fears about how they would respond to the proposal. My stress came in preparing for the actual moment and how it should go down. To both their credits, neither voiced precise notions about how that should look, the pressure I felt was completely self-inflicted. But any man worth his salt will recognize that the memory of how an engagement ring was given is just as important, if not more so, than the ring itself. Yes, she will be quite happy with a 3-carat Tiffany cut diamond ring, but if you give it at the rest stop bathroom on I-36 outside Wichita it’ll have the emotional reverence of stale bread compared to kneeling down and asking her on the beach, in Maui, at sunset.

One is romantic; the other is just pathetic.

There’s also something about romance I call the ‘ratchet effect’. Any man endeavoring to be romantic must come to grips that he will live in a perpetual state of one-upmanship. The road of romance always ends in unspoken expectations that the next romantic endeavor will be bigger and better than the one before. A surprise candlelight dinner The Palm might be wonderful the first time, but twelve candlelight dinners and she’ll begin to wonder if you just stopped trying. She might say she loves another bottle of perfume for the third birthday in a row, but the look of disappointment in her eyes should tell you how bad you really blew it. Romance is like the law, precedent becomes everything.

I know there are  women bristling with animosity that I would suggest romance is so lopsided in their direction. To them I would ask a question; when was the last time you tried to be romantic and what did that look like? If you did so at all, was it an act or moment tailored just for him and his likes and personality, or was it something you said was for him – but was really disguised for yourself? Or perhaps you’re one of those women who righteously believes that romance is the price paid for getting you naked under the covers?

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I think most women generally see themselves as being very romantic. I’d argue however, especially if the last paragraph touched a nerve, that you’re not as romantic as you think. It’s easy to believe yourself good at romance when you’re always on the receiving end and never really have to do the heavy lifting, or you measure your romantic skills only against what you already believe is romantic. It’s when any effort at romance begins testing your creative juices causing you to lose sleep about what to do for this year’s Birthday, Valentines Day, Anniversary, or just because that will sear the moment into their memory forever that you can truly understand the anatomy of romance.

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