Q. I’m happily engaged to a wonderful man. But lately I just haven’t been feeling the romance, which I enjoy and miss. I think I’m pretty realistic in my expectations, and I know that all relationships go through lulls, so I’m not worried about us as a couple. I just feel the need for a bit more right now. Rather than ask him to amp it up, which puts a lot of pressure out of nowhere onto him, I want to look for romantic things I can do (which I am hoping will inspire him to put some effort of his own into it!). But, to be honest, I’m having trouble coming up with new romantic gestures that aren’t just gender-normative clichÃ©s (“Cook your man a steak, and then eat it with him in your sexiest lingerie!” Been there, done that, paid the dry-cleaning bill).
I’m already a big fan of the daily romantic effort (leaving a random “I love you” note in a book he’s reading, surprising him with a lunch date on a work day, bringing back small gifts when I go out of town, cooking a nice dinner just because). But I’m looking for something a bit bigger, a surprise gesture that we can enjoy together. Do you have any ideas?
A. We owe it to ourselves and our partners to be the best people we can be. Trite, yes, we have heard it a thousand times, but absolutely a lesson that can’t be learned enough. As partners, we are each other’s relief system. We are here to make life easier for one another, which often means, putting down the “I” and substituting for the “you,” in a culture that is “me”-centric. That isn’t to say that the business of finding balance between putting down “I” and helping “you” hasn’t been a minefield for quite sometime. Think of all the women you know, or just count out some on one hand, who have put “you” above all things, in any sort of relationship. Much like the Great Man of Oz, they put all the effort into the larger show, only to have lost some part of their identity in the midst of “you.” The trail is long and wide, littered with the carcasses of those who give themselves completely to another person, without ever partaking or expecting the same themselves. Avoid this at all costs. Do not become an omen or a warning. Do not ever surrender yourself over completely. Especially not in the name of love.
With warnings out the way, we can all tend to agree that romance is good. It is the single closest thing we have to magic. It feels wonderful and fantastical, recreating all those early brain chemicals from month three or four in the relationship, the ones that signaled, “Yes. This one. You found them. Home.” Your brain is bathed in seratonin, testosterone, oxytocin, and vasopressin, all twenty-dollar words for L-O-V-E. The great Dr. Helen Fischer called these love chemicals the “drug addict/psychosis” period, though, that strips away some of that magic, yeah? It is only to say that love, or really, romance is this: romance is a thoughtfulness, a consideration of magic. It is also a perfect cocktail of hormone-induced chemicals swirling in our brain, not an emotion, but a brain function, that is intent on helping us find a biological partner to breed with. Certainly this isn’t intended to take away the sentimental value of it, but only highlight a very real fact that if you view love as a chemical, and romance as thoughtfulness, then you can see what it is that keeps you alive.
Oftentimes in our pursuit for simple things like equal pay, or ending discrimination, we get caught up in the finer details of reality, rather than let romance in. Is there a fear that romance might lead us to think that we are worthy of that feminist cred? Or is it that no romantic dinner discussion went like this: “You will give me anything I want?” she says to him over champagne and strawberries, fluttering her eyes, him drunk on her beauty. “How about closing the wage gap?” Plus, romance can seem just so damn hetero. “Buy women diamonds made of roses! Give him a steak blowjob!” Unless you are cruising for stomach-busting, cringeworthy kicks, the advice from Cosmo or any other well-intended men’s magazines is a place you ought not go. It isn’t love advice written for people: it’s written for Barbies and Kens, both of whom live in some fantasy, hetero, blonde people land, where genitals are plastic and romance is Barbie with her thousands of jobs (she’s even an astronaut, you know), and yet, all she wants is the genital-lacking presence of Ken and his cool pink convertible. That’s not romance. That’s a tale told to you based on legend, and later sold back to you higher than at per cost.
Here’s another thought: I was once told by a friend that where she lived in Argentina, men told tall tales of not being able to open doors for women in North America, because we would sue them for sexual discrimination. I’ve seen message boards with men equate the same logic of not holding doors open for women or not giving seats up, because hey, we are all equal now! From the dismissal of romantic gestures as a cultural gauge to where equality and expectation are, to the friendzone, to punching a woman in the face, since we are all advocating for fair and equal treatment now, and the idea of chivalry and romance seems to be at a schizophrenic moment of traditional undoing. Which leads me to ask, is chivalry a relevant concept or not? Isn’t chivalry, when you boil it down to its essence, just a general healthy respect for women, even those who you aren’t having sex with? How strange that it would then get its own name like that. I racked my mind, looking for the equivalent of the behavior in the land of women (and hell, really anyone on the gender spectrum that doesn’t dock at Men, with a capital M). I can find none.
So, romance seems to get a bad rap, for whichever reason you choose, go ahead, there are more than plenty. It can be seen as a frivolous pursuit in the age of heavy politic or that romance is an unnatural concept based in the ideas of studio producers who presented unreal lives for desperate consumption? Perhaps romance, like chivalry and its own outdated definition, tends to be growing out of its traditional roots. Perhaps we just want more than romance. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, you are free to choose what it is that romance seems to be doing these days. But here is another option: what if romance got a bad rap because it was so ridiculous in what it presented itself to be? We live in a world where your relationship is like setting up your own city: you make the laws, the points of government, and the national holidays. Why should romance not be the same? Why follow the traditional paths that seem to lead back to the land of cheap online lingerie and terrible roles that relegate each person in said relationship to Barbie and Ken?
So, what can you do?
Forgo the cheap online lingerie and the steak blowjobs, as you have already done. You are in the woods. You do not have a map. You get to make up the path now. Think of your romance not as things or pre-determined gestures of said romance. Think of instead as a thoughtfulness, an awareness to your partner’s wants and desires and needs. Not as flowers or gifts or even grand gestures of dedication and love forever, but as the small, tiny, minute gestures that can in a split second, change the outcome of the day. Think of not what you would want them to do for you (but you can hope that loving gestures will be returned) but that you are giving, just because it makes you content. Give your partner the infinitely small, yet mind blowingly aware thoughtfulness of your attention. It is, quite possibly, the most romantic thing one could ever give.