I once heard a story of a young math professor who came home from work and greeted his fiancée with a little blue box from Tiffany. "This is a present for you, honey. But to get it, you have to tell me why I'm giving it to you today instead of any other day." She wracked her brain; it was still over three months till their anniversary and over five months till their marriage. It wasn't her birthday or a holiday or anything else she could come up with but she knew her betrothed, and she started thinking about how he did things. And then she got it.
"We met each other exactly 1000 days ago."
"Of course we did, darling. And I've loved every last one of them." And he gave her the diamond bracelet.
If I had to define romance as anything, I'd call it extra: it's the impulse, spurred on by sentiment, to add a little something, to try a little harder, to do one more thing as a sign of the love you have for the other person. From the kiss he gives you before he leaves the room, to taking his hand on the subway, to learning her shoe size on the sly so you can surprise her with Prada mules, romance is about paying enough attention and knowing the other person well enough that you can send proof of your love in a way that he or she will really understand.
So much about relationships centers on paying attention and on seeing things from the other's perspective. How many fights would be prevented if, when we felt hurt or slighted by our partner, we reminded ourselves of how much they love us? We'd most likely realize that they probably didn't try to do us damage, and that there must have been a misunderstanding or some moment of weakness. There's an old French expression — "to understand all is to forgive all" — and if we could only see things through our partner's eyes, we'd see how infrequently they'd ever do anything to hurt us, and our anger would be replaced by compassion.
That's what empathy can do. As you begin to see things from the other's vantage point, you can also see what would make them happy, what moves them, how you can show them how much you care in ways that will really register. This is why a lot of people (especially women) correctly think that romance is so important: because it's an outward sign of caring; it's evidence of real emotional investment.
The problem, though, is often in the expression. Many men think they do a fine job of showing their feelings, but unfortunately they're only expressing them their way, not yours (a new dishwasher for Christmas anyone?). And women have their versions as well; how successful were the rose petals leading to the tub?
It's clear, then, that romance is often about translation — about converting your feelings into signals that will be visible to the other person's eye, not merely to your own.
Romantic impulses often fail because they're not adequately translated. If not rewritten to the other's language, both your and his attempts at romance will miss the mark. You think you're telling him and he's not hearing or you worry he doesn't really love you, but in both cases, it can just be a problem of not understanding the other's language. Most men don't lack for feeling; they just don't realize that it's hard for you to realize how much they care given the often feeble ways they show it (he thought the new dishwasher would save you work!).
In some ways, then, the 1000-day bracelet story is romantic from both sides: he had the feelings and took the time to come up with a gift that definitely translated into her world (the power of those little blue boxes!), but the reason behind the gift was still from his world. She had to understand him well enough to be able to figure it out. Both parties had to see through the other one's eyes.
When my girlfriend gave me a 19th-century, hand-wound clock for our first anniversary, she made it clear that she knew me inside and out.
I'm impossible to shop for (so I've been told) but I love fine old objects (she happens to be fine and young, but for her I make an exception), and she knew that it would blend perfectly with all the other objects in the room — it was the perfect gift.
But you know what the most romantic thing she does for me is? She beams me a certain smile that electrifies her eyes with feeling. They sparkle at me, telling me that I'm the most loved and luckiest man in the world. What else could I need when I get a smile like that?
That's all romance is: signs of love in a language we understand. Different things will work for different people, and when you care about someone, you have to pay enough attention to learn to see things their way. Once you can do that, romance is easy.
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