Two weekends ago my wife came home from running errands and came to a dead stop before walking up to the door. Fall had finally cracked the door of cooler days and smiled a cascade of bright light on our home.
“Oh my God,” she said, staring at our entryway. “The doorway looks nasty! How long has it been since we cleaned it?”
This is a trick question, I thought, but the look on her face said otherwise.
So, I did what any husband would do in this situation. I pretended to survey my memory banks for an approximate answer to her question while estimating the amount of work she was “asking” me to do.
She looked at me sideways. Thirty years of experience told her all she needed to know. Soon, she was asking me to get her a bucket, the mop, to hook up the pressure washer, etc., but despite my repeated attempts to assist her in this cleaning, she insisted on doing it all herself.
I stayed out there, taking a subservient role, for thirty years of knowing her has taught me that to retreat into the house would have been a worse offense than not maintaining the look of our home.
Within thirty minutes the job was done and the tools were put back in the garage. But the conversation wasn’t over. For when I looked over at her I realized that she was in pain.
“What’s wrong,” I asked.
Silently, she extended her arms and legs and displayed a Jackson Pollock spattering of mosquito bites from her ankles to her elbows.
Now, I felt truly bad, because mosquito bites don’t just itch for my wife. They swell up like red welts on her and cause her physical pain until something like ice or After Bite can numb it.
This led to a discussion about other things I had neglected, especially cleaning the gutters, which caused a lot of standing water to collect and created the best little whorehouse in Texas for our local mosquito population.
Throughout the conversation, my wife was kind (but firm), and I committed to improving my attention to our home.
Twenty-four hours later I did the most romantic thing I could do for this situation…
I called a service to clean our gutters.
Now, I realize that some people would argue that this was not an act of romance. It didn’t involve candles, or flowers, or soft music. It didn’t raise my wife’s emotions to a level of ecstasy. It wasn’t publicly proclaiming how much I valued her. And it especially did not end in a sexual encounter.
And I can see their point of view. In fact, early in my relationship with my wife, I would have been among these dissenters. But as I matured in my love for her, I realized that I had been working off of 6 misperceptions about romance that, if perpetuated, would have stagnated our connection.
And when I looked around, I realized I was not alone. Most of my male friends had the same perceptions as myself. None of us could define where we got this playbook of romance that we used, but we all used it and continued to use it, even when it didn’t work as well as it used to. We were stuck in a loop, intuiting that there was a better way, but not knowing the way out.
Now, what I am about to explain is not hard, but it may require a little paradigm shifting. After all, who would’ve thought that gutters and romance could go together? But they do. You just have to remove the misperceptions about what is going on first.
So, what are the misperceptions?
Well, I’m glad you asked.
Here they are in descending order.
#6 Romance is about getting the girl to feel positive about you.
Most men won’t say it this way, but if you look at how we go about it, this is exactly what we believe. If you disagree, look at how men use romance while dating compared to when they are married.
Dating men use romance to produce positive feelings in the woman so that she will feel closer to him, more attracted to him, and possibly have sex with him. He wants her to see him as the man she has always dreamed of, the man she always desired. It is all part of the way a man pursues a woman. But every good hunter needs an effective bait to lure the prey closer to him, and for men, romance is that bait.
After a man is married, he rarely uses romance as intensely as he did while dating his wife. Why? Because he’s already accomplished the goal of getting her to like him well enough to marry him. So, romance is now only used in one of two ways: a) to positively precondition her to having sex with him or b) to “get out of trouble” when he has hurt her feelings. In both circumstances, though, the married man uses romance as a way of reminding his wife of how good a man he is. That he is still the person she always desired.
So, married or not, men use romance as a way of producing positive feelings in the woman about them.
What he doesn’t understand is that romance is to be an act of valuing her, not himself. It is not an act of subterfuge but of selflessness. Romance is to be a creative expression of how much one values their partner and the relationship with her. It is not meant to be an apology or a vehicle for ulterior motives. Granted, one could feign selflessness and accomplish an improved connection or have an intimate moment with their wife. And some might argue, “Well, if the end result is the same, what’s the difference?” The difference is in the heart.
To pretend it’s about her when in reality it is only about you not only makes you a liar but also creates an egomania that only views your “love” through the lens of your ego and your happiness, effectually strangling any true love you may have had for her.
To make it truly about her, though, helps you understand what it means to give yourself up for someone else. It is an exercise in producing humility. Once you realize that you would do the romantic gesture, regardless of whether you received what you wanted or not, you develop a bond with your wife that is deeper and more sustainable than the necrotic narcissism of selfishness.
#5 Romance is a means to sex.
As described above, this is often a selfish goal that men use romance to achieve. However, it is important to note that not all men are selfish S.O.Bs. Some genuinely desire sex with their wife because they love her and want to feel closer to her.
The problem is that many men view romance as the only vehicle to get them to sex. Admittedly, when I was a newlywed, I viewed romance in this way as well, but then someone told me something that I have never forgotten:
Men use romance to get sex.
Women use sex to get romance.
This little statement turned everything around for me. I suddenly realized that, if this is even slightly true, women value romance much more than men do. In fact, they may even value and desire romance to the same degree that men value and desire sex. This revelation set off a series of questions in my head, such as:
Why? What are they getting from romance that makes them desire it to that degree?
Am I providing this need to my wife in a way that sufficiently meets her desire?
Do I even know what romance is?
Turns out, I only knew half of the answer to this last question. I was failing in regards to the second question. And I had no clue about the answer to the first question.
Ok. Hold on a second here, I thought. If romance was my goal, not sex, then what would I be pursuing? What pleasure would be more valuable to me than physical intimacy?
I struggled and struggled with this question, trying to put myself in a woman’s mindset as best as I could, until finally, I realized that the answer had been staring at me all along.
All my life, I had been placing the emphasis on physical intimacy. But if romance was my goal, not sex, then I would be seeking an expression of love that valued more than my body. I would want an expression of love that valued my heart, soul, and mind as well. In other words, I would want an intimacy that went beyond only one aspect of myself. It would not be a physical intimacy only. It would be holistic intimacy. Something that comprehended the parts of myself as intimately interconnected and could only celebrate those parts by referencing the whole.
This revelation changed everything for me. It redefined romance as a tool for connection, not sex. And it changed how I looked at romance altogether.
#4 Romance has to be extravagant or expensive.
I thought romance had to be a grand gesture of some kind. It had to sweep her off of her feet and make her feel like she was a Disney princess and I was her Prince Charming.
Such gestures are not commonplace for those of us who do not own gleaming, white stallions, a castle, or host grand balls for potential brides. But we believe our women want the fantasy, and if we are completely honest, we want to live up to the billing of being her Prince Charming. So we plan, we save our money, and we provide her with the best facsimile of the fantasy that we can provide.
Deep down we know it’s all fake.
Both of us are just playing a role.
But we men believe that this is what romance is. That in order to express the breadth and depth of our love we must do something extraordinary. And many times the nature of an extraordinary event also means “expensive” (seriously, do you have any idea how much it costs to rent out a castle?)
What we fail to realize is that romance can be those things, but usually romance does not have to be. Romance can also be:
Going to the store to get her chicken soup when she’s sick.
Doing something without being asked.
Leaving her love notes on the bathroom mirror.
Listening to her with an undivided mind and heart.
Or, following up on the cares, dreams, conflicts, and concerns that she is experiencing so that she knows you care about her world as much as your own (that’s where gutter cleaning comes in, not as an obligation to keep her happy, but as an expression of how much I love her by valuing what she values.)
When I realized that romance did not have to be extravagant or expensive, two things occurred almost immediately. First, I experienced a lot of relief, and second, I experienced a different type of stress. The kind of stress that occurs when a person realizes that to be a successful adult he must step outside his parents’ umbrella of protection, place childish ways behind him, and face the daily challenges on his own merits. This was a better love. A more adult love. But it also swept away another misconception.
#3 Romance can be done in pockets of expression
If a continually broadening and deepening connection is her primary goal, and if I want to express love to her in a way that resonates with her desires, I cannot reserve romance for only birthdays, anniversaries, or the occasional getaway.
Romance must become an everyday occurrence.
But since it is not necessary for romance to be extravagant or expensive, this makes the task a lot easier than I originally anticipated.
Now, I get the joy of looking for ways to make my wife feel valued in a myriad of ways.
Some of these ways may be through intellectually connecting with her. That is to say, developing common interests with her, sharing opinions without the need to “prove her wrong,” or discussing how to solve an issue together.
Sometimes this may be through connecting on an emotional level. This can include (but is not limited to) flirting, “spicy” (fun, not argumentative) banter, doing something to communicate she is #1 in all areas of my life, consistently speaking her “love language” to her, or keeping her at the forefront of my mind, not to maintain her happiness but to ensure that she continually feels valued.
And sometimes connection will occur spiritually, such as sharing our spiritual growth with each other, praying together, serving together through our church, and modeling a consistent message to our kids of how to live out our faith. Or it will occur physically, such as quality time we spend with each other both outside and inside of the bedroom. Physical intimacy can be taking walks with each other, holding hands in the grocery store, going on trips together, helping them out when they are sick, AND it can include a loving, honoring, mutually satisfying sexual relationship with each other.
The point is: Regardless of what way you choose to connect with your wife, you must do it every single day. To reserve romance for only pockets of expression is to starve your wife of the love and connection she desires to have with you, making her feels as lonely, confused and depressed as you would if she only provided you with sex on your birthday, anniversary, or the occasional getaway.
When I realized that romance was a daily activity, I also realized that I had been wrong to think that
#2 Each romantic gesture has to exceed the previous one
I’ll admit, I loved competing against myself to see if I could find a creative way of outdoing what I had done before. But at the same time, I realized that there was a cap to my creativity and if I was not careful I would run into a romantic wall that I had carefully crafted with my own hands.
But since romance is holistic, is not extravagant or expensive, and is a daily activity, this also means that my focus should not be on outdoing myself. It should be on “researching,” i.e. paying attention to the details of my wife, so that I can gradually earn my Ph.D. in how all of those complex parts of her fit together.
Only through paying attention to the details of her life, her likes/dislikes, her hopes/dreams, and how her past influences her present will I be able to discern the topography of my wife’s heart. Only then will I be able to navigate issues with her successfully. To communicate with her respectfully. And fight for her, especially when we disagree.
My job is to cherish and nourish her as I would a member of my own body. To love her as much as I love myself. And I cannot do this if I am focused on competing against my past accomplishments. My focus must be on her, not myself. That, in a nutshell, is the essence of romance.
But this practice also wipes away the final misconception I had about romance:
#1 Romantic expressions should never lose their impact
This may sound silly, but when I was younger I thought of my wife’s heart like a vending machine. If I came along doing the right things, saying the right things, and presenting myself in the right way, it was like my putting my quarters into a vending machine, pushing the same buttons as always and getting that Snickers to fall gently to the bottom so that I could retrieve it.
The problem was sometimes I got what I expected, and sometimes I did not. Sometimes I got fiery hot Cheetos (I loathe Cheetos) or the package of stale, powdered sugar donuts. For a long time, I wondered what was wrong with my wife. After all, I pushed the same buttons as always. Why didn’t I get the same output?
Then it dawned on me. I wasn’t pushing the same buttons after all. In fact, the buttons that used to work, no longer perform like they used to because romance is not a series of inputs one makes to get what he wants. Romance is continually evolving. And while she may have said “Thank you” with a kiss the first few times I went out of my way to do something loving and nice for her, now my romantic action has become an expectation and her way of saying “Thank you” is to simply say: “Thank you.”
This means that not only do romantic expressions dull over time. It also means that I can never sit on my laurels. I must continually grow along with my wife. I must always be stretching myself, learning how to give myself up for her so that the unity between us can be preserved, strengthened, and fulfill all that it was designed to be.
Romance can be a tricky thing if we work under the wrong ideas of what it is. But, to paraphrase a grinchy puzzler who puzzled til his puzzler was sore: “What if romance doesn’t come from a store? What if romance…is a little bit more?”