Contrary to what the movies say, women don’t want romance—at least not straight away.
I’ll often groan when a movie uses a sweeping romantic gesture to nudge the plot along to its natural conclusion. The guy does something wildly over-the-top and ludicrously romantic to win over the girl’s heart and, consequently, our two always-outta-luck characters get together. The next and final scene shows them as happy as an eHarmony ad: they’re playing ball on a deserted beach with a friendly looking Golden Retriever, or walking down the aisle as confetti’s thrown on them by less attractive-looking friends (the comic relief).
The subliminal message here is: do something crazily romantic and you’ll seal the deal. According to these movies the bigger the gesture, the better! The more insane the gesture, the more lovable you are! The shorter the amount of time you’ve known her, the more romantic!
In Love Actually, Colin Firth catches his girlfriend in bed with his brother. He flies to France and quickly falls for a Portuguese housekeeper. Neither of them speaks the other’s native tongue (although they do share a thrilling moment of saving typewritten pages from blowing into a lake), so their first conversation is when he arrives unannounced in her hometown with a rudimentary grasp of Portuguese. Rather than covering some getting-to-know-you basics (“So you’re a housekeeper … did you have to go to college for that?”), he goes in for The Big Proposal. Beautiful, right?
Let’s rewind to the moment when Colin finds his girlfriend in bed with his brother. His speedy proposal to someone else shrieks rebound in neon flashing lights.
I don’t think men are lining up to watch Love Actually or other romantic movies with similarly bizarre moments (you can strike The Notebook from your Netflix queue as well), but perhaps through a process of detached osmosis (e.g., it was playing in the background as you helped Mom carve the turkey, or an ex knew all the lines by heart and quoted them at inappropriate moments, etc.), men may have picked up on the misleading message embedded in these movies: that women want romance—lots of it, and the sooner the better.
A couple of years ago I found myself embroiled in an intense relationship by the middle of our second date. He complimented my outfit, my hair, my smile, and the softness of my skin. I shifted uneasily. Did I not like compliments, he asked? I explained it was too much too soon, that it felt like he was falling in love. His response was an unequivocal: “But I am falling in love with you”—met by stunned silence. The following week he asked me to meet his mother. I panicked and said no. Unsurprisingly our relationship never reached the one-month mark.
Another time I was standing on a train platform with a friend when it began to rain. I didn’t have an umbrella so we shared his. Huddled beneath it, waiting for the train, we talked and drew closer and closer until we were kissing. The next day the receptionist called to say a man had stopped by the office with an umbrella for me. It was lovely, very old-fashioned, very Brief Encounter (without the affair part). I wanted to adore the gesture, but combined with a frenzy of excited emails and texts, it felt intense and I found myself back pedaling.
The umbrella part was sweet though, right? So maybe I’m the one with the problem?
I checked with friends and they’ve been through similar experiences. They agree that, early on, signs of devotion aren’t good—they’re off-putting. One friend was enjoying a pleasant second date until the guy declared he just knew they’d get married one day. She laughed it off nervously. Each time they met he continued to mention their pending marriage, until the day she ended it.
Another friend was on a seemingly great first date. They loved the same movies! They had the same sense of humor! But after two hours his enthusiastic crows of agreement felt forced. Everything she said he agreed with. Every joke she cracked was hilarious. She felt he was trying too hard to prove they were instantly compatible. It had the opposite effect: Man this one’s laying it on thick.
There are two reasons why women don’t swoon instantly when greeted by an overload of ardent feelings or romance.
The first is about balance. There are opposing roles in every relationship; this applies not only to marriage or romantic relationships, but to roommates, siblings, or friends. The roles are fluid and they switch depending on the task in hand, but tend to go like this: one person is more detail-oriented and sensible, they figure out what time the movie starts and which train gets them back into the city in time for brunch with relatives, while the other adopts the role of being more impetuous and fun.
During those first few dates, the same principles apply. If one person comes on too strong too quickly, the other tends to take a step back and slow down. While the boy was busy telling me he loved me on our second date, I was thinking, I’m still figuring out if I even like you—how can I POSSIBLY catch up to the level of feeling you already have for me?? It was a huge amount of pressure. I couldn’t get to where he was fast enough. I couldn’t see the scales balancing out, which meant they never did.
The second reason we don’t like it is plain cynicism. Some people just love to fall in love. The serial monogamist transitions from one relationship to the next. He wants to ignore dates two to twelve and get to that really cozy stage where his friends merge with hers and where he finishes the anecdote she begins and she polishes off the crème brûlée he ordered. It’s what my friend sensed on her first date. And while it’s lovely that he likes to be tactile and couple-y and include his new girlfriend in everything, often it transpires that he loves having a partner, rather than loves his specific partner.
Women sense when they’re filling the gaping void left in a man’s life by his ex-girlfriend or ex-fiancée or ex-wife. It’s what Colin Firth was attempting with his microwave speed proposal. It’s not us you’re falling for when we’ve only been on one or two dates. It’s the idea of us. And that leaves us feeling cold.
Don’t get me wrong, women love romantic and considerate and kind. We’ll choose these qualities over a Neanderthal any day. But we want it when there’s a genuine connection. Timing is everything and if you’re saying those three little words within a handful of dates then it’s not romantic. It’s creepy.
So is it too much to ask that during our first few weeks we sweep romance to one side and simply act like two people who are enjoying their first few weeks of dating? In that initial period we’re not cute or compatible or in love or perfect for each other. We’re just figuring it out. And there’s no rush.
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