The Tyranny of the Grand Romantic Gesture

When my husband and I were dating, I was always trying to figure out how he felt about me. How deep and strong were his feelings? Did he love me like Ron loved Hermione? Like Wesley loved Princess Buttercup? Like Ross and Rachel, or Jim and Pam? His every gesture, compliment, touch was up for interpretation. I became a semiotician of romance, puzzling over the radical lack of meaning in the signs. My journal was a dissertation without a thesis. I knew what I wanted him to mean, but would I just be fooling myself if I believed what he seemed to be saying to me with his actions? To protect myself from heartbreak, I underestimated his feelings at every turn, assuming that he saw our relationship as more temporary than he did, that his feelings were weaker than they were, that he wasn’t willing to make sacrifices for us when he was. In trying to be realistic, I became pessimistic, assuming the worst of the man I was falling in love with in a vain effort to avoid pain.

He never did anything to make me doubt him. It was just that he didn’t do anything specific and direct and huge enough to allow me to override the deep-rooted doubt that I’m lovable at all. I needed him to explicitly convince me of his love and commitment, to make it clear and unmistakable.

What I wanted was a Grand Romantic Gesture. I wanted him to do something big enough that it would leave no room for doubt in my mind that he did love me. Ideally, I wanted him to do this big thing spontaneously, motivated by nothing but a love that was so overwhelming to him that he couldn’t help but express it in this over-the-top way. That’s what movies and books had taught me to expect from a young man: holding a boom box under my window, defying convention, writing my name in the sky, making incredible sacrifices, organizing a flash mob. A dozen roses and a hot air balloon ride over Paris. No big deal.

I did make allowances for the fact that men are clueless. I dropped hints. I fished for compliments. I informed him that little gifts on random days are better than big ones on expected special occasions. I let him know how important words are to me, spoken and especially written. Hearing these requests felt awkward to him at best, and sometimes even offended him. He’s a naturally reticent guy not given to theatrics, and it felt to him like I was saying he wasn’t good enough. My pestering only gave him performance anxiety: he was afraid that anything he thought of wouldn’t measure up to the scenes I’d been writing in my head, and he was probably right.

Looking back on that time like the old married lady I’ve become, I feel that my reactions were utterly logical given the cultural scripts I’d been raised on. It made complete sense for me to judge a man’s feelings as underwhelming if they weren’t shown by overwhelming actions. But I’ve also realized how destructive that romance narrative is, and I have started to reject it, appealing though I still find it. APW has been instrumental in helping me reevaluate our cultural scripts about love, especially though its ongoing conversation around proposals.

Now, I’ve realized that the wedding vow itself was the only Grand Romantic Gesture I’ll ever truly need. Something shifted inside me on hearing him say those words, on understanding the meaning of the role he’d taken on. It wasn’t something I realized that moment, but a discovery that I made slowly during our newlywed period: my husband really does love me the way I’ve always wanted to be loved. I don’t have the hard evidence that I always wanted. There are no flowery love letters, no declarations, no public spectacles attesting to his undying love (unless you count the wedding, of course). But those things now seem as superfluous to me as they always did to him. Now, I am finally able to believe that his kisses mean what I want to believe they mean. The greatest gift that marriage has given me is the ability to have that faith and believe in his love.

(Is it ridiculous of me that I needed him to make a public vow and sign a paper before I could really feel secure in his love? Absolutely. Someone more well-adjusted and confident, less needy and anxious than I was, someone more skeptical of our cultural scripts should be able to believe in her/his partner without the tangible sign of a ring.)

Even with that faith, I’m still realistic, but my realism is no longer on a slippery slope to pessimism. It’s true that for our relationship to stay as great as it is now, certain things will have to continue to happen. He will have to continue to treat me with respect, contribute equally to running the household, and express his tenderness to me in the many tiny ways he does now. We’ll have to remain emotionally open to each other, maintain a healthy sex life, and continue to enjoy lots of cuddling and non-sexual touching. If these things don’t happen, that old doubt might come back, and it would only be natural. Acknowledging the need for ongoing investment in our relationship doesn’t undermine our current happiness. I’m not pretending that just because my husband and I are happy now, we’ll always be, or even that just because I now finally do believe that he loves me, I’ll always believe that. Life is too long and unpredictable for me to delude myself that way.

But that’s not a reason to devalue today’s contentment either. One part of deconstructing that messed-up romance narrative is realizing that the here and now is important for its own sake, not just because it’s part of a relationship that’s going to last forever. The worth of each moment of our lives does not depend on its participation in a larger narrative progression toward happily ever after.

Valentine’s Day has expanded into an entire season, occupying the grocery store center aisle as soon as the Christmas stuff gets cleared away. It’s the time of year when we start expecting men to make those Grand Romantic Gestures, especially if our ring fingers are feeling itchy. Now is the perfect time to question the cultural scripts we’ve been taught and affirm the good in our relationships, rather than letting marketers sow seeds of doubt in our minds. It’s the time to give ourselves permission to have faith in love, even absent overwhelming physical evidence.

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  • Chiara

    You’re so right. I used to wait for romantic gestures, not even grand ones. Flowers would be nice. A surprise email would be better. A note left on the kitchen table. Amazing.

    But when I think back on gestures that are the most romantic, they’re little and unintentional. Like how I left him a little note before I went away for three months and when I came back it was under a magnet on the fridge. Like how he’ll make sure the house is warmer for when I come home. Or he’ll look up things I like on Craigslist, without my asking or requesting. All the little things that mean he’s thinking of me, and he loves me. But they don’t require declarations of undying love, or using money, or even a deliberate thought “this will be romantic”. They’re so mundane and ordinary, I don’t think Hollywood would ever consider including them in a movie.

    The urbanity of these gestures is exactly what I thought of when you said, “One part of deconstructing that messed-up romance narrative is realizing that the here and now is important for its own sake”.

    Thanks for challenging those norms, and giving me pause to think of all the romance in my beautifully boring, everyday life.

    • Jashshea

      Ayup. My facewash was discontinued and I was being a wee bit melodramatic about it. He stayed up 2 hours late one night searching for it all over the internet. I may never get surprise hot air balloon rides, but I can count on him to try and make my life better in a million other ways.

    • Erin

      Thank you for this perspective. No matter how many times or how blatantly I request them, my husband will not get me flowers.

      But he does remember to turn the porch light on whenever I work after dark, draw me funny little pictures on particularly bad days, and make a big deal out of missing me when I’m gone for even a day.

      These are things I need to treasure as much as, if not more than, the flowers I may never get.

  • Marie

    I want to “exactly” this whole post. I really needed this today!

  • Emily

    “The worth of each moment of our lives does not depend on its participation in a larger narrative progression toward happily ever after.”

    OH my god. This. For everything, love included. Thanks for the dreary Tuesday morning reality check!

    • sarahmrose

      So much exactly! I had already copied that line and was on my way to comment on it when I saw you already had :)

  • Allie

    I think I struggled a lot with this in my first major relationship- I wanted romance and fireworks and amazing surprises. My own experience has shown me that the kind of person I actually want- the person who shares my values and outlook on life- is not the kind of person who does grand romantic gestures (GRGs). And in my subsequent dating life (prior to now husband) I learned that while there are guys out there who do the GRGs, their ‘love’ has typically lacked any substance or backbone and falls apart at the first sign of trouble/difficulty. True love (the Wesley and Buttercup kind) is its own GRG- to me it really means lasting, consistent love peppered with appreciative actions (big or small).

    (Oooh- and “I brought you flours” from Stranger Than Fiction – that counts as an awesome GRG to me!)

    • LMS

      “My own experience has shown me that the kind of person I actually want- the person who shares my values and outlook on life- is not the kind of person who does grand romantic gestures (GRGs).”

      YES. Not to knock people who are into GRGs, but I’ve come to realize that some of the things I love most about my boyfriend are the same things that make him not inclined to make the grand gestures.

    • Agreed. It’s nice to get wistful about the surprise hot air balloom ride, but I bring enough big emotion to a relationship, I’m better suited with my current SO, who brings the calm and steadfastness.

    • I LOVE that part with the flours. The personalization of that was what made it grand. My husband goes to the quilt show with me every year and lets me teach him all about the different patterns and techniques all over again each time. Those small things that show he’s noticed the small things in my life are what matter.

    • Maddie

      You know, the flip side to the GRG (that I didn’t realize until now) is that it also puts a LOT of pressure onto the recipient. I’m in the same boat that I like to think I want fireworks and romance and frankly, I just married the kind of guy who doesn’t really do romantic things. Big or small. Period. I did marry the kind of guy who does really supportive practical things and I have to remind myself that those ARE romantic (like changing my oil, or fixing my computer when I’m crying).

      My father on the other hand IS a GRG kind of guy and it stresses me the EFF out (he knows this). Because let’s be real. If someone does a GRG for you, you better damn well deliver on your response. And for me, that kind of anxiety just isn’t worth it. It’s like getting proposed to all the time. Or that time Miranda faked her sonogram on SATC.

      No. Thank. You.

      I guess it’s just a subtle reminder to myself that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

      • Not Sarah

        Yes! My boyfriend loves doing all of these “guy” things and it drives me nuts. I think it also drives him nuts that I don’t respond very well to receiving flowers and such. The first time he brought me roses, I counted them. He was very confused because apparently he would never buy me any number other than twelve roses? That didn’t even make sense to me, there were more than five, so my instinct is to count them. I don’t really like flowers. They don’t last very long. You have to keep watering them. A kiss will suffice, really. And no, I don’t miss people after like 2 days. I have work and stuff to keep me occupied! I’m my own person!

        I’ve dated guys who do grand romantic gestures and tell you how much they miss you and it drove me crazy and seemed clingy, but I’ve also dated guys who never, ever do grand romantic gestures because it’s simply not in their nature and I like that way better because that’s more me.

      • Sometimes you don’t even realize about the pressure of being the recipient until you’re in the moment. The one thing I told my husband that was important for his proposal was getting down on one knee when he asked me, and I knew that that was the one thing he wasn’t super comfortable with. He did a semi-public proposal in a restaurant and at the moment after he pulled out the ring and before he asked the question he started to make the move to do so … and I totally didn’t let him. Partly because I was more in the moment of saying yes and kissing him, but partly because I wasn’t comfortable with the grandness of drawing attention to what felt like a very private moment with that particular act.

  • Karen

    It takes a long time to learn this lesson. Looking back on former relationships I can see how I really screwed things up by wanting the GRG. I was always analyzing and wanting more. Now that I have a quiet, easy relationship I think this is the best thing since sliced bread! Neither of us have to prove anything. We do small things that help each other out. There is nothing more romantic than making a dinner for my partner that I know she’ll love. And to me there’s nothing more romantic than her keeping up with the dog hair since she knows I’m allergic. Just holding each other, just being together, is enough. We are each learning to be more vulnerable and trusting every day and that is way more important to me than any GRG.

  • Jaya

    It’s so hard to remember this when everything is telling you you need a big moment. Such good words!

    Though, ok I’m sorry to complain, but can we please stop saying it’s a “fact” that men are “clueless”? Generalizing men is just as bad as generalizing women.

    • but can we please stop saying it’s a “fact” that men are “clueless”? Generalizing men is just as bad as generalizing women.

      Very much agree. I’m the “clueless” one in the relationship IMO: I couldn’t tell you our wedding anniversary or any other anniversary for that matter, without having to think pretty hard and cross-reference a written source. I can’t bear Grand Public Gestures and so forget to do things that actually *are* in keeping with our temperaments. My strengths are in money and pragmatism – and sometimes forget that relationships aren’t a clockwork. But I do love and cherish my spouse even if I’m horrible at showing it in ways he would most appreciate.

    • I agree with you on both points, Jaya!

      Needing a moment or a gesture … I can relate and I can’t. I guess what I can relate to is the need for reassurance, just in a different approach :) For me, the insecurities that sometimes crop up are things like “what if his ex was better at ___ than me” or “what if he starts to wish his child had both bio-parents in one household” or other things that, in reality, are not an issue for us – yet they sometimes try to get me anyway.

      Neither of us are “big romantic gesture” people, as far as I know. We’re everyday commitment gesture people and I prefer that. For instance right now he’s on the phone with a mechanic who has messed up my car to the point of needing three timing belts in two years, because he is better at being firm and dealing with that conversation than I am. And I empty the cat box because the smell of it makes him gag. Etc.

      I do cringe at the assumption that “men are ___” (fill in the blank with any generalization and feel free to substitute “women” or any other group of people). I do think it’s a statement that’s commonly made without really realizing how it comes across.

    • You’re right, that generalization is damaging and untrue. Sorry. I included it in the essay (in a kind of tongue-in-cheek way) because it was the #1 piece of advice people would tell me whenever I complained about this (non-)issue to others. The idea that he might not know what I wanted was important, as was the fact that I tried to have conversations with him about it, and those conversations were a bucket of fail. My husband isn’t clueless at all, and in fact the problem was more about me and the terms of our relationship than it was about him not loving me enough or not knowing how to show his love. The issue was that he wasn’t expressing his love in a BIG enough way for me to override the insecurities I had at the time. Now that I’m more secure in myself and in our married relationship, I’m seeing all of the many non-clueless ways he has always expressed his love.

  • So absolutely guilty of this! I’m thinking especially of that scene in 10 Things I Hate About You when Heath Ledger’s character utterly embarrasses himself singing in the bleachers. I wonder how many of these grand gestures would actually make us very uncomfortable in real life? Affirming read. Thank you for sharing!

    • 10 things I hate about you is the best movie ever :)

      • Catherine B

        Are there sheep?

        Love that movie…

    • And doesn’t he give her a guitar at the end of the movie too? As if nonfictional men could compete with Heath Ledger anyway…

  • Oh gosh, this hits so close to home. Whether it’s because of what I’ve seen on TV or just because of who I really am at my core, gift giving (as in sweet little “just saw this and thought of you” gifts and also spot-on Christmas gifts that were just the thing I never knew I always wanted) is my love language and has been my whole life. Eric knows this about me and, like you said, that pressure was hard for him and took all the fun out of it for me. Figuring out how he actually shows his love and feeling confident in it the ways he shows love has definitely been a challenge for me.

    I also feel like the Grand Romantic Gesture of rom-coms and viral videos puts extra pressure on men and women from a social competition “Who is the most loved?” standpoint. When a proposal flash mob or whatever can land a couple on “The Today Show,” it’s easy for people — without even thinking about it really — to just determine that’s the sign of true love in our culture and to treat the smaller, day-to-day displays of love I think most couples experience as somehow not real or “enough.”

    • Rebekah

      Love Languages! Dr Chapman is spot on with that book and it’s seriously changed so many of my relationships. I’m Time and Touch, but my SO is Acts of Service.

    • Yes, you are absolutely right. There was a Valentine’s Day a couple years ago that I still cringe to think about, because my boyfriend (current fiance) didn’t get me flowers, while all of my roommates got flowers and balloons throughout the day from their boyfriends. He had flown in to visit me, but since he didn’t get me a specific tangible gift I was upset. Ugh, I’m still embarrassed with myself when I think about it.

  • Thanks for this great post touching on something that I’ve struggled (and still struggle) with! I’ve been dating my boyfriend for two and a half years and its taken time and lots and lots of conversations to discover that the ways in which he loves me are sometimes different than the scenes that I’ve expected to experience. I’m learning that real partnership is based off a lot more than a grand romantic gesture.

    That said, I think its easy to believe that your partner doesn’t radically love you without those gestures partly because of cultural narratives, but also because trusting someone on that level can be really terrifying (especially if you aren’t sure that they feel similarly, especially if you’ve been hurt before, etc etc.) I suppose that’s where time and conversations come to play

  • Lily B.

    I realized it was love when we had a whole argument on why he thought dish drying racks were stupid (and I thought they were completely necessary), and then when I was out of town he bought me one anyways. Even though he hates it. That’s my kinda GRG!

  • Hannah

    This is so excellent. Especially this: “Is it ridiculous of me that I needed him to make a public vow and sign a paper before I could really feel secure in his love? Absolutely. Someone more well-adjusted and confident, less needy and anxious than I was, someone more skeptical of our cultural scripts should be able to believe in her/his partner without the tangible sign of a ring.” I 100% could have written those words. That insecurity and the ingrained belief that our relationship needs to follow the Big Romantic Gesture narrative was a major factor in how horrible I felt during our “pre-engagement” period. Everyone comes into a relationship with baggage, and mine had a lot to do with a lack of self-esteem and feeling unlovable. I have dealt with these issues throughout our relationship, and it’s gotten better, but I’m sure I will be dealing with these things for many more years still. This post is a great reminder of how easy it can be get on that slippery slope of self-doubt about your relationship, especially if you use rom-coms as your (completely unrealistic) standard.

    • Rebecca

      This is exactly me right now. I’m in the pre-engaged state and yet he just spend thousands of dollars on an antique gun instead of saving for a ring. It’s really getting me down becasue I feel like maybe I’m not really enough for him, when he shows me differently in a hundred ways. This post in general and that line in particular helped me realize I need to chill out and just enjoy the journey. Thanks so much!

      • Adi

        Don’t forget what’s actually important to you, though. If him buying you a ring is something you need to show you he’s serious about you, and it’s something he needs to save for but he’s spending all his money on collectibles.. That might be something to talk about. My ex could spend every moment of every day telling me how wonderful it was, but when I wasn’t around it was out of sight out of mind. He waxed poetic about the amazing engagement we were going to have when he could afford a ring, but he never once went without his own luxuries to try and save. And the ring wasn’t the important part–it was that when it came down to it, he never put me first.

  • I could exactly every sentence of this post. So true and so well-written. It took me a while to see that he shows his love for me through small every day actions, not grand gestures. Words aren’t his thing, but like you said, he stood up in front of our family and friends and declared his love for me at our wedding, which is and will be enough for me. Especially when it’s combined with things like making my coffee if I’m not up yet on a Saturday and taking the creepy bugs outside. We recently started asking each other a set of weekly questions I found through Pinterest and the most interesting to me has been “What made you feel loved this week?” because after more than three years, I’m still not sure what does it for him, beyond making him cookies. It’s been really helpful.

    • Please share the rest of the questions! My husband and I do a daily “What was the best and worst thing about your day?” But I’d love to mix it up, and a weekly thing sounds interesting!

      • 1. How did you feel loved this past week?
        2. What does your upcoming week look like?
        3. How would you feel most loved & encouraged in the days ahead?
        4. How would you best feel pursued in sex / intimacy this week?
        5. How can I pray for you this week?

        Here’s the link where I found them:

  • Pingback: I’m on A Practical Wedding! | MeReader()

  • efletch

    I was in a relationship with a man who was big on grand gestures but you know what else he was big on? Cheating on me. Not to say that every guy who plans big elaborate gestures of love is a cheater but now looking back I can see that those big gestures were not backed up with the little consistent markers of affection that I so treasure in my relationship now. It’s too bad that we are taught to focus so much on the big things and miss seeing all the little things that add up to so much love. My lovely always kisses me goodbye in the morning, calls on his way home from work, knows my preferred brand of toothpaste, and always does the grocery shopping. He may never buy me roses but his everyday actions means so much more.

  • Grand gestures can be a little overrated, day to day kindness is so much more important! Also I love little unexpected surprises. My boyfriend thought the lunch box I took to work was ugly, so he randomly bought me a Portal Companion Cube lunch box from ThinkGeek. He’s also randomly come home with a tiny stuffed Frodo and a tiny stuffed Cthulu and he once saw me eyeing these little Korean dolls online and he surprised me with one of those too.

    I guess what I’m saying here is a) we are huge nerds and b) he has the tiny unexpected gesture NAILED. He can be pretty reticent too (he didn’t tell me he loved me until we’d been dating for over a year for various reasons) but he definitely makes me feel loved and respected and he also jumps up from the couch to help me empty the dishwasher which is nice.

    I’m myself am less good at random little surprises, so for his last birthday I surprised him with a trip to Vegas (he’s a student again so all vacations are likely going to be me-financed for the next few years, but this one caught him 100% off guard it was great). I haven’t done many grand gestures in my life but I’m patting myself on the back for that one. Also for keeping a big secret for three months.

    But the surprise Portal Companion Cube lunch box! That was the best. Small gestures that brighten up an otherwise dull week rock!

    • I was going to be all, “yay nerd love!” but then I went to your website and got supremely distracted because you went to DragonCon and I went to DragonCon and I think I totally saw you when you were dressed up as Melisandre! Awesome! You may have spotted my husband and I around the Whedon track on Sunday dressed as the SQUAT team.

      Annnyway, yes. Tiny daily gestures have become much more important to me than the grand ones, even when it’s just an unexpected hug.

      • Yessssss Dragon*Con (I just tried to go to your website but my workplace blocks tumblr so I’ll have to try later)! I love finding other attendees at random places on the internet. Although I’m trying not to think too hard about it right now because I think that I am not going this year maybe, sniff. It’d be my first time not going since I started going in 2009. I almoooooost told the manfriend that I loved him at my first Dragon*Con when I was liquored up in Steampunk gear, and then I’ve witnessed engagements at the next two, and I almost went to a wedding at this most previous one but I ended up getting caught up in something else (as one does at Dragon*Con). Nerd love forever.

        That Melisandre costume–I loved it, but so not comfortable particularly the neckpiece. If I wear it again I might bring two neckpieces, one that isn’t the full shebang and one with the full shoulders for photos and whatever. I ended up getting involved with a really hardcore costuming group with that costume so I felt like I had to commit.

    • This made me laugh:
      “I guess what I’m saying here is a) we are huge nerds and b)…”

  • AMHM

    I really identify with this post. Letting go of the GRG was one of the major lessons I had to learn in my long relationship with my husband before we were married. It is about letting go of a cultural narrative but it is also about acceptance of the person in front of you. After ten years of dating I wanted the GRG proposal, but when he blurted out the proposal in the car after getting the ring because he was too excited to wait, and the words were “will you have me?” it was perfect, and heartwarming, and steamy all in one, and more importantly it was him, which is what I really loved.

    Great post.

  • daynya

    YES. Yes. Yes, yes yesyesyesyesyesyes. YES. Thank you.

  • amanda

    Yes! And I think it’s worth saying: The grand romantic gesture doesn’t always mean love and commitment and happily ever after either. My dad wrote hundreds of love letters, many in caligraphy with huge declarations of faith and commitment and their marriage ended, leaving those letters as something that just screams LIES to their children. I’ll take the genuine every day work and respect and commitment thank you!

  • It really is the tiny little things that show the love: even if it is taking up vacuuming when he knows it’s not your favorite chore (huge deal) or picking you up from the train station that rainy day when you don’t feel like walking. It took a while to realize (I’ve also been guilty of wanting super over the top love declarations while on a summer vacation sitting at a cafe, eating ice cream) but those “small” things are the actual grand gestures.

  • More and more I think the small romantic gesture is the keystone of romance in marriage. When I think about how my parents are romantic, I think of little things like how my dad will bring home pastries from my mom’s favorite bakery on weekends. They’ve been married over 30 years now and I can’t remember a lot of big movie-worthy gestures, but they’re one of the most stable couples I know. Similarly, I appreciate when I come home after a long day at work and find that my husband has cleaned the apartment on his own (even though we have a couple chore schedule). Incorporating little things into the everyday is worth way more than balloon rides and skywriting.

    • Completely agree. The small and thoughtful gestures — bringing you your favorite dessert after you’ve had a hard day; leaving a note in your bag to cheer you on; having dinner ready to go so you can enjoy a calmer evening together — means more to me than the Grand Romantic Gesture. My parents operate in a similar fashion and have been married 32 years. I can only hope my fiance and I will have a love like theirs!

  • Teresa

    I have had all of these thoughts at some point or another and we’ve discussed all of this–how I wish he was just a bit more gesture-y (I call it thoughtful). Then I read The Five Love Languages, on APW recommendation. I realized my language is acts of service, so no wonder I think doing things for each other shows love–nothing melts my heart more than when my husband takes out the trash without being asked! His language is words of affirmations–he tells me ALL THE TIME that he loves me and feels grateful to have me in his life. I felt pretty silly–how could I not have seen that he loves me, he tells me constantly. He always makes his feelings known by just telling me. We both had to push out of comfort zones to help the other person feel loved, but we really try. When he does something for me, sometimes he will shout, “acts of service!” I am still prone to the grumpy thoughts of can’t he just bring me home flowers everyonce and a while, but reading the Five Love Languages (and glossing over all of the seriously Christian/heterosexual references) has really helped me get a handle on this. Also, as you say, our wedding. Nothing like publicing vowing to choose each other forever…

  • Natalie

    I could say a lot of things about this post. But all I’m going to say is…..THIS IS GENIUS. great writing and exceptional insight.

  • Oh man, it was happy day when I realized getting to spend every day with the woman I adore was worth a zillion of those elaborate romantic fantasies I came up with in my head. Great post.

  • Every year around this time I find myself silently kicking the high school me that still lurks in the back of my brain and wishes someone would buy that teddy bear in the store that’s at least half my size and bring it to me at school with a dozen balloons so that I can haul it around to all my classes all day and everyone will know that I’m loved.

    Because, seriously? Where on earth would we put a bear that big when I brought it home at the end of the day? And how annoying would that be to have that big of a distraction, not just for me but for all the other students and the teacher as well?!

    I’ve gotten over a lot of the other insecurities high school me had, why does that one pop up every year like that? It’s stupid. He loves me. And it’s all the wonderfully seemingly small things that are larger than life in my heart that prove it. I know I’m loved. Why should I care if the “popular” girls at school know it too?

    • THIS. Every year!

      I think it continues to pop up (for me) because it feels so much like this contest that you cannot escape from. Who in the office will get the surprise flowers and then parade them around like a trophy? It makes me want to barf.

      • Corrie

        I feel like Facebook fosters this so much…with people posting their surprise flowers, or engagement rings, or fancy dinners, etc. etc. It’s easy for it to start feeling like a virtual space for everyone to one-up everyone else by showing how much more loved they are (along with the “I have the best __ in the worldddd!!” statuses all the time”)

        • YES! Oh my gosh, I hate the “best __ ever!” posts. I don’t mind people appreciating their partners, but the tone is always so competitive.

          • I also feel semi-creepy when people post things that I personally deem too private to share on the internet. Like a lunch note that a husband wrote to his wife is adorable, but when she posted a pic of it, I felt like a peeping tom. I was looking at something private that I shouldn’t have been seeing.

        • Staria

          I don’t like those statuses either! People always seem so smug doing that – it’s weird to see people congratulate themselves on their great choice of partner or their kids, when really, it all comes down to luck.

          I admit I tend to come back with statuses that emphasise things I have in my life because I’m coupled but essentially single (boyfriend and I live in own houses). Any time I travel, or have a fun night out. Hee hee :)

    • Oh these couple of weeks leading up to the Day of Grand Romantic Gestures certainly does put the pressure up! It’s hard not to want something at least a little grand when everyone around you seems like they’re being given those moments.

      This year we decided to nip the whole idea in the bud by talking about expectations beforehand and what we wanted and needed from the day. So we’re taking a special date night, doing it a little bit snazzier than we usually would, and eliminating all the extras. Since we both know what’s coming and how we’ve decided to celebrate it takes so much pressure off both of us. I’m not going to get geared up expecting things that he’s not going to deliver or feel pressure to come up with something equally impressive, and he knows what I want from him to celebrate.

  • sfw

    “Life is too long and unpredictable…But that’s not a reason to devalue today’s contentment either.” THIS.
    Thank you.

  • Lisa

    Blown away… this was/is exactly me. Beautifully said.

  • Love this. Love love love love this. A million times this.
    You better believe inspecting my disgusting falling off big toenail, internet diagnosing, dragging me to the pharmacy and dropping $20 on over the counter treatment because “babe your foot! Oh no that looks like it hurts!” counts SO MUCH MORE than flash mobs and flowers.

  • Elisabeth

    I think we all keep talking about “letting go of this cultural narrative of the GRG” as if it’s some easy thing you just toss away. Part of the reason why it’s so hard is because there is that question of, “Am I just settling? Am I just explaining all the little things so that I don’t feel so badly that I don’t get the GRG?” There’s a lot of worry in being able to let go of that desire and it should be taken very seriously, not just thrown into the wind. Though some people have mentioned above that the GRG sort of people aren’t always the best, at the same time, you can’t pretend that a lack of it simply means that that one time s/he did your grocery shopping for you counts as a true and total expression of their love. Some people are d**ches and can fake it to get what they want. This is what you have to work through when “letting go” of the cultural norm of romantic gestures.

    • ElisabethJoanne

      For me, it’s about figuring out what I really want, what’s reasonable to ask for, and what my partner can provide. I think my husband and I both go through this process.

      I know, for example, I’d rather have someone who likes taking care of me than someone good at GRG. When the resentment built up with me as the unplanned sole income generator, while still doing half the chores (so he could look for work full-time), I concluded that a “Thank you” for providing the money for rent and groceries was a reasonable thing to ask for. But I also remind myself that due to a mental disability, he’ll never be able to plan a GRG. Likewise, though I think it’s funny to congratulate someone on finishing a list of 4 chores, it’s reasonable for him to ask for the congratulations nonetheless.

    • Adi

      I had one too many relationships where ANY romantic gestures were lacking. There was always a lot of talk and kind words and promises, but there was nothing more, so now the act of buying flowers is important to me simply because it took forethought and effort. Words are easy, and I have a hard time believing them. And I really don’t think that’s too much to ask.

    • I definitely struggled with exactly this issue, and this is probably the main reason why it took me so long to figure this whole thing out. I think it’s super important not to let anyone (including me) talk you out of needing what you need. We can’t let others gaslight us into thinking legitimate needs are extravagant and insane. For example, if you need a ring, you need a f***ing ring. I know I did. If your needs are reasonable (ring=yes, original song broadcast on stadium Jumbotron=no), then I think it’s fair to own them and stand up for them and walk away if they’re not being met. It takes some soul-searching to figure out exactly what your needs are, though, and sometimes you’d be surprised at how little you need from someone else when you’re in a healthy place in your own life.

      The importance of not settling and not talking yourself into being content with an unsupportive or even a ‘meh’ relationship is why I included the section in the third-to-last paragraph about the things that will have to continue to happen in order for me to continue being ok forgoing GRGs. My husband is not ‘off the hook.’ He still has to show me he loves me in the ways that we have discovered work for both of us, and if he doesn’t, I’ll feel unloved and it will be a problem. Because I’ve set that reasonable expectation, I feel like I’m not settling.

      The other way I know I’m not selling myself short is that the fundamentals of our relationship are solid: respect, connection, teamwork, sex, etc. That’s how I know I’m not explaining things away or making excuses for him. I’ve decided not to let the lack of the GRG cause me to doubt or discredit the great thing we have going. If the thing we have weren’t so great, the lack of the GRG would be only the tip of the iceberg.

  • Lydia

    Such a good post to start off rom-com month. I think part of the appeal of romantic comedies is that they — and the GRG within them — are larger than life. The fact is, the day to day reality of being in a healthy, committed, stable relationship (at least in my somewhat limited experience) is, well, kinda boring. No one would pay $13 to watch a movie about a couple where one person makes coffee for the other in the morning so her partner can lie in bed a little longer, or the other always makes sure to pick up his fiance’s favorite chocolates at the supermarket, and they spend the whole movie watching episodes of Mad Men on Netflix. But that doesn’t make it any easier to stop wishes for a GRG — and all the stability and certainty that it (supposedly) represents.

    • ElisabethJoanne

      Except, of course, often in the movies, the partner is doing the coffee-making and chocolate-buying, too, because leading men in Rom-Coms are perfect.

      • Lydia

        Very true. The whole GRG is basically just an off-shoot of the whole fairy tale, knight-in-shining armor thing. Men do the GRG, women sit around and wait…

        • Lately our GRG has just been my Mr. leaving the tea ball in an accessible place so I can have loose-leaf tea in the morning with breakfast (he takes his tea to work), and for me to ensure it is emptied and cleaned and ready for the next use before breakfast tomorrow. It’s simple, yes, but it’s what’s been our gesture lately.

          well, that and him listening to me vent about how crazy wedding planning can be.

  • ElisabethJoanne

    The financial aspects of GRGs always got me. Movies don’t talk about how much it costs to fill an apartment with flowers, or that leaving the big work meeting to make up with your girlfriend can get you fired (and then there’s really no money for flowers).

    • Karen

      I agree. I have very little tolerance for rom-coms because of this aspect. The fact that characters spend money on things that are way outside of what they could actually afford if they truly worked at the jobs they’re supposed to kills me. I just know that’s impossible and it turns me off. Women having no qualms whatsoever buying expensive outfits, men drop huge amounts on meals – who are these people? Craziness.

    • It’s kind of fun how romantic the budget gestures we make in our relationship are.

  • Adi

    My husband and I are both pretty insecure people sometimes, and so we’ve made it a point to make small romantic gestures part of our relationship when words and grocery shopping are not enough. He brings me flowers and candy* when he knows I’m feeling especially down, and I write him lists of why I love him and pick up Starbucks when he’s been crummy. He knows now much I love fresh flowers (especially in the winter when everything is dead dead dead) and I know how he loves overpriced soy lattes. And I know the grand gestures are not for most people, but ever since I accepted that I need small gestures, I’ve been much happier. Some of us need concrete reminders, and because I told my husband in a straightforward way that I do, he has tried harder to provide me with them. It doesn’t make me shallow or needy and it doesn’t mean I want to change him–it just means I had too many relationships where there were always words but never actions, and so I have a hard time believing words alone. So I guess I’d like to remind people that if you need the gestures, that’s okay too.

    * And yes, if he picked me weeds I would love them just as much–it really is just the fact that he was thinking about me when I wasn’t around.

    • Amanda

      I like this. Asking for the small romantic gestures! I don’t think I’ve ever actually *asked*, but I have led by example, with the pay off being exactly what I want/need. For example, every time I head into the kitchen I ask “Can I get you anything?” More often than not, the answer from hubby is “No, thank you.” After sometime of me asking him, he started to ask me! Now that’s not to say it’s totally a conscious decision that he is making, and maybe more just habit because I do it, but it allows me to know he is thinking of me, and that he has my happiness/comfort in thought. Someone above mentioned leaving on the porch light, and also: making the bed, vacuuming when my back is sore, bringing home my favourite dessert, etc…

      Not to say I wouldn’t love a GRG, but it’s not really who he is. I’ll take the everyday small RGs, thankyouverymuch.

      • I melt when my partner makes the whole bed by himself. Sometimes he’ll get lost inside a duvet cover trying to get the damn thing on, so the fact that he wanted to surprise me with a fully made bed? Priceless (literally. it cost him $0 to make the bed.)

  • Hintzy

    Awesome post – I love the mention of “physical evidence” something I’ve noticed and struggled with in the past is the outsiders’ opinions on this one – your coworkers don’t think much of your beau because he hasn’t sent you flowers, or your gradeschool friends don’t take your relationship seriously because he doesn’t do xyz theatrics. Personally I just often care way too much about what other people think, and I’ve noticed they like to use those Grand Romantic Gestures as measuring sticks so thank you for the reality check.

  • Anonymous for now

    I used to think that I needed grand romantic gestures, like flowers or chocolates or the gift of a library. But then, back when my fiance and I were in the early days of our relationship, years before we got engaged, we got into a fight over some emotional baggage neither of us could move past at the time. I’d known for some time that he was my forever person, but I didn’t know if he reciprocated. So in the middle of this awful fight, I sobbed out, “Are you going to break up with me?” and he looked at me like I was crazy and said, “No, of course not.” It wasn’t grand and it certainly wasn’t romantic, at least in the usual sense, but his words – and more, the way he said them – made me realize that he was in for the long haul.

    We’ve had our share of problems to work through, but that was the moment that I realized we were both all in, and I treasure that above any GRG.

    Even a library.

  • I was just writing about this for a different site! My point was that often the things that we see as grand and romantic in movies don’t even translate well to real life and could too easily be seen as creepy or stalker-y if they did. But this is part and parcel of the same thing — the “cultural script we’ve been raised on” (exactly!) versus what makes sense for a real person and couple. It’s so refreshing to see someone addressing this from the inside out, anchoring romance in reality. That the marriage vow is the grandest and most significant of gestures really brings it home, and resonated with me deeply.

    • How I Met Your Mother just did a whole episode about this!

      • JESS

        This is how I feel about Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey too. Those leading men would be slapped with restraining orders in any other world. Let’s not teach our kids that this is what true love looks like.

    • LIZ (SINCE 1982)

      Good lord, yes, so many GRGs would come off as insane outside of scripted entertainment (this classic, anyone?). I think it’s getting harder, though, now that epic flashmob marching band proposals and the like are getting committed to YouTube for posterity – it’s much harder to dismiss as escapism something that demonstrably happened to someone, somewhere, in real life.

  • Ashley

    I’m late in the day but I have to post this anyway because this post IS me. My SO and I have been together 5 years and we recently got engaged. I have struggled for the need for the GRGs throughout the entire relationship and it’s been hard on us. Unfair pressure and expectation on him, crushing disappointment about absurd things for me. I really felt like I was making progress on accepting him for who he was but then along came the proposal. It was low key and so completely us and I was thrilled with it. But then in the weeks following it I began to doubt it, realizing that the proposal was over now and therefore not going to be the GRG that I had been looking for our entire relationship. Apparently asking me to spend the rest of my life with him was simply just not enough – seriously how much more unrealistic can I be! *blushes with shame* So I kept it quiet because really I loved our engagement story and I didn’t want to upset him but silently I was mourning what the proposal could have been. Along comes my 30th birthday and my SO throws me the best surprise party ever. He literally did the whole thing with little help and thought of every little detail. I was blown away. All night every time I saw him, I’d start to cry and hug him and just generally loose it because suddenly my heart believed what my brain had been trying to tell it all along. He does love me, in fact he’s crazy about me. Now I know a surprise party is a GRG in some ways, but it didn’t involve a heart-felt soliloquy about how he would die without me in his life and in a lot of ways, that’s what I had always been waiting for. The party finally found a way into my anxious heart and made me realize that he SHOWS his love in doing things for me not saying words to me. (I’m 99% sure his love language is acts of service – obviously) It’s been a powerful lesson to me and I’ve tried to convey in words (my love language) that I finally get him and that I know how he feels about it. I’m trying to show him that my years of doubting him are over, that I finally really trust his love for me.

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  • Samantha


    The very first paragraph stopped me in my tracks.

    “When my husband and I were dating, I was always trying to figure out how he felt about me. How deep and strong were his feelings? Did he love me like Ron loved Hermione? Like Wesley loved Princess Buttercup? Like Ross and Rachel, or Jim and Pam? His every gesture, compliment, touch was up for interpretation. I became a semiotician of romance, puzzling over the radical lack of meaning in the signs. My journal was a dissertation without a thesis. I knew what I wanted him to mean, but would I just be fooling myself if I believed what he seemed to be saying to me with his actions? To protect myself from heartbreak, I underestimated his feelings at every turn, assuming that he saw our relationship as more temporary than he did, that his feelings were weaker than they were, that he wasn’t willing to make sacrifices for us when he was. In trying to be realistic, I became pessimistic, assuming the worst of the man I was falling in love with in a vain effort to avoid pain.”

    THIS. This right here. This could have been pulled from my own heart.

    It is so strange and comforting to know that even in your most secret moments, there are others out there that share your experiences.

  • Wow, yes completely. Thanks for sharing this and for saying what so many of us are feeling/have felt. However much we consider ourselves feminists/liberated/independent, strong, don’t-need-a-man-to-validate-me women, it can be very easy to fall into these kinds of normative cultural narratives. As others have said, in the long game of love, I think I’ll take small, thoughtful and consistent over the grand romantic gesture any day (even though I sometimes forget this). Thanks for writing!

  • Sarah Cassanego

    I am right with you on every word of this post (as are lots of other people, judging by the comments).

    I also want to give you a big hug, because I recognize in your post a fellow perfectionist:

    “Is it ridiculous of me that I needed him to make a public vow and sign a paper before I could really feel secure in his love? Absolutely. Someone more well-adjusted and confident, less needy and anxious than I was, someone more skeptical of our cultural scripts should be able to believe in her/his partner without the tangible sign of a ring.”

    I have these kind of thoughts so often – I should be (or should have been) more of this, less of that, better, better, better. But remember another key sentence from your post:

    “I feel that my reactions were utterly logical given the cultural scripts I’d been raised on.”

    Exactly. Be kind to yourself (easier said than done, I know) – we’re all susceptible to these cultural scripts because we’re human, not because we’re more or less than we should be.

    Thanks for a great post.

  • Rebecca

    I feel this SO MUCH. Sometimes it is so easy to get caught up in the “he never buys me flowers” thoughts that I forget that he does so much every day to confirm his complete love for me, and for us. I, too, have lusted over the GRG when that is just not in my FH’s nature. At all. His proposal was quiet and private. We were just chatting in our bedroom after dinner when he asked. It was perfect and the only thing that I really needed, but I faced the lack of a GRG when I began to tell everyone. Everyone wanted “the story” and they wanted it to be full of their ideas of romance and excitement. Some people expected him to “top” my sister’s proposal (actual fireworks, in public), but I am ever so glad that our moment was just for us.

  • Liliana

    I have to confess – I’m with an amazing man who does grand romantic gestures, like surprise me with diamond jewelry, and small romantic gestures, like gift me songs on iTunes that make him think of me, all the time – and yet I still don’t feel completely confident in his everlasting love. I say to him every month or so, “but are you *passionately* in love with me? I want you to be passionately in love with me!” I hope the vows (when we get engaged, when we get married) take away my fear too, my periodic and recurring anxiety that he’ll wake up one day and be *meh* about me. My periodic and barely-quelled apprehension that his love will become to just a habit, and it will only be inertia that keeps him with me.

    Anyway, I think you all know this already, but I’ll just underscore it: the GRG is not a panacea.

  • Mira

    You make some excellent points.

    I’ve really started to believe that a lot of our romantic and relationship expectations are derived from pop culture; mainly film and TV.

    What’s more realistic and genuine to most people: a Hollywood-style marriage proposal or an open discussion about it leading to a mutual decision? Does doing the latter mean we love each other any less than a couple whose engagement started with one partner getting “Will you marry me?” in sky writing? No.

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