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.