Better Than You Expected

Prince Charming isn’t really that great, after all.

I am in love, and it is nothing like I thought it would be.

This doesn’t mean I’m unhappy. I’ll spare you the overanalytical details and simply assert that I am wonderfully happy most of the time. That’s not the point.

Society, and women in particular, have been brainwashed with an idea of love that bears only a passing resemblance to real-life love. Think about it. You probably won’t have to think really hard, especially at this time of the year, when Hallmark and other marketing geniuses plot to instill the idea that “showing you love her” equates to “spending lots of your money on” gushy cards, stuffed teddy bears, elaborate boxes of chocolate, and diamond anything. We’ve always been taught that trying to buy someone’s love is impossible, right? But Zales commercials basically argue that that’s an antiquated, overly moral notion.

Meg Ryan movies teach us the course of true love: You meet, you take an instant dislike to one another based on a bad first impression, you spar charmingly, you grudgingly start to admit that you sort of like each other, you kiss, you admit you’ve fallen for each other, something goes horribly awry, you find out it was all a mistake, someone apologizes, and then you live happily ever after. (In fact, romance novels are quite similar, except the woman is nearly always a virgin and the sex is described in detail as involving fireworks, cloudbursts, explosions, etc., for both parties.)

Romantic comedies have clear origins in fairy tales. And, if you stop to consider fairy tales, is it any wonder that women have unrealistic expectations of romance? Practically from birth, we’ve been taught to sigh dreamily at the idea of a perfect, handsome prince who falls in love with a low-born beauty and saves her life with a single kiss. That’s got to be one amazingly good kiss.

Romantic ideals are everywhere, every day. Songs assault us with lovesick men proclaiming their affection in forthright terms of forever, à la “I Will Always Love You” or being spontaneously thoughtful, à la “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” Everything from wine to frozen-food commercials is based on picturesque, romantic dinner-for-two rendezvous. The newest TV fad, reality dating, showcases fairy-tale-quality dream dates arranged (and paid for) by the networks.

But what relation does romance have to love? Do women really want romance to the degree we’re barraged with it by pop culture? What if your prince is more of a pauper? What if your knight in shining armor is a tiny bit tarnished?

Romance isn’t love. Being in love has slowly but surely, with some arguing and frustration along the way, taught me that. When I think of “love,” I don’t think about swoon-worthy love letters or perfect presents anymore (okay, at least not most of the time). I think about the sort of things that might seem mundane, and probably are, to people who aren’t in my relationship: How cute he looks while sleeping, how he can purposely provoke me in four seconds flat and then make me laugh approximately three seconds later, how he randomly offers to make me omelets sometimes, how he carries my groceries for me. I don’t often describe him as sweet and romantic, but I do describe him as supportive and funny and infuriating. And I’m pretty sure that this can be applied to other people’s relationships, too.

A friend of mine once dated a guy who was the “perfect” boyfriend. He showered her with attention and affection. He left her cards and notes and poems proclaiming his love. He bought her flowers and took her out for dinner at the slightest provocation, on “monthaversaries” as well as anniversaries. We, as her girlfriends, were totally envious. We drew comparisons to our own boyfriends’ behaviors, with the latter coming up unfavorable.

But when we really thought about it, much to our own surprise, we decided we wouldn’t actually want someone who was that romantic. It sounds good in songs, it looks good in movies, and it reads well in a romance novel, but in real life — well, we didn’t think we’d really appreciate it. Being inundated with romance every day makes it become sort of — unromantic. It ceases to be special or meaningful.

When you get down to it, flowers and flowery declarations of love aren’t the important stuff, no matter what the marketing geniuses would have us believe.

So, if romance isn’t the most realistic and necessary part of a relationship, what is the point of Valentine’s Day? Is it even remotely positive? Men generally hate it. It’s the day when they frequently, despite their best intentions, do or say the wrong thing because (alas!) they lack the ability to read minds. It’s the day when they are mass-forced to deal with their girlfriends’ expectations of romance. Can you blame them for complaining about it?

I won’t lie to you, Gentle Reader. Recently (like yesterday), I had a conversation with two girl friends about our ideal Valentine’s Day presents. I am not completely rehabilitated. I still want half a dozen red roses and a love letter. But you have to pick your battles. I think it’s okay to expect romance once a year.

And I don’t want red roses, love letters, and a romantic dinner rendezvous complete with a strolling jazz quintet. (This is about learning to be realistic, after all.) Plus, should I not be on the receiving end of those things come February 14, I will not pout or glower.

Because the best lesson that love has taught me is that, sometimes, what you get is even better than what you expected.

Article © 2003 by Jessica Emanuel