So What Is Romance, Anyway?

Scientific surveys of love are odd beasts. Take the recent Psychology Today survey, conducted by Dr. Gwedolyn Seidman, that considered the idea of romance. According to a set of data called the “Romantic Beliefs Scale,” based on a questionnaire distributed to both genders, men are “more romantic” than women. That criterion Seidman uses to define romanticism is that love should be the driving factor in choosing a partner. “People with a highly romantic view of love believe that their love will be perfect and that each of us has one true love,” she writes. “[Women] are more likely to feel that love should develop slowly and to be cautious before jumping into a relationship, a less romantic attitude.”

But this study, though Seidman’s methods are sound, is necessarily flawed. Because unlike something like atmospheric pollution or tree trunk circumference, measuring what is and is not romantic is a subjective matter. “Romantic” suggests an idealized view of love, and, no surprise, ideals vary. The grand gesture, the roses everywhere, the skywriting, the profession of love in a crowded room, those are the things that we point to as examples of romance. Those things are great, and I’m not knocking them. But not all women think that a bathtub filled with chocolates is the ultimate expression of emotional connectedness. The way that women think about relationships and expect to be treated in them has evolved, and with them our expectations for what romance means.

And there is a crucial difference between romancing someone and romanticizing them. Men who romanticize women are not necessarily doing women any favors. It isn’t the difference between a relationship that’s coldly pragmatic and one that’s bubbly, optimistic, and full of joy. It’s the difference between getting to know someone as a person and assuming you know a person based on your idea of them. Romantic, in the context of rom-coms often means not taking no for an answer or continually hoping to impress someone with larger and more intricate schemes. But in real life, romance resides as often in smaller, more intimate things.

Take a classic romantic scenario: The marriage proposal. Little girls are raised on a certain idea of what it should be: An amazing surprise, perhaps involving a hot air balloon and a fancy meal, a moment of welcome joy. When I was young, I asked my parents about their engagement story, how it all went down. My mom shrugged and told me that it wasn’t really a question: She and my dad had talked about it and decided that it was what they wanted, and then they got a ring. At the time, I was sorely disappointed. Where was the fanfare? The fireworks? The choir of beagles trained to bark in time to “L-O-V-E?”

But now, thanks to the padding of a handful of relationships of my own and a couple years, I think that the way that my parents got engaged is the most romantic thing ever. It was a decision they both made, something that they considered together and chose to do. Everyone wants a little razzle-dazzle now and then—I’m not telling you that I turn down flowers—but the thing that I think of as really romantic is having someone see you as you really are, not just their idea of you, and wanting to be with you all the same. Real romance is the substance, not the sideshow. So are men more romantic than women? It depends on how you look at it.

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