a romantic man

It's not what you look at which matters

There’s no such thing as a romantic man.

However hard we try to conjure him up. We’ll write him into novels, films and our darkest noir erotic fantasies. We want him alright.  God we want him. But the most romantic part is that we can’t have him. He’ll always be the one on the horizon, never stacking the dishwasher after dinner.

To the man reading this, I know you are the exception; you couldn’t live without romance and I so like that about you. But on the whole, we women are blind to the true romance of men’s nature, it’s invisible to us.  Although sometimes we’re able to catch a glimpse of it in our romantic encounters.

Caught in a sudden torrential downpour she runs into the tiny Izakaya under a Tokyo bridge and orders a sake mojito. The place is set in grey concrete. The lantern outside is dingy, a faded red.  He arrives only minutes after her, softens inside as he sees her still dishevelled from the rain, flustered. He doesn’t know she’s lost the precious moments she was looking forward to, the pleasurable agony of waiting for him. Their eyes meet and everything slows and at the same time bursts brilliantly into life. They can’t breathe. Out of the corner of her eye she is miraculously able to track the progress of a single glistening raindrop as it splashes into a puddle.  Eyes locked, her heart expands with inexplicable happiness, blossoming wide open to let in the radiance of his energy. Outside, time ceases.  For the man in the dark overcoat hunched over his drink, it’s a dreary night;  the storm’s held him up, he’ll be home late and his querulous wife won’t give him any peace.  But for them, the lantern outside glows crimson, charging the rainy night alive with sorcery.

While they are talking, an entirely other conversation is happening between their hands.  Words blur and hum in their ears, their real attention is focussed on the tips and lengths of his fingers as they stroke her hand, he’s breathless at the touch of her exquisitely attentive fingertips exploring the soft naked places between his fingers. They can hold hands like this all evening and never grow tired of it – that’s romantic.

There’s the first kiss, fiercely sexual, hungry, searing and bone-melting, maybe. But if it’s romantic it will barely be there, yet still feel like a momentous meeting of souls through the soft tender agency of lips.

All these words. Romance is love in the language of symbols.  Which is of course the poet’s arena – we have our favourite lines the best of which pierce our defences with heart-excavating exactitude. Unable to bear the intensity of our own encounters, we spy through poetry’s keyhole instead hoping for perspective.  But there’s no relief to be found here.  If anything, it strips your eyes naked with its over-dazzling images of new-found love, love lost and perhaps most painful of all, love in limbo with no place to go. Now you have to see what you pretend you don’t already know to be true.  And it’s delivered with more kick and a whole lot more burn than if you’d been left to your own inarticulate bumbling about.  How else to explain the uprooting jolt of melancholy in such lines as:

The piers sadden when the afternoon moors there.
My life grows tired, hungry to no purpose.
I love what I do not have.

(Pablo Neruda – Here I love you)

And what can signal romance more soulfully than music?  Our lives are studded with soundtracks announcing the arrivals and departures of those we once loved. Who has not been taken elsewhere by a song, an aching refrain, a haunting of the past that reverberates in the body long after the last note has sounded. We can’t help but resonate with our own memories when music plays them back to us.   I hear an orchestra tuning up and she appears instantly; the girl I used to be in another time, another place.  And there is an even greater romance in making music with another. For then each shared note becomes a touch,  harmonies weave and breathe together, sound becomes sensation we melt into as something greater than we know how to properly hold is being made between us. Love.

Romance inhabits the memory of times and places. “the first time we ever…” and “where we once…”  It lives in the symbols of time spent together. I know of a man who left a brand new dish-washing brush in a tree outside his girlfriend’s house.  A romantic gesture?  She happens to be particular about her dishwashing tools – liking them to be clean and fresh and not grungy-looking.  It’s the queen in her.  Leaving that brush for her was paying homage to her queenliness yes, but even more deeply it said “I know you. I know you in your greatness, but I also know you in your small ways. And I love and appreciate it all.”  It made her smile. It made her feel seen and known in an unmistakeably romantic way.  A dish washing brush as romantic artefact! Who would have thought it?

So often the romantic gestures of men go unnoticed by the very women they are aimed at.  I love men, their passionate can-do-ness, their inspired testosterone drive that longs to create something special for their beloved no other can.  I’ve seen men build fires and furniture, write love songs, verses and paint pictures,  grow gardens, trees and families, make cups of tea and hot water bottles all all all for their beloveds. To impress them, cherish, move them.   And we women?  How often we find fault.  The new table wobbles, the cup of tea grows cold, the poetry is dismissed as sentimental twaddle and we refuse to be impressed. I’m as guilty as any.

My mother acknowledges romance exists, but says it has no endurance.  Romance in a man, she declares, is A Limited Edition. In other words a hard-to-find rarity and short lived.  It‘s why we say “the romance has gone” when a relationship goes stale, when life with the other person becomes predictable. I can’t agree it’s impossible to keep a space always open for romance, but there’s something real she points to nonetheless – its fleeting evanescent nature.  Romance isn’t meant to be sustainable. It’s necessarily of the moment – anything else and it would become an institution. Like marriage.

A man whose thoughts I value says romance is being able to see the other in their highest state, see the star of their best selves shining through the cracks of their flaws and foibles. It’s how we’re able to worship and adore someone when others see only their ordinary humdrumness.  But more than anything, he says, romance lives in the mystery of the other. For with mystery, there is the unknown and within the unknown winks the glint of danger. It could be a blade, but also a jewel. It’s the thrill of risk that is so arousing, the smell of something hidden and alluring that propels us trembling into desires we haven’t yet met.  And here is the erotic dilemma. For paradoxically, as another man who is a friend tells me,  there is the magical romance of true deep intimacy, the willingness to be vulnerable and open as one shares one soul, heart and body with another –so becoming known.  Love, says Esther Perel in Mating in Captivity wants closeness.  Eros and romance thrive on distance. I can’t yet see a way to live in the tension of that paradox except through believing we can never fully discover another’s essential mystery.

What I know now is we’re looking for the wrong thing when we seek a romantic man. We’re hooked on the artificial version, the one that lives in the MSG-clogged sensory-overload of the shopping mall culture like a snack bar; always available at a price, always leaving us dissatisfied and wanting more.  Make no mistake, romance is nourishment, it’s soul-food and we shouldn’t live without it.  But we’ve been raised on a junk diet concocted in a consumer-culture lab;  we no longer recognise romance unless it comes wrapped in American Swiss advertorial and the soft-focus lens of the corner candle-lit table for two.

Now I’m not knocking candle-lit dinners for two. I’m a sucker for them – which just goes to show.   But real romance is found in the most ordinary of moments if your eyes have the heart to see it.  For then what appears mundane becomes exalted:  a piano spilling out a swelling river of emotion as you walk past an open window, an unexpected glance of appreciation from a stranger as you step off the bus at dusk,  a recklessly tender kiss on an escalator.  No, it’s not just in the tickets for two to Paris. Nor in the arrival of 48 red velvet roses hiding a diamond bracelet.  That’s commonplace, not just in its execution but in its currency as the romantic ideal. There is more romance to be found in the everyday than you know.  It’s not what you look at which matters so much as how you see it.

I know the archetype of the lover slips readily enough into the hearts of men, but men fear the scorn of women. The romantic man we expect them to live up to does not exist. But there are men who know how to speak the romantic tongue of symbol and mystery with genuine sincerity, giving their unpredictable gifts in ways that need only our recognition.  I love a man who can do that.

Finally though, while the glow of romance is unmistakable when you step into its tingling aura, it’s impossible to put your finger on it. I just tried; it dissolves and vanishes under scrutiny. And I’m glad of it.  How it holds its own mystery intact.


15 thoughts on “a romantic man

  1. And then there’s this: “There is a surprising correlation between safety and romance. When we’ve asked women what men do that makes them feel safe, their answers have been the same as when we ask them what they think is romantic! Classic example, when a man puts his hand in the middle of a woman’s back as they cross the street. This is why listening to a woman ‘empty her basket’ is often all the foreplay she needs. Because being listened to makes us feel connected, and connected equals safe.” – Alison Armstrong


  2. This was fascinating — I loved how you managed to go back and forth between narrative and editorial modes. Just wonderful writing. Romance is a strange concept, and I think you’ve nailed it on the head in many ways. I have tried to be romantic, and have always thought of myself as romantic, but then I remember going through a phase where I was trying to “FIGURE OUT JUST WHAT EXACTLY WOMEN WANT” (a Quixotic quest, to be sure) and ended up becoming a caricature of a romantic man, rather than a sweet, truly thoughtful human being. Everything was huge gestures, and I set the bar so high (both for myself and for the woman I was trying to woo) that I realized that I could never measure up to the grand romance of it all, and when I was finally exhausted, so, too, was the relationship.


    • Thank you. For your lovely comment. It’s been a fascinating process writing this piece because at every opportunity in the last couple of weeks I’d ask men what they thought about romance and if they thought they were romantic. Without fail, every single one of them would suddenly go shy on me,check me out sideways to see if I was serious, lean in and say: “you know, I actually am romantic” as if they were confessing to something noble on the whole but with a touch of dodge about it. And then it was mostly followed with a kind of wistful disclaimer “but I’ve given up because no matter what I do….” One man said he was too afraid to even admit to being romantic for fear of women laughing at him for being – exactly as you say – a caricature. I’m sorry you got exhausted. I want to say don’t give up.


  3. Wow…very nice! I remember i once broached this very subject with my lady-friend. It’s kind of comforting to know that at least one apparently enlightened woman out there so very intimately understands the near insurmountable challenge that “conventionally” expected wisdom on romance places on the humble man!
    “So often the romantic gestures of men go unnoticed by the very women they are aimed at…”: By your logic guys like me are hopeless romantics…else we go on being chastised as “romantically hopeless”.
    Much appreciated 😀


  4. “Love…wants closeness. Eros and romance thrive on distance.” This made me sad. I am attempting to articulate why in words. I think because for me, love, eros, revealing, safety, respect, kindness, and communication are all hopefully woven together into *intimacy*. When I think of romance, perhaps I think of a performance–an impression–a wooing. When I think of intimacy and love as I have defined it, I think of a created world of privacy, transparency, honesty, and communication of all of these things in whichever love language is natural and received most clearly. In essence, perhaps what I am trying to say is that intimacy is about the ceasing to perform and the risk to be–while in the presence of another worthy of the same. When I think about romance alone, I think about the “doing” and not the revealing if that makes sense.

    But I want to be clear about two things lest all that I have said above sounds annoyingly wistful: First, I believe that we can be romantic, intimate, loving, respectful, safe, affirming, etc. with OURSELVES. I think we are such a gift to ourselves and this is a very new concept to me. I am fairly open on my blog about healing from an eating disorder. One of the greatest lines that has struck me was a simple title to a chapter in a book I was reading: I “deserve a kitchen table.” This was powerful because I did not realize that I could indeed make a meal, light a candle and sit down and DESERVE the food and my affirmation of the meal, my life, my enjoyment, myself. So, I think it can be with life. (on the good days or the days when it just happens to fall in a good direction..ha)

    Secondly, I do want to articulate that in the “created world” of intimacy, this IS DONE AS MUCH IN CONFLICT AND IN SAFELY RECOVERING FROM CONFLICT as in the random walks on the beach (side note: i would italicize for emphases rather than the scary all-caps, but the reply is not working with me here on italics).

    Indeed, Partner Dylan and I have had (and have!) some knock down drag outs when it comes to hurt feelings, poor communication, the intended love getting tangled in translation, and the average too-cruched-for-setting-good-priorities days. As painful as these conflicts have been, the willingness for mutual transparency, apologies, the setting and clarification of new priorities, and the washing of tears have revealed as much of our hearts (and hurts) as the damn calamari at my favorite restaurant 🙂 (however for anyone reading, I want to be clear that no matter how intense conflict can be—it NEVER should include violence—physically, verbally, or emotionally–ground rules for kindness and time-outs should always be pre-reques. set up before conflict). Just wanted to get the violence piece straight lest anyone think we try to kill each other and then call a truce—no way. 🙂

    I had never thought before about articulating romance as you have done here. I am going to talk it over with Partner Dylan to get his take too 🙂 Blessings to South Africa today. -Cassandra


    • Thank you Cassandra, you speak with perfect clarity. In Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel is supportive of monogamous relationships. Her book – based on extensive experience with her clients – is about her observations on how love (and exactly that kind of beautiful intimacy you describe that we long for) isn’t the right environment for eros and romance (which we also yearn for) to thrive in. Because the erotic requires distance and separateness. So one example she gives is how much more sexually attractive our partner looks to us when we see him/her engaged in something they’re passionate about but is completely separate from us. You see your partner across a room talking animatedly to a group of people who are all listening with fascination – and your partner becomes charged with “interest” for you. A very different kind of interest from the warm, bonded, heartfelt interest you feel when you listen to him or her share about the difficult day they’ve just had. Which one is more erotic? Which one is love? Perel says you absolutely can have both but you need to know how. This is the misery of so many long term relationships – that while there is love, warmth, emotional attachment the erotic charge has gone. We fail to find our partner mysterious or enticing any longer. Perel is convinced and has evidence that it can all be turned around.

      But what I found so interesting is your idea of romance as “performance” and I think you touch on something here – something about romance being about surface, not depth. It has that illusory, magical quality about it that bewitches. It is the “sparkle” of life, not the deeper content of it. And I think we need both. And yes, I love that line “I deserve a kitchen table” and everything you’ve said around it.

      I think conflict is essential if a relationship is going to have any depth and resilience. Because it’s in our differences that we can learn about our shadows and blind spots. The other holds up a mirror to show us what we can’t see by ourselves. That’s where the commitment lies of course – in the willingness to really ENGAGE (italics, not CAPS!:-)) in the entanglements and go through the process of unravelling – that’s love. (I don’t mean just going round and round in the same cycle of argument and conflict – that’s boring and hopeless!) And as with all things, it’s the how of it – how we go about navigating our conflicts without violence that matters.

      Whew! No idea I was going to be saying all this so early in the morning! Thank you Cassandra. I really value you being here …


  5. Okay. I’ve read this five times throughout the course of the day and evening… I really like it, even if it’s challenging (mostly to my ego). And each pass through finds me agreeing with you more and more. I may have more questions the more I come back and read – and, truly, it’s all very fascinating to me for reasons I haven’t fully identified yet. Maybe I have a real sense of being close to learning something here that I should have learned a long time ago… So, as a willing student, though not without the fear of suddenly finding myself convicted over something, and at the risk of me appearing really thick between the ears…, could you clarify the following statement?: “there are men who know how to speak the romantic tongue of symbol and mystery with genuine sincerity, giving their unpredictable gifts in ways that need only our recognition. I love a man who can do that.” What is this “romantic tongue of symbol and mystery with genuine sincerity” you speak of? (It’s 10:30 PM as I write this. If none of that makes sense, I wouldn’t be surprised. Sorry.)


    • Well Ghost, I’m not sure why you feel it’s challenging to your ego because if anything, this piece is in praise of men [smile] What I wanted to convey is that men ARE able to be romantic through the symbolic languages of poetry, music, gifts, acts of love and so on – but women sometimes don’t recognise them because they’re not delivered in the packaging they’re expecting – the Grand Romantic Gesture. Often it’s in the small things men do for women that we just overlook and dismiss. But you know, this all comes out of my wider observations about how difficult and complex relationships seem to be. (a subject that’s endlessly fascinating to me!) And if I didn’t convey my appreciation for men in this piece then I didn’t quite do my job and I’VE got something to learn here! [smile] Overall though, this piece was prompted by a friend asking a question about the nature of romance and I enjoyed the process of finding out what I really thought through writing about it. It took me into the sensations of romance, it’s symbolic and ephemeral nature, how it can make the ordinary seem extraordinary but finally how impossible it is to pin down. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment so in depth.


      • I should have put a smiley face after my “ego” comment, sort of in reference to the opening line (big smile), haha! BTW, I really did like the break for the rainy night story that takes place in the middle. That was a great visual journey you painted there, and it was quite…exciting…, the way you described the play of their hands…(!) / I think you did an excellent job with this post as always (so much so that i want to read it again) and thank you for this response. – You know how I love the dialogue ! 😉 ~ Bill


      • Thank you Bill.Sometimes one is privileged to catch a 30 second glimpse into other people’s lives and depending on the mood or atmosphere instantly “see” a story…which may be true only for that moment.

        Which is another thing about romance and life in general – how much we try to make it hold its shape when we like how it happens in a particular way. But it’s always dissolving into a new and different form.


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