Fifteen years ago, I found myself in a romantic pickle: Cheryl, a woman I had been dating for about three months, was nearing her 25th birthday. The birthday gift in any three-month-old relationship is a dicey one, and I deliberated over it for weeks.
Too big too soon and it could look like I was trying too hard. Too little and I might appear indifferent. Too romantic and I'd run the risk of setting the bar too high.
And so it was with great enthusiasm that I finally unveiled the gift. It was heavy — about 8 pounds. And big — the size of a bowling ball. In fact, as Cheryl discovered after excitedly tearing off the wrapping paper, it was a bowling ball. And not just any bowling ball, but a blue, personalized bowling ball ("The Spanker," the twin to the 12-pounder I had bought myself: "The Wanker"). And the pièce de résistance: Both balls came in matching brown pleather bags.
Hoisting the ball onto her lap, Cheryl turned to me. I saw several emotions pass across her face: shock, confusion, profound disappointment, then her dawning realization that how she responded to this present — this idiotic present — might well determine the fate of our relationship. She looked down, collected her thoughts, and raised her eyes to mine. "I love it!" she lied. "Let's go bowling tonight!"
Four years later, despite the bowling ball, Cheryl consented to marry me — and we have lived happily ever after. (And, yes, we still have the balls, and the pleather bags, and we bowl about as much as we did in the first three months of our relationship, which was almost never.) In fact, it could be argued that the success of our marriage owes, in part, to that very moment. Because on that day (and many, many days thereafter) my wife made a conscious choice: to see my hapless effort at romance not as a personal affront but as a love note written by a man in his own foreign language.
"Men do affection in ways that are not easily recognizable to women," explains couples coach Warren Farrell, Ph.D., author of Why Men Are the Way They Are. "The fundamental difference is that men tend to do, and women tend to talk — and much gets lost in translation. He feels frustrated, misunderstood; she feels like he just doesn't care. If you can learn to read the signals he's trying to send, however, he's going to feel like his method of loving is being appreciated. He'll probably feel like a good person. And then he'll be more open to hearing something else — like how he could be even better." The point is, once you recognize your guy's less-than-smooth gestures as the clumsy signs of affection they are, you'll probably realize that he is grateful for you in more ways than you ever knew.
So how, exactly, do we big dunderheads express our love for you? Let us count the ways.
The Mating Game
To quote Cool Hand Luke (it's a guy thing), "What we got here is ... failure to communicate" — a disconnect sown by the fact that men start lying from the moment we meet you. (Lying might be too strong a term. It's more like acting, or attempting to play the part of someone you might actually want to sleep with.) "A man is playing a role in the beginning of the relationship; so is the woman," Farrell says. "Eventually he acts more naturally — in ways that he never would on the first date — and it's hard for women not to end up feeling unappreciated."
Indeed, most guys will admit that during "the chase," we'll bend over backward to act all lovey-dovey, just the way you seem to like it. It's not as if sending flowers, cuddling on the couch, or tolerating your friends are natural acts for us. And once the chase has slowed to a crawl and we revert to our natural monosyllabic ways, your previously exceeded expectations suddenly go unmet.
As proof of this mating ritual, we offer Rob, 45, a shoe designer in Boston. "I've been married for 20 years now," he says. "And when we were first dating, I suppressed even the smallest burp. But familiarity breeds comfort, and these days I might show my love by, say, not closing the door of the bathroom while I'm using it. That's a married guy's way of saying, 'I love you so much that I'm opening up my entire world to you, even my most intimate moments.'"
Okay, so it's hard to call that a love note, per se. Regardless, while familiarity may breed many things, romance is clearly not one of them. Daylle Deanna Schwartz, a couples counselor and author of All Men Are Jerks – Until Proven Otherwise, knows the pattern well.
"I once dated a guy who repeatedly sent me flowers — until the first time we had sex. And then never again," she says. "Then one day he came to my place with a bag from The Home Depot, and he said, 'I bought you something because I care about you.' Inside was a water filter. He said, 'I'm going to install it on your sink, because I heard on the news that there was a lot of lead in the water, and I want to protect you.' And I did see that as an act of love. Although I still wanted the flowers."
"I sent my wife daffodils, her favorite, in our first month of courtship. And I still do it! I'll often give her flowers when she finishes a big work assignment, just because I care." — David Tessendorf, 40 Pearl City, IL
It's the Thought That Counts ... Right?
Which leads to the next great romantic failing of man: Guys give lousy gifts. You know it. We know it. That checkout guy at The Home Depot knows it. Given this, perhaps it's worth viewing any gift we bestow as a symbol of great love — not in spite of the fact that the gift will be terrible, but because we know the gift will be terrible.
"For most women I know, the ability to conjure innovative gifts seems innate. When my wife gives me things, I am almost always astounded at her creativity," says Brian, a 35-year-old copy editor in Brooklyn, NY. "By contrast, my presents tend to be of the 'Here's a cheap box of DVDs that won't even work in your home player' variety — poorly conceived, politely received, and then discarded and seldom thought of again. I try; I honestly try. But every piece of tacky jewelry and so-wrong-it-hurts item of clothing I've ever given her only confirms that gift-giving is just one of those things I am terrible at. On the upside: To avoid embarrassment, I have perfected the art of the special-occasion dinner out. It's an easy one to nail on the head."
The problem is, we really don't understand what you want. Most guys want practical gifts — a router, a power saw, a 10-pack of replacement spools for his Weed Eater. For the life of us, we can't understand why you would need another pair of earrings when you already have several hundred that can do the trick. (An Ipsos Insight survey of 1,000 Americans ages 18 and older found that jewelry was the second most requested gift by women but only fifth in terms of what men planned to give.)
"The big issue is that women are always looking for the greater significance in men's actions," says Schwartz. "And when he does get something that we're proud of, we can impress our girlfriends: He bought me jewelry, or he took me out to a romantic dinner. They're tokens of affection, and the more things we can hold up as symbols of his devotion, the better we feel: Oh, he bought me this, which shows how much he loves me. Deep down we might appreciate a less-than-perfect gift, but still, we're thinking, How am I going to explain this bowling ball to my girlfriends when they ask what he gave me for my birthday?"
Which brings us to the lingerie.
Perhaps the most controversial of all man gestures, the giving of lingerie is an enigma wrapped inside — well, not a lot of fabric. The Ipsos survey mentioned above found that 22 percent of men give lingerie for Valentine's Day, yet only 2 percent of women want to receive it. Lord knows, all you're thinking when you open the box and dangle these doilies by the spaghetti straps is, Does he seriously expect me to spend the 20 hours on the StairMaster it will take for me to even consider wearing this?
Understand, though, that when men buy you lingerie, it's not at all meant as some kind of triple-dog-dare. It's our way of saying, "I think you're every bit as sexy as the mannequin I saw in the store window on the way home." (And c'mon, have you seen the mannequins they have these days? That's about as high as a compliment gets.) This, at least, is how Benson, a 34-year-old computer engineer from Seattle, sees it.
Benson and his wife, Lisa, a yoga instructor, have been married for eight years. During that time, Benson says, Lisa's supply of white cotton underwear — what he refers to as her "Eastern Bloc underwear" — had reached Stalinist proportions. "Lisa's a beautiful woman," he says, "but somewhere between clothed and naked, I would find myself facing a brunette potato farmer. So I started buying her lingerie in earnest so she would have underwear on par with her own beauty."
Today, Lisa owns roughly one set of lingerie for every day of the month. And while she might have been somewhat apprehensive at first about this spate of skivvies — fearing that every garment required a Jenna Jameson-like act of appreciation — she now sees the overflow of underthings for what it is: a Shakespearean sonnet writ in silk.
"For her birthday right before we got engaged, I told my now-wife, Kathryn, that my gift for her was expensive and indestructible. It was a KitchenAid mixer. I don't remember if I wanted her to think it was a diamond ring, but the fact that she saw the humor in the situation is surely a sign of love." — John Heetderks, 32, Germantown, MD
"I've never bought my sweetie lingerie because I think she likes picking out things that she believes I'll enjoy — and rightly so! That said, I just love being with her — wearing lingerie or not." — Peter Bonilla, 47, New York City
What, This Isn't a Date?
So now you know why your man gives such bad gifts. But why does he plan such horrible dates? Or, more to the point, why do his dates always involve Domino's pizza and Kickboxer 3 on pay-per-view?
"Look, I've interviewed hundreds of men for my books," Schwartz says, "and they're all extremely clear on this point: Guys just want to connect with their woman doing something that they love. It's basically an organic process for them. It's like, What would I enjoy? Oh, Thai food sounds great! And what about a movie and some beer? Wow, perfect evening! And who can I share this perfect evening with? My lady, of course! Your guy knows what he likes, and if he can experience those things with the woman he loves, he's happy." So you see, we're lazy ... because we love you!
Take the tale of Brian and Sarah, and the spring, seven years ago, when she moved in. "I've always been a bit of a homebody," Brian says. "So I was skittish about letting her know that, for me, a good time often meant staying in and watching sports. I loved her enough, though, to want to share my great passion with her. Besides, one of the things I like about sports on TV is that it lets you carry on a conversation — you could even call it couples therapy." Today, they're happily married with a 2-year-old son, and Sarah loves baseball — and the Yankees — every bit as much as Brian does. Which is either a testament to the power of manly love or a classic example of Stockholm syndrome.
And while we're on the subject of dates, let me put this plainly: Your man might moan, might whine, might flee to the restroom 14 times — but the mere fact that he agrees to go with you to any type of chick flick should always be seen as the gargantuan male sacrifice that it is.
"Believe me," says Rob, "any man who's willing to do this is merely doing it to show his woman how much he loves her. And if he is willing to do this for you, rest assured, he must really, really love you."
"I grew up with three sisters, so I enjoy doing things with my wife that other husbands might not — like talking about how we want to furnish our house. But as for movie night, I'd much rather see Transformers or Star Trek than some romantic comedy." —George Lee, 37 Dallas
We Fix Because We Love
Warren Farrell has started or led, by his count, more than 390 workshops with lovelorn guys, making him a veritable Wikipedia of the various ways guys try to put the man in romance: "Taking out the garbage. Fixing your computer. Working on the taxes. Driving on the vacation. Setting up the campsite. Carrying things from the car. Researching the best new portable barbecue thingy. These," Farrell points out, "are how a man says, 'I love you.' Actions, for men, speak far louder than any words."
Indeed, men learn early on that the shortest way to a woman's heart is always through doing. Whether it was the fact that you let Jimmy Pierson get to first base just because his fort on the playground was bigger, or how often you fell for the guy who gave you a lift to class or helped you lug your 100-pound suitcase into your third-floor walkup dorm room, males know that action is your aphrodisiac.
"The way a man learns to get a woman's love is by doing, not by thinking," Farrell explains. "So when women make long to-do lists and her guy crosses items off them, what he's really doing is saying he loves you." Now, that's not to say he never misses the mark — like when he helpfully (he thinks) picks up some industrial-looking track lighting for your living room at Lowe's, not realizing that you had your eyes on a set of 1920s brass wall sconces from the local antiques shop.
This action-oriented impulse also leads to the all-time most exasperating expression of male affection: Let's call it the quicker fixer-upper. You know how every time you start telling your man about your problems, he keeps jumping in with advice ... solutions ... surefire fixes? And you know how it makes you feel like the solution to your problem might actually come from shoving his helpful little head through a plate-glass window? Well, take a deep, cleansing breath and consider taking it easy on him.
"Women express affection by listening, but men express affection by giving advice," Farrell notes. "And women need to know that when a man loves her and she's hurting, not helping her directly is, for him, like letting someone he loves bleed to death and just sitting there watching. Giving advice is his way of getting her to the hospital, getting bandages on her, and stopping the bleeding. It's his way of saying, 'I'm going to do absolutely everything I can to save you.'"
Dramatic? Perhaps, but not to Don, a 55-year-old CFO in Portland, OR. "When a man asks a question like, for instance, 'What was the problem at work?' there is a legitimate desire for an outcome that will lead to some sort of action," he says. "But — and this has taken me a lifetime to figure out — when women begin ruminating about something, such as, 'My boss is really mean to me' or, 'I just don't have anything to wear,' there is, apparently, a fine line between actually wanting our input and simply wanting us to look interested. This runs counter to my every male instinct; right or wrong, I feel that I must find a solution."
In other words, when we say to you, "Hey, I'm just trying to help," we really are just trying to help.
"I always want to be able to provide for my wife, and actions are a lot easier than words for me. When I try to put my love into words, it often comes off as cheesy and awkward, whereas when I do things for her, it feels better to me."
And Yes, Sex Does Equal Love
A friend of mine, a 41-year-old restaurant owner in Rehoboth Beach, DE, is the father of two and the husband of a nurse. "I honestly believe she is the most beautiful woman in the world, and I frequently let her know that," he says. "The problem is, sometimes she gets home after a 14-hour hospital shift and an hour commute in each direction — you know, just your typical 16-hour day of death, drama, and trauma. So when she walks in the door and I greet her with a, 'Honey, you're beautiful,' it's often met with a growl. The problem, if you asked her, is that no guy ever says or does anything nice for any woman unless they're trying to get laid — and she's probably right about that. But I still don't see why that renders the compliment moot."
Actually, a compliment can simply be a compliment; we're not always just trying to get you into bed. And even if we are just trying to get you into bed, in case you hadn't noticed, we guys ... well, we sure do like our sex. One survey found that 70 percent of men think about sex every day (versus 34 percent of women), while 83 percent of men say they enjoy sex "a great deal" (compared with 59 percent of women). So the idea that we might want to share our favorite pastime with you is very much a good thing.
As Pat, a 36-year-old artist in Philadelphia, says, "Yeah, I've fielded the suggestion from my wife that, 'It might be nice to just cuddle for a long time.' And while my mouth said, 'Sure,' my head, my heart, and my other parts never receive that particular memo. No guy ever gets enough sex; until they install another 24 hours in each day and fill it entirely with sex, it just isn't possible.'"
Look, we men are perfectly willing to accept that women are content to express affection by cooing, hugging, and all that gooey stuff. But the fact that we ourselves want none of these things does not mean that we don't love you.
The honest truth is that by having sex with you, we are expressing our love. You can blame countless millennia of evolution, which have encoded us as such: I like her; I will have sex with her. (Reproduce, rinse, repeat.) That impulse is the driving force of life, so mock it all you want, but it's not going anywhere.
Besides, as we guys are deep in the throes of passion — all sweaty and grunty and making our silly man-sex faces — we do really love you. (Or at least it sure feels like love. Or maybe we just love how you're making us feel.) Whatever, somewhere between all that and the mumbly mutterings before we drop off to sleep, we do feel an undeniable closeness, an intimacy the likes of which men never otherwise experience.
Except, of course, if we're bowling.
Illustration from Clyde Mendes column at MetroSexual LA