What happened to romance?
I’ve been hearing from a lot of college women about the absence of romance in their lives. I don’t mean love, per se, but an absence of what might be considered a precursor or an accompaniment to love, that old-fashioned, skip-in-your-step, tingly feeling of attraction and mystery that is one of life’s great pleasures.
I don’t see it anywhere on the college campus where I live. I do see the occasional “Harvard Married” couple, so-called, who defy convention with their earnest and longstanding commitment. But I rarely see couples in any stage of recognizable romance. Dating. Going out. Courting. Call it what you will. It seems to have gone out of fashion like corsets and fainting couches.
It’s not that people didn’t have hook-ups back in the Jurassic era. We did. We called them ‘one night stands’ and they were a lot more common than the hand-wringers who worry about declining standards would have you believe. But between the extremes of carefree and committed, there was always a zone of romantic aspiration. People went on these quaint things called “dates.” They’d dress up and be on their best behavior and try to make someone feel good. They could answer the question, “Do you have a boyfriend?” with a simple “yes” or “no.” Even if a relationship was dysfunctional or only lasted three weeks, people had no problem identifying it, publicly and privately, as a relationship.
A girl told me yesterday that her peers have hook-ups for three reasons: power, connection, and pleasure. But she clarified that the women she knows aren’t actually achieving any of these three objectives. (You can read my Huffington Post piece on the depressingly dissatisfying sex lives of twenty-something women here.) My young women friends tell me the whole dating scene is dead – replaced by ambiguity and disappointment – and with it, too, romance has died. It’s not that they don’t want to experience it. They just don’t aspire to it anymore because it feels so removed from their reality. Apparently no one – and by that I mean no guy – wants to be pinned down, or pressured to be a “boyfriend” in any sense of the word. Romance is for babies.
I, on the other hand, have always been quite dogged in my pursuit of the romantic life. I suspect it’s hard-wired. Under the layers of Midwestern stalwartness, my father is a weepy, sentimental guy. My mother often retreated to her room after dinner to read romantic novels, and even as a child, I sensed that this was a special world on which I had no right to intrude.
Happily, my partner of 25 years shares my romantic proclivities. He can always be counted on for the well-timed chivalrous, post-argument gesture. He also pretends he never got the memo that I can carry grocery bags from the car, despite the fact that his mother was a chemist, math teacher, psychologist and single mother of five. Even by my generation’s standards, he’s a retro outlier who holds doors and talks worryingly about being a “good provider.” I play along, too, because… what can I say? It’s romantic! And it’s certainly more fun than the alternative, which is to skulk around fighting about who’s done the chores. (Sometimes we do that, too, of course.)
I think the real gift of a romantic outlook is the way it conveys a deeper appreciation for life’s mysterious and fascinating qualities.
Sometimes you have to look for them, of course. Our children tease their father that he can find something “grand and romantic” in the most pedestrian or even grotesque phenomena. The song birds who returned year after year to shit all over our front door step, for example. “Grand and romantic!” Nicholas assured us every spring, like clockwork, as the birds set up their messy housekeeping in our porch lamp. We’d watch bemused as he carefully placed duct tape over the light switch, so we wouldn’t accidentally burn them alive, and monitored their familial progress like an Old World grandma checking for hints of pregnancy in her young progeny. Where others saw copious amounts of bird guano befouling our threshold, Nicholas saw the romance of providing a safe harbor for new and fragile life.
After more than a couple decades with this sanguine wack-job, I, too, have come to appreciate what my dictionary calls the “adventurous, heroic, strangely beautiful” moments in our lives together. Through my husband, my quixotic knight, I’ve learned to appreciate romance everywhere, and especially in my marriage.
I wish our students, who are so brave and good about so many things, would overcome their cynicism, their laziness, or possibly their fear and indulge a few romantic fantasies of their own. I wish they could get lost in someone else’s dreams for a while. It makes life so much more enjoyable. But they seem wary of irrational impulses and have no use (yet) for grand and romantic gestures. They don’t see the gains in forming a deep attachment, however short-lived, with another human being. But if ever there were a time to be bold and take emotional risks, surely college is that time. Without those initial romantic forays, I worry that young people are missing an opportunity to gain the experience necessary for more lasting relationships.
It’s like learning to ride a bike without training wheels. You can do it, but it’s a lot harder that way and you’re going to fall down. This may not seem like a problem now. But when they are older and have tired of childish things, they may start wishing for something rare and beautiful.