I Wish He Had Come with Instructions: The Woman's Guide to a Man's Brain - Mike Bechtle (2016)
Part III. How He Acts
Chapter 7. Your Knight in Rusting Armor
I hate Richard Gere.
Not really. I enjoy watching his movies. But he makes it tough for us guys, because he knows how to be romantic on screen. He’s handsome, charming, and says all the right things at the right time in the right way with the right tone of voice. He’s the strong, silent type who shows control and knows how to sweep women off their feet with a glance and a smile.
He makes me feel like a loser in the romance department.
My wife and I watched one of his movies in the theater a few years ago called Shall We Dance? Gere takes ballroom dance lessons behind his wife’s back so he can surprise her. The movie is great because the focus is on how much he loves his wife and the lengths he will go to in order to please her. In other words, he was taking romance lessons.
The pivotal scene takes place in a deserted department store. His wife has been suspicious that he’s been having an affair during those times he’s been gone taking lessons, when suddenly he appears. His wife is stunned as she watches him rise to the top of the escalator in a black tuxedo, red bow tie, and a single rose for her.
I heard my wife catch her breath. I thought she was going to pass out in the seat next to me. I watched the scene and her response and thought, Ok, I’d love to be that romantic. But it’s just not me. I’ll never measure up.
That’s the point: men will never measure up to the scripted, fairy-tale view of romance that comes across on the big screen. All that men know about romance is what they see and hear, and it seems out of reach. That doesn’t mean we can’t romance our woman in a way that takes her breath away. We shouldn’t just give up.
Women want to be romanced. That’s why romance novels are so popular—they give women a chance to experience it vicariously through fictional characters. The top ten most popular topics on the Romance Writers of America website, in the order of popularity, are:
1. Friends to lovers
2. Soul mates/fate
3. Second chance at love
4. Secret romance
5. First love
6. Strong hero/heroine
7. Reunited lovers
8. Love triangle
9. Sexy billionaire/millionaire
10. Sassy heroine
It’s also revealing that 84 percent of readers of these books are women between the ages of thirty and fifty-four. Someone suggested that in their twenties, women are still hoping their man will change and become more romantic. But by the time they turn thirty, women have given up and turn to novels instead.
The Flip Side
At the same time, most men want to be romantic. But if they believe they have to write poetry and dance elegantly and say just the right things all the time, they’ll give up before they start. When they hold themselves to that standard, they feel inferior. It feels artificial, and they’re not very good actors. In a sense, they’re too honest to pretend to be something they’re not.
The reason? Most men are still little boys who want to be heroes. But if it involves romantic behavior, the risk is too great. He’s afraid he’ll be laughed at or criticized for not “doing it right.” He has an unrealistic perspective of what romance is, and no one has told him otherwise.
Somebody needs to show him that romance comes from who he is, and you’re the best person to help him discover what that looks like. It’s the intentional use of his uniqueness that captures a woman’s heart. That’s what she falls in love with. He doesn’t know that, and will never find out unless he hears it from you.
I recently had a conversation with a man about his relationship with his wife. I said, “So, what’s the one thing you wish your wife understood most about you?” His response was simple. “I just wish she knew how deeply I love her. I just don’t know how to express it.”
I’ve heard that over and over again from men. They have this deep emotional attachment to that most important woman in their life, but they feel inadequate at being romantic. It’s like those emotions get stuck inside, and they get frustrated when their woman tells them they’re not romantic enough. They really want to be, but don’t know how.
So, What Does Romance Look Like?
I wanted to find out how women defined romance. I did some research and then asked several female friends for their perspective. Here are some of the things I heard:
“I don’t care what he does, as long as it shows that he loves me.”
“I want him to remind me that he’s in this for the long haul—that he’s sticking with me no matter what.”
“He accepts me just the way I am.”
“He understands the ‘for better or worse’ stuff, because I’m not always the most lovable. But he hangs in there with me.”
“He surprises me with a text in the middle of the day, letting me know that he’s thinking of me.”
“When he’s on a business trip and sees a beautiful sunset, he takes a picture of it and sends it with a text that says, ‘Wish you were here with me to see this.’”
“He holds my hand when we’re shopping.”
“He tells me what’s going on in his life that concerns him.”
“He drew a little heart on the bathroom mirror with my lipstick so I’d find it later in the day.”
“He vacuums. By choice.”
“He simply holds me for a few extra seconds.”
Two things surprised me about that list:
1. There was no mention of chocolate, jewelry, or ascending an escalator in a tuxedo.
2. They were all things I, as a man, would feel comfortable doing.
That doesn’t mean women don’t appreciate gifts that are a true expression of what their man is feeling. But for the most part, a woman’s view of romance seems to revolve around a man being intentional while being himself. It means putting his woman in the center of his radar and finding natural ways to let her know that she’s there.
The best definition of romance I heard was from an anonymous source: “You don’t love someone for their looks, or their clothes, or their fancy car, but because they sing a song only you can hear.” A man might not be able to carry a tune, but his heart sings a song that can carry your heart. If he doesn’t get to express it, he starts to forget the words and melody.
I’ve always wanted to write a song for Diane. I thought it would be great if I could put into words what I felt about her and then find someone to wrap music around those words. But I don’t write songs. If that’s my standard of romance, I’m doomed.
Other people have written some really great words that I would like to have said. I’ve realized that even though I might not be able to write the song myself, I can download it and give it to her as a gift. “If I could write you a song,” I’ve told her, “this would be what it would say.”
I have found other creative ways to use other people’s expressions as my own. For example, greeting cards can be expensive. I’ll usually buy my wife one for her birthday or our anniversary. I used to feel obligated to buy the cards, or flowers, or other traditional sentiments. After all, that’s what all the advertising says that women want. But it never felt like I was being genuine about romance, even though I wanted to be.
We talked about it once, and she helped me understand her perspective. It wasn’t the purchases that made it special, but the fact that I was thinking about her and being intentional about showing my love for her. I didn’t realize that until she told me, and her affirmation helped me learn how to be romantic without the pressure. I could be myself.
Now, on most special days (or just random trips to the store), we’ll spend a few minutes in the card section, looking for the perfect card to express our love for each other. Once we’ve found the right ones, we show them to each other, kiss, and put them back. We get the impact in a way that is fun and meaningful for both of us.
Romantic? I don’t expect anyone to make a movie based on it. But it’s a small, intentional expression of what I feel for my wife. It’s something I can do that fits my temperament, and she’s ok with it. It fits her style too.
How come nobody ever told us this stuff? If they had, we might be a whole lot better at this romance thing.
Fanning the Flame
So, if most men are romantically impaired because of unrealistic standards, what can be done? It’s not foolproof, but it’s simple: you have to tell him what romance is to you in a way that he’ll believe.
The greatest need a man has from a woman is to be respected. In fact, several studies found a man’s need for respect is greater than his need for love or sex. If a man doesn’t feel that she respects him, he’ll starve emotionally. Not knowing how to handle that, he gets frustrated because his needs aren’t being met. That might come out as anger, which the woman can’t understand because she’s trying to show him love and it’s not working.
Remember our previous discussion about the struggle men have with insecurity, and how they do everything they can to avoid it? They have a natural drive to succeed and show competence in every area of their life, and feel like less of a person when that doesn’t happen.
If a man is doing well at work, his boss acknowledges it and pays him for his performance. If he is a respected leader in his church or community, he feels accomplished and hears that he’s making a difference. But if he doesn’t feel like he’s competent at home as a husband, lover, and friend because you don’t tell him, it sends him back to insecurity.
Men need to hear affirmation from their favorite woman. That meets their need for respect and personal security. No matter what recognition he receives on the job or in the community, it means nothing if he doesn’t have an affirmation of respect from his wife.
Ken Blanchard, author of The One Minute Manager, talks about the importance of “catching people doing something right.” He says that many employees only hear from their bosses when they do something wrong. It’s sometimes called “Seagull Management”—where the boss occasionally swoops in, dumps, and disappears, leaving everyone in a mess. Ken suggests that a single, intentional word of encouragement can make all the difference in how an employee feels. When they’re encouraged, they feel confident. When they feel confident, they want to repeat the behavior.
The same thing is true of men. Affirm them for something they’ve done that’s positive, and they’ll go out of their way to do it in the future. Why? Because it felt so good to have your affirmation.
In a sense, they become who you see them to be.
Style has never been one of my strong points. I don’t have a lot of security in the patterns and colors I put together. But once in a while, I go somewhere with a shirt and tie that evidently go well together. I’ve had women I didn’t even know compliment me on the combination, and I found myself wearing those clothes almost daily after that.
I was going through a TSA checkpoint at the airport a few weeks ago and a female agent said, “That color goes great with your eyes.” Guess what shirt I wear now when I want to feel confident? It means even more when that affirmation comes from my wife, because I know it’s coming from a place of respect. (If men respond to the positive comments of a TSA officer, think how much more they’ll be impacted by their woman’s affirmation.)
Of course, respect is so much more than affirming men in their clothing choices. You can have a huge influence by catching your man doing things right—romantically. Keep your eyes and ears open for little things he does that make you feel loved, and let him know. Say, “You know, you swept off the deck yesterday. That’s something I usually do, but that was really special that you did that. I know it sounds strange, but you doing that made me feel loved and closer to you. Thanks.”
From a man’s perspective, I can tell you that he’ll probably be sweeping the deck almost daily after that, because you met his deep need to feel respected. He’ll probably start looking for other things he can do to get a similar response from you in the future.
Give him permission to not be Richard Gere. Give him permission to be himself.
Opportunities to Influence Romance
When you let your man know what real romance looks like to you, you free him to explore options that fit his personality and temperament. Don’t expect overnight results, because those patterns have been reinforced by society and the media for a long time. It’s not automatic, and it’s not guaranteed. It’s just the quickest way to meet his hardwired drive to matter to you.
It’s not that complicated, because men aren’t that complicated. He wants to feel the respect and admiration of the most important woman in his life. When that happens, he’ll feel like a hero, which means he’ll be more inclined to do heroic things.
When a relationship begins, most men go overboard to be romantic. It seems like you’re the whole focus of his attention. He brings you flowers, talks to you for hours on end, and goes without sleep just to spend more time with you. From a woman’s perspective, it makes sense to assume that he’ll always be that way. After all, it’s part of who he is, right? That’s why he does those things. But over time, that flame starts to dim and changes into a warm glow instead of burning brightly. If left unattended, the fire could go out.
When my daughter’s husband was first dating her in high school, he wanted to ask her to the prom. She was living at home, so he asked us for permission to come to our house while she was away so he could set up his invitation. I don’t remember all it consisted of, but it involved a detailed sign in her closet, lots of decorations, and a lengthy trail of Hershey’s kisses throughout the house that led her to her destination.
She was impressed, and she said yes. They went to the prom together. A few years later, they were married. Now, after fifteen-plus years and three kids, things look a little different. I reminded him over lunch a few months ago about that event, and asked him if he had showered her with chocolate kisses lately. He chuckled and said, “Well, probably not. Plus, the dog or the kids would get them before she would find them.” He loves his wife deeply, but their relationship looks different than it did in high school.
It might seem like a man isn’t being honest because he starts by being so romantic and then quits. But it goes back to the way his brain is wired. Men are wired for conquering, competing, and winning. He’s not trying to be selfish, but he’s attracted to a woman and wants to win her heart. At that stage, it’s a great quest that challenges his abilities. He’ll do whatever he can to gain her commitment to a relationship. He’s focused and determined. He wants to win, in the best sense of the word.
The problem is that most men are better at conquering than they are at maintaining. Once they’ve won a woman’s heart, they’ve achieved their objective. Inside their brain, they’ve accomplished their mission and it’s time for the next challenge. That doesn’t mean he loves her any less; it means that he won’t naturally be as focused on courting as he was before.
If that’s true, a woman shouldn’t be surprised if her man changes his behavior after she says yes. She should recognize that he deeply cares for her but has moved on to a new season in the relationship. He’s leaving the conquering season behind and replacing it with a building season.
On the other hand, it doesn’t mean she has to give up on him improving. Maintaining a relationship is out of his comfort zone, and he hasn’t had much practice. In most cases, he really wants to be a good partner and give his woman what she needs. Since it’s new, it will take intentional effort.
That means he’ll make mistakes. If you focus on his mistakes, he’ll get discouraged. If you focus on his efforts to learn and do it right, he’ll be encouraged to improve.
You think it’s romantic if he goes shopping with you. He hates shopping. You’ve let him know how much it would mean to you, so he goes along. If he’s grumpy, it’s easy to get frustrated. Instead, just say, “I know this is pretty low on your list of ‘favorite’ things to do. I know you’re not having a good time. We’ll keep it short—but I want you to know how much it means to me that you came along. It feels romantic to me because it tells me you care enough to come.”
It probably won’t make him any less grumpy at the moment, but your words will stick. A few weeks later, he invites you to go shopping with him, but takes you to Home Depot. You might feel like saying, “Nice try, but wrong place. This isn’t romantic at all.”
But look through his eyes. He’s attempting to do what you asked, which was to go shopping. Going to Home Depot is special to him, and he thinks of it as a chance to spend time with you doing something he enjoys. Acknowledge the effort and enjoy the journey.
Diane has picked up on my attraction to Home Depot. Whenever we go there together, it’s a special event. I always open the car door for her, and we hold hands as we walk through the store. I’m in my favorite store with my favorite woman.
It doesn’t get much better than that.
The key to this whole romance thing is communication. A man can’t read a woman’s mind, and she can’t read his. When we make assumptions about another person’s motives without asking them, it almost always leads to frustration. The only way to find out what another person is thinking is to ask them, and do it in a safe environment.
What does “safe” mean? When a woman asks a man to tell her what he’s thinking, it’s risky for him. He’ll probably take that risk, but her response will determine how much he risks in the future.
If she gets defensive, argues, or tries to explain her position when he shares his feelings, it’s not safe. He’ll shut down because she wasn’t really listening. But if she listens for understanding instead of agreement, asking questions instead of telling her perspective, it’s safe. He learns that he can trust her with his feelings because she protects them.
In that kind of environment, communication grows. When communication grows, relationships grow. Honest communication isn’t always easy, and there will always be things that are uncomfortable or messy.
That’s ok. Messy, honest, safe communication becomes fertile soil for romance to grow.
Your man might turn out to be more romantic than you ever imagined.