Here's how my starter marriage ended: After four years of structuring a life around everything my husband wanted and nothing that I did, I finally worked up the courage to move out. I was 24, and I wanted my interests and dreams and feelings to matter to someone, even if only to myself. Having no property, no children and no money to pay the legal fees, neither of us filed for divorce right away. Over the course of several months, as my absence piqued his interest, he would make the occasional overture -- as if there were still hope. I knew it had to end the day a box arrived on my doorstep, containing multiple layers of perfectly formed, long-stemmed red roses, along with a note that read, "I know you hate red roses, but ..." Society deems them romantic; why should my likes matter?
I'll spare you the details of what I did to those roses before calling to assure him we were through.
My second husband (my real husband) and I have been together for 17 years, so I no longer remember at what stage of a relationship I would introduce the idea that I do not find red roses romantic. I do know it's a strangely controversial opinion. I know the look of shocked dismay that's likely on your face as you read this -- I've seen it countless times since I began espousing this opinion somewhere around the age of 15. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I happen to find red roses garish. I confess I am also not a very sentimental person. But none of that is why I find them unromantic. Here's my unfiltered view of it: It requires no thought, no time, and no effort to send someone red roses. They are as ubiquitous as they are obvious. All that's required is some method of payment. So how does a gift so entirely impersonal add up to romance?
There's a long-running joke in our culture about the ineptitude -- the boring thoughtlessness -- of giving a man a tie on Father's Day. But at least, in that case, you have to pick out the tie.
Look, I get it. Love is hard. Expressing love, even through flowers, is perilous. There's the possibility of miscommunication, dislikes, allergies. There's an entire industry built up around the idea that red roses signal love, with a capital L. And if red roses mean "I love you," anything else must mean something less. Roses are not only simple and straightforward, they're safe. The only real hazard is sending them too soon.
But to love someone, and to express that love, requires knowing them. If you want to send a gift that says you care, the first step is to care. Show an interest in what she likes and longs for -- in flowers and in life. Then on any occasion when you want to do something nice for her, send her something that says you listened. If she (or he, for that matter) tells you she thinks red roses are the ultimate in romance -- and I recognize that she probably will -- then by all means send them. But take the time to know. That's where the romance happens.
This Valentine's Day, my husband will give me a box of chocolates, as he suddenly started doing about 10 years ago. Not the most original gift in the world, granted, but it doesn't need to be. The box he gives me won't be heart-shaped and shrink-wrapped, plucked off the top of the giant pile at the corner drugstore. (Although I would eat those.) Instead, he will go to the nice candy shop near his office, stand in line, and pick out a small collection of the truffles and caramels he knows I love best. The point of this gift will be to say he knows me and loves me, and that makes me smile just thinking about it.