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COMMITMENTS : Hearts Afire : To her, Feb. 14 is a day to celebrate love. She hopes for the moon. To him, it's the painful price of a relationship. He just hopes to emerge unscathed. With such disparity, is it any wonder there's more fighting than celebrating?

February 13, 1995|SUZANNE SCHLOSBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There are two ways to look at Valentine's Day: the woman way and the guy way.

To a woman, Valentine's Day is the glorious day she's been planning for months, on which her beloved will express his undying devotion in a card that includes the phrases "so special," "so wonderful," "so beautiful" and "better than Cindy Crawford."

To a guy, Valentine's Day is a period of incarceration that occurs sometime in February (he's not sure exactly when), during which he is forced by candy, flower and greeting card executives to spend money frivolously and share his innermost feelings, not counting "I feel like eating at Fatburger."

These are the facts. I know them because when I told my boyfriend, Alec, that I was excited about spending our first Valentine's Day together, he rolled his eyes, mumbled something about his last girlfriend ("big trouble . . . totally forgot . . . Safeway . . . flowers . . . 1 a.m.) and said: "Couldn't you just write yourself a card and I'll sign it?"

I informed him that he wasn't going to get off that easy.

*

Ostensibly a holiday to celebrate love and affection, Valentine's Day doesn't always work out that way. Women hope for the moon, men grope for the right words, and enough pressure mounts to transform Ozzie and Harriet into Al and Peg Bundy.

"On Valentine's Day, a woman's expectations go sky high," says John Gray, a Mill Valley psychologist and author of the best-selling book "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" (which my boyfriend refers to as "Women Are From Venus, Men Are From Earth"). "It's the Venutian sacred holiday of the world, like Super Bowl Sunday is for the Martians."

When only half of the population wants to worship, however, tensions arise.

"A woman has these expectations that if he loves me, he'll do something extra on this day--something big-time extra," Gray says. "But a man figures, 'Why do I have to do anything more on this day? It implies I didn't do enough on other days.' It almost comes across as a criticism."

Psychologist Leslie Pam, who hosts a KMPC radio call-in show with his wife, Ann Christie, says many men don't go all out on Valentine's Day because they don't see a payoff.

"Men think, 'What am I going to get for it? I can get sex when I want it, anyway.' A guy thinks, 'I'm here--that should be good enough for you.' "

But it never is.

"Women get resentful," Christie says. "For us, Valentine's Day has so much attached to it."

You can't blame Valentine's Day discord entirely on media and advertising hype. It's more an outgrowth of the opposite ways in which men and women look at romance.

Take me and Alec, for instance. To celebrate our six-month anniversary a few months back, I made a card listing 36 reasons I think he's so wonderful and picked out the perfect flannel shirt to match his olive green eyes.

And what did my sweet Alec do to commemorate this special occasion? He paid for the gas on our trip to Wyoming.

"Unleaded fuel!" I said. "You're such a romantic!"

As for my anniversary card, he accidentally left it on the bed at the Motel 6.

Ah, but I should not be so critical. According to the experts, I have not grasped one essential fact: Men, unlike women, do not have an innate appreciation for gooey cards.

"Men go, 'Hunh? You're rewarding me by telling me how you feel?' " Pam says.

So what does a guy consider romantic? For Alec, the answer seems to be dimming the lights, curling up with me on the couch and watching "Road Test Magazine" rate the Ford F150 full-size pickup.

For other men, experts say, the answer is sex.

"If a woman is coming on to him, implying that sex is imminent, that's very romantic," Gray says. "And when a woman is very appreciative of what a man does for her, that also spells romance for a man."

Women may not have a complete understanding of this, but neither do most men comprehend how women define romance.

"For women, romance is when a man says 'I love you,' and she doesn't have to ask--when he takes extra time to communicate his love," Gray says. "Women want tangible evidence that you've gone out of your way."

*

Left undiscussed and quietly simmering, these basic differences can come to a boil on Valentine's Day.

Last year, Susan Higgins and her boyfriend, Joe Bennett, agreed to exchange cards only. But Higgins, 25, a network distribution coordinator for Fox Broadcasting, admits she didn't take the agreement literally.

"I'm assuming, 'No way, he's not going to just get me a card.' I figured he'd at least get flowers. But no. He just got me a card--a sex card."

When she indicated she was less than thrilled, Bennett responded: "I thought of getting you a really sweet card, but. . . ."

"The eternal but ," Higgins says, sighing.

But . . . Bennett, 24, a UPS driver, can explain: "To me, I didn't need the affirmation, and I didn't understand why she needed it. I felt like, 'I'm here for you, so you should feel loved.' But that's not how it works."

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