July 1, 2016
He never knew what hit him, that young man in the restaurant who for some reason hailed three middle-aged ladies dining at the table beside him. Suave and handsome, he only meant to spread his charisma and good fortune. We exchanged pleasantries and explained where everyone came from—two of us were Midwestern, but our third was a local. He and his fiancée were born and bred in that area, out for a brief break from their busy lives.
He adored her. He touched her often and tenderly, and they exchanged loving glances. He complimented her aloud, as if to say, “Look at my woman. Isn’t she amazing?” She seemed very nice. Pretty, yet, if you looked closer, tired and self-deprecating and unsure of her worth, despite all the care he lavished on her. She seemed to have an unspoken past that hinted of sadness, exhaustion, and really hard times. She barely spoke, though she smiled at our confidence and banter.
Who knows what that young man saw in us older women? He wanted to talk. He nearly burst at the seams when announcing that he and the quiet woman were marrying next month. He had one kid, she had three, and together they had a toddler. He worked hard—twelve hours each day as a football coach and factory worker. She also worked eight hours outside the home. They rarely had a chance to spend time together.
We drew our chairs to their table, and he asked were we married? What was our secret to marital longevity? He was eager, passionate, and desperate to get this relationship right.
Being women with history in this department, we couldn’t resist.
Treat her right. Pay attention to her unspoken needs. Make a regular date night. Keep the love fresh.
“I’m good to her!” he insisted. “Every day I tell her, ‘Baby, I love you. You’re beautiful. You’re the best.’” As he said this, he turned and gazed at her with adoring eyes. She smiled, a mite wanly. My stomach clenched. I knew that smile. I had felt that smile on my own lips.
It’s the smile you smile when you’re the object of lip service. He truly believed that by frequent application of verbal adoration, he could assure his mate of his love.
I looked at the woman and saw the hollowness there. The resigned slavery of belonging to someone, of being protected by a well-meaning man but living a life of objectification, not partnership. I did not doubt that he loved her, nor that she loved him. He was not a bad man. He simply didn’t see the subtle difference between paternalistic and equivalent love. It was a foreign concept to him, probably also to her. She had lived in a worse place before he came along, and this man had given her the gift of salvation.
I leaned across the table and looked him right in the eye.
“I hear you. But love is not merely words, it is also your actions. What do you DO for her, to ease the burden of her days?”
He blanched. “I work twelve hours. I work hard to give us shelter and put food on our table. Now and then I put dishes away, help give the toddler a bath. Man, kids want you to be interested in every little thing. Daddy look at this, look at that. Once a week is enough for me!”
I laughed. “Sure, but she bathes your kid the other six days.”
His face crumpled.
I looked at his fiancée. “She works, too, eight hour days. But think: she works sixteen hours MORE once she gets home.”
The fiancée’s eyes glittered with a spark of new life. She gave a small nod.
“Noooo!” howled the young man. “Why did you have to put it that way? I never thought about it in those terms. Now I feel guilty!”
“My point is,” I said, “to show your love by helping out around the house, no matter how tired you are. Women find that very sexy.”
The fiancée’s expression reflected surprise and intrigue.
The young man said, “I ask her all the time what I can do, but she just says, ‘Oh no, I got it, Babe. Don’t worry.’”
I shook my head. “That’s what women do. We’re programmed to take the burden off everyone else. She’s doing all the work, but inside she’s screaming, ‘See my struggle! Help me!’” His fiancée was all ears as I continued, “Look around your house and figure out what needs doing without asking her. Then do it and don’t brag about it. That is how you show her your love. She needs your help but she won’t ask for it. See her need, and then fulfill it.”
Now I was on a roll. I was speaking to the young man, but really I was speaking to his silent fiancée, begging her to hear my message of female solidarity. I went in for the kill.
“Remember when you were a kid and your mom yelled at you about something and sent you to your room?”
“Remember how badly you wanted her to come talk to you and hug you, how you’d sit there waiting, but she never came?”
“Your fiancée is like that kid, wanting you to comfort her, to do something to make her feel better. To see her deep need.”
He looked at her. “Oh my God, I never thought about it that way.”
We shook hands all around, and I will never know the future of this handsome young couple. We talked about them as we drove off into the night. I continue to think about them today. Did the woman feel our sisterhood and compassion, or has her past conditioned her to accept her lot with downcast eyes? Had the man suddenly comprehended the nuance between loving paternally and loving equally? Surely a brief conversation could not have had all that much impact, but I hope our words made a small impression on their lives.
I hope our interaction meant more than just a few minutes of careless lip service.
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