An Introduction to How Romance Works
Romance is such a compelling part of human existence that emotionally, it can be credited with some of our highest highs and lowest lows. It can uplift or depress us, motivate or discourage us. I think the reason for this is simple: without that strong, miraculous hope that we experience when we first fall for someone, we might not have the courage to do any of the things that ultimately lead to love and fulfillment. When that hope fails, and it usually does (that’s part of the journey I’m afraid), the natural and obvious consequence is deep disappointment. This disappointment is discouraging, but it helps us learn and grow. It teaches us important things about love and prepares us for the next opportunity.
So, trusting in that hope again and again while tempering it with a bit of perspective is a healthy way to approach dating. Seeing that hope in someone else and letting it spark a bit of hope in you is also healthy and normal. It’s also normal for things to go wrong, but learning from the things that go wrong can help us to be more understanding and a bit more comfortable with the way these feelings work. Here are two mistakes I’ve both observed and experienced, and though they’re really two sides of a single situation, I’m splitting the situation into two parts. My two cents, if you will.
First Cent: Why It’s Wrong to Express Strong Romantic Feelings Too Soon
The first mistake is a common one in budding relationships: too much, too soon.
It’s a phrase saved for those times when you fall for someone quickly and suddenly, and then forget to hold yourself back a bit so you can try to examine those feelings. Perhaps you say “I love you” on a first date, or try to hold hands right away, or start talking about a future together when the friendship’s still new and tentative. The truth is, it’s difficult to keep these feelings in perspective. Strong and sudden emotions make it hard to remember that courtship takes time and that you wouldn’t want to rob a potential relationship of its power by rushing into it. In the heat of the moment it seems worth it to risk the awkwardness of a rejection, and even though the feelings came on fast, it’s always hard to imagine that they can change just as quickly.
It takes time to figure these things out, because until we learn through painful experience what these feelings are and how to respond appropriately to them, we likely have had our share of awkward half-romances that ended badly. The truly unfortunate have to learn by dealing with the aftermath of a relationship that was “too much, too soon” on both sides, and ended up failing because it had no solid foundation. It isn’t “childish” or “crazy” to respond to feelings of love in this way, and it certainly isn’t “creepy” or “weird.” It’s part of the learning process we all have to endure at some point, and just because some people figure it out when they’re young doesn’t mean others can’t make important strides in this area later in life. There’s no shame in that, or there shouldn’t be.
Second Cent: Why It’s Wrong to Judge Too Soon
Unfortunately, our response to “too much, too soon” is not always very graceful. Obviously the right answer to an unwanted romantic overture is “no,” but there’s a world of difference between a polite rejection and a condescending one. You don’t need to shame the person. You don’t need to act like this attempt at romance is unnatural or abnormal. Even if it’s inappropriate or persistent and you need to make your “no” as firm and unflinching as possible, you can still give your friend the benefit of the doubt. You can assume that at least he (or she) was trying to be honest with you about these feelings. You can be understanding, even tolerant, and try to ease the pain and shame of rejection a bit by offering your friendship and support, or by showing appreciation for what is at least a flattering compliment.
I can’t tell you what the appropriate response might be in your specific case (see this article for help), but here’s my one big don’t. Don’t slap a label on. “Creepy,” “crazy,” and “weird” are far too often the words we use when we don’t understand or we refuse to empathize. There’s no excuse for that. We’ve all been there. Until and unless the behavior turns into harassment, most of the labels we use are simply unfair, and certainly harmful.
This continues to be true when there’s a social or emotional disorder in play. People with autism-spectrum disorders need loving relationships as much as anyone, and experience love as strongly as anyone. If expressing it and receiving it are complicated by a disorder like this, that complication doesn’t change the nature of the request and the need for tolerance and compassion in return. If anything, people who suffer from a disorder that makes their behavior seem erratic or abnormal need, more than anyone, to feel that their emotions are valid and normal. They suffer the most when it comes to condescension and misunderstanding, and opening up to someone about feelings like this is when everyone, autistic or not, is at their most vulnerable.
Love makes fools of all of us. The gap between what we want and what we have is so large at times that we get desperate, and desperation is an unkind master. As such, I think we can all be a bit more understanding and careful in how we respond to a well-meaning plea for the one thing we all want out of life. We’re all on the same path here. We’re all trying to get to the same place. We shouldn’t cling to differences by shoving away the people who make us feel uncomfortable instead of trying to understand them.
I wrote this piece because I’ve been on both sides of this problem. I might not have chosen to write about it, it’s a painful topic, but when I looked for resources to help me I couldn’t find anything that didn’t feel condescending. I think the truth of the matter is that when it comes to social norms, we sort of expect everyone to know what’s going on. We get embarrassed having to explain what’s normal and expected, and we get even more embarrassed when we have to ask. I can’t change that fact, but I can offer the explanation that would have helped me when I was first starting to date and didn’t know what to expect.
When it comes to romance, we’re all ad-libbing to some extent. We have expectations, usually really high ones, but we keep them so deep inside us that miscommunications are inevitable. Our fondest hopes, our most personal dreams… I suppose if we shared them with everyone, they’d lose some of their magic and allure. Let’s not confuse discretion with shame, however. We should never have to feel ashamed of these feelings, no matter how personal they are, no matter how clumsily we end up expressing them. The point of the whole romantic scene is to put our hearts out there, to risk ourselves in a gamble so horrible that the only reason we keep doing it is because we’ve seen, time and again, that the end result is worth it. When it finally works, when two hearts click together and make a whole, it’s more than life-changing; it’s life-evolving.
So, whatever you do, and whatever happens, the best advice I can give is whatever advice will help you keep trying.
Jeremy Higley is a preschool teaching assistant and a writer who lives in Denver. Right now he’s working on a blog, a novel, and a graduate school application.