Here in America we have a tendency to idealize the French, thinking of them as elegant beings who dress well, eat well, and have attained the ideal work–life balance. Ask any French person, and they’ll find this idea laughable and maybe even a little worrying—France has a myriad of its own problems, and this French “ideal” is largely drawn from affluent Parisians and not necessarily representative of the whole country.
On the other hand, there are some undeniable differences between our two cultures, and the cliché of the French as a uniquely romantic nation isn’t completely unwarranted. I spoke to some French people to find out what exactly they’re doing differently from us. Here are three things I discovered about the French approach to romance and how we can apply them to our own relationships at every stage, from dating to marriage.
01. Don’t Get Hung Up on Your ‘Status’
When I asked Noémie about French dating habits, she started by saying that she couldn’t think of a French equivalent for the word “dating.” It just doesn’t translate, either as a word or a concept. “We don’t really have the notion of dating in France,” she explained. “Either you are ‘en couple’ [an official couple] or ‘celibataire’ [deliberately single or celibate], or you are seeing someone special but [not a couple yet]. The term ‘dating’ you use in the USA makes me feel that the whole thing is much more ritualized and structured there rather than fluid and natural.”
So, where does that leave us? Perhaps the question isn’t whether a more fluid approach is better but rather what we can learn from it. Taking a cue from the French and not overthinking our dating habits might be a good thing, particularly if you feel stuck in a dating rut. Sometimes in our tendency to overanalyze and our haste to label things, we can stifle a potential romance and prevent it from flourishing.
Protecting yourself emotionally could mean taking a more casual and lighthearted approach to dating rather than feeling the need to rush and label your relationship too quickly. “I think my friends don’t spend as much time wondering whether they are in a couple or not,” Noémie says. “Or they give it time to evolve rather than wanting to know the precise status of the relationship at any given point.”
02. Romance Shouldn’t Be Relegated to ‘Date Night’
Another phrase that gets lost in translation is “date night.” As Maxime explains, “Date night feels extremely foreign and worrisome to me. A lot of what I imagine would go under ‘romance’ would go under ‘life’ for me.” Noémie agrees that it seems very strange to put romance in a box and ascribe it a specific time, saying, “There is no such thing as date night in France. It seems like a way to give an ascribed time to romance. Although a French couple will go out together for meals, movies, etc., I think the idea of having one date night a week would mean that the relationship is over!”
As a busy married woman with a 2-year-old, I understand the value of scheduling in quality time. If you don’t actively make time to spend time with your significant other and protect that time as sacred, there’s a serious danger that it just won’t happen at all.
But the French reaction to the American phrase “date night” gave me some pause, too. They have a good point that there is the potential for romance in everything you do together, even the more mundane moments. As Noémie says, “We approach romance as something natural and integrated with other areas of life.”
If we started to look for the romance in the everyday, perhaps it would infuse every message we write each other, every quick lunch break phone conversation, every reunion after a long day at work with a whole new meaning.
“I think the whole notion of keeping the romance alive is quite foreign to French people,” Noémie says. “I have never heard French people talk about this (except in the context of sex, in relation to keeping the sexual spark alive), and I think it’s because it’s an approach where you separate the relationship from the romance. In the sense that the relationship can be fine, going well, but the romance is not there anymore. Whereas I think French people tend to not disassociate the two.”
03. You Don’t Stop Being a Woman When You Become a Mother
Women in America often express anxiety about what will become of their identity as a mother. We fear that our lives will be overrun by nap time, and our feminine allure will take that backseat to the role of nurturer and diaper-changer. In fact, we have a crude phrase in the States to describe attractive mothers (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, just trust me), which is yet another thing about romance that doesn’t translate across the pond. This American phrase implies that an attractive mother is a rarity, something to be commented upon, whereas in France this just doesn’t make sense—why would we assume that a woman automatically loses her appeal when she becomes a mother?
Having visited France a couple of times with a young child in tow, I can attest to the power of this particular cultural difference. When out and about with a child in the States, I feel more or less invisible as a woman—I feel like people see me as a mother first and foremost. But there’s a palpable difference in France. That harried-mother-in-sweatpants image doesn’t exist in France as a cultural phenomenon; it’s expected that you’ll carry on being more or less who you were before you had a baby, and women aren’t considered selfish or vain for continuing to take the same amount of care over their appearance as they did before they had a baby.
In Pamela Druckerman’s book French Children Don’t Throw Food: Parenting Secrets from Paris, she quotes part of an article from a French parenting magazine called Maman! that explains what a mother should do while her baby sleeps: “She forgets about her baby, to think about herself. She now takes her own shower, gets dressed, puts on makeup, becomes beautiful for her own pleasure, that of her husband and of others. Evening comes, and she prepares herself for the night, for love.”
Adopting a more French attitude toward self-care could help us remain connected to our feminine identity and eagerly anticipate romance beyond our scheduled date night once a month. The same could be said for unmarried women, whose work or busy schedule makes a healthy meal feel like a luxury. It makes sense! When we feel happy and confident, our romantic relationships are happier, too.
Photo Credit: Shannon Lee Miller