As if their ability to consume all kinds of bread, cheese and chocolate and still not get fat isn’t enviable enough, French women have yet another reason to make their American counterparts jealous: their relationships. According to Debra Ollivier, author of What French Women Know: About Love, Sex and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind, French women enjoy a satisfaction in their romantic relationships that we here in the States can only dream about. In order to give women on this side of the Atlantic a leg up in the love department, we asked Ollivier for her thoughts on what their romance and dating practices so wildly successful — and what American women can do to capture a little of that je ne sais quoi themselves.
Q: How would you characterize American women when it comes to approaching love? And what makes French women different?
A: American women (and Americans in general) tend to be very goal-oriented when it comes to love, sex, and dating. Rather than setting things in motion and embracing the unknown, Americans generally prefer to set things in stone with a list of clear objectives, goals and outcomes: Is he/she my soul mate or my future spouse? Where, exactly, is this relationship going? Does he/she love me, or not? From the time we’re little girls, we grow up thinking about love in terms of total love or absolute rejection — unlike the French.
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Even as children we say, “He loves me/He loves me not” when picking off flower petals and pondering love. A French girl, however, grows up with this refrain instead: “He loves me a little, a lot, madly, passionately, or not at all.” From the get-go, she thinks of love not in terms of black and white (either/or) but in shades of gray; love comes in a whole spectrum of possibilities. That’s a very different way of looking at love.
Q: Do Americans approach dating differently than the French do?
A: Absolutely. We Americans are very confessional and direct when sharing about ourselves on dates. We tend to lay all our cards on the table, unlike the French. You’ll never see, for example, a French cartoon like the one that appeared awhile back in the New Yorker, where a couple is sitting in a restaurant and the man is saying, “No, I don’t think we need counseling. This is our first date.” That’s because the cartoon implies that tons of personal information (and dysfunction!) has been shared on a first date, which rarely happens in France. French women are more discretional, less confessional. They prefer the “slow burn” to the “big reveal.” Interestingly, there is literally no word or concept for “date” in French. In fact, French people are baffled by this notion of dating. If you look up the word “date” in a French dictionary, you’ll find the word “sortir,” which means “to go out.” French philosopher and author Bernard-Henri Lévy summed up the French perception of what dating entails when he said: “This (American) system of dating, relationships, evaluating, and getting married is too formal and excessively ritualized, resulting in a loss of mystery.”
Q: In America, we’re besieged by dating dogma and lists of dos and don’ts from so-called relationship experts — which many people feel, ironically, adds unnecessary stress to the overall dating process. Is this also the case in France?
A: No. French women almost categorically reject suggested “dos and don’ts” and any rules designed to manage or legislate love. If they feel passion for someone, they experience it rather than asking themselves: Is that the “right” thing to do? What will happen if I live according to my heart/passion, and not my head/mind? American women, on the other hand, have a notion that there’s a “right way” and a “wrong way” to act when it comes to love; that there are certain steps and “ground rules” to establish in all areas before relationships can “work.” That gives us the (frequently mistaken) notion that we can somehow foresee, control or prevent emotional, domestic, moral or spiritual risks that might pop up on the road to marriage. Many of these ground rules tend to confuse people or steer them away from paying attention to their own intuitions and inner voices. When relationships don’t pan out, we tend to interpret that as the failure of the whole experience instead of doing what the French do — which is to say, they consider that the emotional integrity of a relationship might lie solely in the experience of it and not necessarily in its outcome or ultimate resolution.
Q: How do American and French women differ in terms of how they approach intimacy with respect to dating?
A: The American woman’s approach to dating is heavily influenced by the extent to which sex has either been sensationalized or pathologized in her mind. People are either having mind-blowing encounters — and women’s magazines are cluttered with tips/techniques on how to achieve it — or their libidos have gone into permanent retirement and need to be “fixed.” There’s always a notion that things can be bigger or better. Ditto for whom we are in general, given our culture that expects constant self-improvement and self-transformation. That puts a lot of stress on people in the love/sex/dating department. It makes it hard to just relax, be yourself, feel free, passionate, etc.
Q: How do French and American women differ in their approaches to and attitudes about marriage? What about commitment in general?
A: The French are far more cynical about the institution of marriage than we are. Despite the occasional blips on the nuptial radar, more than 50 percent of French women choose cohabitation over marriage, even when they have children, according to a study by Claude Martin published in the International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family. (Children are legally protected in these cohabitation arrangements.) This is not to say that these French couples are less “committed” than their married counterparts. A couple that cohabitates is essentially married, emotionally and socially, in a very deep and fundamental way. But for a number of cultural reasons, the business aspect of weddings and marriage (the wedding planners, the ring, the social announcements, etc.) is generally off-putting to the French. French women don’t grow up with the culture of “Happily Ever After” — so, while they are as committed as anyone else, they are also more realistic about the vagaries of love and marriage.
Q: Does this attitude make French couples any more or less faithful than their American counterparts are?
A: Americans, though deeply attached to the notion of marriage, still have a much higher divorce rate than the French and are equally adulterous — just in different ways. It is not systematically “okay.” The French are simply more willing, again, to accept that love and passion might not last forever with one person. They are less hypocritical about it — unlike in America, where the biggest moral pontificators are often the ones who get wrapped up in public scandals involving adultery.
Q: How should American women approach dating if they’d like to be more successful in love, just as French women are?
A: I think American women should ponder the points above and try to listen as much as possible to their own intuitions and inner voices, which is what I believe French women are exceptional at doing. I also think they should challenge all the dating and love advice thrown their way, and other cultural assumptions that are not particularly life-affirming or that don’t jibe with their own world view. Whatever American women can do to be more defiantly self-possessed and free will help them be more successful in love.
When not helping solve your relationship issues, Washington, D.C.-based writer Chelsea Kaplan is designing jewelry. Check it out at www.chelseabellejewelry.com.