As Valentine's Day approaches, our thoughts turn to matters of the heart, and whether we like it or not, no one is entirely immune.

No matter how hard you try. No matter how casual you are at pulling off the perfect nonchalant stance, it's not going to work. Not when it comes to the mercurial and mysterious game of love.

If you're in love -- and I'm talking the real deal -- the whole enchilada, that thing that makes you euphorically happy or deliriously despondent, it's another story.

The reason being that when it comes to men and women, you're dealing with creatures that speak entirely different emotional languages.

Here's how it goes. You meet. You spark. You assign qualities to each other no human being can ever sustain. The two of you never looked better. You blush. You glow. You lose all sense of time and place. You hang on each other's words resulting in that undeniable state called "being in love."

All is going along fine until one day something shifts when the woman (it's always the woman) asks the big question:

"Where do you think we should go from here?"

It is then that the man, the object of her supreme affection, stares at her with a glazed look of utter terror and says:

"I don't feel so well."

And right there, smack in the middle of this magnificent obsession, everything goes kaflooey."

That's because, to a man, the whiff of commitment is analogous to "shoot me now," whereas to a woman, commitment is the key to her ultimate happiness ----all she ever wants and needs to make her life complete. And, what she wants most is to be his one and only -- his numero uno -- his main squeeze. And while he knows she really is "all that" he just doesn't need that piece of paper that binds them legally "until death do us part."

What he wants is to just let things remain status quo, not rock the boat, but stay comfortably in limbo without adding definition to their relationship.

Women, on the other hand, prefer tangible proof that he's serious. Observe a woman sporting a diamond ring and you'll witness a sight bordering on a kind of temporary delirium.

"Look," she says, thrusting her hand in everyone's faces. "We're engaged."

To her, the ring says it all -- tells the whole story like nothing else can. Not only is she loved and adored but he spent a bundle to prove it.

It all goes back to when a girl is young, and plays pretend wedding. She dresses up in her mother's high heels, and drapes a toilet paper gown around her small frame, making her look appropriately festive and bridal. Added to this wedding ensemble is a spray of flowers in her hair, usually handpicked dandelions attached to a headband. Her friends -- the bridesmaids -- hold bouquets of Kleenex-designed flowers, humming "Here Comes the Bride" as they march across the room toward a makeshift, paper box altar where the groom -- a favorite stuffed animal -- waits. The big moment is celebrated with apple juice and cookies.

And so it all begins, and becomes indelibly implanted in little girls' DNA.

There's a New Yorker cartoon where a male caveman and his cavewoman are sitting side by side with a sign above them: "The Emergence of Language."

The bubble over the woman's head reads: "We need to talk." The bubble over the man's says: "Uh-oh!"

Nothing much has changed.

"We need to talk" instills more fear in a man than any four words ever could, and turns him into a sniveling blob of protoplasm.

Suddenly the dynamics are different. They are now exclusive, and settle into a kind of quiet, resigned acceptance, while the man, totally confused, is left wondering how this even happened.

Weeks and months go by. There is no mention of a wedding date until one day she corners him and says: "We need to talk" to which he turns a bleached shade of gray, withdraws into himself, and meekly replies:


Judith Marks-White is a Westport writer, and her "In Other Words" appears every other Friday. She can be reached at: or at