Did you hear the one about the man who thought he was being romantic, but was actually being extremely creepy?
Luke Howard, a 34-year-old musician from Bath, went viral over the weekend when he dragged his piano onto a green in Bristol city centre and began playing. His motive, he told the Bristol Post, was to prove his love for his ex-girlfriend – adding that he was prepared to play non-stop until she took him back.
“It may sound whimsical but she completely changed my life,” Howard told the newspaper. “My entire world shifted.”
Howard and the unnamed woman had been in a relationship for just four months, and he said that he couldn’t understand what caused their split. “It wasn’t anything nasty or bad, it was just life getting in the way,” he said.
“If it was anything bad when we split up then I wouldn’t be doing this, but it’s the only thing I can think of doing.”
The story about Howard quickly went viral (at the time of writing, the original Bristol Post article has had over 75,000 shares). Some speculated that his protest “for love” was nothing more than a PR stunt, designed to raise awareness of his profile as a musician.
But many others argued that whatever Howard’s real motives, it’s important to call out his behaviour for what it is: a disturbing refusal to accept that a woman no longer wanted to be romantically involved with him.
Anne Wheaton, a hair stylist who has been married to Star Trek actor Wil Wheaton for 18 years, shared the Bristol Post article and drew parallels between Howard’s actions and the behaviour of her own emotionally abusive ex-partner.
Wheaton added that people should not celebrate Howard’s “obsessive gesture” as “romantic”. “When a woman says no, she means no,” she wrote. “Respect it.”
Seattle-based writer Ijeoma Oluo, meanwhile, was so infuriated by Howard’s actions that she posted an entire thread on the subject – one which had been liked over 9,000 times in total at the time of writing.
“I hope that she never takes him back and I hope that every woman who ever dumped him calls him to dump him again for being a manipulative creep,” Oluo wrote.
It’s interesting to note that Wheaton and Oluo – just two of the many, many women who felt compelled to comment on Howard’s behaviour – are American, meaning that the story of the ‘Bristol piano man’ spread far further than one might expect for a local news article.
But if the story has struck such a chord around the world, it’s because Howard’s behaviour falls on a spectrum that is horribly familiar to many women who date men. Not all of us have experienced the embarrassment of an ex-boyfriend going viral, but we all know what it’s like to deal with a man who just won’t take ‘goodbye’ for an answer.
We all know how it feels to not be listened to. We know how it feels to be denied romantic autonomy. We know how it feels to have guilt used as a weapon against us. We know how it feels to say no, and then be told that we’ll be ‘worn down eventually’. We know how it feels to be manipulated into staying with someone for longer than we want to, because they say that they need us.
If one were feeling sympathetic, one could point out that Howard isn’t the first person to go through a wobble after a break-up. One could also argue that if he sincerely thought this stunt would work, it’s not entirely his fault. The myth of the grand romantic gesture’s efficacy has been reinforced in pop culture for decades: think about John Cusack holding a boombox above his head in 1989 rom-com Say Anything, or Seth Cohen jumping atop the coffee cart and proclaiming his love for Summer in The OC.
Indeed, the idea that disinterested women will suddenly change their minds when faced with an extravagant display of love is such a potent one that one academic study even found that romantic comedies featuring this kind of plot can encourage a greater acceptance of stalking.
But here’s the thing that Howard and men like him need to remember: real relationships are not like those in romantic movies. And out here in the real world, a grand gesture is highly unlikely to draw a woman back into your arms. It’s unlikely to make her believe that you have her best interests at heart, or that you truly care about her or her needs or wants at all.
It’s far more likely to make her feel scared, or angry, or alarmed, or repulsed, or disappointed. It’s likely to make her see you as an immature, narcissistic man-child who throws his toys out of the pram when he doesn’t get his own way. It’s likely to make her gather her close friends around her and breathe deeply, and thank her lucky stars that she got out of a relationship with you while she could.
If a woman tells you that she doesn’t want to be in a relationship with you anymore, don’t try and win her back. Believe her.
Images: SWNS / Rex Features