What Turns Us On

A user’s guide to love, lust, and attraction in the Hub.

kevin amy

When Kevin Met Amy

A he-said/she-said on relationships, Boston style.

Author Amy Sutherland improved her marriage with tips picked up during a year spent with exotic-animal trainers, an experience chronicled in her third book, What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage, now out in paperback. Twentysomething Boston contributor Kevin Alexander has trolled the pages of Facebook, buddied up with the Hub’s cougar hunters, and infiltrated the hookup culture of the city’s social elite. In other words: They’re experts on relationships, and Boston relationships in particular. Though one of them, to hear the other tell it, might still have a lot to learn…

AMY: In Boston, where  women can almost have it all,  they want it all. Boston is a  smorgasbord of smart, accomplished, active men.  Some can run a marathon,  discover new genes, and polish  off a Junot Díaz epic in one day. A friend of mine just started dating a computer whiz  and pilot; he also plays the  trumpet and paints.

Let’s-talk-about-our-feelings types are in short supply here, except maybe in certain corners of Cambridge. Our women, who all possess at least a modicum of flinty, down-to-earth New England-ness, can live without the processing. We’d rather have a guy who can discuss evolutionary biology and what Obama should do about the banks than a guy who talks about how his mommy shaped his feelings.

We do appreciate macho when it’s expressed as gentlemanliness: Men here still open doors for women. They also don’t wear hats, gloves, or scarves in subzero wind chills (making Minnesota’s fleece-swaddled males look like babies); consequently, Boston men also score low on the cuddly meter. Typically, a man leaning over to pick up his mate’s dropped mitten constitutes a public display of affection. I think I speak for all us gals when I say I don’t need my mate to talk about his thoughts on holding hands in public, but please, please, just hold my hand, like, right in the middle of the Common.

KEVIN: I feel somewhat inadequate hearing your loving feelings about “smart, accomplished, active” Boston men. I also think you’re giving us a bit too much credit.

You say that your friend recently started dating a trumpet-playing computer whiz/pilot/painter, but is this guy a good guy? Does he make her laugh, or does he simply engage in a self-aggrandizing rundown of his talents? Those hobbies are pretty impressive, but don’t actually say anything about him.

AMY: I’m not saying that Boston women aren’t interested in men with more-average résumés. I’m saying that here, the ratio of über-males to average males is skewed. More-mortal types have much stiffer competition than in, say, Des Moines (here come the e-mails from Des Moines), and that is not lost on our females.

The thing is, this city draws both accomplished men and women, and women largely want to have relationships with their peers, ones that make them laugh (you’re right, that matters). Über-females want über-males. My friend with the computer-whiz pilot is a scuba-diving, motorcycle-riding hotshot.

But…what about what Boston men want?

Disposition and personality, for starters. Something that’s very specific, and very attractive, in Boston women is that quick, world-weary wit. Whether it’s the hopeless togetherness of a packed, stalled Green Line train, or the convenience of getting weather updates from the crazy shouting guy on Newbury, we want someone who recognizes the humor in life.

I wouldn’t necessarily say we want über-women, but we want an equal exchange, much more so here than in any other city. It may not necessarily swing 50-50, but at least with the couples I know, everyone gets their at-bats if they want them.

Men also want partnerships that go beyond the babies and buck production. Coming from hardy, pale, New England stock themselves, they want women who can ski Killington or Sunday River, hike around the Berkshires, or just act unfazed when they strike out at their slow-pitch softball game.

AMY: As for men wanting an equal partner, I can’t help thinking that the women are the ones insisting on it. But you’re right about men here expecting steely athleticism in females. My husband and I recently took a trip with a few Boston couples to Northern Maine. We skied and snowshoed and skied some more, with the women mostly leading the way. One gal could basically run in her snowshoes. Funny thing is, I’ve also never lived anywhere where women dress so ladylike, so many well-groomed ponytails and well-fitted skirts. I guess the steeliness helps them walk around town in heels all day.

KEVIN: Speaking of local pairs, my friends Matt and Jenna always come to mind when I think of prototypical Boston couples. He’s from the North Shore, went to Middlebury and Babson’s business school, then created a startup that turns food waste into energy. She’s from Boston, went to BB&N, was an All-American lacrosse player in college, went on to Harvard Business School, and is now a manager at an Internet company. They were married in Martha’s Vineyard, live in the South End, and rock that classic New England look: athletic and tall, lightly freckled, strawberry-blond hair, blue eyes, pale skin. Normally, people of that ilk tend to be almost indefatigably obnoxious, but they’re both good-natured with a dry sense of humor, and they refuse to take themselves seriously⁵ (all-important when your bio reeks of perfection). What I see in them is something I see repeated all over our city: smart, savvy, good-natured people with an eye on the future.

AMY: Your Boston couple strikes me as a little out of date. I know the type: well-pedigreed, upper-middle-class, fair-skinned natives. Twenty years ago, they dominated the city. But Boston has opened up, and today draws people from everywhere, from Kansas City to Rio.

The prototypical Boston match is now ultimately less about type than mindset, which you describe well (savvy, good-natured, and urbane). To that I would add high-energy. My friends Kim and Rob (both non-natives, by the way) are a good example. Rob works for an advertising firm and is writing a memoir. Kim is a Web marketing consultant who, on the side, started the Design Hive, a weekend market for local indie designers. Their calendars are full of eating out, socializing, and weekend trips. When their interests aren’t aligned, they head in separate directions: she to a vintage clothing store, he to a jazz show. They’re happy, if a bit tired.

Still, I can’t help wondering if we Bostonians, natives and transplants alike, almost are industrious to a fault. We don’t relax; we do something to relax. It wouldn’t hurt for us to learn to waste a little time, especially with our mates. In this way, we could be a bit less influenced by this city we live in. Maybe the newcomers from Rio can coach us, and in 20 years the prototypical Boston couple will not be jogging along the Esplanade, but napping on the grass, maybe even holding hands.

KEVIN: I dig your point about activity. As soon as the weather improves, I’m very willing to start a movement of non-movement throughout the city. And on that note, is what we (men and women) want romantically a product of our city’s vibe and reputation as a liberal, academic-snob hub or sports-obsessed college town?

AMY: Busy, active people make for busy, active relationships. Most couples I know here socialize a lot and do loads together, like all those paired-up runners along the Charles. As a result, we don’t suffer the homebound cocooning I’ve seen in other places I’ve lived. Cocooning leads to dull dinnertime debates about whether Randy Jackson says “dawg” too much on American Idol, or if flocked wallpaper in the foyer would be too showy. So, dawg, what do you think Bostonians want out of their relationships, beyond the aforementioned stuff?

KEVIN: I’ve thought about this long and relatively intensely, and I keep coming back to the idea of a collective investment in Boston, an ability to be simultaneously independent of and dependent on the city for our happiness. Although we complain about the weather and love getting nostalgic about our town’s grittier, more glorious past, Bostonians are a fiercely proud and loyal bunch.

A few years ago, I dated a grad student from the Midwest who would constantly remind me of the limited time she wanted to spend here. “People aren’t friendly…it’s impossible to get around…there are college kids everywhere.” No matter how valid these criticisms were, I always found myself on the defensive, taking on, and making excuses for, Boston’s faults. Until it dawned on me: She would never get Boston. She didn’t have it in her. And, predictably, neither did we.

But here’s the thing: A lot of people do get it. They move here and embrace Boston, warts and all. And eventually they realize that a lot of what’s to love about Boston are the same things to love about our men and women: pockets of vigorous intelligence, fickle but ultimately undying sports passions, cheerfully misguided use of funds. You know how people’s pets start to look like them after a while? The same thing happens here. After a certain amount of time, people, couples, start to look like Boston.

AMY: Your point about Boston’s unique pride makes me realize how it affects the relationships of us transplants. It’s like being expatriates, and as such, as outsiders in this tribal town, I think mates draw closer together. Certainly my and my husband’s shared Midwestern roots would not be such a binding factor in most places. We wouldn’t wax poetic over brats or make fun of Boston’s lame snowplowing and heaps of rock salt. Boston has given us a secret language in a way we wouldn’t have experienced elsewhere.

In keeping with trying to make sense of the past to understand the future, I’m curious to know if you’ve noticed specific changes in the way women and men relate to each other in the years you’ve lived here. Do tell.

AMY: Much change is afoot, between shifting political winds and the quaking economy. Like a lot of people, I feel vaguely optimistic yet scared to death. Certainly that kind of anxiety is going to translate into how we relate to our mates. I know one thing for sure: Less business for restaurants means fewer couples are eating out, which spells trouble for couples. “Staying in” sounds great in theory, but it means more shopping, cooking, and cleaning—all fodder for domestic squabbles. Here, like everywhere, the battle of the sexes is fought skirmish by skirmish.

Why? What’s in your crystal ball?

KEVIN: Due to economic hardship, I’ve been forced to resort to a Magic 8 Ball, but luckily, after a vigorous shake, it reads “outlook promising.” I think it’ll come as no surprise that we’ll start to see more and more Boston couples sharing the workload and the “kid load”⁸ as the job market tightens, but I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing (except maybe for participation in 10:30 a.m. Bikram yoga classes). A shared power structure might mean more difficulty balancing things timewise, but it also means more engagement, a shared respect, and a (hopefully, anyway) healthy codependency.