Books January 2002

Mr. Goodbar Redux

Illusions. Affectation. Lies. This is the insidious and incapacitating legacy of modern dating books

One of the most disturbing aspects of these books is, in fact, the extent to which they endeavor to squash women's penchant for pursuit, adventure, and choice. Rather than allow that women need excitement as much as men do (and can enjoy "conquest," and—yes—fear the loss of freedom in marriage), they vigorously pretend that the predator instinct is peculiar to men, and then alternately bewail it (Gerstman et al.) and instruct women to fashion themselves into fit prey for it (Fein and Schneider; Gray). After all, "men ... thrive on challenge, ... while women crave security ... This has been true since civilization began" (Rules II). Not satisfied to trust in "civilization," John Gray goes so far as to say that if a woman happens to bear a closer resemblance to "Mars" than to "Venus" (that is, proves more active than passive, more adventuresome than acquiescent), she must use her "Martian" initiative to cultivate "Venutian" passivity. "Although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a woman expressing her Martian attributes," Gray offers disingenuously, "it will backfire"—unless she locks those attributes up in the closet when she leaves the office, and dons a Venutian mask at home. "While dating and finding a fulfilling relationship can be more difficult" for women who have learned to make things happen on their own in the workplace, Gray writes, "all successful women have an incredible ability for self-correction. All a woman needs is the complete awareness ... of the problem, and then she immediately sets out to fix it." In other words, she exploits her "masculine" determination to affect the "feminine" spinelessness that will presumably recommend her to men.

The tragedy here is not only the terrific gender essentialism but also that these books encourage the extinction of a quality that might allow women to feel independent and to take pleasure in their relationships—as opposed to fixing their hearts and egos exclusively on marriage. Women possess no more natural taste for boredom or lost opportunity than men do, and—beyond having to decide whether and when to bear children—they have no greater need for certainty and security. But books like these encourage the worst and weakest in them, playing to every fear. They put overwhelming pressure on women to put overwhelming pressure on men to "commit" at a moment and in a way that nobody really wants. "As a result of [my] experience," Shmuley Boteach tells women in Dating Secrets of the Ten Commandments,

I now know exactly what it means when a man says he is not ready [for marriage]. He is directing it specifically at you and it is an insult. Don't take it from him. Preserve your dignity and break off the relationship. If he wants a plaything, he can buy a life-size blow-up Barbie doll.

Such testimony, coming from the witty and worldly rabbi who brought us Kosher Sex, is appalling. A confident young woman who may be entirely content in her relationship with a boyfriend who has not proposed now has a new way to see things: no proposal is an insult—gee. This we have from a man whose personal experience in dating seems somewhat modest: Shmuley (he likes to be addressed familiarly) was engaged at twenty. Such blithe assumption of superior wisdom is, alas, in no way limited to rabbis. When Shmuley and the Rules Girls met at a forum in New York in 2000, the main thing they discovered was how often they agreed. Fein and Schneider share his pity (and contempt) for women with no rings to show for their love lives. Indeed, in their books they essentially dismiss every woman who challenges their tenets by demanding, "If you're so smart, why aren't you married?" If she is married, the question becomes "How long did it take you to get married?" If the answer is much over a year, they strike back with disdain: "Most girls," Fein said to an audience member who admitted to a few years, "don't want to wait that long!"

One of the ironies here is that Fein and Schneider have some extremely gloomy things to say about the marital state. On one hand, they constantly repeat that "A Rules marriage is forever," and that once you're wed, you can relax their strictures without fear that the man who fell in love because you made yourself scarce will get bored when you become available around the clock—or that the guy who responded so positively to your provocative silences might recoil when you blather on about your daily life (unconvincing reassurances both). On the other hand, they make no bones about the fact that a Rules marriage frequently involves accepting your husband's lack of interest. In fact, it "means acting single ... all over again." It means doing without the attention and tenderness your courtship led you to expect. But what the hell, say the Rules Girls, don't despair: "after all"—and here comes the clincher—"he married you didn't he?"

It's easy to scoff at the now divorcing Ellen Fein, but it is more important to note that most of her ring-mongering colleagues never harbored blissful visions of marriage in the first place. John Gray informs us, chasteningly, that "Stage Five" of his multiple-stage dating program is vital, because it provides good memories that allow a couple to survive "the stress of marriage." The memory of this stage, he says, permits a wife to "reach back and reconnect with the [presumably forgotten] part of her that trusts, accepts, and appreciates her partner ... By remembering the ... loving feelings she experienced" in the past, she will be better able to sustain the unloving present. Is it worth mentioning that John Gray has been through a divorce?

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