Books January 2002

Mr. Goodbar Redux

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

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?

Illusions. Affectation. Lies by omission. Lies by invention. This is the legacy of the majority of modern dating books—and it is a violence to human relationships. With the exception of Shmuley's Dating Secrets and De Angelis's The Real Rules, which advocate a circumscribed honesty, all the books I examined supply advice that explodes whatever trust your partner might feel in you and whatever comfort you might feel with him. Sometimes the suggested deceit is quite flamboyant: an invented expatriation, a fake rival. More often it is a subtle matter of mis- or under-representing yourself in such a way that you end up feeling that if your mate really knew you, he would sicken or tire of you. The Rules recommends, for example, that you set a timer so that you can "sweetly" end a phone call with your boyfriend in less than ten minutes and "leave him wanting more"—hardly a morally reprehensible deed, but corrosive in that it forces you to falsify your feelings, to feign a breeziness and busyness that aren't yours. ("Do not affect a breezy manner," wrote Strunk and White, style moguls for generations of college composition students. Better advice this, I say, than The Rules.) When you start pretending, however incidentally, to be something you're not (bright and bushy-tailed when you're pensive, cool when you're warm), you build walls between yourself and your partner. You feel at once inferior and superior—inferior because your natural instincts are presumably not good enough to please him, superior because you are pulling the wool over his eyes, and we always feel superior to those we fool. This is not a sound basis for intimacy; it's rather like communicating from different floors of a high-rise.

Worse, you grow dull. That may be the greatest problem with disingenuousness—not that it is unethical but that it is boring. It precludes thinking aloud and thereby precludes conversational discovery. It keeps us from talking about what we know best—our real experience, our present concerns—and instructs us to talk instead about the experience and concerns that we imagine nice people like us should have. If "men were entirely honest," someone once said, "every man's autobiography would be fascinating." Since we're not, even the ten-minute phone chat the Rules Girls recommend is likely to be dreary.

In our compartmentalization-happy culture we have separated everything: social from professional relationships, therapeutic from social conversations, lovers from friends, friends from therapists. One of the noisome results of such compartmentalization is that relationship "experts" warn us incessantly, "If you have to talk, see a therapist." Maybe call your mom. Don't call your boyfriend. An evening with someone you love is no time for a confidence. You must never "use" your desired mate as a "therapist." We think this with the same misguidedness that prompted Victorian men not to "use" their wives as sexual companions; just as they thought their sexuality sullied their honorable spouses, we think our psychology burdens our healthy partners.

More banal, our dating becomes incredibly arduous. All this putting your best foot forward and never revealing a true or a troubled thought makes dating as one long triple back flip. Dating books admit this—"The Rules are difficult!" one says. Dating is hell, another confesses. The authorities would have one believe that going to a bistro is like heading to boot camp: "Make sure you get a good night's sleep," Date Like a Man advises. "Call your home number and fill up your voice mail with compliments," suggests Nailah Shami, the author of Do Not Talk to, Touch, Marry, or Otherwise Fiddle With Frogs: How to Find Prince Charming by Finding Yourself (2001).

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