Books January 2002

Mr. Goodbar Redux

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

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).

"I often take a long bath beforehand and enjoy a glass of wine or a cup of mint tea to calm my nerves," Myreah Moore reveals. "While in the bath, take some deep clarifying breaths and start imagining yourself having a good time ... Repeat 'I'm going to have fun.'" "The only people who think dating is fun," Nita Tucker counters in How Not to Stay Single (1996), "are married people who haven't done it in years." She herself found it abominable—but worthwhile, since it secured her a husband.

A strange flip-flop has taken place in Western clichés about relationships: once upon a time marriage was seen as the arduous obligation and dating (pre- or extra-marital) was seen as the easy, free, and romantic pleasure. Look at Casanova, George Sand, La Rochefoucauld—or at Ovid. Not one of the relationships celebrated in his Art of Love is between spouses: marriage, to him and to writers for centuries afterward, involved duty and discipline; dating was where the fun and the liberty lay. If Ovid's contemporaries dismissed marriage, at least they had marvelous visions of affairs. In our day we are moving toward a point where we have positive views of neither—where everything in our love life is grim, everything is work. Dating is hell, we think; but its reward is marriage. Marriage is "stress," but its consolation is the memory of dating. What with our fear of singlehood, our Puritan work ethic, our endurance of game playing, and our knowledge of the high divorce rate, we have arranged it so that eros in all its manifestations provokes fear and trembling.

Is it any surprise, then, that so many of today's ambitious university students have no time for relationships until these explicitly serve their career-and-life-advancement programs? Is it any surprise that by the time they do cast a tentative look around for potential partners, they no longer know how to start a relationship, sometimes already feel biologically "behind schedule," and—with gender wars seething on college campuses—may have assimilated a severe mistrust of the opposite sex? Such mistrust is abundantly evident, time and again, in the very books presumably designed to reduce it in the name of relationship building. Take Nailah Shami's Frogs. Here is a book that proposes to help women find a loving mate but that actually speaks such bitterness against men, and proves so eager to displace them with "teddy bears, a vibrator ... and girl power records," that it accomplishes precisely the opposite.

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