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(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)

WHEN it comes to ending a relationship, male behavior is entirely predictable. According to dump literature, it's over when he says (pick one): a) "I think maybe we should cool things for a while," b) "I've been doing a lot of thinking," c) "God, this week is going to be terrible ... I'm completely swamped," or d) "It's not you, it's me."

Once dumped, however, the ex-girlfriends and ex-Girl Fridays don't get downhearted. They get even. In these books the functional equivalent of romantic passion is revenge, served up fast and hot. The self-help books reject the therapeutic approach of grieving over a loss, which was popular in an earlier generation of books aimed mainly at divorcing couples. The best therapy, many of them advise, is to work through your grief on his property. Since many contemporary breakups involve a household as well as a relationship, the revenge schemes focus on destroying or defacing his stuff, including his car and clothing. Some of this is intended as mere fantasy, or played for laughs. But some scenarios recur so frequently -- obsessively calling his answering machine and driving past his place, shredding his pictures or clothes, getting mutual friends to spy on him -- that it is hard not to assume that they have been battle-tested.

For the characters in the novels, writing is the best revenge. As one observes, "It's the ultimate revenge fantasy. You get rich and famous writing about something you're already obsessed with." In Run Catch Kiss, Ariel Steiner takes revenge on the disgusting men she goes out with by lampooning them in her popular sex column. After her boyfriend dumps her, Jane Goodall, the protagonist in Animal Husbandry, turns to animal research for evidence on why men flee. She invents a theory based on the observation that a bull will ditch an old cow as soon as a new cow appears, and then gets a job writing about her "Old-Cow-New-Cow" theory as a pseudonymous science columnist for a men's magazine. Bosses are likewise targets for revenge. In a twist on the writing-as-revenge tactic, Claudia Steiner strikes back by unwriting: she erases the disk containing the text of her boss's nearly completed book.

Revenge is psychologically expedient, but it does not accomplish lasting personal transformation, much less social change. What is striking is how little this literature protests the cycle of temping and dumping and how little hope it holds out for an end to it. This is all the more surprising because these books are about young women blessed by all the advantages that education, fond parents, and a good therapist can provide. Nevertheless, the challenge for these women is not to avoid, let alone alter, the bleak disjunctions of life but merely to survive them -- to get over them and move on.

In a world so blindly indifferent to individual merit and mettle a woman's chief psychological resource is humor, and her only form of activism is to laugh it off and get back in the game. Despite its resignation, this literature is hardly weary or despondent. It is full of riffs, spoofs, quips, and mordant observations about men, women, and their mating and relating problems. The most appealing element of this humor is not its acidulous portrait of men and bosses but its unsparing view of women's weaknesses and self-deceptions. "I couldn't get enough of the most unsuitable men," one character says. Another explains why she and her female boss were attracted to each other: "She was desperate, and I was available."

However, an undercurrent of anxiety runs through the hilarity. After all, what is funny at twenty-five might be less so at thirty-five. Some of the characters are haunted by a vision of themselves in the future, living alone in a dark studio apartment, eating out of an open refrigerator, and earning a meager wage stuffing envelopes at home. And although the fiction resorts to the expedient of the happy ending, the girl-gets-guy resolutions that some employ are thoroughly unconvincing and entirely at odds with everything that has come before.

Of course, no one believes that dump literature offers a documentary portrait of today's educated young women. In its depiction of work it draws heavily on the experience of the authors (themselves young), who, like aspiring actors, may have taken part-time or temp jobs in order to devote themselves more fully to their craft. Theirs is a very narrow slice of work life, hardly representative of the experience of the many post-college single women who enjoy far greater success in their careers than these fictional characters. Nor can the sex lives of these women be taken as typical. Few young women spend every night at clubs or have sex, drunken or otherwise, with a string of partners. What does ring true, however, is the depiction of what might be called the plight of the high-status woman.

GIVEN the high divorce rate, today's young women cannot rely on marriage for economic security. Even if they aspire to marriage (and according to survey research, most do), they have to be ready and able to support themselves with their own earnings. This has meant ever-increasing education beyond high school. For women pursuing high-status professions the schooling can extend several years beyond college, well into their twenties. Then, for as much as another decade, such women must invest heavily in developing their careers. Indeed, women on the make adopt the same priorities as men on the make. Work is in the foreground, love in the middle distance or the background. Neither men nor women have the time or a pressing desire for marriage, especially when they can get some marriagelike benefits without it. So they put it off and enter into relationships that offer some combination of sex, companionship, convenience, and economies of scale.

By the time high-status single men and women reach their early thirties, however, their marriage prospects begin to diverge. Men's educational and career achievements enhance their marriageability and increase the pool of prospective mates, because men tend to marry women of similar or lesser education, and the supply at or below their achievement level is large. For women of the same age and education the opposite is the case: high-status women tend to seek husbands of higher levels of education and achievement, and their lofty status decreases the pool of eligible mates. For men, age is no barrier to attracting women. A few gray hairs can be sexy. For women, age is no asset. A few gray hairs can send a woman racing to the colorist.

Moreover, intragender competition can be fierce. High-status women find themselves in competition not only with other high-status women but also with younger women of lesser education, in lower occupations. The classic example is thirtyish female physicians who, having finished their rigorous training, are ready for marriage. They find themselves up against slightly younger residents and interns along with a large pool of twentysomething nurses and other health professionals. Since the nurses and the physical therapists are in careers that can be disrupted and then picked up again, they may be more willing than the female physicians to stay home and raise children while their husbands pursue careers. This, too, can be a source of competitive disadvantage for the female physicians.

By this stage in life single women of talent and accomplishment begin to grasp the principle that life is unfair in at least one key domain. Men may be able to pursue their careers singlemindedly during their twenties and postpone marriage until their thirties without compromising their fertility or opportunities to find a suitable mate, but women cannot. Just at the moment when they are ready to slow down and share the pleasures of life with similarly successful mates, they look around and find that many of the most desirable men are already taken. What is left is an odd assortment: married men who want a girlfriend on the side; divorced men with serious financial, child-custody, or ex-wife problems; and single men who invite suspicion simply because they're still single. These mating patterns lead to a plaint familiar among upscale single women in their thirties: "There are no good men left."

Thus the career strategy now favored by well-educated young women, in part to establish their own economic viability as a cushion against the likelihood of an eventual divorce, exacts a maddening cost of its own: it makes it less likely that they will marry in the first place. This is a classic case of what is known as goods in conflict.

Taken separately, most of the dump books can be read as entertainments; taken together, however, they suggest that an important and recent change is occurring in the lives of educated young women. The romance of love and marriage took its inspiration from a long-standing mating system, but the defining institutions of the old system are breaking down. Courtship is dead. Marriage is in decline. A new mating system is emerging, with its own complications and confusions, including the conflict that faces high-status women. These books are field reports on the new rules of engagement -- and disengagement.

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)


Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1999; The Plight of the High-Status Woman - 99.12; Volume 284, No. 6; page 120-124.