Even the word “dating” still makes me uncomfortable. When I got old enough to date, I was so shy I could barely talk to a boy, let alone imagine having a date with one. Eventually, I did have dates. But I didn’t know the rules. So I wasn’t good at it and I probably gave some boys some very mixed signals. Who knew I was signaling at all? As for dating advice, my parents were hopeless; they had dated during the Stone Age. Plus, the books and magazines I read about dating might as well have been written by Queen Victoria.
I watched my classmates’ dating behavior, trying to figure out what was going on between the sexes. I learned a lot about how young men and women felt about each other and how they behaved towards each other. But that still didn’t explain the game of dating. So I read romance novels, and discovered that inviting a man in for coffee at the end of a date was a strong signal that sex would be included. News to me. Still, romance novels are fiction. They don’t explain dating rules. So back in my real life, when guys wanted to date me, I was reluctant to agree because I simply did not know what to do. Advice columnists and relationship experts explained the inner workings of some intimate situations, but nothing explained the dating game itself. (Did I think to ask other girls? Apparently not.) Dating felt horribly awkward, so I tried to get to know people in less formal and more group-oriented situations.
It worked. Fast forward a bunch of years and now I am happily married and retired from dating. What a relief! But I am still very curious about how the sexes interact. Turns out, so is everybody else. Advice columns still are a popular part of newspapers and magazines. Advice shows abound on radio and TV. Of course there is Internet advice; we have Dr. Charmaine on our own site. And a whole huge list of books has been published that try to explain modern relationships, try to organize and codify them, and try to improve them. Starting with books such as Codependent No More and The Cinderella Complex, Women Who Love Too Much, The Peter Pan Syndrome, Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them, and others, the self-improvement genre grew and has focused needed attention on relationships. And as a natural follow-up to relationships, dating manuals were born.
I don’t have an exclusive on confusion. Despite all the new relationship freedoms in our culture, dating still perplexes lots of people. They have no clue about the expectations of the opposite sex in a dating situation. (That would explain nose hair and lack of deodorant. Also, wearing a tiara.) And they need a way to decode behavior. (“Is he trying to tell me something by not replying to my e-mails?” “Should I call again, even though she never called back?”) We have many new ways to communicate, too, and we need to know how to use these new technologies with couth. In a fast-changing culture, all the old rules and the new rules get jumbled together and we need help sorting them out.
So, what is life like on the dating frontlines? Not too good, it seems. Over a decade ago, The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right (by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider), made a big splash with its list of harsh, all-or-nothing rules women must abide by in the dating game. This book threw out modern behavior and practically called for women to start flirting behind fans again. Instead of allowing women to approach men they’re interested in dating, or call them, the authors insisted that women should never make the first move. The authors wanted women to make themselves seem elusive to the men they want to date. This, they said, engages ancient biological male hunting instincts, and the game is on.
Does it work? If you ever read the customer comments on Amazon, you’ll get a good sense of how readers reacted to this book then and still react to it now. Other books have a handful or a few dozen reader reviews. Even a decade later, The Rules has over 500. As dogmatic, artificial, and game playing as this dating manual is, people still find it relevant to their lives. (There is just one item that almost everybody objected to, and that was the rule not to even reply to a man’s phone calls. This was cited over and over again as rude and signaling of lack of interest that most of the men said they would interpret as—lack of interest!)
Yet in addition to the tough-talking rules in this book, the authors urge women to fill their lives with interesting hobbies, fun things to do, and other people. And to forget self-defeating behaviors like dropping everything to yearn over a man. The purpose is to become “A Creature Unlike Any Other,” and thus uniquely attractive as yourself. This is a positive message in a book that otherwise seems to take a very antiquated, even negative position regarding men’s and women’s behavior patterns. But did everybody listen to it?
Probably not, since dating manuals today cover exactly the same territory and keep urging women to stop living in fantasy land and start living their lives well. Cinderella was a Liar, by Brenda Della Casa, just published, has the subtitle The Real Reason You Can’t Find (or Keep) a Prince. She paints a fairly embarrassing, not to say bleak picture of young women so desperate for a bridezilla wedding that they will keep dating obvious creeps, or stalk men who are long over them, or turn themselves into chambermaids for their unappreciative boyfriends. Not to mention messing up their chances by acting full of themselves and just plain obnoxious. In other words, nothing has changed. Della Casa urges young women to get a grip on reality, back away from the cell phone and computer while drunk, and start living a happy, fulfilled life for themselves. Sound familiar?
There are lots more dating manuals available. Some are merely meant to be humorous. Some are laced with psychological insights from experienced, trained therapists. Quite a few have frank comments from men about dating, which can be very helpful when you’re trying to figure out somebody’s puzzling behavior (it could even be your own). But as I mentioned above, I managed to marry happily without doing a lot of dating. I hardly knew the rules, and never became comfortable with the game, and I preferred to just be myself. Lucky for both of us, I met a man who felt the same way. So if dating isn’t working out for you, maybe after studying up on the topic you should consider taking a break from it. To help you do that, Brenda Della Casa has a list of good things about life until Mr. Right shows up, if he’s going to. My favorite: “You want a cat. You get a cat.” It doesn’t have to come to that, of course. But you do not have to play games if you don’t want to.