Why This Outdated Dating Manual Did Not Need a Social-Media Update

The Atlantic

The Rules, a dating instruction manual of yore by two ladies named Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider (they know what they're talking about 'cause they're married!), should, by now, have gone the way of the cave drawing or the horse and buggy, as a relic of times past. It was initially published in 1995, nearly 20 years ago, and we don't even want to calculate what that means in dog years. But alas, it's still hanging around, lurking in the bookshelves of various bricks and mortar stores where such things are sold; lingering on Amazon.com and giving us coquettish looks; promising such things as actual, official answers in the ongoing struggle to win a man and make him put a ring on it (I'm paraphrasing, of course).

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Far from aging gracefully and going away, it's been updated to bring it up to speed with the newfangled ways in which we do things, you know, on the Facebook and World Wide Web and whatnot. Of course, business-wise, this makes sense. It's a best-seller! In fact, there's a whole franchise of Rules books, described by Elle as "one of the best self-help books of all time." So why wouldn't Fein and Schneider and their publisher hope to make some more money with a new installment of the book that promises answers to pressing social media-dating questions like these: "How long should I wait to respond to his text message? Can I friend him on Facebook? Why did he ask for my number but never call me?" 

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Well, they would. Grand Central Publishing released the book, Not Your Mother's Rules, on January 8, and it's ranked number 4 in dating books on Amazon. One would presume from the title and the pitch that the ladies behind it hope that the younger generations will lap this stuff up, just like their moms did. 

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Of course, it's a self-help book, so I am predisposed to dislike it. Self-help books, especially those about dating, often fall into a category that could be better described as, well, undermining. The problems with such books for me are multifold. One, they posit that human relationships can be commoditized; that there is one path that works for all in terms of getting what you want. (They also presume, in a stereotypical manner, that what we all want is the same, and, I think, infer there's some ongoing battle between men, who want one thing, and women, who want the opposite.) I don't think those messages are true, and I don't think they're particularly healthy or helpful, either.

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Further, self-help books are published to make money. Those that say they'll teach a reader how to get married or get the relationship they want do so by preying on the bewilderment, confusion, insecurity, and desires of women (and sometimes men, too). Sure, dating is hard. Sure, it's difficult to find "the right person." But the process should also to be fun, experiential, silly, weird, unique, and something we learn from. Figuring out what you want for yourself by doing it, that's a great thing. Making dating about adhering to some code that a couple of people came up with and want to sell you so they can make money, well, that's not so great. Women and men may read this stuff because they think it can't hurt. Sometimes it feels good to believe that there are rules that can be followed to get what we want; it means we need only have the dedication and commitment to follow those rules, which is way easier than, for instance, thinking for ourselves deeply and making our own decisions, and having courage and believing in ourselves. 

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Some of the advice in this book may not be categorically awful. Simplified to "don't act like an obsessive"; "pause before you rush to do something you regret"; and "take care of yourself!" some instructions could actually be quite handy as a common-sense reminder. But categorizing it as stuff women need to follow to snag a man makes it highly problematic, even if the occasional tip is not so bad. And stuff like this, "New chapters include rules for text flirting: women under 30 wait 30 minutes to respond to a man’s text; older women should wait 4 hours," as Pat Kiernan wrote today on his blog, is particularly disheartening, and inherently sort of woman-hating. Control your texting, The Rules ladies say. "Women shouldn’t take the first step to initiate any relationship — and that includes online dating," they told the New York Daily News. Once you have a guy, ignore him, "at least for a little while." And don't sext until you're married. That might save us from a few political scandals. But is this the kind of advice women need, in this day and age? 

If there was to be an excellent dating self-help book for the year 2013, I'd hope it would tell people to trust themselves. To behave as they see fit, according to the situation they're in, regardless of age, because they are smart, lovely people who deserve the good things they put out into the world, and even if they make mistakes, they'll find their way and do the right thing. That self-help book would tell women to stop reading dating self-help books, and instead to behave as though they knew they were wise enough to decide for themselves what they should do, to interpret the signs and make the right moves, or make the wrong ones and deal with that, too, instead of adhering to some rules that aren't really the way we are at all. It would most of all tell everyone to be themselves, and stop pretending to be something else. Because The Rules, and those who follow them, create some weird perceptions among men and women. Suddenly anyone who does text someone right back is perceived somehow as needy or "too easy to get." That's especially odd given that a four-hour delay in a response, when you could respond quite easily, is actually rather rude. Would that we could rid the world of such descriptions as "hard to get" altogether, because more important than playing games or appearing a certain way (difficult to get?) is finding someone you care about and behaving a way that shows that you do. Why do we persist, instead, in making everything so convoluted and difficult?

We can only hope, I suppose, that as time progresses these tips will become as ancient and quaint-sounding as, for example, the instructions in Miss Leslie's Behavior Book, published in the 1800s. Until then, a word of advice. Follow your instincts; if it feels right, it probably is; don't believe everything you read in dating books, and maybe, do yourself a favor: Don't read dating advice books at all. But DO read Miss Leslie's, for snippets such as this: 

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Now, that's helpful advice. 

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