Want a husband? Follow ‘The Rules’. Got dumped? You forgot to ‘Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man’. Wonder why he hasn’t called? ‘He’s Just Not That Into You’. Anne Sexton on our multi-million euro love affair with dating manuals
We were meeting for dinner. I'd been on dates before, but this time I thought I'd put the popular dating guide 'The Rules: Time Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr Right' to the test. This meant I'd have to behave differently -- instead of being myself, I'd have to be a "creature unlike any other". That's the first rule.
What exactly is a 'creature unlike any other'?
According to 'The Rules', Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider's bestselling dating manual, a woman on the hunt for a husband should be a demure but flirtatious 1950s throwback. Wear a skirt, don't talk too much or laugh and, most important of all, never, ever let your date know that marriage is foremost in your mind!
Feminine I can do. Not letting my date know I was weighing up his husband potential? Easy. It was his guinea-pig potential that I was concerned about.
Keeping my opinions to myself? That was much trickier.
On the upside, though, Fein and Schneider advise against splitting the bill, so if I had to shut up and smile sweetly then at least I was getting dinner out of it.
Welcome to the world of relationship self-help books. For every problem, there is an answer. Heading into your 40s and still single? It's your own fault for not settling for Mr Good Enough.
It's easy to scoff at self-help books. But for all my guffaws at ridiculous advice -- Rule 8 springs to mind: don't accept a Saturday-night date after a Wednesday -- I couldn't help but wonder why some women swear by them. That's why I found myself on a date with a man we'll call Mike. Since reading a slew of these books as research, of course, I was armed to the teeth with dating advice.
If I put what I'd learned to use, perhaps I might end up as Ireland's most irresistible woman? Frankly, I doubted it, but hell, it was worth a shot.
Obviously, I couldn't ask a random man out. That's against Rules 2 and 7: don't talk to a man first and don't call him. I decided to prioritise 'The Rules', which has sold more than two million copies since it was published in the 1990s. Instead, I asked a friend if she knew a bloke who was single and relatively sane. She showed him my picture and he must have decided I didn't look too frightening. He called on a Saturday and we arranged to meet the following weekend.
So far, so good. Having consulted chapters one and two of 'He's Just Not That Into You' I learnt that a man is just not that keen if he isn't asking me out or calling. Mike had done both. I was in! Or was I?
The basic idea of self-help is that life is full of endless possibility. Everything about you can, and should, be made over. Follow the commandments as handed down by business gurus, stylists and assorted lifestyle counsellors and a new, better you will emerge.
Self-improvement literature has its roots in the puritan religious sermons of New England preachers and the American Dream, the self-made man who gets ahead by dint of hard work. That's where the message of self-reliance and the 'fire and brimstone' undercurrent of many self-help books comes from.
The notion of pursuing a calling is fundamental to self-help. Preachers such as the Massachusetts clergyman Cotton Mather argued that man had both a spiritual and secular path he must follow. A man had to find his way to God and in the world.
American colonists believed that by pursuing his unique destiny with hard work, determination and Godly righteousness, a man could be successful. Benjamin Franklin, author, political theorist and statesman, epitomised this ideal and was happy to share his advice. In 1758 he published 'The Way to Wealth', a collection of essays stressing hard work and frugality as the road to success.
Although self-help is mostly an American concept, the Scottish reformer Samuel Smiles wrote one of the earliest books that suggested a man could pull himself up by his boot straps. In 1859, he published 'Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character and Conduct'. Smiles was all about individualism -- an idea that is at the heart of capitalism.
People turn to self-help most often in times of economic, social or political upheavals, and it was with the expansion of capitalism in the 20th-century that self-help really took off.
In 1936, Dale Carnegie published 'How to Win Friends and Influence People'. This book influenced manuals for business and personal success and it's still in print today.
In the 1960s, Napoleon Hill told readers of 'Think and Grow Rich' that a man could do or be anything he wished.
Feminism not only introduced women to the corporate jungle, it also changed people's expectations of the way men and women interacted. The old rules were gone, and authors set about providing us with answers. Unfortunately, it seemed that for all women had achieved in their professional lives, their personal lives were in disarray.
In 1982, the editor of 'Cosmopolitan', Helen Gurley Brown, published 'Having It All'. She told women they could achieve everything they set their hearts on. Success required hard work, trading on your sexuality, treating men as playthings and hiring a woman, who wasn't in the business of having it all herself, to raise your children.
While some gals were 'Having It All', others were 'Women Who Love Too Much'. Robin Norwood's 1980s book described how, because of their childhoods, some women repeatedly fell in love with men who were unavailable or who treated them badly.
A similar idea could be found in Joan Torre's 'Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them'. Torre reckoned that many women were drawn to misogynists and that romantic relationships were often characterised by emotional abuse.
Publishers soon cottoned on that there was a goldmine in books that promised answers to the problems of love.
There is a flipside to all this positive thinking, however. If wealth, happiness, power and love are there for the taking, then if your life is not an unmitigated success, well, you only have yourself to blame. A happy, fulfilling relationship doesn't take two people -- just one determined woman, armed with a book.
If feminism turned women into go-getting career aggressors, relationship self-help books mostly stress the opposite strategy. At their core, they are about keeping men happy, or at least not scaring them by being too self-sufficient, capable or opinionated.
'The Rules', 'He's Just Not That Into You' and the seminal 'Men are From Mars, Women Are From Venus' by John Gray all suggest a kind of strategic passivity. Men are the hunters, women are the prey and the best way to capture the heart of Mr Right is by letting men take the lead.
It would be all very well accepting advice if it weren't for the fact that relationship self-help authors have no business giving it.
John Gray is a counsellor and his books have 'PhD' displayed beside his name, but he isn't a doctor or a licensed practitioner in any medical, sexual or psychological field. He has a degree from an online university that's not recognised in the real world.
Then there's Fein and Schneider. They claimed their advice originated in 1917 with a friend's grandmother, and if anyone questioned their expertise they pointed out that they were both long-term married women. They promised lifelong happiness: "Follow 'The Rules', and he will not just marry you, but feel crazy about you, forever! What we're promising you is 'happily ever after'."
Fair enough, except Fein got divorced just as their third book, 'The Rules for Marriage', hit the shelves. "The Rules for Marriage will work whether I get divorced or not. It doesn't mean they're not viable. I was just stupid for not doing them," claimed Fein, who blamed fame for ruining her marriage.
Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo gave us 'He's Just Not That Into You'. Tuccillo is a novelist and former scriptwriter for 'Sex and the City'. Behrendt is a comedian who was drafted in as a consultant for the show.
Behrendt has no experience as a counsellor or psychologist and he says so proudly: "Look, I am not a doctor, neither real nor imagined. But I am an expert that should be listened to because of one very important thing: I'm a guy. I'm a guy, I know how a guy thinks, feels, and acts, and it's my responsibility to tell you who we really are."
Whether any book can be a one-size-fits-all recipe for romantic success is debatable, but after a bad relationship or a failed marriage, they may help their reader to remember that life -- and love -- isn't over.
"You have to take what they say with a pinch of salt," says Tanya, a 43-year-old mother of two from Galway, who found self-help books a comfort after divorce. "The books are written with Americans in mind, which doesn't always translate well for Irish readers. [Yet] having a book to remind you to have a positive outlook and some guidelines for dating is a big help if you haven't done it for years.
"I read 'The Rules for Online Dating' and it gave me the confidence to give it a go. I haven't had a serious relationship yet, but I have met lots of very pleasant men and had some fun. I don't think I would have looked online if I hadn't had the book. It opened up a whole new world for me."
Janice, a 29-year-old mother of one, found that 'Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus' made her more accepting of her husband. "I'm not saying I agree with everything in the book and I'm not sure it changed my ideas about men and women in general, but it did remind me not to get upset over the small stuff."
While some may offer comfort to their readers, there is a worrying undertone to many self-help books -- that men and women are natural enemies, not allies. Women are portrayed as desperate to get married, clueless about men, too fussy, too talkative and far too easy sexually. Men are portrayed as devious, manipulative, dishonest and only out for one thing.
Sitting across the table from Mike, I began to wonder about these stereotypes. Certainly there are people who have these qualities, but it has always been an article of faith with me that most people are fundamentally decent.
But if I was to regard Mike with suspicion and presume that his good manners were nothing more than a front to lull me into his bed, would I be a wiser, happier woman?
Luckily I didn't have to worry about that -- at least not yet. One dinner does not make a relationship. Besides which, Rules 19 and 20 preclude having sex on a first date.
Steve Harvey, author of 'Act Like A Lady, Think Like A Man', suggests a 90-day moratorium on sexual intimacy and believes your potential mate should have introduced you to his family and friends during this time. Anything less and you're a "sport fish" who gets thrown back into the ocean of singledom.
Here's where I ran into trouble. 'The Rules' and 'Act Like A Lady' both told me I shouldn't sleep with Mike. If I continued seeing him and he accepted the fact that he would have to wait until three months had passed, would this make him a gentleman? Perhaps.
But what if Behrendt and Tuccillo were right? If he wasn't trying to wile his sneaky way into my pants, was he just not that into me? Perish the thought! However, I figured it couldn't hurt to do things a little differently. I act uninterested, he acts like a stalker and maybe true love would blossom.
When Mike called and suggested dinner, I said yes. He asked what kind of food I liked; I told him to choose the restaurant -- 'The Rules' is big on letting men take the lead.
On the date, he asked my opinions on the Queen's visit. I demurred and said nothing. He tried again with the Obama visit and I, like a politician, said very little, politely. He couldn't get a straight answer out of me, which must have meant I was doing Rule 25 -- be honest but mysterious -- with great skill.
When the bill came, I let him pay. This was excruciating. He suggested we catch a band after dinner, but I refused. That's Rule 12 -- end the date first and early.
Did it work? Of course not. When he reported back to our mutual friend, he said that I was "quiet and kinda boring -- nothing like I thought she'd be".
A week later I broke all 'The Rules'. I called him; out the window went Rule 5. I explained my experiment; a violation of Rule 24 -- don't open up too fast. I invited him out for dinner against Rule 7. What's more, I offered to pay; a big no-no according to Rule 4.
"You sneaky cow," he said, or words to that effect. Luckily he thought the whole thing funny and agreed to meet me again.
Was it the beginning of a beautiful romance? Who knows? But it was great craic. I was able to break Rule 3 and talk as much as I liked as well as laugh at his jokes -- something men seem to appreciate.
I came to the indisputable conclusion that Rule 51 was wrong -- whatever Fein and Schneider claim, men don't like 'The Rules'. And frankly, who could blame them for that?
The morning after the night before, a thought struck me. By being myself, had I accidentally managed to pull off the first Rule? Maybe I was a 'creature unlike any other', and if so, isn't that true of everybody? Perhaps the old adage to "just be yourself" is all the advice we need? After all, he texted me the next day to ask if I wanted to meet up -- a far better result than our first date.
Life, they say, is a learning experience, and if I had learnt anything, it's this -- self-help books, I'm just not that into them.