Credit...Photo Illustration by The New York Times; Corbis RM Stills, via Getty Images
It was the worst of times; just trust me on this. It was a time when almost every single movie ended with a wedding, no iota of nuance to be found anywhere, even if the woman in the movie had just spent 83 minutes prior making a case as to why she didn’t want to be or shouldn’t be married. It was a time when even subversive-seeming characters on “Sex and the City” could only be happy when they finally found husbands (except, of course, for Samantha, who was too much of a derelict to acquiesce and too old to have kids so what’s the point?). It was a time when the Learning Annex featured seminars on how to find a husband in 30 days, and no kidding this seminar came with a CD to listen to while you slept. The ’90s woman, confused by how her ambition was supposed to be compatible with her want for a family, nodded her head emphatically, her Rachel shimmering around her face.
Because it was also a time when we were supposed to be newly empowered. We were ’90s women. The battles had been fought; we owned property and voted. We worked and talked endlessly about things like balance. The women’s magazines encouraged us to take initiative, to ask the guy out. We were on the pill. Colleges were giving out condoms, not just to the men but to the women. There were so many mixed messages, and the women I knew were at war to maintain their independence but also still traditional enough to think about the families they’d been engineered to want. Had we alienated the men with all our independence?
This is how “The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right” found us. In 1995, on Valentine’s Day no less, presented as an ivory-and-gold colored self-help book for the heteronormative, covered with soft paintings of roses and ribbons (ribbons!) and a diamond ring right smack in the middle, almost like a warning: You were not entering subtle territory. The book’s authors, Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, promised a generation of women who were at war with themselves (not all of us, but enough of us) that we could find the husbands we dreamed of if only we could control ourselves for a few months (a year tops), sublimate our desires and follow 35 simple rules for attracting and securing a man.
It is not efficient to list all the rules of “The Rules” here, but they came down to: Don’t chase men. Men are hunters. Make them want you; you are doing them a favor when you are withholding. They need a project. You are the project. Don’t worry: Even if you are a mieskeit, if you put yourself together enough, if you act mysterious enough, you will ignite the heart of a man who is so consumed by the chase that he’ll never really notice that you are incompatible or you are desperately needy or you have untreated clubfoot or your eyes are too close together or you get poppy seeds stuck in your teeth or you have irregular periods or your bikini line is unwieldy or you are a child-hater or your slight but apparent case of untreated scoliosis or you are ambivalent about your religion or you don’t know who you will vote for yet or you do not know how to cook or you have seasonal allergies or you sometimes feel a dark yearning about what you are supposed to be doing on this earth or are similarly vile.
The key was to not appear as though you needed love; that was the only way to get it. Do you understand how many women have tanked a deal in the making by appearing to want love too badly? By revealing themselves? By openly wanting sex and companionship? By wanting it at all? By having it all? A hunter has to believe his prey doesn’t want to be feasted upon, right? (Right?) So how do you pretend you don’t want something you do want? “The Rules” was the answer.
The rules that were outlined in the book ranged from “Don’t Stare at Men or Talk Too Much” (rule 3) to “Don’t Accept a Saturday Night Date after Wednesday” (rule 7) to “Don’t Tell Him What To Do” (rule 16). We were to prepare ourselves for our new husband-forward philosophy — to become a “Rules girl,” in their vernacular — by getting in shape and learning how to like ourselves, even when the reality of our own countenances made that impossible. “So try to change bad habits like slovenliness,” the book beseeched us. “Men like women who are neat and clean.” It advised, “If you have a bad nose, get a nose job; color your gray; grow your hair long.” This was your training montage. You were going to get that husband!
The instructions were simple: We could go to a dance (I guess there were dances) but we could not ask a man to dance. We could go to a singles event but we had to look like we were only there incidentally even though it was a singles event, and those usually attract a pretty specific audience of people who have decided that they do, in fact, want companionship. We couldn’t make eye contact with a man, and to prevent too much eye contact, we had to walk around the room. We could drink a Perrier but do not get crazy. “It’s hard to do ‘The Rules’ when you’re drunk!”
We could sleep with a man, but if we did, probably we shouldn’t have but don’t worry there are still rules for when we do next. In the sleeping-with-a-man rules, we had to work to not appear sex-crazed. We had to appear like we can take it or leave it. The next morning, we had to go about our day and pretend we didn’t want to have brunch or spend the day together, lest we scare the poor bastard off. Rather, if we take a shower and get dressed and get ready to go, the man will panic and start kissing our shoulder. We will make him sex-crazed and needy! He might even take us to brunch after!
Before long, there were “Rules” support groups, women sitting in circles, smoking our Virginia Slims and drinking our Zimas, hard-knuckling our desire to call a man back on the actual telephone — there was no texting then and it was terrible and great — or even to talk on a date, or to allow ourselves the pleasure of openly enjoying ourselves with a man. There were “Rules” facilitators who were trained by programs run by the authors. There was a dating journal (“Record your progress from first date to wedding date!”). “The Rules” took our two favorite vocations — our competitiveness and our common desire for a traditional home — and gave them room to intersect, as if they hadn’t already.
Put aside the assault on feminism. Or even take the book’s authors’ somewhat squishy theories on feminism — which was what is more feministical than deciding who you want to marry and when and then being able to wrangle him with your wiles? But put that aside, because what had feminism ever done for us except the whole career and independence and voting and rights to our own body thing? It didn’t get us husbands, that’s what. Was feminism going to keep us warm at night while our ovaries shriveled and our uteruses died from loneliness? Was that house in Great Neck going to buy itself? Sure, we all wanted to be feminists. But there were certain truths about men and women and no political movement, no matter how many waves, was going to change those things.
The argument the authors of “The Rules” made was that society may change, but men want to pursue; women are supposed to be pursued. The independence women had achieved had alienated the men, and worse, women didn’t even know it. They didn’t know they were supposed to be different in romance than they were in school or in their corporate environments. They may have evolved, but dating hadn’t. Men hadn’t. After all, we cannot argue with a man’s nature (though maybe we could and should?), and we certainly can’t argue with a woman’s nature (though the defining feature of ours, apparently, was its malleability). We want to be loved and cared for or something, right?
“The Rules” was a cultural phenomenon. There were thousand-word features in this newspaper and others. There were support groups. There was an episode on the “Oprah Winfrey Show,” Oprah barely containing her skepticism and, maybe, was that disgust? A “Sex and the City” mention. There were think pieces about feminism (but not so many, for the budding internet was in its largely pre-take days). There were women on talk shows shouting with relief about how happy they were to understand what they’d been doing wrong this whole time.
In “The Rules,” the husband isn’t a real person — he can’t be because we never get to know him well enough. He’s a goal object that has been studied for his trifling ways, analyzed and gamed. He is like other theoretical things we are supposed to want, like an M.B.A. or a hairless upper lip or a beach bod or dignity. We wanted to understand men. Men, on the other hand, didn’t want to understand us; they had spent millenniums gaming us and the game had been won a long time ago. “The Rules” was supposed to be the cure for all of that; “The Rules” was supposed to be a cure for who we actually were.
My mother loved the rules — each one of them except the ones concerning sleeping with a man. My mother thought that any amount of premarital sex undermined the entire operation. But that was just a detail. Overall, she was so happy that the philosophy she’d been trying to pass on to my sisters and me was finally codified and modern-seeming, if a book that had an engagement ring, roses and ribbon on it could ever really seem modern.
She had been trying to pass on her philosophies about dating for years, and to sum up her rules, they were this: Don’t. Don’t look at a man. Don’t acquiesce to him. Don’t let him touch you. (She would not have considered a world in which a woman touched a man of her own volition.) Don’t call him. Don’t answer his call. Don’t be available. Don’t pay. Don’t say yes to anything except a marriage request. Don’t eat that. Just don’t.
She thought flirting was permissible, but that it was an art. We agreed on that, but her version of the art was about batting her eyelashes and looking away; mine was jumping into a man’s lap and licking his face and begging him to love me. She didn’t know how I’d ever get a husband if I was so open and eager to share. It didn’t occur to her that finding a husband was not the same thing as operating a successful marriage; that these things might actually be diametrically opposed. It didn’t occur to her after her first divorce, or her second. Some people are better with short-term goals.
Nevertheless, she tried: She gave me one piece of advice about dating when I was 15, and like that story about Hillel teaching his student the entire Torah while standing on one leg, everything else since then has been commentary. Here it is, presented in full, as I’m not even sure I understand it completely and perhaps you can help:
It’s a story from her own youth, living in Rockaway, Queens, after she emigrated with her family from Israel. She was beautiful, my mother. You should have seen her. Sometimes I’ll come across a picture of her and a person who sees it will say, “Is that Elizabeth Taylor?” I once found a picture of her next to Paul Anka. He seemed very happy to be by her side. Her eyes are big and open and she is looking slightly upward. Her hair was ironed flat. She knew not to smile. She excelled at an expression that told her thousands of admirers that she wished were anywhere else. Paul Anka!
One day, she was preparing for a date with a man named Jerry with the help of her best friend. Jerry was supposed to arrive at 6 p.m. At exactly five minutes after six, the doorbell rang. My mother sent her friend downstairs to the door with this message: That she say, “Yes?” And Jerry would say, “I’m Jerry. I’m here to pick up Daniella.” And the friend would look slightly bewildered and say, “Jerry? She just left with a Jerry.”
Even now, as I write it, I am tempted to call her and ask her for more explanation. But I know by now she will only repeat the story because the lessons of it are obvious to her. Whatever she was trying to convey to me, she had to know that I couldn’t pull it off, this subterfuge; I wasn’t her. I wasn’t beautiful like she was. I couldn’t stare contemptuously at a man and make him want me more. I just wanted to engage in conversations. I wanted to learn about people. She’d seen me through a lifetime of social interactions. She knew I was too needy. I led with my heart. This was my most horrifying feature to her. Still now she shudders with every personal essay I write. She cannot understand why you wouldn’t want to keep the inside on the inside, where it was designed to be the whole time. Your privacy is your ammunition.
I dated and I did it all wrong. I went out with a guy who didn’t call after. I took out my wallet. I offered to meet him at his convenience. I asked someone out. I asked a man why he hadn’t kissed me yet. I called a guy I’d gone on three dates with when I hadn’t heard from him in two days. (It went to voice mail; I called back the next day, then I understood.) I tried to convince a guy who was dumping me that he shouldn’t dump me.
The problem with “The Rules” isn’t that it shouldn’t need to exist (though, yes). The problem is that if you are someone who needs them, you are probably also someone incapable of following them. Trust me. I read “The Rules.” I couldn’t figure out a way to put any of them into action. I couldn’t figure out how to not look meaningfully into someone’s eyes. I couldn’t figure out how not to need, or to subvert my beta-need in order to get the alpha-need met. I wasn’t my mother. You should have seen her.
Lately I’ve been thinking about “The Rules.” I wrote a novel called “Fleishman Is in Trouble,” which will be published next month. It’s about a man who is recently divorced and who, like every other divorcee who got married in the early aughts, is now dating for the first time through his phone. I got married before the rise of smartphones; I had a few bad years on JDate but nothing much else — just large swaths of Syrian men from Deal, N.J., wanting to know if I would be a good second wife for them, if I was “serious” about settling down, if I had a family history of infertility.
It was nothing like what I heard from a critical mass of my friends who were getting divorced. One by one, they came to me and told me about their new dating lives. They told me how different and strange it was to be meeting someone on a phone. To sometimes be intimate with someone you didn’t even end up meeting in real life.
I asked to see their phones regularly. I asked for screen shots of their dirtiest talk. I wanted to understand how it was all working. I became obsessed to the point of unhinged about their new dating lives, in which all sex is plentiful, on-demand, available, and when it comes to romance, all the rules are off and also all “The Rules” are off.
While I was doing research, I signed up for some dating apps. I used a somewhat obscured picture of myself and I used my middle name. I didn’t pretend I was younger than I am. I am still traumatized by what happened next. I’m 43 and I’ve been married for 13 years, so please pardon what will look like naïveté while I break the news, because there are some people who do not know this yet: These days, a man will send you a series of eggplant emojis and say something to you that is unprintable in this family newspaper. These days, a man will vie for your heart by sending you a picture of his penis as the first interaction you’ve had — not to upset you but to entice you (all these years later, men do not understand how penises work for women). There are untold amounts of men who want to know if you will make eye contact while you are fellating them.
The women want in return. I found that out when I went on the apps disguised as a man. Many of them opened up conversations with the male me asking if I, their suitor, would be open to slapping them or choking them or pulling their hair hard, and let’s just say Rule 36, had the innocent authors of “The Rules” anticipated that a time like this was to come, would probably be not to do that. Yes, we have left “The Rules” behind. We have left all rules behind. We believe in sexual satisfaction now, yes, but also we are not offended by the asks. I leave room for women wanting this level of interaction with a man; of course some women want this. But I also leave room for this being a new tactic in the same old game. We are sincerely answering the question about eye contact while fellating with an affirmative (instead of, say, just wholesale vomiting onto our screens). We are liberated, but we are still conforming to the requests of a man.
I hear myself. I worry I’m getting old and becoming more old-fashioned than I ever was. Maybe I’m just as bad as “The Rules” authors. I leave room for that, too. But it seems like we’re still conforming to the expectation of the modern male, fueled by his sexual education via many uninterrupted hours of internet porn. We squeal with delight throughout degradation, we moan when we want to say “Ouch! Not so fast!” We are still playing by men’s rules; we are still trying to accommodate what men want instead of explicitly stating how — that — we want to be loved.
The problem with dating has always been the power dynamic; that has nothing to do with gender. One person always loves the other more. It’s never equal. The person who needs the other person less has the power. The only way to fix dating is to dismantle it. There is no one who has figured out how to do that. “The Rules” was also a response to this fact — that there was no changing the system, so the only thing to do was to work smarter within it.
If I drop my kids off at school early enough so that they have pre-bell gym time, I am treated to a gift myself: A radio segment on the Todd & Jayde in the Morning Show on WPLJ called “Blown Off.” In it, a person who has been ghosted by someone he or she has dated a few times tries to get to the bottom of why. The person has probably never heard the show before because if he or she had, he or she would know that this never ends in his or her favor.
Todd and Jayde assume an altruistic posture: This must be some mistake, you seem great, we’ll get to the bottom of this and take you on an expenses-paid date. But they know what’s coming. They call the ghoster (or “call” — it seems clear to me that the person being called, based on their lack of disorientation and their immediate unleashing of reserves of aggression, has been clued in that there will be a phone call in which they are taped). They say, “Hey, you went on a date with so and so. From what we understand, you had a good time. What happened?” And then the ghoster shines a mirror on the person he or she ghosted — he was cheap, she spoke in a baby voice (I swear), he had dirty fingernails (I swear), she was fat or pimpled or messy or slutty. You should hear it. And the person who was ghosted — ghosted people, have you not realized how this always ends yet? Haven’t you realized that if he or she wanted you, there were 10,000 avenues for him or her to say it? — is humiliated.
We can try to make things as even as we want, but two people can’t exist in a relationship without one of them having more power. That is dating, and we have not yet found a cure.
Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider are still trying to help. In 2013, they published a sequel to cope with online dating and social media called “Not Your Mother’s Rules.” I’ve read it. It’s about not responding to texts immediately or answering Facebook friend requests too soon. I’m afraid to report these are still my mother’s rules.
I spoke with Ms. Fein and Ms. Schneider. They say their opinions haven’t changed; their calendars are still filled with consultations and coaching appointments. They have opinions on which dating apps to be on now (not Bumble, that’s for sure). But to them, nothing has changed. Men are still men, and women are still women.
In 2001, it was reported that Ms. Fein was getting divorced, which effectively sounded the death knell of “The Rules” era. Headlines pointed out what they said was an irony: “The Rules” woman was divorcing; how good could “The Rules” be? Women said it proved what they’d always known, which was that “The Rules” was garbage. But what did a divorce have to do with the success of the book? “The Rules” was never about relationships or happiness. Or the tenability of any of the institutions that religious people put in place to make clearer a gender divide in humans that we no longer even believe in — indeed, in gender constructs we no longer believe in, either. No, “The Rules” was only about getting married.
It would have been great if “The Rules” had worked. This is not to say that some of its devotees don’t achieve their goal, which is to attract a certain kind of man (a man who himself wants a goal object of a woman who is not intimidating and not embarrassing and is not too loud and not too needy and not too ugly and not too difficult and not too intimidating and who is not a better bowler than he). This is not to say “The Rules” didn’t result in some marriages. But there was an essential “Rules” conundrum, which was that no one who needed the “Rules” was capable of keeping up a facade like that.
Because now imagine the man’s reaction to a woman who had once seemed so coy and quiet and ladylike and was now the animal of his nightmares: loud, emotional, needy, human. “The Rules,” at their best, presented a woman with a marketing plan. If you needed “The Rules,” you were almost definitionally incapable of keeping them.
I was one of those women. I married a man who had seen me at my highest and also my lowest, who had heard me scream and cry, who had loved that about me, too. I have many flaws — that’s maybe the point here — but I can say for sure that I never dealt dishonestly with anyone. I never pretended that I was accommodating, or that I could take it or leave it. That I didn’t want to dance. That I didn’t, at times, howl with sorrow and need. That I didn’t make bad jokes. That I was quiet and demure. That I was rational. That I didn’t make dirty jokes that I am told are unbecoming. That I would stay within a 25-pound spectrum, up down up down. That my legs would be shaven a majority of the time. I wasn’t mysterious. I couldn’t pull the trigger on a nose job; I only ever wanted to be known. I wanted to be loved, but not so much that I was willing to pretend I was someone else. What good is love if the person you are loved for isn’t really you? What is better than to be known and to be loved because you are known? Which book can teach you that before you learn it for yourself?
Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a staff writer for the The Times Magazine. Her novel, Fleishman is In Trouble, will be published by Random House next month.