Scan the shelves of recent self-help books on dating long enough and a clear message emerges: Singles, after years of balls-out fun, are sick and tired of playing games; finally they're ready to hunker down and work. Judging from a random selection of available titles -- "Recruiting Love: Using the Business Skills You Have to Find the Love You Want," "The Art of War for Lovers," "Be Your Own Dating Service," "Guerrilla Dating Tactics" and, of course, "The Rules" -- the teeming millions are crying out to have their love lives micromanaged by corporate efficiency experts.
Dating gurus have always offered hope to the perennially disappointed in the form of fail-proof tactical maneuvers for finding, keeping and managing that special anyone. Now, however, they really mean business. Whatever their approach, the writers concur: To succeed in love, as in the workplace, you've got to have a goal, a plan and a can-do attitude.
After sampling at random from the genre, I have taken the liberty of synthesizing my own "Ten Habits of Highly Effective Relationship Writers" to illustrate their principles in action:
1) Present problem, and repeatedly urge reader to face problem: "Let's face it, meeting good people is not as easy as it used to be ... Let's face it, the days of free love are over." ("Recruiting Love")
2) Make reader feel bad about self: "Doing what you want to do is not always in your best interest. On a job interview, you don't act 'like yourself' ... In the long run, it's not fun to break The Rules! You could easily wind up alone." ("The Rules")
3) Make reader feel like jackass for having ever felt good about self: "Many of us have been led to believe that the key to a romantic connection is finding someone who likes us 'just the way we are' ... The truth is that every complex process involves 'art' or technique, and love is no exception." ("Art of War for Lovers")
4) Warn now-frightened reader of the perils of complacency: "In today's world, being single and trying to find the right relationship is one of the greatest challenges we face. We can't afford to leave this to luck and chance." ("Be Your Own Dating Service")
5) Suggest reader may be just a tiny bit mentally ill: "Do not for one moment think of the people you want to meet as your enemies. The real enemies are your own doubts." ("Guerrilla Dating Tactics")
6) Introduce guide as solution, then subtly kick prostrate reader once more for good measure: "Using our plan, adults can take control of their love search in the same way they have taken control of their careers and put an end to the helpless victim cycle." ("Be Your Own Dating Service")
7) Damn pale, quaking reader with faint praise: "You are not a helpless victim! You are in control!" ("Recruiting Love")
8) List benefits of plan, relying heavily on martial and corporate metaphors: "As on the battlefield, victory in love requires thoughtful planning, time-tested tactics, and careful execution ... Sun Tzu's wisdom is the basis for a step-by-step program for taking charge, gaining a commitment, sustaining love, strengthening intimacy, and enlivening passion in a partnership -- not by force, but by inner strategizing." ("Art of War for Lovers")
9) Convince reader that dating starts with charts and provide hours of paperwork in the form of
15 Second Memos, Summary Blueprints, Action Memos, Dating Logs, Relationship History Inventory and Dating Game Plans: "Bar graphs measure advancement in your basic skills ... Use a different color marker for activities you try." (Guerrilla Dating Tactics)
10) Adopt pop-spiritual tone in effort to make writerly self look like less of an asshole for having done all of the above: "We must seek self-awareness first and learn to date in a more thoughtful fashion." ("Be Your Own Dating Service")
Like most self-help books, the dating genre is littered with cautionary tales studded with improbable details ("Sarah said she'd wear two red roses in her hair so Steve could identify her easily"; "On my second date with Randy, he suggested we go to a disco after dinner.") These anecdotes -- none of which turn out even reasonably well -- paint a pitiable picture of a world in which legions of misguided singles look for love in all the wrong places, endure an endless stream of harrowing dates with lunatics and sociopaths and settle, in desperation, for sad, sordid alliances that will inevitably come to no good end. ("You've got to do your research before putting yourself out there, or you might end up like Cheryl -- with a string of married boyfriends instead of a committed relationship." Heavens! Must not end up like Cheryl!)
Some writers whimsically dispense with anecdotes altogether in favor of fables and fairy tales meant to dispel all the myths that have thus far hindered our romantic efforts. In "Be Your Own Dating Service," Nina Atwood, M.Ed., L.P.C, describes a princess who, "after getting tired of waiting for her prince went to a bar where a lot of men hung out. But she didn't find any princes there, only a lot of married men, alcoholics, and more of those non-commitment types."
Of course, in our world, "princesses" who go to "bars where a lot of men hang out" pretty much know they won't find any princes there, only a lot of queens. But -- leaving aside the fact that anyone who has actually seen the inside of a bar knows that if it were true that this exotic assortment of undesirables naturally flocked together, they would be much easier to spot, track and avoid -- the message of these stories is clear: Traditional dating methods, whatever these may be, just don't work. As I glance through Sharyn Wolf's "Guerrilla Dating Tactics," I learn that this may be due in part to the pernicious influence of some "romantic love myth" or another that has "tracked us since childhood." As she explains it, "Romantic myths can hurt us." For example, this is a myth: "It happens when you're not looking." Its correlated reality: "No! That's when you get hit by a bus!"
Rigorous application of various easy-to-follow steps, on the other hand, will metamorphose the hapless single into an unstoppable love magnet of infinite power, armed with flawless criteria to use in evaluating potential mates. According to Jessica Blackman Freedman and Alison Blackman Dunham, authors of "Recruiting Love," strict adherence to their rules should have the awesome, mutative effect of transforming the "passive dater" into a dynamic "Love Recruiter" in six short weeks.
Call me lazy, but "passive dating" has always been my preferred M.O. (When I try to imagine myself as a "dynamic love recruiter," I wind up picturing myself in a pith helmet and a butterfly net.) In fact, my first boyfriend and I would never even have gotten together had our proactive friends not tied us together with a rope and left us alone in a basement. This is how love blossoms, I think. One minute you feel nothing, the next, you notice you've developed inexplicably tender feelings for someone's glasses.
But relationship writers warn us repeatedly against relying on "chemistry" and they champion a more professional approach. In fact, the authors of "Recruiting Love" even promise to turn the "search for love" into one "as manageable and as familiar as a job hunt," and to help us meet our "love goals" by guiding us through the process of meeting a mate as quickly, efficiently and painlessly as possible, with "effective strategies to organize the love search and cut down on wasted time." Of course, like all good corporate alarmists, these writers must convince us of the urgent need for a "paradigm shift" in our way of approaching the business of love before selling us on their fail-proof practical guides. While most of them freely admit that the methods outlined in their books might at first seem "crazy" ("The Rules"); "politically incorrect" ("The Art of War for Lovers") or "indeed humorous" ("Recruiting Love"), the writers admonish readers that anything short of slavish devotion to their guidelines will result in total failure and heartbreak. They cheerfully dispense bulletproof tips for better living through manipulation, gleefully peddling the notion that all our woes can be neatly excised with a simple attitude adjustment and a well-organized plan involving worksheets. Meanwhile they relentlessly stoke the same fears they pretend to allay, whipping readers into a frothy, frenzied fear of the unthinkable: winding up alone.
If dating books don't succeed in mirroring the reality of anyone living outside of a Todd Solondz film, they do reflect certain pervasive attitudes about love. Underneath the colorful anecdotes and pie-in-the-sky promises of instant success lurks a sad, quiet desperation and confusion. Whether they urge us to be manly and ladylike, letting biological determinism take its course (the "face it, men and women are different" approach), or exhort us to transform ourselves into terrifyingly cheerful, toothy singles on the prowl (the "you go get 'em!" approach), these writers make it safe to go back in the water by reducing "the search for love" to the sort of soulless, deadened, passionless but comfy experience we know as work.
They present our "ideal mate" as the ultimate brass ring -- a shiny souvenir from our pre-packaged, air-conditioned, fully insured field trips into the wilderness of love. In their zeal for helping readers "succeed," they benignly neglect to mention that finding love, no matter how much your mother insisted you shop around, will never be as easy as pushing your cart resolutely past aisle 10, where all the bastards are stocked. Because love does happen when you're not looking and it's exactly like getting hit by a bus. You either go to heaven or you spend the next six months in a body cast eating whipped shit through a straw.
I have a neighbor who loves to tell me about her "traditional rules for courtship." Every time I run into her, she tells me about a recent date that came to an abrupt end due to some flaw in protocol, some failure to conform to her rules that inevitably led to the untimely demise of the fledgling romance. One guy didn't get out of the car and walk her to the door after the first date; another committed the unspeakable offense of calling her on Friday to ask her out on Saturday. Neither was spared a swift and stern reprimand. Neither ever called her again.
Every time she tells me one of these stories, I want to shove her into her apartment and slap her until she hands over the stupid book -- because I know it's in there, dog-eared, highlighted and damn near memorized. I want to tell her there's nothing she can do about it. She's going to fall in love with people who don't love her back, she's going to get dumped without warning, she's going to obsess over the wrong people and not notice the right ones. Buses are going to sail past her, mow her down, fail to appear. It's going to hurt; but if it didn't, she'd never know what good felt like.
Because if you try to replace pain and wasted time with rules and pie-charts, suddenly the whole thing just won't seem worth the effort anymore.