"The Rules": They're baaack!

You can be engaged by Christmas, desperate single ladies -- as long as you're ready to lie

Published November 17, 2009 8:18PM (EST)

You'd think that a full 14 years after Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider's "The Rules" debuted, we'd be free of dating articles based on its principles: To wit, that every lonely adult would be happily married right now if slightly dim, marriage-obsessed harpies (i.e., women) were only more skilled at manipulating slightly dim, chest-pounding horndogs (i.e., men). Not so! That infernal book spawned not only umpteen follow-ups and countless knockoffs, but a freakin' multimedia empire for the authors, whose sole qualification to write the original was having husbands, and whose success barely hit a speed bump when Fein broke up with hers just as "The Rules for Marriage: Time-Tested Secrets for Making Your Marriage Work" came out. In fact, they are now in the business of training other people as "relationship experts." People like Jag Carrao, who wants you to know that you can be engaged by Christmas, ladies -- as long as you've had an exclusive boyfriend for at least nine months, and you haven't fucked it all up by letting him really get to know you.

The run-up to an engagement can be "an incredibly nerve-wracking time," Carrao informs us. "You're doing your darnedest to practice patience, keep things light and focus on the present, and yet all these feelings of doubt, ambivalence and even resentment keep bubbling up -- particularly if you've been dating for over a year, or even years, plural!" Yes, folks, our relationship expert has just explained that when you know you're ready for marriage, you should expect to experience doubt, ambivalence and resentment toward your partner. I don't even have to insert my own faux-befuddled "Why?" here, because Carrao covers that for me:

Why? Well, because something is awry in the balance of your relationship. Your boyfriend -- whom you dearly love -- appears to be getting most, if not all, of his needs met. He's got a lover, a committed girlfriend, and possibly even a faux-wife if you've fallen into the error of acting like you were married -- e.g. cooking for him, spending too much time with him, letting him see you whenever he wants, keeping clothes at his place, etc. In fact, he might be happy with this arrangement for years. I mean, why not?

Indeed, why not? But you, of course, could not possibly be happy with this arrangement! It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a good boyfriend must be in want of a big, sparkly ring. And also that buddy is totally not gonna buy the cow if he can get his needs -- which will never actually include marriage, on account of how he has a penis -- met for free. Just look around you: Do you see any couples getting married after they live together? After dating for more than a year? ("In the 'ideal' Rules timeline, he proposes after nine months.") After seeing each other more than three times a week? I didn't think so! (And I don't even need to ask if you've ever seen a man who wants to get married when his girlfriend doesn't, or a happily unmarried woman, now do I?)

Carrao offers a few tips for women looking to orchestrate a holiday engagement -- without doing anything so stupid and Rule-breaking as proposing themselves, of course -- and they do contain a single nugget of good advice, which probably partially explains the enduring popularity of The Rules (and books like "He's Just Not That Into You," which she also quotes). That is: "Stop making excuses for him ... [D]on't let him snooker you into pretending that marriage isn't important or doesn't matter IF it IS important to YOU and DOES matter to YOU." Fair enough. The argument in favor of The Rules and HJNTIY has always been that the advice is fundamentally about self-respect and boundary-setting, about teaching women to stand up for their needs, ditch opportunistic losers, and hold out for guys who really treat them well and have similar goals. These are all good things! The problem is all the other advice, which encourages you to scheme, lie, dumb yourself down, squelch your instincts, and make incredibly unflattering generalizations about men, including "your boyfriend -- whom you dearly love." And which also reinforces the idea not only that you're doing something wrong if you haven't yet earned the coveted ring, but that there must be something wrong with you if you're not desperate to get engaged this holiday season. Says Carrao, "NOTHING could be more natural than for a woman in love with hopes for marriage and possibly children to wish to see her dreams reciprocated during a season centering around family, tradition, and reflections on the year behind and that ahead." NOTHING. Do you hear me? NOTHING!

And if you're a single woman who doesn't start flipping out about marriage the first time you hear a Christmas carol playing in Starbucks, well, that is positively unnatural. No matter how long you've known the dude. "Even if you're in the somewhat early stages of dating -- nowhere near where you should be talking about marriage -- the holidays DO provide an ideal time to look for signs of whether the man you're seeing is serious about you." Ooh, and what are those? Clue No. 1: "The man who gives you inexpensive lingerie from T.J. Maxx is more likely to end up proposing than the one who gives you an expensive cashmere scarf from Loro Piana." Well, obviously. A cheap, itchy thing that says "Let's bone" always holds more long-term promise than something beautiful and useful. Clue 2: "Does he want to be with you, even when you've come down with the seasonal flu?" I believe the correct answer to that question is supposed to be "yes," but a relationship expert should certainly know that once you pass along your germs to a man, he gets it 20 times worse than any woman could imagine, and then you're sick and playing nursemaid to a whiny toddler in a 6-foot body. That is a universal truth about heterosexual relationships.

Or maybe that's just how it is with my husband and me. Oh yes, I have one of those! Which makes me exactly as qualified to offer dating advice as Fein and Schneider were in 1995. Based on my experience as a successful husband-getter, I can tell you that all of the following behaviors are proven 100 percent effective in leading to marriage (and even a holiday season proposal!): Making the first move; having a first date that lasts three days; calling him frequently; moving in together after two months; publicly declaring that you won't apologize for being fat and are never going on another friggin' diet; telling him to suck it when he mentions that sweat pants aren't the most flattering sartorial choice you've ever made; offering a cranky feminist critique of every movie you see together; making no effort to conceal the fact that you're at least as smart as he is; blogging the early days of your relationship; talking early, often and in-depth about subjects including your ex-boyfriends, your dead mother, politics, religion, patriarchy and yeast infections; not knowing for sure if you ever want to get married, anyway; and living together for two years without really worrying about it. 

So, as a certified relationship expert (I do, after all, have a legal document from the state of Nevada identifying me as someone a genuine male person agreed to marry), I can assure you that no matter who you really are or what you really want out of a relationship, it all boils down to one simple fact: Men want short-tempered, poorly dressed fat feminists who have sex on the first date and never stop talking. 

You might not like hearing it, desperate single women, but I'm just telling it like it is.

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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