It happened on a Thursday night. A guy I'd been seeing had come over and we’d just finished watching a movie.
Aside from his repeated requests (and my repeated denials) that we “find somewhere to lie down,” the evening had gone smoothly. Then we started making out and he fell asleep: just leaned his head back and closed his eyes, mid-kiss. We decided then that it was time for him to go home, and I was left to wonder — did he keep asking to lie down because he needed a nap?
I had been feeling a little bored with my love life lately, but watching my date fall asleep was my wake-up call: Something had to change.
That’s when I discovered The Rules in a friend’s coffee table. (“My mom gave it to me — she’s ESL,” offered my friend, by way of explanation.)
The Rules is a notorious dating advice book published 20 years ago, in 1995. It lists 35 rules that women who want “marriage, in the shortest time possible” are supposed to follow. The prose is both basic and whimsical, like advice from a well-meaning but slightly unhinged 90-year-old great aunt, offering one of those “pep talks” that actually make you feel worse, rather than better. (“Well you’re no Angelina Jolie, dear, but with the right wardrobe, a more feminine haircut, about 10 fewer pounds, and some minor plastic surgery, there’s no reason you couldn’t convince a man to ask you out.”) There is a kind of old-world charm to it, really.
There are many good reasons to ignore The Rules, including the fact that getting married as quickly as possible falls well below “figure out why my thumb nail is bumpy” on my list of priorities. But there is one compelling reason to give them a try: morbid curiosity. I couldn’t resist.
For the past three months, I have been following The Rules, and nobody has fallen asleep yet.
Rule #1: Be a "Creature Unlike Any Other"
I first tried The Rules at a local pub, where I was attending an event with friends. It wasn’t quite a “singles dance” (the book is pretty keen on those), but it was as close to one as I will get, being under 50 years old.
I have been to pubs before, but this night was different, because I was attempting to be “a creature unlike any other,” which involves brushing the hair out of one’s face, “in a slow, sweeping motion,” smiling all the time while avoiding eye contact, and “walking briskly” around the room without ever stopping.
Sensually sweeping the hair out of my eyes, I entered the pub and began to walk briskly. At once, I realized how challenging it is to be in constant motion without actually looking at anyone. I nearly collided with several men while smiling vacantly at the wall behind them. Surprisingly, nobody rushed to the coat check girl to ask for a pen to grab my number, as promised.
I sat down at a table, where I plastered a smile on my face and stared ahead like an Oscar nominee on award night, waiting for a guy to succumb to my mysterious allure. Unfortunately, without looking directly at anyone, it was hard to tell if a man was actually talking to me, or to someone nearby.
I am not sure if I spoke with a man that evening or not.
“But First, the Product — You!”
As I continued my research, I realized I’d missed an important first step: becoming a product. The chapter titled, “But First, the Product — You!” provides helpful hints that mostly seem to involve not eating sundaes, not dressing like a man, and having long hair, in addition to (obviously) an alternating regular schedule of manicures, pedicures, and facials, as well as plastic surgery “if necessary.”
Of course, it also involves getting skinnier. The authors quaintly exhort women to “Join a gym, buy an exercise video, or go jogging in a nearby park.” Luckily, a friend was able to get me a free week-long pass to a local gym.
At the gym, a fit, attractive man named Pablo gave me a half hour-long tour and then ushered me into his office, where he expressed concern about my bad knee (we were old friends now), and insisted I have a personal training session with a woman named Mary, who informed me that I have weak inner thighs.
This is not a condition that is covered in The Rules, but I could hear the authors’ voices in my head: “Inner thighs should be strong and mysterious!” So I integrated clam shells and squats into my workout schedule. (Because being a “Rules Girl” means having a workout schedule.)
Rule #9: How to Act on Dates 1, 2, and 3
I had internalized the rules, and I was clam-shelling the crap out of my inner thighs. It was time to test The Rules on a date.
My potential doting husband and I had been trying to plan the date for nearly a month, because I was following rule number five ("Don’t call him and rarely return his calls") and rule number seven ("Don’t accept a Saturday night date after Wednesday"). Once, we had planned so far in advance that we both forgot we even had a date.
For all the freakishly precise instructions about how to get a date, The Rules are practically mum on what to do during the date itself. The authors beg us not to mention the “M Word” on the first date, or to go about naming our future children just yet, but beyond that, we’re told to “relax” and “don’t try too hard.” That’s it, apart from smiling, which should be the only expression your face is now capable of producing.
I therefore had one goal for the date: Let him carry the conversation without being “controlling or wifey.” I have always thought of first dates as a team effort, with everyone doing their best to make sure the conversation doesn’t run aground on some awkward, silent sandbar. Was my desire to contribute to interesting conversation to blame for not having a husband who wants nothing more than to spend his time antiquing together?
I met my date in front of my apartment, because I don’t have a lobby (lobbies are mentioned frequently and wistfully in The Rules). We exchanged a greeting and I waited for him to begin the conversation. He didn’t. I was on a date with Quiet Guy — someone The Rules brushes off as a quasi-mythical figure. The thinking seems to go, if he likes you, he will develop an entirely different personality.
We walked to the restaurant, which worked out well because I at least had something to do while I tried really really hard not to initiate any sort of conversation. This feat was much harder as we stared silently at each other over dinner between short bouts of small talk.
Finally, I couldn’t take it any more. “You know, all this staring reminds me of an article I read recently where a couple asks each other 36 questions, then stare into each other's eyes for four minutes, and they fall in love,” I blurted, which was almost as bad as using the “M word.” “Oh, so if we keep staring at each other we’ll fall . . . .” he trailed off. More silence followed, but with less eye contact.
We finished dinner and he walked me to my door, where we stood quietly for a few moments before he remarked, “Well, I’m going to head out.” And left.
What Does It All Mean?
I decided to follow The Rules because I thought it would be funny, and I was curious about how people would respond to me. I didn’t expect it to affect me, personally.
The book seems to advocate, in its own twisted way, for women to develop greater self-respect. For all the ridiculous advice, the message seems to be, “Don’t throw yourself at guys who aren’t interested and who treat you badly.”
The problem is, the more I try to follow The Rules, the less self-respect I have. The more I have focused on how I act around men; how I speak, and look, and every gesture I make, the more self-conscious and anxiety-prone I have become. Dating has stopped being a mutual decision-making process about whether we want to get to know each other better. It’s become about me trying to be attractive to him, and either succeeding or failing.
Self-worth is a steep price to pay for "love."
After our date, Quiet Guy texted me,saying he’d really enjoyed it and would like to do it again. I said, “Sure.” But next time, I’ll be doing the talking.