by Leslie Morgan Steiner
I howled (not in a good way) over The Rules  by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider. I was in the minority – the 1995 book sold over two million copies and was translated into 26 languages.
I watched (in a good way) the 2009 movie He’s Just Not That Into You  three times – twice with my kids, once with my husband, who nodded often and even cried once during the film.
“Girls are taught a lot of stuff growing up. If a guy punches you he likes you. Someday you will meet a wonderful guy and get your very own happy ending. But sometimes we're so focused on finding our happy ending we don't learn how to read the signs. How to tell the ones who want us from the ones who don't, the ones who will stay and the ones who will leave.”
Imbedded in these books and movies about subtle (and not so subtle) dating etiquette lie complicated realities of our culture. What men and women look for in a mate can be practical – and ridiculously impractical.
Washington Post reporter Lois Romano wrote about this dynamic 25 years ago, and recently examined intergenerational dating dynamics in Love and the Litmus Test . Romano – who has two daughters now in their 20s -- argues that in her and her daughters’ dating experiences, every dance inevitably takes a litmus test: “the moment in virtually every relationship when the euphoria of chemistry and promise gives way to the reality of everyday life – and a decision has to be made. An insignificant gesture, an offhand comment, or a plaid sports coat can alter destiny.”
The content of these unconscious litmus tests have changed with the generations, but the tests still remain. Her research showed that people stick by these snap judgments, seemingly based on irrelevant details. The results are mixed.
“Coming out of the ‘60s, my peers considered themselves feminist prototypes who were hellbent on having careers and families. Yet not a single woman in my original research mentioned cooking as a litmus test for a potential mate. In fact, a guy who wanted to cook you a three-course dinner at your place back then was considered a little too domesticated.”
Flash forward 20 years. No wonder so many women who chose clueless-in-the-kitchen mates were infuriated by the impossible dream of “having it all.” You cannot have it all when married to men who can’t even cook. Duh!!!
Will our daughters (and sons) be any more realistic than we were? Can we pass on what we’ve learned about relationships from years of happy or unhappy conjugation? What “rules” do 20-somethings follow today when it comes to dating and sorting through potential partners?
Today much of dating deal-breakers focus on Facebook, texting and Tweeting etiquette. I can barely open my own Facebook page, so I don’t pretend to understand all the cues and faux paux plastering the web. Part of the complexity was explained by Drew Barrymore’s character in He’s Just Not That Into You.
“I had this guy leave me a voicemail at work, so I called him at home, and then he emailed me to my BlackBerry, and so I texted to his cell, and now you just have to go around checking all these different portals just to get rejected by seven different technologies. It's exhausting.”
Whether you realize it in person or via text, I’m one of those who believes in the unconscious gut check. I once broke up with a man I had dated for three years because suddenly I hated the backs of his thighs. One day, watching him in shorts, my mind flashed me a picture of future children with his thick, stocky legs. In an instant I decided to break up with him. I remember thinking, “I don’t want to put myself through life with those legs.”
How could I be so weird, so petty, so irrational? But the truth – which my unconscious mind damn well knew even if I couldn’t admit it out loud – was that boyfriend-of-three-years suffocated and controlled me, subtly demeaned me at every turn, always claiming he did so because he loved me so much. His legs WERE just my petty, irrational, but very good excuse to break up with a man who was wrong for me in every way.
This is all well and good advice. But The Rules authors clearly have not studied gender discrimination. The Rules for Marriage  came out in 2002 with bafflingly retro marriage advice, far removed from the “denial” strategy a single woman should follow--don't call him, don't be too available, don't sleep with him early on. In marriage the rules have changed. DH wants sex? Serve it up. He doesn't want to talk? Smile and dial your best friend. He wants to go to the football game? Get your coat and go. The underlying philosophy is that an unfair marriage is preferable to no marriage at all -- and the emotional heavy lifting in marriage falls to the woman. "The fact is, to be happily married, a woman sometimes needs to treat her husband like a client or customer whom they want to keep happy," says the book.
What about splitting housework, childcare, the responsibility to bring home a paycheck and health benefits? Women and men will never have true equality at home if both parties consider the male the “client.” I hope neither our sons nor our daughters fall for this lack of balance in relationships. With all this buzz about The Rules and new litmus test for the internet age, we need to be sure our kids (and we) remember that a little common sense is invaluable in love as well as life.