Warner: New York, 1995
An antidote to cynicism
One way to consider The Rules is as an antidote to cynicism: a handbook for cynics wishing to reform their own attitudes and regain romance, or for those despairing on the brink of cynicism who wonder how to pull back from the abyss. Cynicism says that love and marriage are old-fashioned, risky, out-of-date, anti-feminine, anti-fulfillment, dull. So don't try to get married; or just settle for a series of relationships; or stay alone.
The Rules: Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right, by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, is a book that attacks this cynicism and discouragement squarely. They do not offer shoulders to cry on. They say that women who want a happy marriage should think about what they're doing and how they act, examine whether their outlook and behavior are productive or counter-productive to that end.
If you as a reflective woman see a recurring pattern in your life that you don't like, perhaps you can break out of it. Transform your outlook, then re-tune your behavior. Fein and Schneider suggest that you apply The Rules (a common phrase, so they italicize their use of it) to clarify your thinking about both your outlook and your behavior.
So is this stupid? Certainly the authors are swimming against a strong tide of culture and fashion. Consider the role-model function of Hollywood stars, whose marriages increasingly are so brief that the actors and actresses sometimes have broken up before the fan magazines can get their wedding photos into print. The wedding magazines hate that, but at least it's more quick news for the tabloids. For the fatuously famous stars, marriage seems to be redefining as just a love-affair with a big fancy party. Then break up, divorce, and on to the next fling. No big deal.
Sometimes rather than cynical, women are too hopeful (I do not say desperate) to get married, and therefore pursue likely or unlikely prospects for husbands. In The Rules all such pursuit is strongly deprecated as contrary to the natural order of things. What? Women are supposed to wait, not talk to romantically interesting men first, not ever ask men to dance? We may react to this with amusement or condescension or hostility, but let's just take it for now as an interesting thesis, and play with it for a while — purely platonically, of course.
How about men? Do men really like women who have no rules for their behavior?
Men pursue — and marry — whom?
More to our point at hand, are men more likely to pursue and marry a woman radiating enticing femininity backed by a quiet, thoughtful depth of character, one who follows rules for her own conduct — or one who doesn't? With which kind is a man more likely to stay married? Shakespeare's Juliet is very clear at least that for her, love and marriage are closely coupled:
[Verona. Outside Capulet's house.]Romeo:[Enter Juliet aloft]
If you're a woman, would you rather look for a man who is attracted to a woman who disciplines herself to a feminine ruleset — or would you just as soon take up with a man who'll be satisfied with any available woman? What is the impact on your own self-esteem? What is the involvement of your sexual availability in your emotional bonding?
The Rules of course is written mostly for single women, but there is plenty to think about for girls just starting to date, or for married women — or for men, if I may say so. How men and women get along, whether we can settle our social and economic and romantic and reproductive lives satisfactorily, is not an issue that is going to disappear in the foreseeable future. Increased education, even The Pill, have not simplified the problems and stresses, nor have education and contraception changed human nature. In many ways the shifting values of recent years have been hardest on the intelligent and sensitive woman who is without a strong religious environment that prescribes her path in life.
Assuming the women and girls are getting their phosphates and leafing out nicely, what's an example rule? How about:
And a couple of pages more, on not staring, and on being reserved rather than a chatterbox. Many of the chapters contain very abbreviated anecdotes about women who followed The Rules and wound up happily married, or who didn't follow, and weren't. The authors' The Rules website provides short versions of their top ten of the thirty-five in The Rules, as well as information on their other books and Rules-related items and consulting.
Note some important aspects of The Rules:
If Mr. Right sounds silly, contrast that idea with a disastrous Mr. Wrong or an indefinite series of Mr. Half-Rights. A sequence of affairs and marriages with one partner after another is not monogamy, it is time-shared polygamy: serial polygyny for him, and serial polyandry for her. This repetitiveness emphasizes the hope of trusting to luck again and again, rather than the virtue of disciplining oneself to get it right next time, once and for all. Those who are emotionally thick-skinned, or for whatever reasons satisfied with doubtful, uncommitted, or less permanent relationships are free to keep to their current rounds.
Long previous centuries of greater cultural and religious pressure, with much less education and extremely uncertain contraception, contributed to many unwanted and unhappy marriages, as well as other terrible social ills. But surely we can say that the Sexual Revolution has not brought forth new multitudes of fulfilled people, either singly or in pairs or in families.
There are of course ingrained biological reasons for both promiscuity (reproduce now!) and chastity until commitment (stay healthy!), as well as moral arguments all over the lot. The calculator at Sex Degrees of Separation: Check the Number of Indirect Sexual Partners You've Had, from Lloyds Pharmacy, suggests the vast network of intimacy beyond whomever we've known directly.
There has been such a lot of wreckage; it cannot hurt to rethink our assumptions.
Under several headings of The Rules, Fein and Schneider advise women to go slow with emotional intimacy and with sex — indeed, because these two are so melded or intertwined that if we are not careful about sex, keeping a clear head for The Rules or our relationship goals or anything else can be difficult. Some women, if not virginal, then previously passion-burnt, follow a rule of Waiting Until Marriage to Have Sex (WUMTHS) — unmarried chastity; a more cautious line even than The Rules specifies, but of course compatible.
But the philosophy of sex and gender, nature and art, is not the everyday province of The Rules. In this handbook of traditional "secrets" we take for granted the traditional goals of love and marriage (that's love and marriage as paired concepts for a truly paired couple). The Rules simply enumerates and discusses factors that help women achieve these goals. It is a practical guide.
I wouldn't tell men or women emotionally hurt in divorce or a failed but continuing marriage, or who have seen such disasters among friends and family, that marriage is a cure-all for the problems of life, a patent-medicine elixir for loneliness, or anything like that. Nevertheless, most of us personally know some shining examples. How did those happen, anyway? Luck, determination, wisdom? Fein and Schneider propose a set of rather traditional values and related guidelines to avoid entangling oneself in all the doubtful, uncommitted, on-and-off dating, and otherwise impermanent relationships. The Rules attempt to minimize "wishing and hoping" for Lady Luck finally to bless a relationship.
My own parents' life-long and happy marriage, undertaken after knowing each other only six weeks, certainly predisposes me to trust to luck and perception. I'll grant them a lot of perception and wisdom — they were grown-ups when they met, very bright, and neither innocent nor ignorant — but the more I meditate on it, I cannot help but admit that they were very lucky too.
I mentioned earlier that the intelligent woman, sensitive and perhaps unarmored by religion, may be especially entangled in the shifting values of our time. Cynicism is one false refuge for which The Rules are an antidote. I'm glad that the authors also are clear that Rules Girls need not abandon their intelligence.
No intelligent woman should feel she needs to hide her light under a bushel to be feminine and attractive. That associates femininity with stupidity rather than companionship. What a shame. Comparably, no intelligent man should feel his masculinity threatened by the quick and subtle mind of a woman he cares about romantically.
Femininity is a glory for the woman and a delight to the appreciative man. The Rules are intended to maximize both the attraction in dating, and its permanence in married love. Quite a challenge, to both women and men.
© 2003 Robert Wilfred Franson
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