Until this month, I had never purchased or read a relationship self-help book in my life. In my many years of being really fucking single, I never once had the urge to seek advice from a stranger who claims to have been in the same boat as me, and is now happily in love with a perfect person thanks to dating rules they made up for themselves. That's why, when I was given a book titled Why Men Love Bitches as a gag gift several years ago, I tossed it aside. I knew full-well that if men really did love bitches, I'd be swimming in commitment. Recently, however, I found that book again while going through boxes I had saved in a storage space. Just reading the contents page alone was horrifying. Section titles such as "The Mama/Ho Complex," "How to Convince Him He's in Control While You Run the Show," and "Fifteen Signs That a Woman Is Needy" made me want to immediately set both myself and that book on fire. I wondered, Is this what they're all like?
An hour later, I was inside a Barnes & Noble standing in the middle of the self-help section. The relationship books at this particular store were at the very bottom. As I bent down to skim through the titles, I realised I was tantalisingly close to falling flat on the floor in a foetal position. Whoever organised this section of the store must have known I was coming. The first thing I noticed was that every single book was for women. Meaning, we are either the only gender that believes we need help when it comes to forming loving relationships, or we are the only gender that knows how to read.While these books all had competing titles that claimed to be like no other dating book on the market, every single one somehow ended up saying the same exact thing: Women must follow certain "rules" in the courting process. One example of this comes from E! News correspondent Guliana DePandi's not-at-all redundantly titled Think Like a Guy: How to Get a Guy by Thinking Like One. Here's her advice: "The first time you sleep over, wake up early and sneak out without saying goodbye or leaving a note. Don't be the girl who is smothering him when he wakes up, asking him to take you to brunch." Fuck that – I love brunch. I want scrambled eggs.Sherry Argov's Why Men Love Bitches lists ways to avoid making men feel like they are being "caged." "When you go on a first date, tell him you 'don't want to be in a serious relationship' (for the time being)." Wink, wink. But, I do want to be in a serious relationship. I don't want to have to lie. All that these books managed to reveal to me is that there is an underlying issue with the state of dating, and it has nothing to do with women being too needy as much as it has to do with men being skittish wimps. Writing books that detail ways women should bend over backwards to act just as vague and cowardly as them is not a solution. It's just making things worse. Now, they're spoiled. They're being told that nothing is wrong with their irrational fear of commitment. We just have to get better at trapping them in our cages.
Related: VICE speaks with a variety of dating experts in an attempt to unlock the mysteries of the coital dance.As frustrated as all of these books were making me feel, I ended up finding two that seemed decent. Get a Life, Then Get a Man by Jennifer Bawden, and Screwing the Rules: The No-Games Guide to Love by Laurel House. The titles alone suggested some sort of breaking free from the tired bullshit I was reluctantly forcing my brain to absorb. As I skimmed through them, I noticed they focused heavily on exercises that could (allegedly) help me better myself. I bought both books, hoping that they could offer advice that didn't have to do with setting up man traps, even though Bawden's book cover looked like an ad for some sort of feminine douche product.As I read, I speculated as to whether or not partaking in these exercises could actually aid me in approaching dating more effectively? Well, there was only one way for me to find out. Do the goddamn exercises.
This one comes from Screwing the Rules by Laurel House. She suggests that you dedicate at least one part of your day to doing something completely selfish, and just for you. Her suggestions include: taking a long bath, signing up for a cooking class, going on a hike, or going on a field trip. She even suggests the selfish act of masturbating as a form of taking yourself out on a date. Well, if that counts then I have been very seriously dating myself for many years now. I can skip the hike.According to House, dating myself will make me feel "whole." That way, I can go into a relationship not needing a man to "complete me." Wait, am I incomplete?
Although I already feel like I've taken myself out on plenty of dates, I decided to do the bath thing. I can't remember the last time I took one. Even when I have taken baths, they've never been like the cliché ones I see in movies, with the bubbles that cover my naked body and the glass of champagne that's definitely not going to fall in the tub. So I set out to give myself one of those. I even bought overpriced lavender-scented bath salts.Once my bath was ready, I poured myself a glass of wine, and soaked myself in the hot water. I further contemplated what it means to be "complete." In my romcom bath, I thought hard about what exactly it is I want from a relationship, which is something I've never really thought about before.Related: How to Make a Long-Distance Relationship Work, DammitI want someone to spend the night with. Someone to regularly eat me out. Someone I know is thinking of me, and adores me. I want these things because I don't have them, and when I do, I really like them. While I want them, I am also able to live my life pretty happily without having all of these at once, from one specific person, who I equally adore. Does this mean that I am in fact, a complete human being?House suggests a good relationship is one where two people "balance" each other. "You are each individually amazing. But, you are even more awesome together!" Sure, let's go with that. I want a relationship so my already awesome (up for debate) life can be awesomer. I suppose this exercise did help in some way.
Once I sort-of figured out what I want out of a relationship, I moved onto House's second assignment: List five things you love about yourself, two of which must be physical. This is to be done every morning, when you first wake up. Five new things every day.For the first few days, this was no problem. I was able to come up with five things every day, without giving it too much thought. However, by day five, things began slowing down. This quick exercise was starting to take some significant time out of my day. By day ten, I was completely stumped. I ran out of compliments for myself. How the hell are you supposed to keep inventing new things that you like about yourself?
I Love Me, Five Ways a Day
Overall, I didn't really understand the point of this exercise. House suggests that if I write positive things about myself, I will believe it. However, having to do this every day ended up making me doubt how much I actually love me. Is it normal to run out of genuinely good things to say about yourself by day ten? Am I confident, or am I not? Is confidence the key to a successful relationship? This exercise made me ask more questions as opposed to producing more answers.
On to the exercises in Get a Life, Then Get a Man. Like House, Jennifer Bawden encourages you to write a list of things you like about yourself, but she also wants you to acknowledge your flaws. Doing so, she writes, will encourage you to improve yourself and "commit to growth." Oddly enough, coming up with my flaws was far easier than listing all my strengths. This probably means nothing of importance.
List My Flaws
It has been a little over a week since I wrote my list and I can proudly say that I had zucchini with dinner once, and did not drunk text. Although, I did get into a drunken argument over Facebook chat, which technically isn't texting. Do I feel like a better, more dateable, human being yet? Not one bit. I think I might need more time on this one.
Once I knew all of my best and worst qualities, I had to make a list of everything I want in a potential suitor. Bawden emphasises that the list should be, "flexible enough to allow for variation." She also provides a sample list to use that is five pages long. It breaks your dream man down into categories like "character," "personality," "interpersonal," and "appearance." She then lists qualities in each category, and you have to mark whether or not those specific qualities are necessary, desirable, or not important.Physically, my taste in men is all over the board. I am equally attracted to Brendan Fraser circa Airheads, James Spader circa Pretty in Pink, and John Goodman circa The Flinstones. Plus various Korean actors, and Drake. However, personality-wise the guys I find myself dating guys that all tend to be quite similar – namely, uninterested in me. I find myself in a place now where I consistently date someone for a month or so, and one of us ends up backing out. Usually him. I filled out Bawden's extensive list and realized that almost all of my check marks were in the middle, in the "desireable" category. Rarely did I find something on the list to be either necessary or unimportant. This list is showing me that, much like I wasn't sure what I wanted out of a relationship, I don't really know what I want in a man. Perhaps, if I get more specific about the things I actually need and want from a man, I'll date less often, but the guys I do date will be better for me?
List What I Want in a Man
After completing these exercises, I had to admit that they did help me figure some shit out. Of course, skimming the rest of both books, I saw that House and Bawden go downhill once they start giving legitimate dating advice. Though House's title suggests dating rules should be "screwed," she gives plenty of them. Same with Bawden. Both wrote a lot of the same crap the other dating books did. Give him his freedom, don't be desperate, talk him up when flirting, always be feminine.At the end of the day, these books both instil the idea that there is something very wrong with women. We are too emotionally attached to the men whose dicks we let inside us. We are too clingy when we want them to have conversations with us. We are too needy when we want them to tell us they like us. We are too domineering when we tell them they're wrong about something. It's my responsibility as a woman to change, while men can keep on keepin' on. I have no problem admitting there are things about me I should fix, but I am fed up with feeling like I am the only one this is required of.Follow Alison Stevenson on Twitter.