When commitment feels rare and everyone’s lonely, Change of Heart is a Valentine's Week investigation of what makes relationships so hard—and how they can be better.
I first read He’s Just Not That Into You, the 2004 “no-excuses truth to understanding guys” mega-hit self-help book, in 2005, when I was 19. I was incredibly new to dating and already felt disillusioned by it: The first person I ever had sex with, a guy I had known for four years, ghosted me immediately afterward… only to text me nearly a year later to apologize, sleep with me again, and then ghost me immediately again. I felt like the book was speaking to me directly.
The book’s thesis is simple: when a guy—and yes, it’s always a guy—is into you, a woman—and yes, it’s always a woman—he will make sure you know how he feels. That means he will...
- Ask you out
- Call or text you back
- Be single or otherwise available
- Be willing to date you “officially”
- Want to have sex with you
- Want to see you while sober
- Not dismiss the idea of marriage, if that’s something you want
- Not cheat on you
- Not break up with you
- Not ghost you
- Not be mean, nasty, or abusive
This advice is simple and obvious. It was also revelatory. I’d spent so much time looking for answers, trying to figure out “what happened” and what I did wrong, when the answer was perfectly clear: He’s just not that into me. I lent the book to my friend David, who, like me, immediately declared it life-changing. HJNTIY and its many aphorisms (like, “Don’t waste the pretty,” shorthand for the notion that you’re too special to squander time on someone who doesn’t see that) were a frequent topic of conversation during our four-hour shifts at Victoria’s Secret that summer. “Greg is RIGHT!” we said to each other across the PINK panty table. “He’s just not that into me!!!” Just as the book promised, this realization wasn’t demoralizing; it was liberating. That fall, I created the Facebook group “I Read ‘He’s Just Not That Into You’ and Suddenly It All Made Sense.”
I have thought about He’s Just Not That Into You a lot in the 15 years since I first read it—usually when I’m listening to the story of a friend’s would-be love interest whose behavior is eerily similar to one of the book's many “this guy sucks” scenarios. Other times, it’s been begrudgingly: Although I never doubted the book’s thesis, I admit I have not always implemented it.
The book's premise is also true when a woman is into a man, or a man is into another man, or a woman is into a woman, or any person is into any other person. You’re allowed to want to be more than “sort of dating” someone; to want them to love and respect you clearly and reciprocally. You can argue that your love interest is just scared of intimacy, or had a rough childhood, or is just bad at texting, or whatever else renders them exceptional—but the fact remains: People who are into you show you undeniably.
Because so many people still need to hear this advice, my assumption was that, heteronormativity aside, He’s Just Not That Into You would still hold up in 2020. Turns out, I was… sort of correct.
Before “he’s just not that into you” was a New York Times bestseller or a truly terrible 2009 movie starring an astonishing number of A-list celebrities, it was simply something that one co-worker said to another. As the story goes, one of the women on staff at Sex and the City asked her workplace pals for their opinion on a dating situation; the women all jumped in to reassure her that the guy must be scared to be in a relationship, or was intimidated by her. They asked Greg Behrendt, a comedian who was a consultant on three seasons of Sex and the City, what he thought. His considered but firm reply: “Listen, it sounds like he’s just not that into you.”
“We were shocked, appalled, amused, horrified, and, above all, intrigued. We sensed immediately that this man might be speaking the truth,” Liz Tuccillo, the executive story editor of Sex and the City who co-authored the book with Behrendt, writes in its intro. “Soon, we went around the room, Greg, the all-knowing Buddha, listening to story after mixed-message story. We had excuses for all these men, from broken dialing fingers to difficult childhoods. In the end, one by one, they were shot down by Greg’s powerful bullet… A collective epiphany burst forth in the room, and for me in particular. All these years I’d been complaining about men and their mixed messages; now I saw they weren’t mixed messages at all. I was the one that was mixed up. Because the fact was, these men had simply not been that into me.”
After the writers'-room conversation, “he’s just not that into you” made its way into a 2003 episode of Sex and the City (“Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little”). It’s a fairly minor subplot: the girls tell Miranda the guy who hasn’t called her is probably just intimidated by her; Carrie’s new boyfriend, Berger, says, “He’s just not that into you,” and Miranda is empowered. So empowered, in fact, that she tries to get ahead of it: After a different guy tells her he doesn’t want to go home with her following dinner, she launches, bemused, into a monologue about how she gets it—he’s just not that into her. He looks increasingly uncomfortable, then confesses that he was into her, he’s just about to have diarrhea. (From the curry—classic SATC!)
The phrase immediately resonated. It was discussed on The View after the episode aired, and the self-help book hit shelves the next year. After the authors’ appearance on Oprah, the book shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, where it stayed for months; it was translated into 30 languages, and turned into a daily tear-off calendar and a wildly depressing movie that grossed $181 million worldwide.
In a phone interview, Liz Tuccillo, who was most recently a showrunner and executive producer on HBO’s Divorce, said He’s Just Not That Into You is one of the things she’s most proud of doing. “To witness a piece of work causing direct change… Women read that book, put the book down, and immediately broke up with people," said Tuccillo. "Like eight months ago, I was getting out of the elevator. This woman getting in was like, ‘You’re Liz Tuccillo,’ and I’m like, ‘What?’ And she’s like, 'He’s Just Not That Into You is a very powerful and special book,' and then the doors closed.”
He’s Just Not That Into You is a product of its time—a time when it felt like reality TV stars were taking over; when a Super Bowl halftime show caused a moral panic; when an HBO show about sex and dating in New York City that ignored the existence of queer people and people of color, but sure did love talking about anal sex, racked up Emmy nominations; when everyone wanted love, but felt like dating sucked because everyone knew that “the rules” had changed but no one knew what they were yet, or how to get others to abide by them—if any of that sounds at all familiar to you now? As I reread HJNTIY last month, I kept stopping to highlight, and to read resonant passages out loud to my girlfriend.
Reading Chapter 11, which deals with mean and nasty behavior, I was reminded of many fairly recent Captain Awkward letters and r/relationships posts, the kind of requests for romantic advice that make you say, “Oh… oh no,” as you’re reading. “There’s a lot of behavior that can be considered abusive that doesn’t involve getting beaten,” Behrendt writes. “It’s hard to feel worthy of love when someone is going out of their way to make you feel worthless. Being told to get out of these relationships may not work for you. Knowing that you’re better than these relationships is the place to start. You are better than these relationships.”
Two chapters added in the 2009 edition speak eloquently about how hard it is to put the book’s principles into practice. Tuccillo directly addresses the reality that expecting to be treated with basic respect and kindness might mean you end up alone:
Love is something most of us want very badly in our lives, sometimes more than we even want to admit. And when we get close to getting it, when we are reminded of how great it feels to have it, even if it’s for a moment, even if it’s just a whiff of it, we may forget everything we believe in. … The minute you start feeling those familiar pangs of sadness and longing and obsessing, please pull the plug. If you take nothing away from this book, please remember that nothing is worse than longing for someone who doesn’t want you. Even loneliness is better, because with loneliness you at least have hope and possibility and imagination. But being in a situation where you start to feel hurt and small and rejected, even though it may be a nice little break from the tedium of no dates and no stories to tell your friends, will rob you of your newfound confidence and self-esteem. And nothing is really worth that.
You could be forgiven for missing some of these golden truths; upon rereading, I realized that much of the book’s best bits are gummed up with a tone that is so painfully early-aughts, I felt, at times, like I was being lectured by the reanimated corpse of an Ed Hardy T-shirt. Even though I was a lady who was there to listen, I cringed at the “LISTEN UP, LADIES!” tone.
I knew the book was gendered—it’s right there in the title!—but I didn’t realize that imagining a 2020 refresh wouldn’t be as simple as changing the pronouns; it would require fully gutting it to remove its _Rules_-esque apriorisms. Throughout the text, Behrendt is adamant:
Men, for the most part, like to pursue women. We like not knowing if we can catch you. We feel rewarded when we do. Especially if the chase is a long one… I know it’s an infuriating concept—that men like to chase and you have to let us chase you. I know. It’s insulting. It’s frustrating. It’s unfortunately the truth.
It’s a shame that the authors buried good points about self-respect and expecting your partner to actually like you in bullshit evolutionary psychology language that makes the book easier to dismiss wholesale, and that fundamentally ignores the existence of queer people.
I get that most dating books are meant to demystify the opposite sex; their heterocentricity is the point. But He’s Just Not That Into You is, at its core, a book about respecting other people’s boundaries and the subtle ways they communicate no. The fact that the book’s advice is understood to be strictly for straight women is particularly disappointing given the fact that it’s so often straight men who can’t accept that the women they want to date are not interested. Since 2004, the conversation about nice guys, sexual violence, consent, and harassment has become fairly mainstream. The real-world consequences of men who can’t or won’t take no for an answer are pervasive, terrifying, and sometimes lethal.
That’s not to say that women can’t be creepy or entitled or toxic—they absolutely can. The authors don’t engage much with that idea; for the most part, the book’s advice is framed as, “Acting this way is beneath you,” instead of, “Acting this way is not cool and maybe even a huge red flag.” (Though, to be fair, "Nikki," the intentionally extreme Goofus-esque character who pops up throughout the book, is finally admonished toward the end of the book with a fairly lighthearted, “That's the best way to elicit the 'what did I ever see in that psycho bitch?' response,” and a reminder to “always be classy; never be crazy.")
This oversight is even more evident in the movie, when the protagonist, played by Ginnifer Goodwin, engages in “desperate” behavior that is legitimately unsettling. One of many examples: Early in the film, she shows up alone at a bar where her crush is a regular, hoping to run into him, and tells the hostess and bartender she is “meeting someone” for a date—her crush, who has not returned any of her calls in a week.
“We had originally wanted to write the book for both sexes,” Behrendt said in a phone interview, when I asked if he’d change anything if he were writing the book now. “The publishers were like, ‘There's just no market for that. The only people that buy self-help books are this kind of women. So you're not doing yourself any favors by trying to cover everybody.’” (Both Tuccillo and Andrea Barzvi, the book’s agent, were perplexed by this claim. Tuccillo said they were often asked, “Why isn’t there a book called She’s Just Not That Into You?” at events, and that Behrendt always took the lead on answering, explaining that men didn’t need the book because they don’t process dating disappointments by obsessing over every little thing a woman ever said. Barzvi said she doesn’t remember this conversation, but if it happened, it would have been when they were brainstorming the proposal—so, before any publishers saw it and it “probably lasted all of two seconds.”)
“I grew up in the time I grew up in," said Behrendt, who was thoughtful and measured throughout our conversation. "I don’t know that I’d write a book right now that was so gender-specific. I was raised to ask girls out—that was the way I was raised as a cisgender male,” he continued. “You don't have to look far into film and television and books to see that that's how the world operated. So, you know, if you weren't being asked out by a guy, you just weren’t being asked out. And now... I don’t know who does the asking!”
Behrendt, who gives Tuccillo credit for the book’s existence and mega-success, said he was initially a bit uncomfortable with the idea of writing the book. “I was very cautious about saying anything,” he said. “I wanted to be really careful about how I said something to women. When you're addressing them as a whole, you definitely don't want to come off like you think you know something and you're better than everybody. You want to come off as a friend, and just another compassionate human being saying, ‘Hey, I think you deserve better.’”
“We would have gay men and women say, ‘Well, what about me? Or ‘What about us?’ And I would say the rules still apply,” Behrendt said. He said that what still rings true about the book is intention: It's everything in relationships, and it looks like intention. “I continue to do this work”—he told me he’s working on his next book, Don’t Take Bullshit from Fuckers, which, like HJNTIY, will be rooted in principles of self-respect—“and my feeling was always the same: Is this how you imagined it? Or did you imagine it being better? Because you can have better,” Behrendt said.
We can have better. The book’s extremely straight lens and insistence that The Two Genders™ do be like that is a bummer, because “just not that into you” is a concept that is widely applicable, and that everyone needs to internalize. A lot of us could stand to get better at recognizing and accepting a soft no from the people who are too uncomfortable or too shy or too lazy or too afraid or too over it to give a clear no.
What was true in 2004 and remains true now is that it can be really, really difficult to be vulnerable and brave; to get your hopes up again and again, only to be disappointed; to believe in your own worth when everything feels incredibly stupid and irrevocably fucked. We are a horny, lonesome, exhausted, and ultimately hopeful culture. As long as we keep desiring real connection, we will occasionally need to hear a gentle but confident six-word nudge to respect ourselves and one another—they're just not that into you.
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Rachel Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People, coming May 2020. Follow her on Twitter.