About three or four years ago, I started writing for a website called Fanny (no laughing, please). Fanny was a lot of fun. The original editors were Mary McGill and Louise McSharry, both of whom have gone on to much bigger things. Through that website, I met a ton of amazing women, some of whom have also written pieces for The Coven. Mary has written great stuff for us too. It’s a funny old world. I miss Fanny.
One day in March 2013, Mary asked me to read a dating book and try to live my love life by it. This is what happened.
This post has been a long time in the making – over a month, in fact. Preparation, research and execution only took a fortnight. That fortnight, however, preceded several weeks of anxiety and regular attacks of chest-compressing, impotent directionless rage.
This was probably not what Mary had in mind when she asked me to write a piece about dating in Ireland. And if it was, I bow down before her Machiavellian ingenuity. Well played Mary, well played.
There is a dating book called The Rules. It is not unlike Neil Strauss’ book The Game, in which men dress up like idiots to manipulate women into casual sex – except The Rules involves women dressing up like a juicy, tender butcher’s display striploin in order to manipulate men into long-term relationships.
Mary’s idea was to send me a copy of The Rules, I would follow it, it would hopefully fail (getting a boyfriend for research purposes could be interpreted as a step too far) and we could all have a jolly laugh about how silly it was. I presume she chose me because:
- I am straight and single (OMG it’s like an episode of Girls!)
- I have no shame, social acumen or conversational filter – Mom, this is where you stop reading.
- I have a fear of commitment and think a boyfriend is a drain on time I could spend in bed eating baked goods, working and Instagramming pictures of baked goods. The space on the bed normally occupied by a man-shaped person is home to my library books and a collection of bursting pens, with an expanding colonisation of ink blooms all over the duvet.
- I have no luck with men – my last date involved being picked up from a Tube station by an inebriated man in a sports car, meeting his flatmate (who was, in fairness, a lovely heroin addict), dinner with him and a drunk co-worker who assumed – wrongly – that I couldn’t understand his filthy French and kept trying to surreptitiously touch my tits, the revelation that said date already had a girlfriend and a drive home through East London, which he only offered because his pregnant sister had taken far too much cocaine and was having a freakout right near where I was staying. On the way home, he tried to goad other drivers into a drag race. See reason two.
The New Rules is an update of the 90’s dating manual The Rules by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider. I suspect that it was written more with cosmopolitan hedge fund types and WASP-y blondes who live in densely-populated areas, call flats ‘condos’ and drink martinis without wincing in mind than the rural and town-dwellers of North Kerry, which is where I live. We have only recently phased out the slow set at the local discotheque.
The front cover blurb shows that the book is endorsed by Grazia, which should probably tell you all that you need to know – that The Rules is useless, useless bullshit. Grazia says ‘If you’re one of the few women on Planet Earth who have not heard of this book, where have you been?’ To that I say, ‘existing quite nicely’. Just me and that women in Bangladesh who collects rubbish for a living – though if she collects rubbish it’s a wonder she hasn’t had a flick through the book already.
The premise of the book is simple. Be really, really passive. Also, withhold any financial, emotional and physical support from your mans. A wedding ring is but a mere step away.
There’s a huge flaw to this hypothesis. If sitting on your bum, blithely ignoring men, never texting back and actively discouraging a relationship wins you a husband, I would already be engaged to Prince Harry (we have so much in common besides a mutual interest in nude billiards and Black Hawk helicopters).
I’m being glib, of course. According to the Rules, you must never stand next to or approach a man first. You must never initiate conversation. Initial contact should be no longer than twenty minutes. Do not reply to texts or phone calls after seven PM or at any point over the weekend. You do not text him first and you must always wait at least half an hour to text him back. Don’t ask him questions via text. Makes sure your texts are shorter than his. End every conversation. If he asks you out he must do so at least three days in advance. You must go out on Saturdays. He has to pay for everything (it is romantic, apparently – we all know that nothing is more romantic that the incredibly veiled implication that the more he spends, the more you’ll be obliged to do in the sack). Never travel to see him. Don’t sext. Demand a commitment. Withhold any and all fucking until you’ve got him right where you want him.
That sounds healthy, right?
If you do not obey all of the rules and miraculously end up in a functioning relationship, it is all your fault when he breaks up with you. BAD GIRLFRIEND, BAD! Seriously, if he breaks up with you, no matter how flimsy the pretext, it is all your fault. Remember when his father died and you answered the phone to him on a Saturday? You gave him all your feminine power, right through the phone lines – hey, Eircom’s got to have some sort of a side hustle.
With all that in mind, and by now incredibly reluctant to ever speak to any man bar my fifteen-year old brother, I had to dress to impress. The Rules are very strict on this matter. Skirts must be above the knee, push-up bras must be commissioned, fake tan worn, hair straightened, bronzer liberally applied and weirdly, large hooped earrings must be worn – the authors are very strict on the hoop earring point.
The only trouble was that, up until last Saturday, I had never put on fake tan. I had never worn bronzer and had not gone out without a thick pair of tights since 2006, which was incidentally the year that I gave up straightening my hair. Fake tan does not work the way I thought it was supposed to work. After three applications, I was still as white as five star hotel’s bleached Egyptian cotton sheet. By midnight, one man genuinely mistook me for a Lebanese person. I made the mistake of thinking that fake tan was instantaneous – which it is definitely not. The before and after picture is pre tan-development.
After an evening spent getting trussed up and bound like a horny supplicant, I was ready for an evening of pointedly ignoring all male attention. This lasted about two hours before I thought ‘Fuck it’ and detached my gaze from the ceiling. I was getting a crick in my neck anyway and my best friend, who was out under instructions to just be herself so I could see how we compared, had scored after only half an hour of play.
I was sick of being so passive. By all accounts, the Rules had worked – so far, anyway. One man who approached me said that he “really liked” me after a few minutes of conversation. “Thanks”, I said. “You have nice hair”. Check and mate.
After that triumph, I felt that I deserved some shots and the freedom to initiate a conversation all by my frail self. This led to crashing a thirtieth birthday party, which led to a nice man, which led to him making me go through my day planner (no judgements, please) so we could meet up again for an oddly specific date. Which led to something else entirely.
This is probably where this piece should end. I’ve vindicated myself, eviscerated The Rules, and have sloughed all the books off my bed and the weight from my heart so I can ride off into the sunset with a man who is weirdly insistent on watching Anchorman.
Except that’s not the end.
He doesn’t get in touch. I text him and we have a short conversation. No mention of a date.
The next Friday I’m out at the only late bar in town. I get a text saying, “Boo!”
I ignore it.
He texts me again. I reply and we spend the rest of the night hanging out.
We go to a party and, emboldened by his affection and totally taken in by his insistence that we meet again and his vulnerability – damn that vulnerable schtick! – I sleep with him.
Mother, I told you to stop reading. If you say one word to me about this post, I swear to God I’ll never hoover the house ever again.
The next morning, he blithely informs me that he actually doesn’t want to meet me again.
He doesn’t want to lead me on.
As I smile and nod, telling him that ‘he’s got to do what he’s got to do’ and suppressing the urge to scream, I can see that his front tooth is chipped and that his eyes are actually quite small and close together. He talks through his nose, like he has a perpetual cold. His clothes don’t fit right. He doesn’t fit right.
Then he leaves me – by myself – in his friend’s house. I’m not too sure where I am but I manage to get a lift home off a girl who lucked out and fell asleep on the couch by herself.
Cold rage. I’ve been played. Played like a newly-tuned Steinway. I have deliberately been lead on. And I have done nothing about it.
Women are taught to be passive. Play the long game with men, wait and see. If they hurt you, don’t tell anyone. Don’t show your emotions. The Rules just enforces that kind of crap.
When it comes down to it, though, our passivity is mostly governed by the need to be polite. We shouldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings, even if they hurt ours. Women shouldn’t cause trouble. Of course, we can and do cause trouble. We play games, but as The Rules demonstrates, we are so much more covert about it. The first rule of The Rules is to never talk about The Rules. I presume that is because any man who found out about it would dump you for having an incredibly skewed, dishonest take on what makes a good relationship.
We should cause trouble – but not through the fine art of duplicity. Instead, we should shout and argue and stand our ground. We should pull potential partners up on unacceptable behaviours – by ignoring it we just tacitly endorse being treated badly as a lifestyle choice.
So let me start the trouble-making by say that you, yes you Leading-On Guy; what you did was wrong and I hope that you eventually get your emotional shit together. Oh, I know you threw me a bone by saying “We’ll see” as you breezed out the door, but I already saw it – and you’re not in it. I’m only sorry that I didn’t woman up and tell you at the time.
The world is full of game players. It seems that people engage in games to avoid getting hurt. It ironic really, as it’s those people who cause the most damage.
It’s probably best to ignore The Rules. Pain is unavoidable – being the person to dole out the pain and mistrust is strictly optional. Don’t be passive. Be you.
Tomorrow, The Rules goes to a better place. There is now a new, small space left vacant on the bed – though what it is to be occupied by, I cannot tell.
UPDATE: By now, some of you may be wondering what has happened between then and now. Did I get a chance to converse with Leading-On Guy?
Oh yes. I gave him a good shouting to. He apologised and now we are cool. He still seems pretty scared of me, but that’s fine.
I am now very good friends with the guy whose house he left me in.
My little brother is now a grown man and still one of my favourite people to talk to.
I met my current boyfriend at the house party I crashed. He does not remember me and for that, I feel eternally grateful.
Sarah Waldron is the editor of The Coven. She is the deputy editor of Fanpages and contributes to The Irish Times and Broadly, amongst others.