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Does a healthy relationship need 'rules'?

Annie Stevens
Published: February 13, 2013 - 11:59PM

There are many problems with the re-packaging of the 90s best-selling tome to fear mongering among single women, The Rules.  Not least the case study of the girl who is left heartbroken by a man who loves Coldplay, pops the collar on his polo shirts and has a fondness for sports jackets. But as Katie Roiphe pointed out in an essay way back in 2001, it’s too easy to poke fun at The Rules. What with its weird humourlessness, anti-feminist messages and excruciatingly peppiness. The book, published last month, has been updated ‘for the digital age’, which means that you can learn how to play hard to get face to face, via internet dating and on social media.

The premise of the book, as Lindy West summed up on Jezebel, goes something like this,

“In case you're not familiar with the intricacies of The Rules, he's a primer. Step One: Don't talk. Don't look men in the eye. Don't return men's phone calls. Don't express interest in men in any way. Don't tell men what to do. Don't give up your precious flower. Don't pay for anything. Don't expect men to change or accomodate your needs in any way. Don't reveal anything about yourself because nobody cares. Demand expensive gifts. Don't ever stop doing The Rules. Step Two: ETERNAL HAPPINESS.”

There are a lot of missing gaps. Including the idea that men are so very different from women. Something that a new study has recently proved to be untrue.

That said, as Elly Taylor, a relationship counsellor and author of Becoming Us, points out, the real differences between men and women when it comes to relationships can be down to our conditioning. Something that is slowly evolving.

“Men and women usually want the same thing, but where we are very different are the ways we are socialised to relate about the things we want. Women are socialised to open up and talk, to draw comfort from others and to give in return. Men are socialised to be independent, to cope on their own and to suck things up. Thank goodness this is changing, but I still see these traits in the current dating generation.”

For Taylor, her main problem with the book is its limited outlook.

“The book seems to be written with a very narrow focus, it assumes proximity and multiple opportunities to meet and reject or not the same potential mates (like a college campus). So if you saw a cute guy on the train one time and followed the rules, you’d never meet ... I also think it was confusing ... don’t play games, don’t be manipulative, but follow these strict instructions on how to do it."

That said, says Taylor, rules are not the same as a mutual understanding of the relationship.

"I think rules is a silly word, but probably better for a catchy book title. Guidelines is probably more appropriate. I think relationship guidelines are actually a good thing – most relationships don’t fail because there is something wrong with either partner, but because people generally don’t understand the dynamics of relationships and the normal stages they go through and guidelines about these things can make a big difference," says Taylor.

While the book encourages women to be their best selves, to not ‘give up your life for a guy’, to have a strong sense of self before entering a relationship (remember how Ann Perkins adopts all of the hobbies of her boyfriends in Parks and Recreation? Don't do that) ultimately it pegs men as superior to women.

It tells women to curtail their quirks and weirdness, to dim their neediness, to hide their hunger.

Getting this having your own life versus playing games thing right is tricky. As Taylor says, the desire to play games can be a sign that you don't really like yourself, deep down.

“'Playing’ anything I think can be a sign of insecurity. Being so busy and having a full life that you’re not going to drop because of a man is healthy, and I think this is a distinction they make in the book,” she says.

What the book clumsily sells, wrote Roiphe who mentions seeing a copy on the book shelves of many of her smart friends, is a Jane Austen style romance of being pursued rather than being on the pursuit.

It’s not just Jane Austen’s heroines, or Charlotte York in Sex and the City – a card carrying Rules Girl - who have dared to day dream about that.

“This is what it feels like to no longer be on the hunt,” says a blissed out, recently married Jessa to Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath in cult show Girls as they picnic in Brooklyn.  And in a show that trades in vulnerability, humiliation and deeper learning about your secret self, this smug statement reveals a lot about the things that people yearn for.

As Elly Taylor says, there is no shame in buying a book about relationships,

“It depends on the person and the motivation for buying. I think a little of the right information can go a long way. I’ve learnt a lot from books that I could apply. Wanting to be in a relationship is a healthy thing, knowing how to be might take some education.”

But time has moved on since The Rules' first iteration. For one thing, asking the internet your relationship questions seems a far more palatable option.

From Dan Savage of Savage Love, Dear Prudence on Slate and the Ask a Married Dude section on The Hairpin we can find out answers to problems like lesbians in love with their straight friends, shopping for sex toys for the first time, boyfriend’s with bad table manners or plain old looking for love in a safe place. These advice columns dish out firm and sensible advice to the lonely, the confused and the very, very strange.

Trawling through these letters and responses is a great exercise in realising that you are not alone and you’re probably not half as weird as you thought you were. What’s more, it is a reminder that love and life finds you when you’re patient and respectful of others and have your own thing going on. Often it’s never how you expected it to be.

Remembering your true self in all that remains paramount.

As Elly Taylor says,

"Practice self-acceptance. Like who you are so you are not willing to give it away. Like your warts and all so you have the capacity to like someone else’s."

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