Why you're still not married
"I might want a relationship, but my jury is certainly out on marriage."
What is it about patronising self-help books aimed at singles? The latest, Why You're Not Married ... Yet: The Straight Talk You Need to Get the Relationship You Deserve, includes chapters such as "You're a Bitch" and "You're a Slut" among the reasons women might still be without a partner. With a title – and content – like that, I was sure this would be yet another book that I'd get only a few chapters into before binning it in disgust.
Then I looked inside and took the quiz titled "38 Reasons You Might Need This Book". And I scored 34 points, answering "true" to statements including "Sometimes I wonder what the big deal is about being in a relationship anyway" and "Marriage is stupid. And men suck."
More than 30 points apparently means "YOU REALLY, REALLY, REALLY NEED THIS BOOK ... You already know something in your love life isn't working. What you don't know is that nothing in your love life is working. But don't despair. Working on it is going to be a lot easier and more enjoyable than what you're doing now, which is trying to stay in denial. That shit is hard."
My "success" (in the context of a lack of romantic success) only made me more curious. So I read it. And then I rang the author, Tracy McMillan, an American writer for television shows such as Mad Men and United States of Tara. McMillan based the book on a Huffington Post article she wrote for Valentine's Day last year that received almost 1.5 million page views. Could this be what I've been seeking all along?
YOU'RE A BITCH
Key phrase: "When I say you're a bitch, I mean you're angry ... Female anger terrifies men."
Naturally, my initial response to this is "I AM NOT!" followed by a kung-fu kick at nothing in particular. However, there may well be some truth to this, given that at least 80 per cent of my exes have mentioned "anger" in their break-up sermons.
"When you first hear the thing that's going on with you, and I know this from experience, it makes you mad," McMillan exclaims over the phone. "When you dig underneath the mad, it's because I'm hurt there, I'm hopeful, I'm sad that I can't seem to get it together."
Hmmm, there is something in that for all of us, I resentfully admit, and slink on to the next chapter.
YOU'RE A MESS
Key phrase: "There's an easy way to tell if something is affecting your ability to be in a relationship, and that is whether or not you want to keep it a secret."
Credit-card debt, substance abuse, serious emotional issues - as the book puts it, "some things are more deal-breaking than others". McMillan believes that nothing sends a relationship down the gurgler faster than dirty secrets revealed.
"I was a mess, and all of the things that I had to do to put Humpty Dumpty back together again ... basically, that's what I'm sharing in the book," she says.
Key phrase: "It's about being out of control emotionally; acting against your own best interests ... and [doing] anything you can picture Courtney Love doing."
This is a tricky one. So many of my worst meltdowns have been exacerbated by my exes' poor emotional conduct: if someone jams their fingers in their ears and yells, "I'M NOT LISTENING TO YOU", who wouldn't go crazy? But that time I smashed the phone because he wouldn't pick up: 100 per cent me.
"You're never done being crazy," McMillan explains gently. "That's a daily thing; it's like brushing your teeth: 'Today, I have to practise not being crazy again.' "
Key phrase: "If you are a woman who wants a man of a certain height, or with a particular kind of job, you are really no different from the man who wants a woman with big boobs or blonde hair."
That's all well and good, but aren't we getting dangerously close to Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr Good Enough territory here? Besides which, if I prefer a man of a certain height, it's only because so many of them baulk as soon as I put on my heels and shoot up to six foot three.
McMillan has been there. "I'm pretty comfortable saying, 'Look, here's how I screwed up, and here's how you might be screwing up. Let's have a laugh, and then pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and practise these ideas.' " Well, okay then.
YOU'RE A SLUT
Key phrase: "I'm not saying you have to put yourself on ice completely, but if you're the kind of woman who finds herself embroiled in sexual relationships that aren't leading you to marriage and you want to be married, you are going to want to rethink your approach to sex."
It's a fair cop, guv. Yes, some people shag their way to blissful matrimony, and good on them, but they're fairly rare. Or at least they have been in my bedroom.
YOU'RE A LIAR
Key phrase: "Have you told yourself you don't want a relationship when you really do?"
This is the clincher for me. As a committed feminist fast approaching 30, it's very easy – so easy that I do it weekly – to bark, "Well, I don't NEED a relationship, therefore I also don't WANT one, so there." The reality, however, is that I still open my online dating profiles in the vain hope that my current crush, British actor Tom Hiddleston, has joined and wants to chat to me about Shakespeare and what we'll call our children.
And McMillan, unlike most self-help gurus, understands how complicated the romantic world can be for feminists. "It's essential for a lot of women's happiness to have a happy life and relationship. It doesn't mean that she's lame; it just means that that's an essential feature of a happy life, for many, many, many women," McMillan says with great compassion. "There's a whole segment of society who are very successful people in every other way - career, culture - who have a terrible time having relationships."
AND JUST ONE MORE THING ...
What about that title? I might want a relationship, but my jury is certainly out on marriage, having survived a near-miss. I ask McMillan if she thinks it's controversial and she laughs aloud. "I'm not a fundamentalist. I don't think everybody should get married; that's not what the book is about. It could really be called Why You're Not in a Domestic Partnership." She thinks for a moment, then adds, "Though it's not quite as catchy."
As intoxicating as McMillan's big-sister/best-friend advice is, I can't shake a niggling sense of resentment at the end of all the self-improvement: surely it's not ALL my fault? I might have been "crazy" or "bitchy" in my time, but my other halves have committed their fair share of misdemeanours, too. I'm happy to do some self-improvement, provided my male equivalents also put in some effort. Anyway, maybe someone out there likes a hint of crazy bitch with their home-cooked dinner.
Why You're Not Married ... Yet by Tracy McMillan (Hardie Grant, $20) is out now.