[Paleopsych] NYTBR: Dating: What's Love Got to Do With It?

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Sunday Book Review > Chronicle: Dating: What's Love Got to Do With It?


A Single Girl's Guide to Living It Up.
By Andrea Lavinthal and Jessica Rozler.
Simon Spotlight Entertainment, paper, $14.95.

Raise Your Standards and Reach for the Love You Deserve.
By Ian Kerner.
ReganBooks/HarperCollins, $19.95.

By Jennifer Worick.
Perigee, $14.95.

Two Married Guys Take You From Single Miss to Wedded Bliss.
By Richard Kirshenbaum and Daniel Rosenberg.
William Morrow, $19.95.

Love as a Mental Illness.
By Frank Tallis.
Thunder's Mouth, paper, $15.95.

    We live in a culture of counsel and comfort, and the great source of
    all our confusions is love. The literary canon teaches us that our
    true loves are reserved for things we know are bad for us, for Vronsky
    or for Heathcliff. But neither one is Mr. Right, and neither will do
    today, since we love, more than ever now, with purpose: relationships
    are a means to an end, and when there are breakdowns along the way we
    have manuals to put us right again. From one-night stands to holy
    matrimony, the many zones of love have been charted in brightly
    colored how-to guides. While the rules of engagement vary, most are
    addressed to women, all see human relationships as a zero-sum battle,
    and all insist that happiness is no more than a few well-directed
    steps away.

    The first thing to know about casual sex is that it is no longer
    particularly casual. The Hookup Handbook instructs that ''ambiguity is
    key to hooking up,'' but then proceeds by dizzying litanies of
    typography and vocabulary. There are seven rival definitions of what
    exactly a hookup is, and then 14 varieties: it involves
    not-necessarily sex behind probably closed doors, and it comes in more
    flavors than Baskin-Robbins. After you've memorized the difference
    between ''booty disparity'' and ''Schick-blocked,'' renovated your
    apartment into a ''Hookup-Friendly Bachelorette Pad'' and worried over
    the many quizzes, you're through boot camp and on your way to war.

    At the risk of sounding like Ken Starr, I'd like to know what
    precisely the hookup involves, but Andrea Lavinthal, a beauty editor,
    and Jessica Rozler, who works in book publishing (both are in New York
    City), skirt all events between drunken rendezvous and next morning's
    walk of shame. Behind the flurry of pep talk and gossip that makes up
    a relationship manual is a certain coyness.

    Be Honest -- You're Just Not That Into Him Either is a reply to last
    fall's hit ''He's Just Not That Into You,'' and while its philosophy
    of love is given away by its title, its overall lesson hinges on a
    warning against sex. ''Think,'' Ian Kerner counsels, ''what the costs
    are of sleeping with guys you might not be that into'': ''Sex is more
    than just an accessory in your wardrobe'' and ''having it casually
    devalues a core component of the courtship process.''

    While Kerner, a sex expert who has a weekly column on eDiets.com,
    appears to advocate higher standards, he could also be seen as
    encouraging women to lower them strategically. He holds as sacred the
    pursuit of a compatible mate, and as part of the quest, you may have
    to accept occasional solitude and be realistic: ''Make sure you're
    casting a wide enough net.'' Men, put simply, aren't that great. For
    Kerner, men are sex-obsessed rats, ''the main purveyors of porn and
    prostitutes,'' and their sexual psychologies are radically different
    from women's; ''for them,'' he writes, ''the orgasm and the sex are
    virtually one and the same.''

    At the paradoxical heart of these manuals -- which instruct how to
    foster a relationship between the sexes -- is an insistence that men
    and women are different species. Women may be needy, emotional and
    insecure, but men are childlike little animals best kept on a leash at
    all times. According to How to Live With a Man . . . and Love It!, men
    like pot roast, lasagna and sports; women like reading and baking; and
    in order to foster a workable domestic truce, they must understand,
    but never try to breach, this divide. ''Have shiny, touchable hair,''
    Jennifer Worick recommends: ''Tuck a fresh flower behind an ear.'' Men
    can be manipulated with such carrots and sticks. ''Keep a laundry
    hamper in the corner so you're not distracted during lovemaking by an
    unsightly heap of dirty clothes on the floor,'' Worick, the author of
    ''The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook'' and ''The Action
    Heroine's Handbook,'' advises: ''Make it easy for your man to keep
    things tidy.'' Beyond the simple assumption that men are dirty lies a
    fear of a sexual intimacy so fragile that dirty laundry would disrupt

    Intimacy isn't in the air these manuals breathe, for intimacy opens a
    window onto risk. Bolstered by checklists and swaddled in strategies,
    these manuals trade passion for programs and love for war. The patron
    saint of modern love is not Cupid but Sun Tzu. Closing the Deal is the
    only one of these guidebooks to quote ''The Art of War,'' but Sun Tzu
    presides over their spirit like an omniscient deity. ''Closing the
    Deal'' is built on the same lists and questionnaires that dominate the
    other manuals, but here the purpose is more nakedly apparent, and its
    vocabulary is unforgivingly bare. ''Marketing is war,'' declare
    Richard Kirshenbaum, co-chairman of the advertising agency Kirshenbaum
    Bond & Partners, and Daniel Rosenberg, a film-studio executive and
    producer. Women must market themselves: by learning their ''Target
    Audience,'' several ''Marriage Motivators'' -- like showing off
    expensive property -- and their ''Dating Inflection Point.'' If all
    else fails, pretend to leave him to force him to give you that ring.
    This love story is as cold and sharp as its spiritual mentor, the
    Power Point presentation.

    The authors of most of these manuals repeatedly proclaim their happy
    marriages, which makes sense: you wouldn't trust a dentist whose teeth
    were bad. But love is not dentistry. Much of the advice offered is
    common sense -- trust is a central element in a relationship, as is a
    willingness to compromise -- but our need to see it written down makes
    it alien. The forms of happiness offered by these books are precisely
    that: formal, whether the structure they sketch is a single sexual
    encounter, domestic cohabitation or marriage. What is missing is the
    emotional drive that we all hope to find in our relationships. The
    variety of passion denies rigid categorization, and must therefore be
    left out.

    For love is, Frank Tallis writes in his short psychiatric study, ''a
    necessary madness.'' As Tallis, a psychologist, describes it in Love
    Sick, we are ''afflicted rather than affected by love.'' Poets have
    been describing love as a kind of mental illness for thousands of
    years: Tallis lightly surveys the literary record and finds in it
    telling correspondences with psychological and biological descriptions
    of this extreme emotional attachment. Our genes are wired to follow
    slavishly the dictates of natural selection, but our societies and our
    bodies would become exhausted if we followed them into ceaseless
    childbearing and raising. ''However, the very fact that we can
    self-reflect, and rebel, has perhaps necessitated the evolution of a
    safety mechanism,'' Tallis writes in his elegantly restrained prose.
    ''We call this safety mechanism 'love.' ''

    The great fear that dating and relationship manuals seek to soothe
    with their reassuring strategies is the fear of abandonment and of
    humiliation: of being stood up at a bar or at the altar. This is a
    fear it is wrongheaded to assuage. As Tallis acknowledges, ''to be
    romantically involved is an admission that carries a host of
    implications: passion, folly, obsession, anguish, recklessness,
    intrigue and adventure.'' Love -- the passion whose name dating
    manuals dare not speak -- enters at the same door as fear,

    Daniel Swift writes for The Nation and The Times Literary Supplement.

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