Finding Mr. Right: The Rules of Dating Reach Back to the Past

Not so many decades ago, when courtship was more formal and when the most vexing question for young women was whether to kiss on the first date, carefully prescribed rules governed many dating relationships. Grandmothers and mothers instructed daughters to let men take the lead. Only on a few occasions, such as Sadie Hawkins Day at school and Leap Year, was it appropriate to ask a man for a date. Otherwise, patience was the order of the day: Sit by the phone and hope it rings.

With the arrival of the sexual revolution and the women's movement, passivity became as quaint as hoop skirts and corset stays. Daring women began inviting men out and footing the bill.

Ah, but nothing is forever. Now comes a book that is a throwback to that earlier era, a collection of 35 dos and don'ts for landing a husband, romantically packaged inside a pink-ribboned cover with an engagement ring sparkling at its center. "The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right," by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, is based on the idea that "man pursues woman" and woman must play hard to get.

Written in cheerleader prose with lots of exclamation points, this 175-page recipe for getting Prince Charming to the altar offers rigid instructions:

Rule No. 4: Don't meet him halfway or go Dutch on a date.

Rule No. 5: Don't call him and rarely return his calls.

Rule No. 7: Don't accept a Saturday night date after Wednesday.

Rule No. 12: Stop dating him if he doesn't buy you a romantic gift for your birthday or Valentine's Day.

Men, the authors state, "love the seemingly unattainable girl."

Girl? Yes, girl. Whatever a woman's age, all she needs to do on the first three dates, they say cheerily, is to "show up and act sweet." Laugh at his jokes. Look demure. Act nonchalant.

To aid in the search for Mr. Right, they counsel women - oops, girls - to indulge in manicures, pedicures, and facials. If necessary, get a nose job. Grow your hair long. Put on lipstick when you jog. Also: "Wear black sheer pantyhose and hike up your skirt to entice the opposite sex!" The authors concede, "You may feel that you won't be able to be yourself, but men will love it!"

Some 800,000 copies of the book are in print, catapulting it onto bestseller lists this week. It has spawned $45-a-person seminars, $250-an-hour phone consultations, and support groups.

Not surprisingly, the book is being scorned by women who regard its rules as regressive, sexist, and predicated on a measure of dishonesty. One under-30 sales clerk in a Boston bookstore says of her staff, "We all just laugh and laugh. I picture the authors writing this as a joke and passing it off as serious."

Yet this retro advice cannot be totally laughed away. The book's success reflects a yearning for order in a confusing, anything-goes social climate. As a male clerk in the same bookstore observes, "What women have been doing hasn't worked. They're totally reanalyzing what they do."

Despite the authors' inflated promises that "Rules girls" will enjoy "made-in-heaven marriages," some of their advice deserves serious attention, such as: "You don't settle. You don't chase anyone. You don't use sex to make men love you."

Still, what happens when a "girl" plays the cheerful coquette, lands Prince Charming, and then becomes a working wife and mother who needs support and cannot always defer to her partner? Ms. Fein and Ms. Schneider tell a "Rules wife" that "you must try to be serene and unselfish, or you won't be a happy princess."

Surely in 1996 there is a middle ground that acknowledges changing domestic roles - the need for greater equality in marriage, the rewards of sharing childrearing and housework. Grandmothers and mothers may know best when it comes to old-fashioned dating behavior. But modern daughters - and many sons too - also understand the importance of forging relationships built on mutual respect and help, not on a lifetime of feminine playacting and subservience.

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