Shortly after my book, It’s Not You, was released, I was giving a reading in Brooklyn, NY, when a reader asked me why relationship books like mine are always written for women.
“Because women buy the books,” I said. My editor and publicist, sitting in the front row, both nodded.
This, I added, wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I like the fact that women put a lot of effort into having healthy lives and relationships. I like that we’re willing to take hard looks at ourselves, to examine our motives and behavior and see if we can make any adjustments that could possibly improve our lives.
But there is also a dark side to this: Self-help can quickly become self-blame, and in my experience women are often too quick to attribute all of their disappointments to their personal failings, especially when it comes to romantic love.
In her fascinating social history, Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, Moira Weigel writes that popular culture has consistently informed women and men that they work at cross purposes in the dating arena. For women, the goal is to find a man who will commit and have children with them. For men, it’s to have a good time and stay untethered. In this scenario, “dating is work for women and recreation for men,” she writes.
So it’s no surprise that women buy more dating books—we’re the ones told we’re operating at a disadvantage. Boys just want to have fun, so if you’re going to get one to marry you, you’d better study up!
If this were actually the case, that would mean women have been hoodwinking men into acting against their innermost natures for millennia.
But of course, it’s not. Men don’t marry women because they’ve been tricked; they do it for the same reason they do anything else: because they want to. A 2014 Pew Research Center report found that 55% of never-married men and 50% of never-married women say they would like to marry someday. The numbers might be low compared to earlier eras, but the difference between the genders isn’t statistically significant, says the report.
“The fiction that men and women who desire sexual and romantic relations are hardwired to want opposing things is not good for anyone,” writes Weigel. “I bet you know at least one bachelor who has spent decades unable to commit to any relationship, despite professing that he yearns to do so; I know several. It turns out that even if cultural stereotypes say that a man can date around endlessly without lowering his stock, of course the experience will change him, just as it changes the partners whom stereotypes say he can dispose of at no cost to himself.”
These stereotypes are also hard on the many men who don’t have scores of women vying for the chance to commit to them. As writer Arthur Chu points out, many guys—the shyer types who don’t have movie-star charm or football-hero physiques—grow up watching movies like Revenge of the Nerds and absorbing the message that one day their quieter attributes (sincerity, intelligence, etc.) will win them the love of the beautiful popular girl. But reality turns out to be different than a Seth Rogen movie.
We’ve been conditioned to treat potential romantic partners like opponents in a chess match; we could choose instead to view them as human beings we could possibly love and cherish.
That way, we all win.
Sara Eckel is a personal coach and the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book at saraeckel.com. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook. Ask her any questions here.