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By Karen Lehrman
For the past couple of decades women have been inundated with relationship advice. From books such as Smart Women, Foolish Choices to The Cinderella Complex to The Rules, psychologists, sociologists, and just plain yentas have all tried to solve the problem of why women today, who have become quite self-assured in our professional lives, are often anxious, obsessive, or depressed when dealing with our social lives.
The books typically fall into two categories. They either deconstruct our post-feminist psyches– we’ve become too much like men: afraid of commitment!– or they push behavior modification: don’t call him, don’t ask him out, don’t sleep with him, etc.
As each one of these books has hit the zeitgeist, I have eagerly read it. Like many women born in the ’60s, I have endured my share of relationships (not to mention engagements), dated zillions of men, and am still single.
Through the years, I have found that many of the books made a lot of sense. Yet when I tried to apply their words of wisdom to my life and the lives of my friends, nothing ever seemed to change: we all still fell for men who were not good for us, worried endlessly about why a certain He wasn’t calling, overanalyzed every conversation, and complained about the lack of good men. Our social failures began to accrue in lockstep with our professional successes. Some of us blamed feminism; many of us blamed men; most of us blamed ourselves.
A couple of months ago, with a nothing-left-to -lose attitude, I joined an online dating service. Suddenly, I was literally inundated with more men in the realm of possibility than I had met in the previous year. Every day, handsome lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs, and professors turned up in my e-mailbox after having just seen my “profile.” For the first time since high school, I started dating as though men truly were like buses: if one guy said something obnoxious, out he went; if another didn’t call after a first meeting, I simply figured it wasn’t meant to be. Finally freed from worrying about whether I had met the last good man alive, I was able to focus on not just whether a guy liked me, but on whether I liked him.
It soon became quite clear to me that the overarching romantic problem for women has not been inner turmoil or outward strategy: it’s been the lack of a venue to meet suitable men. Articles about online dating talk mostly about the pitfalls– your date never looks like his picture, it attracts a lot of losers– and to some extent they are true. But the potential benefit to women far outweighs these annoyances: online dating finally allows women the opportunity to date in a non-anxious, non-obsessive way.
This is not going to be good for the therapy business. Therapists– and their low-rent colleagues, self-help writers– have made a killing from the inability of post-feminist women to mate in a timely fashion. Instead of pointing out the obvious problem of insufficient supply, shrinks typically call for a thorough investigation of a patient’s relationship with food, parents, money, power, and, of course, men.
Now, it’s no doubt true that many women bring to all parts of their lives large doses of anxiety and/or depression and they could certainly benefit from this type of analysis. Indeed, a woman whose self-respect is not sufficiently solidified is going to deal just as dysfunctionally with a cornucopia of male options as with one. But I would hazard a guess that the reason most otherwise emotionally sane women have come to deal with men in their romantic lives in a neurotic fashion has far more to do with imperfect market conditions than with the post-feminist female psyche.
This is not to say that online dating is guaranteed to produce an avalanche of Mr. Rights. In fact, many of the men I have met suffer from the same problems as those in the real world– they’re irresponsible, whiney commitment-phobes. While online dating may solve a supply problem for women, it may exacerbate a male problem of wanting perfection, especially in the physical arena. As one guy said to me (after our first date): “When I meet an 8.5, I think, wow, maybe there’s a 9 or 9.5 out there for me.”
Yet the beauty of online dating is that I told him to get lost, and I moved on. More important, I had a slew of potential someones to move on to. As for relationship therapists, they also may want to look for greener pastures. Irresponsible, whiney commitment-phobes, perhaps?
Karen Lehrman is author of The Lipstick Proviso: Women, Sex & Power in the Real World (Doubleday). This essay originally ran in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.