TODAY I interview Jon Birger, author of the forthcoming book Make Your Move: The Science of Dating and Why Women are in Charge (to be published in the UK on February 18). The lockdown has made finding a husband even harder for women, but Jon explains why playing hard to get is dead, and why women should make their move instead.
Laura Perrins: One of my favourite books is The Rules, a classic on how to play hard to get. Tell me why, in 2021, should a woman not play hard to get? Are you really saying women should accept a Saturday night date after Wednesday? Are you really saying women should accept the last-minute offer?
Jon Birger: I’m not suggesting that women suspend all common sense.
If an ex-boyfriend whom you haven’t heard from in months texts you on Thursday saying he wants to go out on Friday, I’d say it’s pretty unlikely he’s suddenly decided that you’re his soulmate. This is obvious, and women don’t need a dating book to tell them this.
I’m also not telling anybody to do something that will make them miserable. I’m not a fan of last-minute plans myself. If my best friend Dave texts me at 2pm on a weekday to see if I want to come over for a beer at 6, I’m probably going to decline. As I said, I don’t like last-minute plans. I probably have to walk the dog anyway.
But what’s important here is that I am saying no for me (and for the dog), and not because I’m playing mind games with Dave, and not because I think if I say ‘no’ today it will somehow change Dave’s behaviour in the future.
Trust me, it will not.
Personally, I don’t think the play-hard-to-get approach ever worked so well, but in 2021 it’s going to backfire on women.
(Just so we’re all on the same page, my definition of ‘playing hard to get’ is the same as the Cambridge Dictionary’s: ‘to pretend that you are less interested in someone than you really are as a way of making them more interested in you, especially at the start of a romantic relationship.’)
The underlying philosophy of books like The Rules and its various copycats is that men will lose interest in you the moment you show too much interest in them. As Fein and Schneider write in one of their Rules books: ‘If you want a guy to pursue you, don’t act so interested. Treat him a little bit like a guy you don’t care for!’
Here’s the truth about men: Men like women who like them. I’ve yet to meet the man who broke up with a woman he really liked just because she was too enthusiastic about him.
Whenever I use this line on the lecture circuit, the men nod in unison, and the women look at me like I’m crazy because they’ve been socialised to believe the exact opposite. Thanks to books like The Rules and the mindset behind it, too many women believe that the true way into a man’s heart is ignoring his text messages and rebuffing his advances.
The message these books want young women to send to young men boils down to ‘not interested means keep trying’. Well, think about how this sort of messaging plays in the post #MeToo era.
Men are nervous nowadays. They’re afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing. In the wake of #MeToo, very, very few men are going to assume that not interested means keep trying. If a woman seems uninterested, men have learned that the proper response is to leave her alone.
Here’s what Francesca Hogi, a high-profile dating coach in Los Angeles, told me about how #MeToo has affected dating: ‘If a woman comes across as indifferent, men will take that as a sign that she’s not interested and will move on. It’s getting to a point that if the woman doesn’t make the first move, the men are not going to. This is not the time to be demure, at least not if you’re single and don’t want to be single.’
I do want to share one last point from the book.
One of my arguments in Make Your Move is that Fein, Schneider and their literary copycats got hoodwinked by a now-debunked scientific narrative: that the male imperative in mating is to chase, that the female imperative is simply to be passive filters of male advances, and that females don’t need to seek out their preferred mates.
Now to be fair, the academic who first promoted this theory is not some nobody. It’s Robert Trivers, considered by many to be the most influential evolutional biologist of his generation.
Thing is, Trivers’s prominence as a scientist is problematic, and that’s putting it mildly. To give you a sense of the kind of person we’re talking about, here’s what Trivers had to say when it was reported he’d been accepting research funding from sex-offender financier Jeffrey Epstein: ‘By the time they’re 14 or 15, they’re like grown women were 60 years ago, so I don’t see these acts as so heinous.’
Over the past two decades, Trivers’s theories on sex roles in mating have been thoroughly debunked by female scholars such as Patricia Gowaty of UCLA, Sarah Hrdy of UC-Davis, and Zuleyma Tang-Martínez of University of Missouri. Gowaty went so far as to replicate the seminal study that Trivers had relied upon in his own work, one involving the mating behaviour of fruit flies. Gowaty proved beyond any doubt that the findings of the original fruit fly experiment were either made up or a by-product of technical incompetence.
Turning to what does work, although you think there is a place for online dating, you recommend a digital dating detox, and for women to look around them.
I have a friend who is an English professor at Rollins College in Florida. I gave her an advance review copy of Make Your Move, and after reading it, she invited me to be a (virtual) guest speaker at a ‘Life Launch’ class she’s teaching for graduating seniors.
She assigned an excerpt from my book, specifically the two chapters on why I don’t like online dating.
After the class, one of the students asked how young people are supposed to meet if not through the dating apps. I posed a question to the entire class in response. I asked how many of them know someone from their daily lives whom they’ve ever wondered about dating.
There were 30 people in the class. Thirty hands went up.
My message to them was pretty simple: Why the heck would you start from scratch with a complete stranger on a dating app when there’s someone you already know from the real world whom you would like to date? Someone you get along with. Someone you’re attracted to. Someone who gets your jokes. Why not just ask out that person instead?
Here’s another question: Would you turn on a computer to find a best friend?
The answer, of course, is no. Nobody thinks they can go on bestfriends.com (if such a website even existed!) and find a relationship that could replace or replicate the bonds we have with our closest friends. Well, if you would never go online to find a best friend, why the heck would you use an app to search for a soulmate?
Human beings evolved as social animals. We bond through shared experience. It’s why jokes always seem funnier and triumphs more triumphant when we’re in the company of others than when we’re alone. Shared experiences become part of us – the stories we love to tell and retell to those closest. They become the foundations for deeper emotional connections. This is why couples who first meet in the real world fare better in terms of marriage rates and breakup rates than those who first meet online.
That said, I am not opposed to all types of online dating. There are some niche dating apps I actually like a lot, and I do write about them in the book. For the most part, though, I don’t think the time and money singles invest in online dating has enough of a payoff. Like I said, studies show that the marriage rates are lower and the breakup rates higher for couples who meet online than those who meet the old-fashioned way. Even worse, 53 per cent of female dating-app users believe online dating is unsafe and 19 per cent say they’ve been threatened with physical violence, according to a recent Pew Research survey.
If there were a singles bar where women were threatened with violence every fifth time they were there, how many would choose to return?
One of the very specific strategies I like is the idea of making a list of all the men who single women know in real life, including going through the Facebook profiles of their friends’ husbands, and researching who their single friends are. That sounds like a lot of work.
The woman who suggested this strategy to me is now engaged, so maybe the time invested is worth it!
But honestly, I’m not sure it is a lot of work, at least compared with online dating. Surveys show that the typical online dater is spending ten hours per week on dating apps – and that doesn’t even include the actual dates!
The chapter I agreed with the most was Chapter 7, ‘Get ’em while you’re young – or they are.’ In it you explain how women should be prioritising husband-hunting in their 20s, and not waiting until their 30s. You also say that getting married in their 20s will not hurt their career, although a motherhood penalty remains. Explain?
For the record, I don’t assume that all women prioritise marriage and family. But I do think many women who want families have convinced themselves that career must come first. They’ve been told by their peers and mentors that women cannot succeed professionally or financially if they’ve got a boyfriend or husband distracting them. They’ve been told that if they just wait until their 30s to get serious about dating, not only will they be more emotionally and financially prepared for marriage themselves, but their men will be more ready too.
By the time they hit their early 30s, though, what many women discover is that a lot of the men they thought they’d end up with are already off the market. Suddenly they’re stuck in this hellish game of dating musical chairs in which there are five fabulous women competing for every three decent guys.
What bothers me most about all this is that there’s no real evidence that relationships really are a hindrance to women’s professional and financial success.
For starters, the top five CEOs on Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women list – Marillyn Hewson of Lockheed Martin, Mary Barra of General Motors, Abigail Johnson of Fidelity Investments, Ginni Rometty of IBM, and Gail Boudreaux of Anthem – all got married in their early or mid-twenties.
That’s purely anecdotal, I know. But what is not anecdotal is a 2013 study by Alexandra Killewald, a sociology professor at Harvard University.
Killewald found that married women were out-earning single women by 3.7 per cent. Even more interesting, the women in Killewald’s study didn’t even need to be married to reap the benefits of being in a long-term relationship. She found that unmarried women living with a partner out-earned single peers by nearly the same amount – 3.6 per cent.
Yes, a significant motherhood penalty still exists. Childless women still earn more than moms. But to me that’s a separate issue and one that affects married moms and unmarried moms equally. Also, there’s obviously no law that says you must have a baby right after you get married (although I’m sure there are a lot of wannabe grandparents who wish there were!) My wife and I were together for eight years and married for five before we had our twins.
You recommend women to date younger men, again as a matter of mathematics and (I think) values. I think there is a lot to be said for that. I must admit to being quite biased about single men in their 40s. They have even less excuse to be single than the women because they can still be the aggressor and I figure if they are not married at 40 it is probably because deep down they don’t want to be married. The same cannot be said for women, can it?
I agree 100 per cent.
A lot of women who are single in their 40s did not expect to be single in their 40s. Their plan was to get married.
But a lot of never-married men in their 40s are single by choice. The gender gap in universities is so wide (I believe it’s 30 per cent more women than men in the UK?) that a lot of the educated guys who remain single into their late thirties end up warped and jaded. Especially the better-looking ones. They’re having too much fun playing the field. The longer they stay single, the less interested they are in getting married. As a result, I think a lot of them wind up essentially unmarriageable.
That’s why I encourage thirty-something women to consider dipping down age-wise. It probably sounds counter-intuitive, but I actually think the younger guys are more ready for marriage than a lot of the older ones.
I share your frustration (I think you are frustrated) at how women think they can meet other men, especially marriageable men. Are you telling me it is not at the book club or wine club? I also think you were unfair on The Rules authors here as they do implore women to go out and meet men, and not just hang around with their mates, or worse, in their house.
Yes, I’m always amazed at some of the wrong-headed ideas women have about where they can meet men. It’s as if they don’t know us at all!
When is the last time you met a group of guys who wanted to sit around a living room and share their thoughts and feelings about the latest Margaret Atwood novel? Never going to happen.
If you really want to meet men in a casual setting, my suggestion would be to get outdoors. Join a beginner bicycling club or hiking club. Sign up for a co-ed recreational sports league. That’s where the guys are!
As for The Rules, you make a fair point. Their ideas on how to meet men are fine. It’s the game-playing that I think backfires.
Do you think women are too fussy? This brings in your strategy about dating blue-collar men. I have read twenty-something women almost boasting that they wouldn’t date men who didn’t read the Economist, were not in a certain profession or did not play a certain sport. They seem to think this makes them special whereas I think it makes them obnoxious.
My take is that everyone is too fussy. Men included.
I’m highly educated. So is my wife. So is our entire friend group. I do not know a single man who is married to a cocktail waitress or a seamstress or a UPS driver. Here in the US, the data shows that women are more likely to be married to lesser-educated men than men are to lesser-educated women.
I think this context is important. I don’t want anyone to think I’m picking on fussy women but letting all the fussy men off the hook.
The problem is that men don’t get punished for being fussy. If a man had the same sort of crazy requirements for women that you present in your question, there’s still a decent chance he’d find his girl. He might even find ten of them. The supply of fabulous, educated women in their 20s and 30s is just so vast, thanks to the university gender gap, that men can afford to be picky.
It’s unfair as hell for women, but that is world we live in.
As for dating blue-collar men, I do NOT consider marrying someone who didn’t go to university to be ‘compromising’ or ‘settling’ or any other of the pejoratives that people throw around.
I coach youth baseball with a lot of blue-collar men – electricians, cops, firemen, guys who run landscaping businesses, etc. They’re great guys, great fathers and great husbands. I’m sure they’re handy around the house too. I’m also sure they didn’t enter their marriage saddled with $50,000 in student loan debt – which is important considering that few things strain a marriage more than one spouse’s excessive debt.
So my advice to the fussy women would be to give the guy who doesn’t read the Economist a chance. You might find he’s better company.
Asking a man out on a date or proposing marriage is just wrong. Change my mind.
The chapter in Make Your Move you’re alluding to addresses a very specific problem – what I call ‘the reluctant groom problem’.
We all know these men. They’ve been with their girlfriends for years. They’re way too happy with the status quo. Their girlfriends want to get married, but these men seem to be in no rush.
Question is: What should women do about this?
In Date-onomics [Birger’s previous book], I argued that women should give men a marriage ultimatum. In hindsight, I believe this was the wrong advice.
Thing is, men do not react well to being bossed around. If you tell a guy he has to propose to you, he’s not going to have some epiphany when he finally realises that you are The One. All that’s going to happen is him becoming grumpy and defensive.
Even if your marriage ultimatum does achieve the intended goal, it’s not an ideal way to launch your life together. Engagements are supposed to be special, and there’s no romance in telling a guy, ‘Put a ring on it or else!’
Another problem is that the ultimatum will always be out there, casting a shadow over every fight or marital rough patch. You’ll live in fear of the day he says the dreaded words ‘I didn’t even want to get married, you made me!’ – and that will be the end.
This is why I believe asking him to marry you is a far better option than giving him an ultimatum.
A marriage proposal is a question. It’s not a demand. You’re not threating to leave him. You’re telling him you want to spend the rest of your life with him. What guy wouldn’t be touched to hear that?
And if he’s not touched? Well, at least you know he’s not the right guy for you.
What’s been the feedback? Have you been directly responsible for some happy-ever-after stories?
The book doesn’t come out in the UK until February 18, but I do have one happily ever after for you.
I was a guest on a Christian dating podcast several weeks ago. One of the hosts is a woman in her 30s who mentioned that she’d been struggling with online dating. I asked her a question similar to the one that I asked the Rollins College students: Is there a single man from her regular life whom she’s wondered about dating?
There was such a guy, she told me. I suggested that she take a chance, ask him out on a date and see what happens.
I recently got an email from her. She took my advice. Here’s what she wrote: ‘We are now dating! We had mutual friends and interests, and I messaged him on Twitter, and we go on dates once a week. Still very early into things, but the story thus far seems to highlight the wisdom of your book.
‘The person I’m dating and I have both reflected that our dates have been so much better than anything we’ve found through the dating apps.’