Advice for the Lovelorn

(Linda Helton)
By Lynn Harris
Sunday, February 12, 2006

Although you might prefer to spend Valentine's Day curled up with something other than a good book, self-help writers are determined to help you weather this holiday in style. Some good news: The "If You're Unhappy in Love, It's Because You Messed Up" genre ( The Rules , Women Who Love Too Much , The Rules II ) now seems five boyfriends ago. The message of today's books is more like "You're OK, He's Not." (Or, in one case, "You're OK, But You'll Find Him Faster by Using This Trademarked 'Total Compatibility System.' ") There's even a book for helping your teenage daughter navigate today's must-find-soulmate-now culture with her self-esteem intact ("You're OK, But You're Grounded"). Of the four that I curled up with, all offer solid wisdom. And, should it come to this, one in particular will make a pretty darn entertaining date for the evening.

It's His Fault

Psychiatry professor Georgia Witkin takes a no-excuses tack in It's Not You, It's Him: The Zero-Tolerance Approach To Dating (Broadway, $19.95). When a guy doesn't call/come through/commit, Witkin says, women wrongly blame themselves: Was I too pushy? Picky? Ugly? Unfun? Unloveable? No, says Witkin, you're fine. Perfect, even. "When you assume that you're perfect, you realize that 90 percent of your dating efforts -- constantly reinventing yourself to seem like Ms. Right for Mr. Wrong -- have been a waste," she writes. "The problem was never you. It was him." Don't change unless you're changing for you.

Yes, it's basically the 174-page version of "Honey, if he can't see how great you are, that's his problem." But, hey, sometimes you need to hear that from a shrink, not your mom. Plus, Witkin adds plausible examples such as that of Marianne, whose friends said her boyfriend left because she was "needy." (Thanks, friends!) But when the couple reunited, Marianne, figuring it wouldn't last, quit trying to please him. And he proposed! Because she changed? Nope. Before, he said, he just hadn't been ready. See? It was him.

So what you won't get here is tough love. Or a riveting read. As is often the case with catchily titled self-help books, the core material fills a fraction of the pages; much of the rest, although entirely sensible, is riffing. But I like the message: Better that women spend two hours learning to "see being single as a fact, not a fault" than spend the rest of their love lives trying to change.

Meet Your Match

Now that you know it's not you, how do you know it's him? That is: How do you know he's the one? Witkin's tests -- "Do you light up when he comes into the room?" -- may not be sufficient for those daters who need data. There are, after all, folks who regard romantic chemistry as a science -- a methodical exploration of the composition, structure and properties of a relationship. For those, Finding Your Perfect Match (Perigee; paperback, $14.95), by sociology professor and sex expert Pepper Schwartz, may be a dream date.

The book is mainly a series of quizzes and in-depth analyses called, regrettably, the "Duet® Total Compatibility System." Duet is a personality-testing method that shares its roots with the well-known Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. (Full disclosure: The fact that the book actually says "shares it's [sic] roots" made me want to throw it across the room.) Just as executives use Myers-Briggs to make compatible hires, the reader uses Duet to determine a compatible match. "You will find out things about yourself you might not have known, and discover what similarities -- and differences to look for in a partner," promises Schwartz. (Yes, there's a dash missing after "differences." Seems this book is not compatible with proofreading.) Perfect Match walks you through the "Eight Essential Compatibility Characteristics" -- "personal energy" and "emotionality," for example -- with questions designed to measure your level of each. Basically, it's an Advanced Placement Cosmo quiz. Every possible answer is evaluated, at great (and sometimes obvious) length. (If you say "True," you prefer playing water sports to sitting still at the beach, the corresponding analysis begins: "It is hard for you to lie on a beach.") Then it all comes together. As with Myers-Briggs, your quiz results become acronyms. Are you a XBOP (Risk Avoider, Relaxed, Optimistic, Predictable)? You should consider dating an RBOP (Risk Taker, Relaxed, Optimistic, Predictable). An RACV? I know an XAOV you should meet.

What I learned about my personality is that, while I do have high Personal Energy, the process of triangulating all my possible matches made me want to lie down. What's also not immediately clear is whether readers are intended to guess at their intended's characteristics or to whip out the book on the third date -- in which case I'm afraid Witkin might have to say, "Sorry, sistah friend, it is you.") Still, though the book may be tedious, it is by no means ridiculous. Its sheer breadth, if nothing else, saves it from pure gimmickry. I can see why it would appeal to those seeking information over affirmation and why the insights it offers could be, as Schwartz claims, a source of dating confidence. "It's not me," one might conclude, "it's all those XBCPs."

Breaking Up Is Fun To Do

And then there are the SPQs. More than a personality type, they're a worldview, a way of life, a global sisterhood. They are the Sweet Potato Queens. And -- for those of you who, like their russet cousins, have spent most of the recent past underground -- they are a real-life, trash-talking, plus-sized, mid-life posse of "fallen Southern belles" from Mississippi whose bestselling books (written in "Y'allbonics" by Boss Queen Jill Conner Browne) have inspired legions of devoted copycats.

Browne's latest is two books in one. Flip over The Sweet Potato Queens' Wedding Planner (Crown, $22.95), and, boy, if it ain't The Sweet Potato Queens' Divorce Guide on the other side! After all, as the latter book begins, "Statistically speaking, 100 percent of all divorces begin with weddings."

For most of the Wedding Planner , I confess that I wondered what all the sweet potato fuss was about. First of all, it's not a real wedding planner, which is fine. (Boss Queen advises that in order to "free up all your time" to plan the big day "you should definitely quit your job.") But the rest never quite amounts to much more than cackling wedding-blooper slapstick, like the anecdote about the bride whose boobs popped out of her bodice, which is a funny story only if you know the bride, and maybe not even then. (Though I did love the one about the cows mooing along with the soprano.) There are some cute wisecracks, such as this one on weight gain: "The universe is expanding and we're all doing our part to help out." But the "no mo's" and "hunnys" start to wear, as does the overwriting: "Pay close attention to the coffee spurting spontaneously out through your nostrils as you gaze with hilarious horror at your former self." Ever hear of editin'?

But the Divorce Guide ? High-larious. This, y'all, is where Browne hits her outta-my-way stride -- proof, perhaps, that the biggest laughs come from the darkest places. Her voice is more sustained, less forcibly sassy. She's both doing vaudeville and telling a story -- one that's ultimately less about lousy marriages and more about enduring girlfriendship. Plenty of the advice is tongue-in-cheek: "You must not sleep with your lawyer -- or his . . . . . . . If you're gonna sleep with somebody in this deal, I'd say make it the judge." But the rest is cute on the surface, solid at its core. Example: Imagine your friend has a lie-detecting "Truth Phone." When you describe your marriage -- and your justifications for staying -- how much will register as truth and how much as lies? Glides-to-be (exes are, yes, Glooms) are also instructed to put a "cap" on the "whinage" in their conversations, selecting topics instead from their own list of 20 non-divorce subjects of interest. (This is "excellent practice for Having a Life -- which is the whole point of getting divorced.") I was also glad to see still more serious admonitions: "If he treats you like [expletive] and you scream and yell about it, and still stay, what your actions say is, 'I'd like some more please.' " Because hunny, when the SPQs talk, people listen. And now I see why.

Teens in Love

Finally, speaking of "your former self," there's Boy Crazy! Keeping Your Daughter's Feet on the Ground When Her Head Is in the Clouds (Broadway; paperback, $14), by Charlene C. Giannetti and Margaret Sagarese, authors of five other parenting books. The focus: how to help your daughter form romantically healthy relationships, whether she's "boy crazy," a wallflower or somewhere in between.

Much of the book deals with prevention, not intervention: Keep communication open, observe her friendships, watch her favorite movies with her and discuss how love is portrayed. (Be warned: This means you may have to sit through "The Notebook.") While acknowledging that pop culture shapes -- or rather misshapes -- teens' image of romance, the book hardly "blames the media" and leaves it at that. The authors say -- and here they're inspired -- that it's the dynamics of teen friendships that really mold girls' ideas about love. Among their friends, loyalties shift like breezes: Backstabbers one day are Best Friends Forever the next. "Feelings of love and hate take turns," write the authors. "Girls can assume this is par for the course for all future relationships." And: "The leap from letting a friend treat you badly to allowing a boyfriend to do likewise is not very far. "

While the authors' voice is occasionally uneven (they call pictures "pix" but pot "marijuana"), to their great credit, they do sound like moms who have spoken to actual teenagers -- and I'll bet they can help the reader do the same. Ideally, with a parent's guidance, a young woman can come to expect true compatibility, to be loved for who she is now, and, once in a while, to be treated like -- Sweet Potato or otherwise -- a queen. ยท

Lynn Harris, a journalist, is co-creator of the Web site and author of the forthcoming novel "Death by Chick Lit."

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