The difference between the bitch . . . and the nag . . . is that the bitch succeeds by alternately accepting the man -- telling him he is wonderful and making a fuss over him -- and dumping on him for his faults. Occasional bitching will keep him coming back for more, but constant nagging will lead to failure. Be a bitch, not a nag! -- from How to Marry the Man of Your Choice, by Margaret Kent

he B.F. Skinner types call this technique "intermittent reinforcement," the idea being that scattershot rewards have a stronger shaping effect on behavior than consistent rewards, as in, "Honey, here's your new fur coat! Now may I have my alfalfa pellet?" "No." Or something like that. I see only one problem with Kent's interpretation of the technique. According to top psychologists, all you need to do to make it work is occasionally withhold the reward. Punishment isn't necessary, but Kent throws it in -- apparently as an added frill. Surely, you say, she's not serious -- it's all a whimsical spoof, a Nazi Dear Abby routine. Well, a few years ago I wouldn't have believed it either, but back then I was young and idealistic, and I wouldn't have believed a lot of things that are as real as death, taxes and rolling pins.

Take, as a relatively pleasant example before we return to the Kent fiend, my most hated literary form: "relationships articles" in women's magazines. Not only did I not believe that all the Geoffs, Megans, Bens and Ericas whining their way through them were real, but I was pretty sure the authors didn't exist either. I mean, nobody interviews people for those, do they? A cackling editor makes it all up at lunchtime, right? Not always. One morning three years ago, a womanpersonfriend and I were getting in my car to go to work when a shrieking frizzhead named Monica came bounding across the street. She'd missed the bus, were we going near Dupont Circle? "Uh . . . sure," I said. We're driving, and then, from Monica: "By the way, I'm writing a RELATIONSHIPS PIECE {the all-capital italics are mine} for Washington Woman magazine, and what I'm arguing is . . . well, people always say, 'There are no men in Washington,' but I know many, many women who are dating fantastic men, loving men, nurturing men -- and I wondered if you two would -- " This at 8:30 a.m.! For future reference, the following works handily as a "no": hands over both ears (but only if you're a good knee driver), a pained grimace and loud recital of "Yayayaya."

So now, when someone comes out with a pleasure/pain how-to-get-married manual that carries a two-year money- back guarantee if you fail to spike your flounder -- yes, I take that person seriously. Besides, it's all part of a new trend. And I'm not talking about the problem of getting wormboy to make a commitment -- that's old. What is new is the idea that the Geoffs and Bens, in addition to being genetically irresponsible and noncommittal, are cockier than ever because, according to various statistical studies, they now enjoy a major supply- and-demand advantage. This theme has found its way into the women's magazines, where Geoff, Ben and even their geek counterparts are swaggering around with a new relentlessness. Last winter Mademoiselle ran an article in which a sneering nerd named Alex -- not me, I promise -- strides around Manhattan knocking off a babe-per-night and saying things like, "With so many women around, you can pick the one who suits your needs!" Such people deserve whatever poleaxing they get. Hence, the no-holds-barred shrewism of How to Marry the Man of Your Choice.

True, this book may be nothing more than the isolated rant of a lone fanatic. On the other hand, it's selling very well. Why take chances, single guys? Let's enter its hellish world and prepare to resist -- cracking its spine, so to speak, before it cracks ours.

In the early chapters, we find the one glimmer of hope. Most of the advice Kent gives early on is so stupid that many women will chuck this rancid screed before getting to the rough stuff. Her beauty-tips section contains this no-nonsense gem: "If you are missing teeth, get dentures." Among the manners tips: "Don't use familiar expressions such as 'Pops' when speaking to his father!" "Don't store trinkets or money in your underwear." (Dang. I thought that was coming back.) In another section, she recommends switching to these professions in order to meet more men: shoe sales (" . . . ask him about his shoes to open up a conversation about his lifestyle"), IRS agent ("You will have access to any man . . . Equally important, you will have his attention when you meet him"), boat service and repair, and sports uniform design.

The lonely lady's next step is to meet LOTS of guys. "Say hello to every man you are reasonably sure is not a felon," Kent advises. She recommends that a woman meet 1,000 per year, because she will be ruthlessly weeding out losers. I think I'd quadruple that -- the rigorous "interview" process Kent recommends may prompt a few lads to weed themselves out. Her queries include: Under what circumstances would you declare bankruptcy? Do you believe you will come back to Earth . . . as another being? Would you give up your citizenship?

Next, if the guy "passes" this segment, it's praise-and-criticism time. "The key to a successful relationship is to know his inferiorities," Kent writes. " . . . look for the five most common and devastating inferiorities men feel: origin-based, physical, financial, mental and moral." Start out slow ("Ben, you're a little short but very darling. I imagine you sometimes wished you were taller?") but be ready to increase the voltage. "A man may be concerned that he is . . . unattractive, has poor vision or crooked teeth, or is too young or too old." But what if he says, how about you, Hatchetface? "Unless your inadequacies are extremely apparent, let him know that many men find you attractive, and that the feature he sees as a flaw is considered an attribute by others."

Finally, with a minimum of 12 dates under her belt, it's time for our lovely Iron Maiden to give her "greatest gift." But first, more queries, to determine the man's moral background. "Questions such as 'Did your parents indulge in premarital sex?' or 'Is your sister a virgin?' . . . are keys to his sexual values. If he recoils in horror just from your merely asking, you can be sure that he is mired in prudery." Finally, it's love-making time. Job One here, Kent says, is to determine the number of days in the man's "sexual need cycle" and add two or three. This will put him in a weakened state of constant need. After that it's okay to marry him.

Kent does not spend much time talking about the ceremony, but I think here it would be apropos to alter the vows. When asked, "Do you promise to love and honor him . . ." the woman will of course say, "intermittently." For his part, the man will keep his mouth shut until the end, when, paraphrasing the famous aspirin commercial, he'll turn to the audience and announce: "It'll be beautiful whenever the pain stops." ::