Waving Off the Magic Wand
It's not easy out there. Just ask the fortysomething blond who's been taking hustle lessonsand religiously attending the coed parties after class. After six months, she has an ever-deepening understanding of the hustle ("It's not a simple dance," she says, somewhat defensively), but still no boyfriend. Or the dancer type in her late twenties whose exa guy she still lovesjust married her sister. Or the woman who, at 39, says she has never had a "healthy" relationship.
You can find them and dozens of other women mired in the excruciating morass of dating at "Ladies Day," a seminar run by therapist and author Pat Allen. Allen, a California-based psychologist and self-help guru, does relationship-oriented therapy and expounds on her dating theories in audio tapes and pamphlets. But the bright-orange-haired 64-year-old is probably best known for Getting to "I Do," her 1995 book that guides womenand, at least according to the flap copy, mentoward snagging a mate.
Getting to "I Do" has much in common with Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider's better-known retro dating guide, The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets of Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right, though Allen dismisses her competition as "too man-hating." She takes issue with the likes of Rule Seven, "Don't accept a Saturday night date after Wednesday," which the Rules authors ground in the assumption that the man who eventually wants to marry you will not wait until the last minute to ask you out. According to Allen, however, "Real men don't put up with that stuff. My men don't call on Wednesday because they're in Japan closing a deal."
Whether or not her clients indeed attract "real" or jet-setting men (a matter very much open to debate), some of them are really devoted to Allen's teachings, which she says have resulted in over 2000 marriages. Much of her road map to "I do" tends to involve the same Rules-style games that feminists hoped had gone the way of foot-binding. Like Rule 17, "let him take the lead." Allenwho is on her fourth marriagerecommends deference as the key to marrying what she calls a "masculine man." That means not speaking first, not challenging his ideas, letting him make the plans, and waiting until he initiates sex.
If such counsel smacks of plain old-fashioned sexism, Allen doesn't seem to care. She's only too happy to distance herself from "women's lib," which she says has caused only problems in the love realm. Nevertheless, she's added a few caveats to the classic heterosexual power dynamic that help her fend off charges that she is completely essentialist and regressive. Most important, Allen says, it's not necessarily the woman who takes the back seat and stokes the man's ego, but whoever chooses to be the "feminine energy" in a relationship. So her ideas can theoretically be put to use by "feminine men" and "masculine women," as well as in gay relationships.
However, at this particular seminar (and, one suspects, at most of them) all the participants seem to be striving to perfect a traditionalsome would say outdatedfemale role in relationships with men. Sitting in the conference room of a borrowed midtown office, single women offer up dating stories featuring the classic doggy guys: the cheater, the shlump, the commitment-phobe. And women in relationships fret about where they're headed. Allen seems to have practical solutions at the ready for even the most desperate of them.
The lovelorn, in turn, are grateful even before they've had a chance to put her advice to the test. That's because the desperation in this circle of well-groomed women (some of whom trot off to Saks during the lunch break) is as much about the need for guidance in a chaotic dating world as it is about "Mr. Right." Ann, for instance, feels an immense sense of relief just having hit upon Allen's romantic instruction, though she has yet to tie the knot. She has traveled to California several times to attend the workshops and uses Allen as a phone therapist. "Since I was a little girl, my goal was to be in a committed, monogamous, married relationship," says the 47-year-old. "Now I'm out there putting my cards on the table."
Such earnest gratitude allows some to overlook Allen's occasional looniness. While she makes frequent references to scientific and self-help literature, she uses these valid sources to support far-out theories, like the idea that it's more difficult to talk to right-handed men. Or that women who stay too long in the "male" role make themselves vulnerable to chronic diseases. Or that masculinity is determined in utero by the quantity of hormones that bathe the fetus. (One woman actually asks whether she might assure her child's manliness by drinking the hormones during pregnancy.)
But most women seem to value Allen for her more practical tips. When she suggests staring into the eyes of a love interest for a full five seconds, several women scribble down the number. And clearly her emphasis on not having sex without "prenegotiating your sexual deal" is taken quite seriously. After she announces that "women aren't built to sleep around," a series of questions about other sex acts follows, and Allen clarifies that anything is okay "as long as you don't let it inside you." She then leads the class in a vow: "I promise I will never let that magic wand in unless I negotiate with its owner about monogamy, continuity, and commitment."
Why the chastity belt? As Allen sees it, women become attached after sex and can take as much as two years to break free from the physical connection. Also, "Who's going to buy the cow if they're getting all the milk for free?" Allen's repackaging of such ancient nuggets has become gospel among some women.
Onelet's call her Vickidecided to stop having sex without commitment after reading Getting to "I Do." When she met her current boyfriend, "I stated that I needed to feel I was in a committed, monogamous relationship before sleeping with him." Fifteen months into that relationshipin fact, on the very evening she came home from "Ladies Day"he asked her to marry him.
Vicki says the timing of his proposal was a mere coincidence. Yet some of her single friends can't help but look to her for pointers. The hunger for such specifics does much to explain the Pat Allen phenomenon. Adviceeven formulaic adviceis comforting, and Allen goes so far as to prescribe specific moves and looks, even outlining particular wordings women shouldand shouldn'tuse with men. She says, for instance, that women should never use the phrasing "I want you..." with a manas in "I want you to move the couch." Masculine men, she asserts, find this construction threatening. Instead, she suggests "I want the couch moved. Would you do it?"
If such coy manipulations really work, one wonders why we couldn't just cut to the chase, look that commitment-shy guy in the eye and say, "I want to be proposed to," fluttering our eyelashes furiously. "Will you do it?"
Pat Allen's "Not for Women Only" will be held in New York on March 6. For information call 1-800-496-3983.
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