I don’t know when it happened, but it has become customary for young couples to treat their first dates like psychiatric intake interviews.
You don’t have to be Miss Manners to find this appalling.
Writing the New York Times “Modern Love” column today Sara Eckel recounted how she was taken aback when a man asked her on their first date how long it had been since her last relationship.
She describes her reaction: “I looked at the table, cupping my hand around my beer. I had always hated this question. It seemed so brazenly evaluative — an employment counselor inquiring about a gap in your résumé, a dental hygienist asking how often you flossed.”
Eckel is right to hate a question that has, by her account, become a staple of first dates. While I do like her analogies, the question sounds to me like something a therapist would ask.
There are many reasons to hate the question. On first dates two people should try to get to know each other, slowly.
Intrusive personal questions have no place in a conversation between people who have just met. Even for Eckel, who was out with a man she knew well from work, the question is out of place.
A first date is not a quiz. It is bad conversational form to cast the interaction in question/answer form. No one likes to be put on the spot and no one likes to be quizzed about past relationships.
If you want to have a great date, engage the other person in a conversation. I am sure that you can do it without asking probing questions.
Asking a woman about her relationship history feels to me slightly strange.
If a woman has had a series of relationships that have not led to marriage, this assumes that she chooses men badly or that there is something wrong about her.
Nowadays, it is considered slightly embarrassing for a woman not to have experienced a number of relationships. In the past, a woman who had had several relationships would have been considered less desirable, perhaps because she would have been considered to be fickle.
If you are out on a first date and you want to learn something more personal than the person’s opinion about the weather, try offering some personal information about yourself.
That invites your date to share information with you. Of course, you should do so gradually and discretely. It’s better to start out with your pets and your family before getting to your sexual preferences.
If you get too personal too soon, your date will probably not reciprocate. If so, walk it back and change the discussion to a more neutral topic.
In truth, this is what happened to Eckel. Her suitor had, gallantly, but perhaps too eagerly, shared all manner of personal information with her.
He had been open about his loneliness, his divorce, his career anxiety. He had, as the saying goes, put out.
Eckel, it seems, had not reciprocated. It may well be that she was following an instinct. The therapy culture notwithstanding, most women do not feel comfortable around a man who makes himself emotionally vulnerable. They try to get him to shut it down.
As she tells the story, Eckel's date divulged some personal information. Apparently, she did not reciprocate. The man drew the right conclusion and gallantly changed the subject, as he should have done.
While it is poor etiquette to ask a woman on a first date why she isn’t married or if she has ever been married, that does not mean that, culturally speaking, we ought not to address the question.
Why are there so many unmarried thirtysomething women in America, or better, in New York today?
Eckel hints at one reason when she explains that she felt that in wanting to be married she was betraying feminism.
For decades now feminists have been peddling the idea that it is better for women to defer marriage in favor of career.
Given the source, one should not be surprised to learn that this has worked out badly for many, many women.
In truth, it is easier to build a life together than to merge too well-formed lives. Of course, younger women have a larger selection of men and more power in choosing an appropriate husband.
Only the influence of feminism would have convinced them to sacrifice this power for a cause.
I suspect that many young women took themselves out of the marriage derby because they learned that wanting a husband, and thus, wanting to be a wife, was a betrayal of feminism.
While one side of the culture is telling women to postpone marriage, another side is stigmatizing those who are unmarried in their thirties. The culture is telling unmarried women that their singlehood means that they are flawed and that they need to resolve their problems in therapy.
In Eckel’s words: “Like single women everywhere, I had bought into the idea that the problem must be me, that there was some essential flaw — arrogance, low self-esteem, fear of commitment — that needed to be fixed. I needed to be fixed.”
Eckel was convinced that expiating her sins would put her on the road to matrimony.
Since she could not herself afford therapy, so she decided to do it on the cheap. As a writer who often interviewed therapists and self-help gurus, she asked many of them for advice. And she took their advice.
She explains: “I also talked to a lot of self-help authors. There was the Tough-Love Married Lady who declared the key to finding a soul mate was to grow up, quit whining and do something about your hair. There was the Magical Soul-Mate Finder who prescribed keeping a journal, long hikes, candle-lighted bubble baths and other hocus-pocus. And there was The Man — i.e., a moderately cute guy who wrote a book — who gave insider tips on how to hook up with him, which involved not being critical and having long hair.”
Self-help authors may or may not be therapists. They are more likely to provide advice than to help a woman to find out what is wrong with her.
When Eckel let her hair grow and improved her appearance that did not mean that there was something wrong with her. It meant that her appearance had been sending the wrong message to the men she met.
Up to a point, the advice was helpful. Eckel writes: “My efforts yielded many friends and filled my calendar with fulfilling activities. I went on Internet dates, speed dates and blind dates. I had great hair and a confident smile. But I was still alone. And in the dark of Saturday night, I still asked myself, ‘What’s wrong with me?’”
Eckel wants us to believe that nothing about her self-improvement efforts contributed to her finding a husband. I am not so sure.
I agree that her success had nothing to do with working on her “issues,” but, a woman who undergoes a makeover is not really resolving her issues. She is presenting a more agreeable face to the world.
By Eckel’s account, the world was more than happy to embrace the new Her.
Eckel prefers to give the credit to true love. All that she needed, she explains, was to find the right man, a man who would love her unconditionally, flaws and all.
While I wish her all the best, and agree that it is good for people who are in love to believe that they love each other for reasons that have nothing to do with superficial appearances, I also believe that Eckel is being slightly naïve about all this.
After all, a woman who does not want to or cannot have children, as seems to be the case here, would do well to follow Eckel’s example and fall in love with a man who is divorced.