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Advice for the New Dating Game

5 minute read
Belinda Luscombe

Some of them are respected scientists. Some of them are psychologists. At least one of them is a briefly married former TV-morning-show host. A surprising number of them are stand-up comedians. And they all want to give you dating advice. If you’re single and don’t wish to be, have they got a TV show/book/scientific theory for you! As if you haven’t suffered enough.

According to the most recent census figures, about 84 million Americans ages 20 to 75 are unmarried or separated. Even if only half of them want to find a spouse, that’s a nice fat target for the media to aim at in a market where such uniformity of desire is rare. So while dating and mating instructions are probably as old as Australopithecus (Tip 1: “Stand up straighter”), right now the advice-o-meter is running hot. When a coupling manual turned movie–He’s Just Not That Into You–is a box-office hit, something’s up. (See pictures of the 20th century’s greatest romances.)

How bad is the dating scene? Bad enough that a production company believes it can find four adults willing to have spouses chosen for them by their friends and family, marry them and allow their subsequent domestic life to be broadcast on CBS. (Because what could possibly go wrong in your first year of wedlock to a stranger?) Other lonely hearts have already submitted to having their mate-finding woes aired on cable. Yes, there have been dating shows before, but none quite so DIY as three offered by FLN, the network formerly known for fancy cooking and curtain-choosing. Wingman, in which comedian Michael Somerville acts as a dating sidekick, premiered Feb. 10. How to Find a Husband, a British import, arrives in April. The network is also developing Love Taxi, in which a cab driver plays matchmaker. Dating, camera, New York City taxi–the discomfort trifecta.

Oddly enough, Wingman’s Somerville is not the nation’s premier comedian turned love guru. That would be Steve Harvey, whose Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man is the best-selling nonfiction book in the nation, according to the Wall Street Journal. Harvey’s advice is old-fashioned and frank: Women are single because they have lowered their expectations of men and because they have not understood the three things men need–support, loyalty and “the Cookie,” the author’s euphemism for … oh, you know what it’s for. “I told the publishers I could have said everything I had to say in about 35 pages,” the twice-divorced Harvey notes. “Because we’re guys. We’re that simple.” (Read an interview with Steve Harvey.)

Straightforward as it is, Harvey’s book reads like Jacques Derrida compared with Whitney Casey’s The Man Plan. A former host of Great Day Houston, Casey is blond, divorced and telegenic enough to get a blurb for her book from Lance Armstrong, the champion bad boyfriend. She polled 250 men to come up with such insights as, Men get confused by shiny jewelry and big handbags, don’t like it when hair smells of fajita and are impressed by TV sets hung on the wall.

Has it come to this? Is dating really that hard? Sociologists have long agreed that the two key factors of mate choice are proximity and timing. We choose from those around us, generally two to five years after we finish our education. But at least one of those pillars is eroding. Online dating has meant that our pool of potential mates is much bigger. The opportunity cost of giving up on a potential suitor is lower. And it’s more work to find the wheat in all that chaff.

This is made more complicated by our new living patterns, says New York University sociologist Dalton Conley, whose book Elsewhere, U.S.A. examines how our work and domestic realms collide. “Social proximity is more defining now,” he says. “It’s class- or occupation-based. Doctors marry doctors instead of nurses.” Conley points out that in the past 30 years, the social norms for mate selection have completely flipped: there are fewer prohibitions on whom you can marry, most women work outside the home, and the digital dating landscape is a whole new terrain. “The last change of this significance was the introduction of the Pill,” he says.

In times of upheaval, nothing offers safe harbor like science. That’s where Helen Fisher comes in. A biological anthropologist at Rutgers University, she combed through reams of genetic literature and analyzed the answers to 40,000 surveys she conducted on the dating site Chemistry.com for which she is a paid adviser. Her research led her inside the biological mechanisms of mate choice. In Why Him? Why Her?, Fisher posits that there are four broad temperament types–“explorer,” “builder,” “director” and “negotiator.” Each of these types is expressive of a different neurochemical system: dopamine and norepinephrine; serotonin; testosterone; and estrogen. Using the data from Chemistry.com she observes which type is drawn to which.

“When you’re on a date, if you understand your primary type and the type of person whom you’re going out with,” suggests Fisher, “you can better reach them and create more intimacy.” (One telltale sign: the ring fingers of directors are longer than their index fingers.) In the future, might singletons be able to use a blood test to zero in on prospective mates, saving us a lot of effort and enabling us to wear jewelry? “Possibly,” she says.

Until then, try spending Valentine’s Day mounting your flat screen on the wall. It can’t hurt.

See the top 10 nonfiction books of 2008.

Read “The Biology of Dating: Why Him, Why Her?”

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