15 Pieces of Terrible Relationship Advice From Dating Self-Help Books

Author Moira Weigel came across lots of heinous advice while researching her new book.EXPAND
Author Moira Weigel came across lots of heinous advice while researching her new book.
Photo by Joni Sternbach

On Saturday, June 11, Culver City’s romance-novel hub the Ripped Bodice hosts a conversation with Moira Weigel, author of the brand-new, fun fact–filled Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26).

Weigel’s wide-ranging survey begins in the 1890s, when the word “dating” (as in “filling the slots in a date book”) emerged, and then tracks how people shop for a mate and make themselves more “marketable,” from the era of “going steady” to “hooking up” to the current swipe-right-and-left status quo. In the past few weeks, Labor of Love has been debated by writers in The New York Times and The New Yorker, and Weigel herself has continued her exploration of the subjects with new essays such as “Why isn’t there a Grindr for straight people?”

While researching Labor of Love, Weigel read an enormous number of books and articles on the subject of dating advice, one of the best-selling genres in all of publishing throughout the 20th century. Some of these works are forgotten, but some are definitely still shaping many people’s ideas of how to find and keep a mate (yes, there are still women referring to themselves as Rules Girls”— and don’t even get us started on guys who swear by the Pickup Artistry taught by The Game).

Here are 15 particularly terrible pieces of advice Weigel unearthed while researching her book.

1. ”In case of an occasional lapse on the part of the husband, forgive and forget. Or still better, make believe." —Dr. William Josephus Robinson (early 1900s)

Love “experts” have been explicitly advocating delusion and fantasy since the dawn of time — or at least the dawn of the 20th century.

2. "Beauty is no longer vanity; it is use. Place a beautiful figure on your wall and compare that with the lines of your own body. Express your ideals with your body as in the pictures you express your ideals on your walls." —Anna Cocroft, Beauty a Duty (1915)

An early example of what now we would call something like a “thinspiration mood board” (or Instagram account). Visualize a better self, they tell the reader, because the current one ain’t much.

3. “Celia cannot be altogether irresponsibly natural, because she is possessed with a concrete desire, i.e. to attract Henry, so resourcefulness must come to her aid and direct her naturalness. Men dislike incessant talkers, or restlessness; they are wearied with noise (think of the downtown restaurants!). They are not fools now, either; work has sharpened their wits; and the jolly, noisy, smoking, slangy, Jazz-band creature is one who only engages their most trivial attention, to while away leisure moments unless of course she is perfectly beautiful so they are not very likely to desire such a one if she is plain, as a companion for life. They want something tender and charming, who unconsciously fills their imagination with rest from all the strife." —Elinor Glyn, The Philosophy of Love (1923)

Elinor Glyn was an extremely popular “love expert” of the Prohibition era. She also invented the idea of the “It” Girl, an ideal so meaningless that it could only be named with the neutral article. Glyn appeared as herself in It (1927), the blockbuster silent rom-com that made Clara Bow a star and flapper icon (not the Stephen King miniseries).

Glyn’s “philosophy of love” encourages women to cut it out with the fun-loving, jazzy antics if they want a man to “take them seriously,” anticipating the entire trend of encouraging unnatural behavior control to secure a mate “that will respect you.” This unhealthy obsession with neurotic self-policing and joylessness, of course, is still very much espoused by many popular love advice writers.

4. "The man always does the ordering. Never ask the waiter for anything yourself.”—Women's Own (1950)

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Of course you don’t. Why would you want to emasculate him like that, you heartless she-vampire?

5. “You cannot possess a boy, even though he is your boyfriend. Just remember that you are not married to him, and he has a life to live and other responsibilities and obligations besides trying to console and keep you happy. Nothing drives a man away more quickly than an over-possessive female. No man wants to spend his every waking moment with a girl no matter how much he loves her. You'd better have a good talk with yourself and realize that, although you occupy a part of his life, you are not all of it.”—"Date Data by The Chaperone," Baltimore Afro-American, Dec. 14, 1957

African-American women also have been instructed to lower their expectations of companionship for decades. By a lot.

6. “Of course you are a little mother to all the growing boys around [the office where you work]. You dispense Band-Aids and smiles to anyone who is wounded on the job and Bromo to those who got their wounds the night before. You should feel empathy in your bosom — it doesn't tickle or anything. ... Give it to them! Whatever anybody wants, dig it, make it, find it, mint it, scrounge it, grow it, or crochet it — but never say no!” —Helen Gurley Brown, Sex and the Office (1964)

In case you thought Joan on Mad Men was an outlier, working women were actively encouraged to coddle their male co-workers. Are things so different now? Weigel argues that "the new feminine mystique" that Brown hyped has persisted. "Cultural icons from Britney Spears to Sheryl Sandberg still tell young women that, for them, the prerequisite to the good life is an insatiable appetite for effort." "You'd better work work work work bitch" is the pop song for the “Lean In” era.

7. "Stop dating him if he doesn't buy you a romantic gift for your birthday or Valentine's Day. ... This is not a rule for gold diggers; it's just that when a man wants to marry you, he usually gives you jewelry, not sporty or practical gifts like a toaster oven or coffee maker. It is not how expensive the item but the type of gift it is. A typewriter can cost more than an inexpensive pair or earrings, and a computer, one would think, connotes love, being such a costly item; but such presents come from the head, not the heart, and are not good signs of love at all. Therefore, The Rule is that if you don't get jewelry or some other romantic gift on your birthday or other significant occasion, you might as well call it quits because he's not in love with you and chances are you won't get the most important gift of all: an engagement ring." —Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, The Rules (1995)

Here we have the notorious “Rules.” Not much more to add. Also, if you feel this is terrible dating advice at its worst, that’s entirely irrelevant. “Feelings are heavy and nobody wants those so shut up and suck it up,” the authors proclaim.

Says Weigel: “The Rules also constantly tells you not to tell your therapist you are following The Rules. It's honestly like a cult ... The supermodel Kate Moss once quipped that nothing tastes as good as skinny feels. The Rules offer a kind of emotional equivalent for single girls. Nothing could feel worse than being alone."

8. "A major motivation for developing an alter ego is that we all have sides to our personalities that we rarely, if ever, get to express because of fear or lack of opportunity. The internet eliminates both obstacles. … You have control over your anonymity and power over who finds out what. That's nearly impossible to duplicate in real life. In Cyberia, you don't have to wear any social masks. On the other hand, if you wish, you can try on different masks.”—Michael Adamse, Ph.D., and Sheree Motta, Psy. D., Online Friendship, Chat-Room Romance, and Cybersex: Your Guide to Affairs of the Net (1996)

The good thing about Cyberia is that you don’t have to be yourself. Because — you know the drill now — according to a lot of these self-help books, you suck!

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