The advice given to women on dating, relationships and finding love falls into three categories.
1. How not to attract emotionally unavailable men
Instagram is full of relationship advice that tells women to take responsibility for their “healing.” He counsels them on attachment styles, codependency, and emotional hurt, as well as how to deal with avoidant and narcissistic partners. This advice varies in quality, from condescending and exploitative to nuanced and compassionate. Some of these tips are helpful, many are not.
An example that falls into the latter category is the cliché that in order to find love, you must first love yourself. Psychiatrist and trauma expert Dr Bruce Perry notes that in reality you cannot love yourself unless you have been loved, noting that “the capacity to love cannot be built in isolation” .
“Loving yourself” is valued by modern society if it helps you move forward. Constant self-improvement is what matters in a performance-driven society that positions people as objects of improvement and optimization. Neoliberalism assumes that women’s lives are shaped by deliberate choices for which they, as individuals, are responsible. Little attention is paid to contexts that limit women’s choices.
Being responsible for self-love and self-healing only reinforces the responsibility that women already take on for their health, well-being, careers and relationships.
2. How to get a man to commit
Women are instructed on how to develop “a huge advantage over other women” in the “battle” to “get him to put a ring on it”. For example, dating coach Benjamin Daly tells his 500,000 Instagram followers that his book reveals “the secret to getting any man to ask for a commitment.”
Not only are women encouraged to strategize when dating, but they must also self-monitor to avoid emasculating men, with the authors encouraging women to observe the rules of traditional femininity and let the men “lead”.
The strategies behind this advice are confusing at best. To quote author Emily Brooks, “We’re told to bend over at work, but wait for it to call.” It’s okay to hustle at work, but don’t go overboard in your relationships.
The dating advice described in this category pits women against each other, controls women’s femininity, and reinforces a framework for performance-focused thinking about intimate relationships.
3. How to deal with toxic online behavior
Online dating, while positive in some ways, is a minefield for toxic male behavior.
This behavior ranges from rejection violence, where women face violence when they refuse a man’s advances, to unsolicited graphic images, to more subtle forms of harmful behavior. These include, but are not limited to, love bombs, where men bombard women with attention in order to gain control, and breadcrumbs, where a person leads someone but remains evasive.
These behaviors aren’t exclusive to male users of dating apps, but advice on how to handle such behaviors is largely aimed at women.
Why are these trends problematic?
Modern dating advice often implies that women can and should fix themselves and their relationships. This creates a sense of shame and is particularly damaging advice to vulnerable women in our communities.
Telling women to love themselves before they can have a relationship is absurd at best and cruel at worst, especially for those who have experienced the mental abuse that accompanies sexual assault and domestic violence.
In 2021, 23% of women in Australia, or a total of 2.2 million women, had experienced sexual assault, with women eight times more likely than men to be sexually assaulted by an intimate partner. In 2020, Australia recorded its most dangerous year for domestic violence.
One in six Australian women has experienced sexual or physical abuse from a former or current partner, while one in four women has experienced emotional abuse; more than a quarter of women in Australia.
A drop in self-esteem and a diminished sense of self-worth are just some of the psychological effects of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse that can make it difficult to “love yourself.”
Women need security more than dating advice
Teaching women how to respond effectively to emotionally dysfunctional behavior can help women cope, but it doesn’t solve the fundamental problem of intimate interpersonal relationships: safety.
Rather than improving women’s skills to deal with the harm they risk dating men, the self-help industry should focus on male behavior — not women’s reactions to that behavior. Women need security more than advice.
We need to redirect attention to male behavior
The most important dating advice the self-help industry has to offer is for a male audience: don’t hurt the women around you.
Rather than teaching women how to respond to dangerous dating behavior, the self-help industry should examine what men are taught about dating and relationships. The self-help industry could play an important role in educating users of online dating apps on how to avoid harassment, discrimination and sexual violence.
“Teaching” women how to deal with the men they date is not the solution to the problems of modern dating and relationships. DM/ML
This story was first published in The conversation.
Rachel Hogg is a lecturer in psychology at Charles Sturt University.