“Therapy-speak” advice on relationships and dating is widely available outside of the psychotherapist’s office. Much of this advice places responsibility on women for managing their emotional reactions to problematic dating and relationship experiences.
The advice women are given about dating, relationships, and finding love largely falls into three categories.
1. How to not attract emotionally unavailable men
Instagram is full of relationship advice that tells women to take responsibility for their “healing”. It advises them on attachment styles, co-dependency, and emotional wounds, as well as how to deal with avoidant and narcissistic partners. Such advice varies in quality from patronising and exploitative, to nuanced and compassionate. Some of this advice is helpful, much of it is not.
One example that falls in 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, “the capacity to love cannot be built in isolation.”
“Loving yourself” is valued by modern society if it helps you to get ahead. Constant self-improvement is what matters in a performance-focused society that positions people as objects of enhancement and optimisation. Neoliberalism assumes women’s lives are shaped by deliberate choices for which they, as individuals, are responsible. Little attention is paid to the contexts that constrain women’s choices.
Being responsible for self-love and self-healing only furthers the responsibility that women already shoulder 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 begging for commitment”.
Not only are women encouraged to strategise their dating moves, they must also self-monitor to avoid emasculating men, with authors encouraging women to observe the rules of traditional femininity and let men “lead”.
The strategies underpinning such advice are, at best, confusing. To quote author, Emily Brooks, “We are told to lean in at work, but wait for him to call”. It’s OK to hustle at work, but don’t overreach in your relationships.
The dating advice outlined in this category pits women against each other, polices women’s femininity, and reinforces a performance-centric framework of thinking about intimate relationships.
3. How to navigate toxic behaviours online
This behaviour varies from rejection violence, where women are confronted with violence when turning down a man’s advances, to unsolicited graphic images, to more subtle forms of damaging behaviour. These include but are not limited to lovebombing, where men bombard women with attention in order to gain control, and breadcrumbing, where a person leads someone on but remains noncommittal.
Telling women to love themselves before they can have a relationship is at best, nonsensical, and at worst, cruel, especially for those who have suffered the mental violence that accompanies sexual assault and domestic violence.
As of 2021, 23% of women in Australia, a total of 2.2 million women, had experienced sexual assault, with women eight times more likely than men to experience sexual assault by an intimate partner. In 2020, Australia recorded its most dangerous year for domestic violence.
One in six Australian women have experienced sexual or physical violence at the hands of a former or current partner, while one in four women have experienced emotional abuse; over a quarter of the women in Australia.
Lowered self-esteem and a diminished sense of self-worth are just some of the psychological effects of sexual, physical, and emotional violence that may make “self-love” difficult.
Women need safety more than dating advice
Teaching women how to react effectively to emotionally dysfunctional behaviour may help women to cope, but it doesn’t address the fundamental issue of intimate interpersonal relationships: safety.
Rather than upskilling women to deal with the harm they risk in dating men, the self-help industry should focus on male behaviour – not the reactions of women to this behaviour. Women need safety more than they need advice.
We need to redirect the focus to male behaviour
The most important dating advice the self-help industry can offer is for a male audience: do not harm the women around you.
Mateship is revered in Australia, yet male friendships are often devoid of vulnerability, openness, intimacy, and self-disclosure. This likely has to do with toxic expectations around masculinity that may manifest in emotional suppression and masking of distress, misogyny and homophobia. Research has found male attitudes towards masculinity, feminism, and homophobia are predictive of date-rape-supportive attitudes and self-reported histories of sexual coercion.
Rather than teaching women how to respond to dangerous dating behaviours, 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 online dating app users about how to avoid perpetrating harassment, discrimination, and sexual violence.
“Teaching” women how to deal with the men they’re dating is not the solution to the problems of modern dating and relationships.