'The Rules’ Writers: Sisters, Play Hard to Get

Feminism is meant for the workplace, not romance, say bestselling authors.

NEW YORK – When the first “The Rules” book — outlining steps women should take to snare the guy of their dreams, like don’t talk to a man first and don’t see him more than once or twice a week — was published in 1995, it became a pop culture phenomenon. A torrent of media coverage propelled it to the New York Times bestseller list for more than six months and sales of more than 2.5 million copies for it and four subsequent Rules books. It spawned a network of dating coaches and a thriving counseling business for its authors, best pals Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider. They have now published “Not Your Mother’s Rules: The New Secrets for Dating” and are currently writing “The Rules for Starting Over,” for divorced women.

Fein, who is 56, has two children in their 20s and is married for the second time (she applied The Rules when she met her second husband, and it worked), and Schneider, who is 54, mother to a teen and has been married for 20 years, are both Jewish. Both describe themselves as not religious. Schneider, who lived with her family in Israel for a year when she was seven years old, said their first book was translated into Hebrew and became a bestseller in Israel in 1996.

Much has changed in the 19 years since that first Rules book; sexting, Facebook and the expectation that people are available around the clock. In “Not Your Mother’s Rules,” Schneider and Fein warn that participating in IM (instant messaging) culture will kill a relationship before it even starts. They spoke with Haaretz about why “The Rules” have been successful, their response to those who call them anti-feminist, and how Jewish it really is.

The truth helps

Why has “The Rules” approach been popular?

Sherrie Schneider: It’s so successful because it’s the truth. When a guy likes you they call you, they ask you out, want to meet your friends and parents and want to propose. We want women not to pursue men because it messes everything up. In the beginning it has to be crystal clear that he wants you. If you’re not clear about that then you’ll live in a constant state of insecurity.

Ellen Fein: Men and women are just so different biologically. I was shocked when I found out about the Rules. I mean, I went to college, I’m smart. A woman can grow to love someone, but a guy can’t. It’s yes or no. Men will look at a group of women and know instantly who they like and who they don’t. That’s a shocker. Men really like a girl who doesn’t like them so much in the beginning. They like a chase.

How did you come up with The Rules?

Fein: I learned these rules from another girl who learned them from her grandmother. I thought she was crazy. A guy called me on Saturday for a Saturday night date and she said, ‘You can’t do that,’ and I said ‘You’re crazy.’ But it didn’t work out. On a date I would ask a guy ‘How are you feeling in life?’ My whole M.O. was good intentions, but it wasn’t working out well. I kept grilling her. I thought the rules were silly but every time I did one it would work. And I realized that we’re wired differently. Men want the girl who walked away. You have to have mystery, act like you’re a creature unlike any other.

Schneider: We both have older brothers and I learned at a very young age that the boys have to make the first move. My brother is very handsome. He only wanted the girls he talked to first. One girl who chased him was the prom queen and he still had no interest. The guy has to make the first move.

Girls without a game

Why did you put out a new Rules book now?

Fein: It’s wild out there. Women can send a naked picture of themselves in three seconds. It’s like a bad bar scene. Now you have to have rules on your own, not because your rabbi or parents are involved.

There are a million girls out there with no game. And they’re not getting dates. A guy texts them and they text right back. If we talk to a Rules girl, she’s getting dates. A girl who isn’t will say, ‘It’s a hook-up culture.’ You can change it – create boundaries, create self-esteem. You’re doing them a service. It’s better for everybody.

Schneider: Mothers don’t even know what to say to their 25-year-old daughters about texting or photos. These girls are texting till 2 A.M. and going on hook-ups and accepting instant messages at midnight. It’s very crazy. There’s no structure. Then they wonder why the guys disappear.

The technology has made the world in constant contact. There’s no mystery. Our rules are all about the intrigue and chase, which makes for good courtship. Wait a few hours before texting back, don’t have these text chats. I got a call from a 55-year-old divorced woman who was texting until 3 A.M. All that stuff is the worst. Living together, seeing him all the time, posting on Facebook what Starbucks you’ll be at. TMI (too much information) is the killer of courtship.

What do you think of the current crop of professional matchmakers on reality television, like Patti Stanger, the Millionaire Matchmaker (who is also Jewish)?

Fein: I love Patti, I think she’s adorable and funny, but she’s not as serious as we are. We see emotionally damaged women. I don’t think people should be looking for millionaires. They should be looking for love.

Schneider: She is hysterical, but I don’t think she is helping. We are helping people who are quiet. She has people who want to go on TV. What we do agree with is she’ll say there needs to be boundaries. She’s got rules. But I disagree that you can be single (Stanger is not married, though she lives with her boyfriend) and give this advice. Our credibility is that we’re married. You can talk all you want about how it works but have you done it?

Misinterpreting feminism

What’s your response to those who say The Rules are anti-feminist?

Schneider: They think it’s passé, they say, ‘I have a condo, a gym membership.’ We’re not telling you to stay home and vacuum. Do all the ambitious things, but with men …

Feminism for us is about equal pay for equal work. It was never meant to make men and women romantically equal. It was misinterpreted that you can ask guys out and pay. When a woman consulting with us is rich and wants to buy guys gifts, then a man feels like she’s desperate. It’s his privilege to take you out and to pay (for dinner.)

How are The Rules like traditional Jewish matchmaking? How has being Jewish informed your approach?

Fein: The Rules really aren’t traditional matchmaking, nothing like that. We don’t believe in ‘no sex before marriage,’ but I believe girls should wait really, really long. It’s old fashioned. We have one Orthodox dating coach.

Schneider: We’ve had clients set up by well-meaning parents but there’s no sex or chemistry. A lot of couples we know who are married 20, 30, 40 years knew right away. We’re not into these arrangements.

Fein: But it was easier when things were arranged. There were rules. It’s all set out. You know the guy’s not going to try to sleep with you. It was easier back then. It is so much harder today.

Schneider: Courtship was easier then.

Fein: It’s old-fashioned Jewish ideas. There’s nothing new here, really. There were Rules then, and now there are other Rules, the ones we wrote down. The idea that there were Rules a long time ago made us realize there can be Rules now. The rules may be different, but Rules are good!

Charles Matterlight
'Not your mother's Rules' cover