“Hmmm...” said the man behind the counter at McNally Jackson as he looked at the book I was buying while he rang up my purchase. There was the cover, loud and proud: I Suck at Relationships So You Don’t Have To: 10 Rules for Not Screwing Up Your Happily Ever After. “It’s for work,” I responded, with a high laugh I hoped was convincing. “I swear.”
This isn’t Real Housewives of New York star Bethenny Frankel’s first foray into the publishing world. She has several books associated with her SkinnyGirl brand (all devoted to drinking, eating, and working out), as well as a children’s book and a novel to boot. It’s not even her first foray into self-help: In 2011, she published A Place of Yes: 10 Rules for Getting Everything You Want Out of Life, to which I Suck at Relationships functions as a sort of sequel.
But things were very different for Frankel in 2011. A year prior, she had gotten married to Jason Hoppy, a pharmaceutical sales rep/licensed real estate agent/businessman. They’d had a very cute daughter, Bryn. A Place of Yes was written (with regular collaborator Eve Adamson) when Frankel was at a high, personally and professionally, which perhaps explains why she was so gung-ho about saying yes–she’d done so, and it had worked out well for her.
When I picked up I Suck at Relationships in the “Psychology/Self-Help/Relationships” section of the bookstore (an area rife with books with long titles divided by colons), the paperback copy of A Place of Yes was hiding just a shelf away, in the regular self-help section. A Place of Yes wasn’t wholly devoted to love; it was focused on having a holistically better life. Only one chapter outright touched on the subject. Frankel’s quick shift to Self-Love-Help, depending on your perspective on things, is either a tragic reminder of how quickly things can change in life or a tragic reminder that maybe you shouldn’t write a self-help book about how you’ve gotten everything you’ve ever wanted when that’s only been true for a short period of time.
The little I’ve read of A Place of Yes was not great. It’s full of strange analogies that work mostly because of the confidence of the woman penning them. From Chapter 2, aka “Rule 2 – Find Your Truth: How I Finally Met My Match”:
Maybe it’s because I’m a “cook,” but I like to think of relationships as a sandwich. This is a metaphor for the “take it or leave it” concept. That first relationship is like a trip to the store to get bread. But a sandwich with just bread is boring. It’s not really even a sandwich at all. So, the next time, you get bread and cheese and a hot pepper. The next time, you get bread, cheese, turkey, and you skip the hot pepper because it was just too spicy. Maybe you try a tomato instead. Each sandwich gets a little better, until you finally make a great one. And that one becomes the sandwich you love–your own personal favorite sandwich.
In other words, you learn something or resolve something from each relationship and you carry that lesson with you into the next one.
Sure, sure. Glad we got that straight about sandwiches first. Frankel says more when she gets more personal, like when she talks about knowing how she found the right man:
Timing is everything (or almost everything)
I believe there are many reasons why my first marriage didn’t work, and one of the biggest was timing. I wasn’t ready to be married at twenty-six. If I had met Jason, my husband, when I was twenty-six, I doubt either one of us would have been close to ready to have a relationship. I guess I’ll never know for sure, but I think that because we met when we did, when we were both a decade or so older and much wiser and wanting the same things and had our lives more in order, it worked. I had established my career. Jason had put in his time as the party boy and was ready to man up. We spent our twenties running the same game, and then we found each other.
If you were to read just this brief paragraph from A Place of Yes, and then read almost any other paragraph from I Suck at Relationships, and you didn’t know they were written by the same person, you’d be surprised.
Because Frankel—despite her claim that she is not “bitter” (a word no woman wants to cop to no matter the situation)—nevertheless comes off as the opposite of the satisfied expert she portrayed herself as in the first book. In her second book, she’s deeply hurt, angry and struggling. This could make for a legitimately interesting, frank self-help book, and that seems to be her goal, somewhat. Bethenny attempts to argue that it’s because of her failures that she wanted to write this book, so others can learn from her mistakes.
Unfortunately for her, we can assume that legal troubles with Hoppy prevented her from going into any real detail about her marriage, save for vague references to troubles in past relationships in general. The candidness that made her a successful businesswoman and reality television star is not present in this book at all.
But, right away, Frankel makes it clear that at least one old friend will be joining her in spreading insight in this book: Dr. Xavier Amador, a therapist that viewers of Bethenny’s Bravo spin-offs (and upcoming episodes of this season of RHONY, if promos are to be believed) are intimately familiar with. A soft-spoken, rational man, Dr. Amador’s only demerit is that he allowed his sessions with Frankel to be aired on national television. In the context of this book, Dr. Amador pops in and out as Bethenny shares her thoughts about how men are like cavemen and women are excessively hormonal (more on that to come), providing the only real voice of reason in a book filled with the words of a woman who is very far from accepting her current life situation despite the fact that it’s oozing out of every word she writes.
“Thank you, Dr. Amador, for your contribution to what I hope will be a game-changer for modern relationships,” Frankel writes, in a “special thank you” before her introduction. “Contribution” isn’t even really accurate, as the book seems like it was written by two different people: one who has been legally barred from writing with enough detail to be compelling, and one who knows what he’s talking about but doesn’t have the cachet to make you care.
Then, it’s actually in her intro where Frankel provides the most detail about her life, some of which is territory she’s already trod over on RHONY—which, in perfect reality television cross-promotion, premiered last week as her book came out.
It’s no secret that right now I’m going through a very negative and public and nasty divorce. Right now, I’m in relationship recovery. In my last significant relationship, I hit rock bottom. I think people thought that I sold my company, I landed on the cover of Forbes magazine, and my life was now perfect. Actually, as I’m writing this book, I don’t even have a home. I’m the richest homeless person you know. I’m like a vagabond with no personal belongings, running from hotel to corporate apartment to the homes of friends, because at this time, getting an apartment isn’t possible for me. Trust me when I tell you that no amount of money will ever make you happy.
She gets dark. And then she stops getting dark. The rest of the book drops in few other other details about Bethenny’s life (mentions of former boyfriends who did such-and-such thing), but they’re all so vague and without context it’s difficult to tell what’s going on. “Pick up this book if you, like me, were duped into trusting someone,” she writes. “When a recent relationship fell apart, I beat myself up,” she says later. “How could I have been so stupid?” Whatever conclusions she draws are not drawn very clearly:
I’ve learned that the ones you think are trustworthy are very often the ones who aren’t, and the ones who seem like they wouldn’t be trustworthy sometimes, surprisingly, are.
Overall, Frankel seems deeply skeptical of the capabilities of men. She also has very little faith in the control of women. Her first two chapters are devoted to each of the sexes, respectively; the men’s section includes lines like, “Men like easy. Not easy like slutty (although some of them like that too–but only for test drives, not for the long haul).”
Frankel believes “men are simple,” but her words are undercut by interjections from Dr. Amador, who tries to provide a little context for the way men are conditioned to hold back their feelings, and doesn’t just throw out statements like “men think with their penises.”
In contrast, women, according to Frankel, are dominated by their periods. “...here’s a fact: Women are a little crazy. We can’t help it. It’s hormonal,” she writes, adding that “the bottom line is that PMS is the devil.” Then later, in a chapter about communication between the sexes:
Unfair as it may seem, you have to cop to PMS. Just say it. “Look, I have PMS, I’m sad, and I’m sorry. Can we start over?” You also need to remember to hold off on major relationship decisions and discussions until you feel back to normal again. Do not make important decisions while under the influence of PMS, menstruation, or menopause. Do not have important, life-changing conversations. It’s too easy to forget that your emotions are exaggerated, and you could say or even do something you’ll regret forever.
For the entire decade that you might have menopause, don’t make any sudden movements!
Frankel is also wary of the complications that can arise around sex. “Sex is never just sex to a woman. There are a few exceptions, but they are as rare as a unicorn,” she writes. “Remember, all men really want is to have a good day.” She recommends cutting out all exes from your life, comments that texting can “destroy real intimacy” (“Cheaters use text. Just know that. His wife could be in the room while he’s texting you.”) and offers a page-plus interlude on love advice from Maria Menounos.
When Frankel is done waffling back and forth between her well-trod theories about men and women and why they do the things they do, her observations about the effect that money can have on a relationship ring the truest, probably because that’s when she gets the most specific. She returns to her time on the Real Housewives:
This is a franchise that took affluent, privileged couples and gave the women fame and money and power they didn’t have before. In many cases, couples who had been married for years with an unchanging dynamic in which the man made more than the women were thrown into chaos. Now the kids were grown or getting close and suddenly the women becomes famous and is making money and oftentimes becomes the breadwinner. The men can’t handle it. They get jealous of the fame and power and money, and they resent their wives for suddenly making more than they do. Sometimes they start talking badly about their spouses to the press, or taking money from their wives. It’s a power struggle they didn’t expect and had never encountered before. The men try to get the control back by trying to steal the spotlight as well as the resources and they might get their 15 minutes of fame, but in the end the relationships don’t always survive. I see this happening, not just on Housewives but in every reality show franchise in which women are the stars.
It’s clear that money and the tension it can bring to relationships is something Frankel knows a lot about, and as she talks about how modern women and men struggle with changing power dynamics, it’s the only time she doesn’t sound out of her element.
I’ve also been in a relationship with someone who didn’t make as much money as I did. That was a real struggle, too. I wanted us both to contribute to our lives together, not equally but proportionally to our income. I felt that he really struggled with paying for things, and this was a sign of things to come because later, it came back to bite me in the ass. … I didn’t expect him to equal my paycheck, but I also didn’t expect him to live off me and try to take from me all he could.
It’s here that you get hints of what she’s been through, which has always been where she’s been strongest at giving advice. Her chapter where she tells women to “get a life”—to find their own passions, focus on what they want, etc—was convincing. But then, soon, she’s back on relationships again, and it starts to feel like she should just take a break: “Don’t do what I did and turn the other way or mess with the crack until it gets bigger and bigger.”
The self-help genre is probably 90 percent full of shit, but it can’t be discounted entirely; even an atheist can acknowledge the support that faith can provide for a believer. So it’s disappointing to see someone like Frankel be so held back from actually helping people. Maybe just not enough time has passed for her bygone fairytale life to fade into the background; while reading her book, I kept flashing back to episodes of Bethenny Ever After, when she went on her Place of Yes book tour, accompanied by Jason and his parents (her “new family”) sitting supportively in the audience. Despite her protestations that she’s in a better place now, if that wasn’t success, what is?
“Enjoy your work,” the man at the bookstore skeptically said to me when I bought this book. I wish I could say I did; perhaps it’s easier to stomach if you don’t read all 300-plus pages in a day, but I Suck Relationships So You Don’t Have To reads like advice from a woman who’s not so much of a failure as much as someone who has lost her ability to do the only thing that she was good at: monetizing being herself.
Image via Touchstone
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