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A Man's Review of How to Avoid Falling in Love with a Jerk

Van Epp’s RAM Model helps men set the pace in dating relationships

When a man learns ballroom dance, he takes the lead and his partner follows. If he’s dancing the tango, he maintains a strong frame - right elbow up, straight posture, and a firm but gentle hand cupping his partner’s shoulder blade. Once the music starts, he moves in rhythm with the beat and takes decisive steps. He sets the pace.

John Van Epp’s classic tome, How to Avoid Falling in Love with a Jerk is a ballroom dance guide for dating. It’s written to help men and women to determine the right tempo to pace their dating relationship. Though the book does not specifically address men, this Art of Manliness interview with Van Epp does. General relationship books are often addressed primarily to women, as evidenced by “jerk” in the title, which is a gendered term for men. In spite of the title, the book offers a road map for how men can lead in a dating relationship. There’s a strong case for affirming traditional roles in dating and marriage, since even educated progressives default to male leadership, as this article shows.

A road map is exactly what’s needed in our scriptless dating landscape. Van Epp’s daughter, Morgan Cutlip, a self-identified member of the Millennial generation, has joined with her father in relationship consulting. In this fantastic podcast interview, Morgan notes Millennials (and younger) don’t call it dating anymore. The loss of a dating script is a mixed blessing. On one hand, being scriptless lowers dating commitment level and the accompanying investment of time and resources. On the other hand, the curse is many young people wander around trying to figure out which way is north and whether they’re getting closer. That’s where Van Epp’s book comes in. 

The Relationship Attachment Model (RAM): Van Epp defines a “jerk” as one who does not take responsibility for his/her baggage and refuses to change. Given this definition, the centerpiece of the book is the Relationship Attachment Model (RAM). It is a visual model of bonding in a romantic relationship. If you imagine each aspect of a romantic relationship on a scale of intensity, there is a sequence and balance in how each “slider” (similar to a sound equalizer) is developed. The relationship dynamic is time-tested and corresponds with how humans intuitively develop bonds but is rarely taught explicitly. After all, in our culture’s romantic idealism, we have been fed the lie that romance is natural, organic, doesn’t take work, and “just happens”.  

The five aspects (“sliders”) of bonding the RAM are: 
  • Know: Bonding with someone and getting to know them; you form a dynamic picture of them based on information and experience gathered over time
  • Trust: Your belief a person is who they say they are based on your knowledge and experience of them
  • Rely: Actions that follow from trust. Reliance grows from the ways you meet each other’s needs.
  • Commit: Extent to which you feel like you belong to someone, and that they belong to you, is a measure of the degree of commitment in your relationship.
  • Sexual Touch: a strong contributor to the feelings of intimacy and closeness in any romantic relationship.
Van Epp’s words are instructive here: 

“When all five are at the top level, the feelings of attachment are strongest. But when even one is low, attachment is weakened and your feelings of closeness become mixed. You are easily confused, hurt, and doubtful. The balance of all five bonding dynamics determines the healthiness of your relationship and the clarity of your perspective on your partner. Here lies one of the most important keys to building a healthy relationship: keep a balance among the five relationship dynamics. Whenever the relationship dynamics shift out of balance with each other, you will feel unsafe, experiencing feelings of hurt, betrayal, confusion, mistrust, unfairness, anger, loneliness, or any combination of these.”

“There is one basic rule for guarding the safe zone: never go further in one bonding area than you have gone in the previous. This rule is based on the view that the five bonding dynamics have a specific order and logic to them: what you know about a person determines the degree you should trust him or her; this trust directs you in choosing what personal needs you can rely on him or her to meet; you should become committed only to the extent that you know, trust, and depend on that person; and finally, any degree of sexual involvement is safest when it matches the context of the overall intimacy reflected in the levels of the other four dynamics.” pg. 24

In the above figure 11.1, a man can become overly dependent on a woman to a greater extent than he knows and trusts her. I have a friend who moved in with his college sweetheart. He abandoned all his male friends and she became his sole source of emotional fulfillment. When she broke up with him, he was devastated and took almost a decade to recover from.

The importance of milestones and pacing: What can men learn from this? Van Epp gives the example of a woman who invites a man to sleep with her on the first date. In such a case, a man who is pacing the relationship can gracefully turn down the invitation and emphasize other means to get to know one another. This is consistent with the sequence of RAM - know, trust, rely, commit, and touch, in that order. I think men often operate under an impression that leadership, respect, and equality mean giving in to a woman’s desires. The only way to express care is to fully accommodate a woman’s explicit requests. That is not leadership. 

How does a man know what an appropriate pace is? What does leadership look like on a broader scale?

Knowledge in Five Areas: The RAM offers a tempo and set of moves for a man to lead his dance partner. Men need goals and the RAM provides a framework for the relationship milestones to track progress. The five areas to know a person are: compatibility, relationship skills (communication, openness, conflict management), relationship patterns, family background, character and conscience traits. All five are important yet weakness in one area is not a deal-breaker. The five areas are not sequenced in priority but rather the relative ease by which to assess - from the most obvious to most subtle. Compatibility has three dimensions: chemistry, complementarity, and comparability. For men, initial chemistry involves a blend of a woman’s looks, her looks, and finally, her looks. Next, a couple’s conversations will soon reveal their relationship skills. Relationship patterns and family background are best discussed in subsequent stages but it takes time to reveal family patterns. Similarly, character and conscience traits can only be observed over months and in diverse contexts. It’s naive to rely on a woman’s interview responses to assess a potential mate's character - “Well, I asked her if she was honest and she said yes.”

Pacing involves getting to know one another in these five areas and in the process of doing so, gradually moving each slider upward. As knowledge increases, reliance increases, and then commitment. Lastly, touch follows suit.

Knowing family background: Here’s a personal example about the importance of knowing a person’s family background, even early on in a dating relationship when commitment is low: I was extremely fortunate as a college student to recognize the impact one’s family background has on romantic relationships. Through the influence of mentors and biblical teaching, I had an awareness that, for example, the way I treated my mom, would give an indication of how I would treat my wife. I tended to treat my mom like a servant - expecting her to cook and clean for me and taking her for granted. That’s certainly a dynamic that has plagued my relationship with Judy and I’ve had to work on addressing it. On the other side, Judy was forthcoming during our friendship/dating phase about the lack of intimacy in her childhood relationship with her parents. The resulting emotional accessibility has made it difficult for her to feel close to others. After graduating from college, she moved back in with her parents not to save money but to rebuild her relationship with them. This decision signaled her desire to grow as a mature child of God and as a grown daughter of her parents. As noted earlier, we could have disqualified each other on the basis of our weak family background/character/relationship skills but we both shared a willingness to change. As Van Epp notes, it’s not the baggage itself that matters but the work a person puts in to surrender their baggage. 

I believe men are given all kinds of misinformation about what milestones are important or appropriate. In the stereotypical locker room, it’s about getting to first base or a home run (intercourse). The RAM offers a completely different and far more helpful framework. Many mistakes men make in dating relationships can be attributed to pacing errors. Reluctance to initiate, ambiguous intentions, and oversharing can all be understood as leadership misfires. 

Reluctance to initiate: The failure to initiate is a refusal to set the pace. Any pace. This tends to be personality-driven as introverted men tend to face difficulty in starting conversations with women. Men in these situations tend to make excuses, are socially risk-averse, and have low self-esteem and/or a victim mentality. In this case, a change of environment and encouragement can be helpful. This is where learning to overcome one’s fear of rejection is extremely valuable. It’s crucial to accept the fact that any woman at any given moment will not match any pace a guy has set. It may be personal or it may not. You will never know for sure. The fact is she doesn’t want to dance with you and that’s ok. Find someone who does.

Ambiguous intentions: Men often have trouble initiating the dreaded define-the-relationship (DTR) conversation because they’re genuinely confused about their own emotions and intentions. Over the years, I’ve talked with many men (and boys) whose actions clearly indicated romantic interest and commitment but refused to verbalize those sentiments to others. A guy might say “I’m not interested” but the daily, extensive 1:1 text exchanges late into the night betray a different sentiment. Pacing a relationship requires emotional awareness and an understanding of when trust and reliance are out of sync with commitment level.

Over-sharing and over-asking: At the beginning of a dating relationship, a man may disclose intimate details of his personal life with a woman at the beginning of a friendship or dating relationship. On a first date, a guy may share why he’s afraid of sex because of being molested as a child or how his ex-girlfriend once attacked him with a frying pan. I’ve heard men defend it as being “genuine”, “authentic”, and “keeping it real”. This type of vulnerability and candor does not respect the time element of getting to know a person. It also throws the “sliders” out of balance as deep sharing corresponds to a high level of knowledge that is out of sync with a low level of trust and commitment. When a man self-discloses intimate details of his life without rapport and fidelity, a woman may be at a loss for how to respond. Is he this open with everyone or is this a seduction technique? Is he asking her to respond in kind even if she’s uncomfortable reciprocating the same level of self-disclosure? Or is he expecting her to take on the role of emotional caregiver?

By the same token, a man may also ask probing questions around a woman’s background and family patterns. The woman may not have spent enough time to know a man in diverse contexts to feel emotionally safe. Intense personal sharing requires a level of commitment that varies from person to person. She may wonder “What if I share a shameful secret about my past that turns him off and he ends up ghosting me?”

Here’s another type of oversharing I’ve observed within the evangelical bubble: Men in dating relationships often view one-on-one prayer as an important aspect of spiritual leadership. Regular one-on-one prayer with personal sharing is an activity that involves significant reliance on one another. It cultivates an intimacy that may be out of balance for the commitment level of a dating couple. Christians love to extrapolate marriage principles to dating but unfortunately, marriage is a completely different realm of union from dating. It is the highest level of commitment and the level of reliance (i.e.intimate prayer) should be commensurate. 

“Slow is smooth, smooth is fast”: Towards the end of the book, Van Epp describes the value of a romantic roadmap using automotive terms: 

"It is like driving a car on a trip and feeling lost because you are unsure of where you are. You can’t enjoy the ride, because all you can think about is looking for the signs that will tell you exactly where you are. But when you have a road map, know where you are going, and see that you are right on track to getting there, then you can relax and enjoy the scenery." pg. 228

Men have a bad tendency to resist asking for directions, drive without consideration of their passengers, and engage in risky maneuvers. A roadmap will not cure those behaviors but it goes a long way to finding one’s way and finding delight in the journey.

Let me close with one last quote and image: “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast”. This Special Forces slogan seems paradoxical but the central premise is purposeful movement. A Navy SEAL team converging on an enemy target must dynamically assess risk while not falling prey to paralysis by analysis. Too fast or too slow can mean death. In the dating realm, this translates into a thoughtful consideration of pace and setting milestones to journey towards together. Yes, I’m applying a military term to mating because the dating dumpster fires I’ve observed often result from a lack of planning and preparation. 

So research the route and plan your rest stops. Take the wheel. Or grab your partner’s hand and twirl her around. Lead the dance. Or rally your team and execute the mission. Take the objective. You pick the metaphor - and the pace.

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