Even in An Age of Sexual Liberty, Says Cheryl Merser, Good Manners Salve the Wounds of Romance

updated 10/03/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/03/1983 01:00AM

Even before the smoke could settle over the latest skirmishes in the sexual revolution, foot soldier Cheryl Merser realized that something was wrong: The old dating order had passed and time-honored codes of courtship were no longer working. "Before the revolution, "says Merser, 32, publicity manager for Random House publishers, "the etiquette of courtship involved young people who were going to get married and stay married, and usually their parents supervised the whole thing. Now it involves grown-ups and it includes sex. You simply don't date the same way at 32 that you do at 17." To find out how adults are dating, and how they feel about it, Merser, who is single, interviewed 100 of her brothers and sisters at the front and distributed questionnaires to 1,000 more. The result is Honorable Intentions: The Manners of Courtship in the '80s (Atheneum, $13.95), a thoughtful account of her findings garnished with proposals for romance without trauma. Merser, a native of Somerville, Mass. who lives in Manhattan, discussed her conclusions with Carol Wallace of PEOPLE.

Do adults really need a code of dating etiquette?

Absolutely. The world isn't going to fall apart if you use the wrong fork, but when it comes to courtship, feelings are involved. That's when it's more important than at any other time to be polite.

How has the sexual revolution affected courtship behavior?

Sex, instead of being a carrot dangling at the end of a romance, is now a possibility or a certainty early in a relationship. It changes the whole nature of courtship. We use sex early to bind us together and hope that we'll catch up emotionally later on. There's no time to establish emotional intimacy.

What do men and women complain about in each other?

Women say men don't want to make commitments. Men say that women want to get involved too fast. Women also complain about men who don't call back after a seemingly enjoyable first date.

Are you saying a man should call back to tell a woman he's not interested?

Why end anything badly? Even if he calls back and says, "Thanks, maybe we'll get together again," she will at least know how to deal with her emotions. She might be sad and wish it could have gone on, but I think she's better off knowing than waiting by the telephone for three weeks to see if he'll call.

Let's go back to the beginning. What's the best way to approach a blind date?

Don't plan a big long evening. Try to make it for drinks, and don't have it on the weekend. The weekend has a psychological importance that a weekday evening doesn't. It's also better to meet the person at a neutral place rather than at your home. If you do meet at your place, you'll be at a disadvantage. He or she will know a lot about you, but you won't know anything about the other person.

What's the wrong way to ask for a date?

By being vague. "Hey, do you want to hang out this weekend?" is the wrong way. The right way is, "Would you like to have dinner on Friday night about 7:30, and we'll go have a hamburger somewhere?" Then you know when you're expected, what you're expected to do and wear, and you'll probably feel more comfortable.

What is the kiss of death on a first date?

Showing up late, changing plans without telling the other person, talking about the wrong things. Topics of conversation to avoid include your ex-spouse, your ex-boyfriend or girlfriend, your astrological sign or anything you vow to do never again—like get married or have children. Also, some people seem compelled to tell their life stories right away. Maybe they shouldn't, because very often there's only time for one life story in an evening, and whose is it going to be? I think people have forgotten to be conversationalists. It's a good idea to have a store of lighter comments, which are often more appropriate for occasions like this.

If a woman asks a man out, who should pay for the evening?

She should. If he offers to pay half and she says no, he shouldn't push it. Men have to learn to feel comfortable with the idea that women are going to contribute.

If a woman is making more money than a man, should she pay all the time?

Nobody should pay all the time. Once you get going in a relationship, nobody should take the passive role exclusively. People who expect they'll be taken care of in courtship are obsolete or else aren't going to have relationships that work out.

Is sleeping together on the first date customary now?

The men and women I talked to said there is no expectation of sleeping together on the first date, unless it's on the part of someone who is not interested in a second date and just wants the sex.

What would be the correct way to say "no thanks" to the suggestion?

If you think you might want to sleep with a person at a later time, just say, "I'm not ready yet." You don't have to apologize or make excuses. A man shouldn't feel any pressure either, although most of them do and think they have to make that token grab.

For the first sleepover, his place or hers?

Nobody has territorial rights. If your date feels strongly about going to his or her place, go along with it and remember that next time you can do it your way.

What is the proper etiquette for a first-time sleepover date?

Some people fail to treat their new lovers as well as they would an ordinary houseguest. They forget to put out towels or clean sheets. Going out of your way to make a new lover feel welcome is not admitting, "Hey, you're the first date I've had in 12 years." What you're saying is, "This is an occasion that matters to me, and you matter to me." People told me they were touched by things like being asked which pillow they wanted or did they want the window open.

What is the polite way to inquire about herpes?

Sometimes safety has to come before ecstasy. If you want to ask somebody that question, he or she probably wants to ask you the same thing. It's better to face up to it and say, "Hey, I've read a lot about herpes and I'm worried about it." If a person has herpes, he or she should be the one to bring it up first. The worst manners in the world would be to say you don't have it when you do.

When should a new lover be introduced to the kiddies?

It should be done gradually, and never over breakfast. Also, if you tell your child to call your lover by some term of endearment, make sure you have checked with the person first. Not everybody wants to be called aunt or uncle.

What is the best way to end a love affair?

The mistake a lot of us make is that we get cowardly and try to sneak out the back door or do it over the telephone. You have to realize that you're going to hurt somebody. If you really want to break up, own up to the fact that you're doing it and give the other person as many reasons as you think are appropriate. Saying "I loved you a lot" is very important. There is no need to say "You did this, you did that" and delineate horror stories from the past.

What is the worst breach of courtship etiquette you experienced?

A guy I had dated for a year broke up with me, then called a week later to find out how to make a fruit compote that I had made for him when he was sick. He wanted his new girlfriend to make it for him. What I thought was, "I hope you die." What I said was, "I'm sorry, I don't have the recipe at hand."

What have you learned from your love affairs?

To be more frightened but also more brave about love. With each experience you learn what can go wrong, but you also learn to appreciate what can go right.

Are you dating anybody now?

Yes, but one of the most important rules of etiquette today is not to talk about the relationship with total strangers or national magazines.

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