When Cupid keeps missing

There are more singles than ever. But they have a dating dilemma: how to meet one another.

Debra Lund has a complaint this Valentine's Day, one that millions of unmarried Americans would echo: Cupid has gone AWOL.

Ms. Lund never intended to join the ranks of the long-single when she graduated from college. She assumed she would follow a typical pattern: work for a year or two, marry, and have children. But as years slipped by, that little gold ring continued to elude her. The only certainty was her career.

Now, more than 20 Valentine's Days later, Lund, public relations director for Franklin Covey in Salt Lake City, is still waiting to meet the right man. "I never thought I would still be single at my age," she says.

Many others who long to be married are also wondering, What happened?

Singles now account for a record 40 percent of adults in the United States. And the number of "never-marrieds" has doubled in less than 30 years, making them one of the fastest-growing groups. Nearly 21 million Americans between the ages of 25 and 44 have never walked down the aisle.

That adds up to more than a third of those in the 25-to-34 age group and 16 percent of those from 35 to 44. Only China and India have more single adults.

As Lund, who is writing a book called "Single But Not Alone," considers this vast pool of 80 million singles, she and others questionwhy the search for love seems so much harder now than it was for their parents. They long for the three C's of domesticity - commitment, companionship, and children.

Cohabitation has reshaped the marital landscape in ways that are well documented. But for many, the problem is much more basic: The traditional hunting grounds for love just aren't as plentiful as they once were. And some of them have completely disappeared.

Where can singles meet?

College, once a place to pursue the proverbial "Mrs." degree, now serves mostly as a stepping-stone to careers. The business world has its limits as a place to meet a potential mate. Co-workers gossip. Bosses raise eyebrows. As Tara Rogers, a communications director in Columbus, Ohio, notes, "Flirting is often awkward at work, where professional conduct is expected."

Looking for a mate has turned into a do-it-yourself project, with little support from society, according to Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of a new book, "Why There Are No Good Men Left."

Although she uses her title ironically - she believes there are many good men left - she says, "It's striking the degree to which we now expect single adults to be entrepreneurial in their mating search. They must mount a personal campaign. It becomes a lonely pursuit."

Lonely - and confusing. As they look for Prince or Princess Charming, some singles head for 21st-century mating grounds - personals ads, online dating services, matchmakers, and musical-chairs speed-dating events, which pair couples for several minutes at a time.

Yet obstacles remain. Singles hoping to move from "date" to "mate" sometimes find pervasive cultural attitudes working against permanent companionship. Like tiny moths, these attitudes nibble away at the fabric of a relationship, destroying the possibility forlove.

Perfectionism, fueled by fairy-tale images of the ideal mate, can also be fatal to lasting love. The search for Mr. or Ms. Right has turned into a quest for Mr. or Ms. Perfect, who doesn't exist.

"We're taught that you can always do better, and you should never 'settle,' " says a public relations executive in New York who asks to be identified only by her first name, Hillary. "You find one little thing wrong with this person [you're dating] and you say, 'OK, move on.' That's why divorce rates are so high. Nobody wants to work with what they have."

Kate Kennedy, founder of a consulting company in Maryland, sees another obstacle hampering some in her 20-something generation - "the idea that the fun ends when you get married."

In "Cad: Confessions of a Toxic Bachelor," a memoir being published this week, Rick Marin offers a brutally honest view of dating from the male trenches. Hopping from relationship to relationship and bed to bed during his six-year search for a perfect mate, he fitted the stereotype of a love-'em-and-leave-'em guy - a first-class cad.

Yet Mr. Marin, a writer in New York, insists that men are as confused by today's social mores as women are. "It's like the Old West out there in dating," he says. "There are no accepted norms anymore. Women are expecting one thing, men are expecting another."

To women's complaints that men are not in touch with their feelings, he levels a countercharge, saying, "Who's acting inappropriately? Women go from zero to intimacy with the speed of a Ferrari."

Marin answers a question Freud never posed, but women do: What do men want?

They want an equal, he says. "That doesn't have anything to do with looks or background. It's someone who they feel is their peer, someone they can talk to and whom they respect intellectually and [who] is funny."

Appearance still counts

Still, nobody denies that looks play a role. Hillary recalls a male friend telling her, after meeting an attractive woman, "That girl is really pretty, but I've always wanted someone who has a better nose."

Marin admits to being keenly observant of women's clothes and grooming. Explaining that men are very aware of the nuances of women's looks and style, he cautions women, "Ignore that awareness at your peril. We notice more than women think we do." Many men tell him they pay close attention to women's shoes, which he calls "a dead giveaway of style."

But the shoe can also be on the other foot. David Sansom, a relationship consultant in Los Angeles, hears complaints from women that men don't dress well enough.

Jonathan Parker, a financial adviser in Miami and president of a social organization called the Bachelors Club, isn't as concerned with wardrobe.

What bothers him in the dating game leading to that walk down the aisle is the air of desperation hanging over some activities designed for singles. He says, "I personally wouldn't be caught dead at some singles events."

Mr. Parker also calls marriage "somewhat of a scary thing" for men. On a wedding day, he says, "you've never heard of a groom turning to his best man and saying, 'This is just what I've dreamed of my whole life.' There's no Groom's magazine out there. The whole event of a wedding is a woman's game."

But the dating game seems to be played equally by both sexes. Many singles keep a keen eye on the male-female ratio of various cities.

Last year Liz Kelly moved from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles. She finds it easy to meet people there, but notes that many singles in the area take the attitude, "If you can't connect me to someone famous, and you don't have a big house and a fancy car, I'm moving on to someone else."

Erin Flynn, a media specialist, thinks about leaving New York, where women outnumber men. Last year Aliza Sherman did just that, saying goodbye after 13 years of fast-paced jobs that left little time for socializing. She moved to Wyoming, thinking she would meet a "nice outdoorsy man." But she soon discovered that even in the largest city, Cheyenne (pop. 50,000), "there was no hope of finding a single man who shared my interests."

Cupid, Cupid, where art thou?

For now, the entrepreneurial nature of dating and mating, 21st-century style, goes on. Some personal ads read like resum├ęs, emphasizing professional accomplishments. Dating experts use the lingo of CEOs as they stress the importance of taking the search for a mate seriously.

"Many single people don't have a real plan for marketing themselves in a relationship," explains Mr. Samson. "They don't have a singles strategy. They allow themselves to rely on serendipity to meet eligible singles."

Still, the options are confusing to those who want to know what they should do next: Be realistic or choosy? Go to singles events or not? Move or stay put? Judge dates by their wardrobes, or be tolerant of sartorial lapses? What's a single to do?

Lund notes the importance of similar interests. Over the years, to share leisure activities with men she was dating, she has masteredfishing, water skiing, riding motorcycles, camping out, and shooting guns.

"I have learned to do things that I may not have enjoyed in the beginning," she says, "but, because I've been willing to give and learn, my life is much richer."

Best 'hunting grounds'

Marriage-minded singles, Samsonsuggests, should go places where people with similar interests might be: Enroll in a painting class. Serve on the advisory board of a museum. Volunteer for a literacy program.

"It's better to spend time there," he says, "than to invest it in countless singles parties or in hours spent late at night on the Internet, which, for the most part, based on statistics, is a waste of time."

He cautions that up to 70 percent of the information that date-seekers post online may be inaccurate. Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome could be fibbing about everything from his height to his hairline, not to mention his marital status. One study reports that 30 percent of those using Internet dating sites are married.

Even so, Hillary, the New York public relations executive, is now dating a man she met through a Web dating service. "When I met him, sparks flew," she says. "There's hope!"

As Valentine's Day approaches and the longing for Lohengrin and wedding bells intensifies, so does hope. Despite the frustration and unfulfilled dreams, all the comic and sad moments that define dating, many singles express optimism and confidence.

The good news, Samson says, is that "thousands and thousands of powerful marriages and relationships are being formed every day."

Even the most incorrigible bachelors eventually marry, says Marin, the former "cad." "You reach a point where you look around and your friends have settled down with smart, sensible girls and are popping out heirs, and you're still chasing 23-year-olds."

The upside of the protracted dating life, he says, is that it gives people time to figure out what they want. The downside is that prolonged years of dating can make singles impossibly choosy. When Ms. Flynn, for example, looks back at men she has dated, she wonders if she was too quick to reject one or two of them.

Marin's own search has ended. He will be married in May to Ilene Rosenzweig, a style journalist turned entrepreneur. They met at a party and solidified their love during a difficult period when Marin's father died.

But ask Marin to describe the love of his life and the clever wordsmith fumbles for words: "She's a little like a lot of the women I had been with, but then she's not like any of them. She's a complete original. Whatever I needed, she has."

He encourages singles to avoid an angst-ridden search for a mate. "If you can just relax a little more and not think that everything hangs on dinner Friday night with Mr. or Ms. X," he says, "hopefully something good will come out of the difficulty of it all."

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