Still single, in the city

Big cities are said to be the perfect place for singles to meet. But often it's not that easy.

For many single Americans, "Sex and the City" was the ultimate fantasy: four gorgeous women having a love affair with New York City, and dating lots of men. The occasional heartbreak was quickly followed by someone new, and finding a date could be as easy as stumbling onto the dance floor in a pair of pricey Manolo Blahniks.

But for numerous 30-somethings, the lifestyle portrayed in "Sex and the City" is just an urban myth. Their dating experiences look more like that of Wendy, a dark-haired Bostonian who wonders where all the good men are. They're not in her workplace, she says, or in her church or any of the places she goes.

Wendy isn't alone in her unsuccessful search for love. Some singles believe that because of the sheer number of people, large cities are the perfect place to meet someone special. But finding love can actually be harder in urban areas, according to a study conducted by Edward O. Laumann, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago.

Part of the challenge is that people move around more - often for jobs - so the social networks are more fragmented than in smaller towns. And becoming part of a desirable group isn't as easy.

Understanding this - and other differences in the urban dating scene - is important for city dwellers who want to find a mate.

Step 1, says Dr. Laumann, is moving from groups that focus on short-term relationships based on sex (the bar crowd, for example) to groups that have deeper, long-lasting ties.

"What is emerging as a stable pattern is people who form a group of friends who share common interests and have been together for a long time," he says. "They become a surrogate family or urban tribe."

This tribe also helps with matchmaking, according to the study. Chicagoans are twice as likely to meet their significant others through friends or family members as at a bar.

In the absence of matchmaking friends, urban singles often look to less formal groups - people they meet at the gym, the tennis club, or at art classes. These are effective since most people form relationships with someone they met because of a common interest. "They have classes together, work together; that makes it a lot easier to make a move," says Laumann.

Unmarried women in their 40s will need to master these techniques and more to find someone, Laumann says. By the time men reach 40, they typically are interested in women who are eight years their junior. That's discouraging to people such as Wendy, who will be 35 soon. She has many friends in Boston, and has asked them for help with her search. But so far, no results. [Editor's note: In the original article, two sentences were missing from the paragraph.]

Wendy sometime envies the friends she left behind in her small, close-knit hometown. Most of them married years ago. If she had stayed, would she be wed, too?

Her opportunities wouldn't be any better there, Laumann says. "Seventy percent of Americans live in urban places. If you want to recalibrate your life, you need to move where the possibilities are."

That doesn't soften the fact that Wendy's been in 14 weddings of friends so far. "I don't have faith that I'm going to meet anyone," she says. "There's a good chance that I could be one of those extra 7 million women in this country that, for some reason, won't get married."

The situation isn't quite that bleak. According to the US Census Bureau, women do outnumber men by 4 million overall. But men outnumber women in every age group through the 35-to-39 age group.

What this means, according to the Chicago findings, is that Wendy and other 30-somethings must take charge of their search for a mate.

He made his own opportunities

Randy Fordice did just that when he moved to Minneapolis in 2003. "I knew people weren't just going to come up to me and say, 'Hey, you look like you're new in town.' I knew I would have to make an effort to be included in things, and I was fine with that."

Mr. Fordice did know two people in Minneapolis when he moved there, and he made new friends by buying a Minnesota Twins season ticket and chatting with other fans in the stands.

Those friends have introduced him to their friends, but Fordice, who works in public relations, doesn't rely on others to help him meet potential dates. He makes a point to smile and make eye contact with women he sees, whether he's walking his dog or shopping for groceries.

"What's the worst thing that is going to happen?" he says. "The best-case scenario is that you end up dating someone or have a new friend."

His efforts have paid off, he says. "I have definitely dated more [here] than I ever could have hoped to in Iowa," his home state.

Still, Fordice acknowledges that urban dating does present challenges, starting with the most obvious: Where can people go to meet? "People say they're sick of meeting in bars," he says, "but you can't go to the museum because you're not supposed to talk in museums."

Then there's the fear factor. "Sometimes women are intimidated by any kind of attention from a strange man," he says. That causes some women to appear unfriendly, which men find unappealing.

Sandra Gordon certainly understands the need for women to protect themselves. She also recognizes that some women are shy. (Half of all Americans define themselves this way, according to some surveys.)

One way to overcome fear and anxiety, she says, is to learn new social skills, practice them before going out, and attend events armed with several conversational icebreakers.

In Ms. Gordon's case, it also helped that she had a more extroverted friend. The two women went out several nights a week for a year.

One function they attended was a mixer at a local gym. The friend worked the room, and then told one man, "You should meet my friend."

He and Gordon had a good conversation, during which he decided that she was "the one." Three years later, the two married.

That wouldn't have happened if he hadn't been patient and she hadn't been willing to push beyond her comfort zone, says Gordon, who has now been married eight years and is coauthor of the book "The Shy Single."

"If you're sitting at home in your apartment, nothing will happen," Gordon adds. "You have to find venues that you can add yourself into, that will give you a sense of community and a network, because you never know when the next event is going to be the end of your dating career."

Wendy does go out, she says. She is extroverted and has lots of friends. But even online dating hasn't worked, despite the fact that 400 men "winked" at her when she posted a profile. She wonders if she'd have more success if she lived in a smaller city.

Widening the search

Not necessarily, say online experts. "The majority of our members are in larger cities," explains Kristin Kelly of match.com, the largest online service. People who live in smaller areas must often widen their nets to a 50- or 100-mile radius. Otherwise, there just aren't enough potential dates to choose from.

Long-distance romance may seem like a hassle, but those who want a soul mate are often willing to stretch their horizons, she says. "Most of our members are willing to travel within 100 miles, and a huge number are willing to travel any distance."

The good news, she says, is that "so often we hear, 'She lived around the corner from me,' or, 'We shopped in the same grocery store and never met.' "

Wendy may soon be able to tell a story like that. Recently, she met an intriguing man in a specialty shop she frequents, but she didn't get his name before he left. She plans to go back and ask the owner about him.

If things don't work out, though, she will need to start strategizing, says Henry Cloud, psychologist and author of "How to Get a Date Worth Keeping." The "he'll-just-fall-into-my-life" approach rarely works. Ditto for dismissing potential matches if there isn't an immediate spark. Another common mistake is looking for only one "type," says Dr. Cloud.

The problem with that, he explains, is that "types" are often based on unresolved personal issues. For example, a woman who's uncomfortable being tall may want to date only men who are over six feet tall, ignoring everything else.

"Cultural influences have taught women that their ... appeal is one-dimensional or external, and as a result, they work on the exterior for 15 years and ignore the actual dynamics that attract people," Cloud says.

Once that changes, the dating scene does, too, he adds. "When people work on their internal issues, they're more ready and available for real relationships, and those relationships show up.

"The outside life comes from the inside," he stresses. "You have to be working on yourself as a person."

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