Post-attack, fewer want to face life alone
Dating services are up, divorce rates down
Before Sept. 11, Curtis Giesen thought he had plenty of time to find someone to settle down with and start a family.
But the World Trade Center attacks, which happened just a few blocks from his now off-limits apartment in Battery Park, had a profound effect on the 40-something bachelor. He's more actively trying to date - calling friends and being "forceful" in his requests to be set up. And they are obliging: Last Friday, Mr. Giesen went on his first blind date in a long time.
"Suddenly my social life has a new priority," says the AOL-Time Warner executive. "I'm frantically trying to get my black book going."
Americans are dusting off their interpersonal skills as part of an urgent desire - however short-lived - to shift priorities and strengthen relationships after what they witnessed last month.
Nationwide, long-lost friends and AWOL family members are giving phone lines a workout. Even those contemplating divorce are reconsidering, and singles are flocking to dating services, surprising veteran love-connectors, who say Americans are interacting like they haven't in decades.
"I have never seen anything like this, not in my lifetime, and I'm a baby boomer," says Gilda Carle, a relationship and dating expert.
Though it's too soon to tell if trends such as marrying late and pop-culture's fascination with the single life will be curbed, dating services say they have seen significant increases in membership over the numbers they usually have in the fall.
Revenues for the jointly owned dating services Together and The Right One were up 22 percent over last year during the last two weeks of September. In a survey of more than 7,500 customers, eharmony.com found that 44 percent of respondents said they feel an increased desire to be in a long-term relationship.
Mel Gonsalves is one of the new members at The Right One. Recently divorced, the Boston-area high school teacher signed up a week after the Sept. 11 attacks. "I just needed a nudge. And then this whole tragedy - talk about a nudge."
Those searching for love are using different language from before. Members of Match.com, for example, are including references to "life being too short" and "living fully in the present" in their profiles, with one writing, "Things I took for granted in the past, like a simple dinner with friends, are more special and cherished than ever."
Dating website GetGaga.com, where Ms. Carle dispenses advice, has also been flooded with once-hesitant people who now want to meet their mates. What is more disturbing to Carle is anecdotal evidence that one-night stands are on the rise.
"What I am suggesting to people is that they be very careful not to connect out of fear," says the author of self-help books who also teaches a course on the psychology of communication at Mercy College in New York.
Other people are looking to those who are already close at hand for companionship. In Houston, couples reportedly backed out of divorces at three times the normal rate in the 10 working days after Sept. 11, with nearly 400 cases being dismissed.
Even those not considering divorce are looking at their spouses in a new light. Last weekend, it hit Paula Hennessy how much her attitude toward her husband of almost a year has changed. "I just appreciate him so much more," says the Boynton Beach, Fla., resident. "I was doing the laundry and thinking, 'How could I ever be frustrated at the fact that he left the clothes on the floor?' "
Before last month, the couple had been struggling with the challenges of their first year of marriage. "Divorce is not an option, but annulment crossed my mind," says the public-relations executive. Things were improving slowly, but "on Sept. 11, the bigger picture came into focus as never before."
Now, she and her husband are spending more time together, talking on their deck and enjoying each other's company. Ms. Hennessy is sorry it took something like a tragedy to cause the turnaround in her relationship. And her husband is not her only focus since the attacks. "I feel this need - it's almost an urgency - to connect with people I don't know."
Cultural observers say that traditionally, it takes an event of this magnitude to shake Americans out of their usual busy, career-oriented routines. War has an especially profound effect.
"As a general principle, when people are reminded of sudden death, they begin to think about how that experience might affect their own relationships," says Gene Griessman, whose forthcoming book "The Americans" looks at how those who live in the US got to be the way they are.
During World Wars I and II, there were many quickie marriages, and the divorce rate spiked after each. During the Great Depression, there were fewer divorces, because people didn't want to face trying economic times alone.
That Americans - especially those in the military - might now be wanting to get on with marriage plans doesn't surprise Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
"When we feel helpless before a big threat, like the one we face today, one of the individual resources we can marshal all on our own is attachment," she says.
Whether these attitudes continue depends somewhat on if Americans continue to feel threatened, she says. "It's not at all clear whether this is a reaction to the trauma, or a pivotal moment that causes changes in the longer-term trends."
Giesen certainly hopes for long-term changes in his life. "I've lived in New York for years," he says, "We're all working hard, and that can sort of consume you. And it took something like this to make me stop and think about what is really important in the long run."
He half-jokingly says that when he finds The One, he plans to whisk her off to Las Vegas, so they can get started on the rest of their lives. "Time is precious," he says.