Dating, an exercise in futility

Romance: Hopeful singles connect, come together, detach and keep trying in this most disheartening of rituals.

September 23, 2001|By Maria Elena Fernandez | Maria Elena Fernandez,Special to the Sun

To understand Jeff Wise's wacky (and facetious) idea for a memorial to singles on the National Mall in Washington, you must know where he's been. It's the same place so many 30-something professionals increasingly find themselves: Singlesville. A place that can be equally fulfilling and lonesome, invigorating and demoralizing, exciting and frustrating. It is where hope waxes and wanes, sometimes in the span of a week, a month or years.

"Dating is an inherently silly occupation," says Wise, 35, founder of the American Dating Association, a support group for singles he intended as a parody but which has been taken so seriously by his Internet audience that he wrote a new self-help book, Universal Dating: Regulations and Bylaws (Simon & Schuster).

Wise is among those sorting out why dating in America in 2001 feels more and more like a thankless job, an empty endeavor that men and women embrace and reject simultaneously and almost never get quite right.

"(Dating) is actually serious," adds Wise, of Los Angeles. "You're laying the groundwork for what will happen the rest of your life. There's a lot of pain in it, and there's a lot of joy. All of the drama of life is contained in this absurd activity. This is why we need an association and a national monument."

A polished granite pyramid to symbolize the hardships of singledom may make singles smile, but it won't help the state some find themselves in. The trouble is, will anything? The Mars and Venus series has tried; "The Rules" gave it a shot. Hundreds of other books and videotapes also guarantee singles will find and bond with Mr. or Ms. Right.

There are plenty of love coaches, matchmakers and seminars to go around, all promising to help, but more often than not, to no avail. A sampling of those in the trenches shows there is plenty of angst but no easy answers. So just why is it that relating to the opposite sex feels nearly impossible?

Everywhere, we see women searching for their soul mates: on the street, on television (Fox's Ally McBeal, HBO's Carrie Bradshaw), on the big screen and bookshelves (Bridget Jones in both). All in search of The One.

What many single women fail to notice, or even consider, is that there is a batch of men just like us, just like Wise, men who want to commit. But they have no idea where to begin.

"Everyone wants to connect, but then there's the fear of connecting, the avoidance and the anxiety over what's going to happen," said Alexander Avila, author of Love Types: Discover Your Romantic Style and Find Your Soul Mate (Avon, 1999), and psychologist who coaches men in the art of relating to women.

"As people become more educated, not only do they marry later and focus less on family, but they also feel they have more options," Avila said. "There really aren't as many as people think. As people get more secure career-wise, they raise their romantic expectations to unrealistic levels."

In other words, singles are too picky, too dismissive, too quick to turn away a potential soul mate. "Never settle" seems to be the motto.

There are an estimated 43 million single women in the United States today -- and 35 percent of them are 25 to 55 years old, according to a Young and Rubicam study released last year. Single by choice is the name of this silent but spreading movement.

But is there a price? wonders Sterling Schubert, a high school teacher in Montebello, Calif., who is still waiting for Miss Right. "I don't want to settle," he says. "I'd rather be alone. But now that I'm turning 35, I think about that a lot. Do I really mean that? Do I really want to be alone? Once you know who you are, it's not that you're being picky or dismissive, but there has to be something fundamental about the person that fits with you. If you don't fit together at the core, you definitely won't fit together in the finer points."

That is where it gets complicated, says Renee Piane, owner of Loveworks, a Los Angeles dating and personal coaching company.

"Most people walk around with the fantasy of what they want, but it's not in line with their heart and soul," says Piane, who interviewed hundreds of singles over six years for a cable television show. "You have to look at the spirit of the other person, which makes you look at your own spirit. A lot of people don't want to do that. They don't want to go that deep."

Add to the strain the changing roles between men and women, and it's a wonder anybody makes it to the altar these days, says Piane, who has never been married. "It's harder today because women are so much more independent, and the men don't know what their role is and they feel confused," she says. "The women of the world need to realize that we have shifted. We've become a more powerful and commanding presence, very much like men. I think both men and women need to send out vibrations of openness. People get so weary."

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