Those singles who can't stand ambiguity from the very beginning develop a more direct dating approach. Meet, for instance, Steven Kaplan -- as several of my girlfriends did. I was on yet another blind date -- my third in the last two weeks. Here we go again, I thought, as I walked out my front door, and waved to the night doorman, Stan. Stan was my friend, and he had watched me return home forlorn from every date in the last month, except for one night when he happened to catch the end of a good-night kiss -- albeit from a man who never called me again.

Like most of my friends, I had a careful semiotic clothing code that I had worked out for different kinds of dates. Tonight I was in full date battle mode: wearing my new fitted red V-neck sweater -- the effort was to be attractive but not too slutty -- paired with Diesel jeans, to give a "casual" impression. I had avoided my usual uniform of black cigarette pants, black top, and Gucci bag (on sale, but no one needed to know), because I did not want to convey that I was too high-maintenance. Hey, I am being honest here.

I was on my way to meet a friend-of-a-friend named Steven Kaplan. I didn't know much about him, except that he was supposedly a good-looking, thirty-six-year-old Jewish oncologist -- with a full head of hair. In my mother's mind, of course, he was already fully qualified, sight unseen, to be my husband; in mine, he sounded like he could go any number of ways, but it was at least worth meeting him for dinner on a Tuesday night in the West Village.

I arrived at a cozy, unpretentious restaurant, Gradisca, and looked for someone fitting his description: "I'll be wearing a green sweater and I have salt-and-pepper hair," he'd told me during our short phone conversation. The first person I saw was a man wearing a green shirt -- with the largest nose I had ever seen. As I walked toward this man with trepidation, trying to stay focused on the beauty of the soul, someone tapped me on the shoulder. "Hi, I'm Steven," this man said.

I breathed a sigh of relief. He fit the description, and was actually better looking than I had anticipated: 6'2", with thick, wavy salt-and-pepper hair and, thankfully, an entirely ordinary nose. We sat down right away. The restaurant was buzzing with beautiful people. We were seated at a quiet table in the corner, away from all the activity.

I was impressed by Steven's sophistication: he perused the wine list and selected a full-bodied red wine; it was delicious, and we lingered over the bottle for about twenty minutes before ordering dinner. By then, I had a nice buzz, and I was beginning to feel chemistry between us. Steven looked particularly handsome with the shadow of the candle flame flickering on his face, turning his eyes into deep reflective pools. Hmm, I thought . . . He asked the usual first-date icebreaker questions: "Where are you from?" "What do you do in your free time?"

Who in New York has free time, anyway? I thought vaguely, as I admired his deep voice and silky lips. I was wondering what it would be like to kiss him.

Before we'd had a chance to order, however, the scene shifted from Last Tango in Paris to Nine to Five. My date had started to put me through a job interview:

"Do you want to stay in the city for the next couple of years?"

"Why did your last relationship end?"

"How many kids do you want?"

I was floored. I was thinking what it would be like to make out with him, and he wanted to figure out where we were sending our kids to school! When the waitress came and rescued me from his relentless battery of suitability questions, I was thrilled. The romantic mood had been extinguished the moment he seemed to scan my resume for the position of Mrs. Kaplan.

He sensed my unease, politely walked me home, and gave me an obligatory kiss on the cheek.

I wasn't the only one of my circle, as it turned out, who'd had a date that ended up as a job interview. A few days later, I was having drinks with some girlfriends, and we were comparing our recent dates. I told them about Steven Kaplan. "He was really attractive and sophisticated, but he grilled me about my long-term life plan ten minutes into the date," I complained. Rory, thirty-four, a blunt casting agent with baby-blue saucer eyes, explained my baffling evening to me in her own terms. Her clinical analysis of the different stages in which people approach courtship helped me to understand why so few of these dates we were all going on seemed romantic in the slightest: "He's just trying to figure out what phase you are in. There is 'Phase One' and there is 'Phase Two' for people in the dating process," she said. "Phase One involves buying some nice clothes and looking after yourself -- for instance, taking care of your apartment, your job -- and having lots of sex. I did that until I was about thirty, and I loved it."

Rory continued, "Then there is Phase Two: This is when you want to put your money into building something for your future, you want to make your place a home in preparation for a partner and eventually a family, and most of all you want to share the life you've built with someone. For a woman in Phase Two, it can be challenging: you can try to put a Phase-One guy in a Phase-Two situation, but it rarely works," she explained. Of course, the same applied to women, she said. That was clearly part of the disconnect between Dr. Kaplan and myself. But Rory felt she was now too often on the Phase-Two side of the equation, waiting for a Phase-One man to commit, and she was tired of it. I knew all too well what she was talking about, since I had spent much of my dating years chasing non-committal men.

But the interrogation on the first date is not particularly romantic. Besides, this tendency of young people to be either partying wildly or on a manic Google-like search for "the one and only" complicates the hope of simply falling in love; if we did not assign ourselves these rigid life categories, we would perhaps be more open to being persuaded to move, by the connection with another person, from Phase One to Phase Two -- or even better, to simply want to be close to someone and intimate for its own sake, rather than for the fulfillment of an external timetable. But as long as we continue to approach our search for love this way, perhaps we'd be better off if we wore visible distinguishing signs: "NC" for non-committal or "R," for ready.

I never saw or spoke to Steven Kaplan after that. I heard he got engaged to someone six months later. I was not surprised. The first date interview was an obvious, but unsubtle, way to weed out those who were not in the same place in their lives. Many of the people I heard from talked about the tormenting challenge of trying to find someone with whom you "connect" -- that central word again -- who is "ready" for the same things you are. On the whole, more women than men whom I interviewed had this complaint, but there were plenty of men who were pining after women who were "not ready." The "readiness factor" was usually a sense of one's own place in one's life, rather than a reaction to the pull of the relationship itself. Steven Kaplan was ready, and he wasn't going to waste any time trying to figure out whether I really was -- or, for that matter, whom I really was.

On more than a dozen occasions, I had lent an ear to tortured friends who had waited and waited for a commitment, constantly hoping for clues, signs that their potential mate was coming around. I told the Steven Kaplan story to one of my ex-boyfriends, a semi-reformed non-committer who had broken my heart over ten years earlier. Years after the breakup, he had said, "Jillian, it wouldn't have mattered if you were Cindy Crawford -- I just wasn't ready." Here we were now, friends, and he explained my date with the doctor this way: Most guys don't necessarily end up with the woman they love the most. "It's like a game of musical chairs; you sit down in one chair, then you sit in another, and when the music stops, whatever chair you are sitting in is the chair you end up in." It was the most unromantic thing I had ever heard and I thought I would never be able to buy that line of thinking. While this approach provided a shortcut to finding a mate in an ambiguous dating culture, I doubted that in the long run it resulted in many happy, permanent matches.

Gen-Xers are accustomed to figure-it-out-as-you-go-along dating and seem to resist any early pressure in a relationship, no matter what phase of dating they might be in. The Gen-X approach gives men and women the ability to get in and out of their relationships as easily as they change their jobs or apartments. The lack of formal romantic cues give this generation freedom, but with that freedom often comes a price: the inability to decisively commit.

Excerpted from Unhooked Generation: The Truth About Why We're Still Single by Jillian Straus. Published by Hyperion; February 2006; $21.95US/$29.95CAN; 1-4013-0132-0. Copyright © 2006 Jillian Straus. All rights reserved. Available wherever books are sold.

Author's Bio: 

Jillian Straus spent eight years producing programs for The Oprah Winfrey Show, where she interviewed hundreds of men and women about their lives and their relationships. Prior to that, she worked for ABC News. She received a B.A. and an M.A. at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Straus is currently a fellow of the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership, training young women in communications. She lives in New York City.

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