Over dinner or coffee or drinks -- whatever incarnation the first date happens to take -- Mark Woodard will have some ver- sion of the same conversation with the woman across the ta- ble.
"You've never been married?" she will undoubtedly ask th42-year-old lobbyist. "Well, why is that?"
a subject that has to be served up, chewed on and digested early in the date, sometime around the foie gras or mixed greens, Mr. Woodard has found.
"There's a presumption to be overcome," believes the assistant executive director for the Maryland Association of Counties. "The presumption is, if you're 42 and never been married, either you don't want to be or no one will have you."
In other words, he explains, " 'Prove to me why you're not screwed up if you're not married.' "
L Such a nice boy. So bright, so successful, so good looking.
SO WHY AREN'T YOU MARRIED?
It's a question that nearly every heterosexual male who has reached age 40 but not the altar has had to answer -- and not only to their dates.
Supreme Court Justice David Souter, 51 and wifeless, ha reporters scrambling to find any tidbit that would unlock the mystery of his bachelorhood. And the forever-single status of Governor William Donald Schaefer, 69, has long engendered questions, theories and raised eyebrows.
"I usually respond with a flip answer," says Arlington, Va. bachelor Elliott Jaffa, 47. "I say, 'I'd rather want something I don't have than have something I don't need.' The truth is, I don't think there is an answer."
But Akron, Ohio, psychologist Charles A. Waehler believes otherwise. After studying a small group of white, heterosexual and never-married men ages 40 to 50, he concluded that such men tend to avoid emotional intimacy and commitment and behave in defensive, standoffish, idiosyncratic ways that keep others at arms length.
"Only 5 percent of bachelors after age 40 will ever marry," he told his peers at last month's convention of the American Psychological Association in San Francisco, "and women with a marriage goal in mind should be aware of that when they enter romantic relationships" with these men.
But along with hordes of graying or balding bachelors who claim they are not commitment-phobes, Philadelphia psychologist Michael Broder vigorously disputes the findings. "It's all such nonsense," says the author of "The Art of Living Single." "There are lots of different types of people at all ages who've never married."
The list of reasons, he says, "is endless."
Many, like Washington lawyer Cary Pollak, 46, say "marriage has
been an expectation, but not a goal. It's something that hasn't happened. I feel I can get close to people, I enjoy being in a relationship, I see the value in having someone who's close. I've just never made it to that."
But Mr. Pollak and other 40-plus, never-marrieds admit that there may be more to their extended bachelorhood than the usual party line about not having met the right woman or seeing too many divorces among friends.
"After having a couple of failures [at relationships], I started assessing, 'What is it I'm doing wrong?' " says Mark Horowitz, 47 and about to embark on his first marriage. He realized he had been too self-centered and caught up in his own needs, not open or communicative enough and not focusing on the right qualities when choosing women to date.
"All the things that are not taught in school," says Mr. Horowitz, director of community services for the city of Alexandria. "Had I had more guidance in my 20s, I don't think I'd be getting married for the first time at 47."
Washington entrepreneur Dominick Cardella, 49, suspects he's been too idealistic. "I want to feel magic all the time. Unless I feel magic, I don't stay with it. I guess I have an unrealistic attitude. I may be looking for too much in one person."
Dr. Richard Mallory Starr, of Washington's MenCenter, believes a number of men avoid marriage out of a fear of closeness, a fear that often stems from an early family life rife with fighting, criticism and sometimes alcoholism. "They think, 'If I do get married I'll repeat the nightmare.' "
But even Baltimore sound recordist Bill Porter, 50, who has no plans to ever marry, says the rest of his family is stable and "all very married." The state of matrimony, he's decided, just doesn't fit his nature.
"I'm not afraid of getting close to women," says Mr. Porter who's had long-term live-in relationships. "What I don't like is their turning around and being dependent on me. Then you get into the commitment business."
Cecia Hess, who runs "Make Me a Match" dating service in Fairfax, Va., says she's noticed several traits common among older bachelors that keep them from the commitment business. "Some set roadblocks for themselves -- they work 95 hours a week and want to know why they haven't met anyone. Some seem to be very set in their ways -- they can't be flexible or do the give-and-take that is necessary. And some are really looking for perfection."
In fact, the other question frequently hurled at the never-married man by well-meaning mothers and aunts is, "Why are you so picky?" (Often preceded by: "She seemed like such a nice woman.")
"I know I'm picky," says Mr. Jaffa, whose answering machine tape invites the caller to submit to a 30-second IQ test and personality analysis. "But I've got stuff to work with. I look good for my age. I usually go out with women who are flashier, more stylish, not frumpy looking. Women who don't wear sensible shoes."
Recently, he dated a woman who had "all the positives, just what you're looking for" -- that is, until she mentioned that she loved rap music. "It turned into the date from hell. Rap music is something I don't even want to hear low on my radio."
While Dr. Broder admits the existence of what he calls "career singles" -- those who "hit the road the second they see a flaw in somebody" -- such pickiness does not always translate to fussiness, he says. "Perhaps they are more particular, but perhaps they are wiser. Rather than rushing into a marriage that isn't right, they're more likely to know more about what they want.
"They're not going to make the commitment lightly. And once they make the commitment, they're not as likely to divorce over some trivial issue or because they're going through a bad time."
Mr. Woodard, for one, says, "I'm clearer than I've ever been on what I like and what I don't like in terms of a potential mate." For instance, he says, "A number of my relationships with women have ended due to their not wanting children."
Like many middle-aged singles eager to marry, Mr. Woodard spends a lot of time and energy on his search for a spouse. "It becomes almost work," says the bachelor who meets women through friends, singles events and personal ads.
Others, like Mr. Jaffa who shares his town house with his German Shepherd, maintain that marital status is not a concern. "I'm not on a marriage mission."
And Mr. Cardella insists that others are more concerned about his getting hitched than he is.
"My mother cries all the time. 'I have such a beautiful boy, and he's spending all his time alone!' I keep telling her it's just around the corner, I'll be married in three months. But she doesn't believe that line anymore."
After 49 years of single life, neither does he.