Great Love Debate takes on D.C.’s dating scene


The Great Love Debate, a panel discussion on dating was held at the Arena Stage on Tuesday April 29, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

“If I was a single woman, I would move to D.C.,” says Brian Howie, a 47-year-old Los Angeles-based director and producer and the author of “How to Find Love in 60 Seconds.” Both of his sisters met their husbands here. People are goal-oriented enough that if they want to get married, they do.

And yet, D.C. is a city of singles. By one estimate — a Census Reporter analysis of census data — 71 percent of D.C. residents are single, and that’s certainly not all by choice. “There seems to be a lot of great men and a lot of great women and they seem to not want to be single,” Howie says. “And yet for some reason, there seem to be more of them than ever.”

This is a serious problem. So, like many serious problems tackled in this city, it was addressed in the most Washington of ways: with a panel discussion.

On a rainy Tuesday night, about 100 local singles streamed into a theater at Arena Stage for Howie’s Great Love Debate, an event he’s replicating in dozens of cities across the country. It was like a singles-themed festivus: Grievances about how men and women interact while dating — or trying to — were aired with interruptions and loud rebuttals from the audience and panelists. Women and men, mostly in their 20s to 40s, dressed as they might on a first date — some in jeans, others in wrap dresses or slacks and button-downs and the occasional stylish hat — were instructed to sit on separate sides of the audience. As with most singles events in Washington, yes, there were more women than men but not egregiously so.

“We’re here to kind of air the dirty laundry . . . so we can start understanding why dating in D.C. is so damn stressful — and why being single has such a stigma to it,” Rita Goodroe, the event’s moderator, said in kicking off the conversation. “But also why not wanting to be single in this area has such a big stigma attached to it.”

Goodroe, a newlywed who founded the Singles in the Suburbs Meetup group in 2006, wants to get past the typical responses she hears as to why people are single — that women are crazy gold-diggers and men are commitment-phobic players. “And liars!” a woman shouts from the audience. “And liars,” Goodroe adds.

For the most part, the panelists — Howie and five local dating and relationship experts — tried to push past name-calling. Michelle Jacoby, owner of DC Matchmaking, urged the audience to make dating more fun than “you, me, another plate of chicken. Here we go again.” And to change the way they describe their relationship status: “Stop using the word single; you’re ‘available.’ You’re available to find love,” advises dating coach Jeffrey Platts.

Thus begins the life-coach speak — talk of how to change your at-ti-tude, live in the moment and stop treating dates as “spouse-hunting safaris,” as one audience member characterized the women he met on JDate. Anytime things got too warm and positively fuzzy, Howie was there to throw darts. Why does he think men and women have trouble pairing off? “The lack of approachability of the women,” he says — and the female side of the audience erupts. Ohhh, no you didn’t.

“Hold on — let me explain that,” Howie, who is single, says, struggling to regain the floor. “The women want the men to try harder and the men want the women to make it easier. . . . We’re scared to death of you guys.”

When asked whether approaching women is the hardest thing for a man to do, most of the 40-some men in the room raise their hands in agreement. Howie urges women to take their earbuds out and put their phones away while going about their daily lives, a sentiment an attendee says feels too 1950s, as if “women have to put out this magnetic force to captivate men.”

“It depends on the approach,” a woman from the audience counters. “Some approaches are creepy.”

And that comment begs for a role-playing exercise. The woman is brought down onstage, as is a male volunteer from the audience, to act out what might be a “creepy” approach at Starbucks. The man, who’s blind, says “Well, listen, I can’t see a whole lot, but I can see you’re smokin’ hot.”

Laughter, more than creeped-out “ewws,” ensues.

“I think all women should have to approach a man, so they can see how hard it is,” panelist Melanie Curtin advises. And after the discussion, men and women got to practice just that at Station 4, a bar/restaurant nearby. Goodroe reports that five members of her singles group walked away with dates made at the after-party.

Getting a date or two is one thing; maintaining a lasting relationship might be another discussion altogether. Attendee Janée Davis, a 40-year-old technical analyst, characterized the D.C. dating scene as more focused on relationship status than substance: “I think people have way too many agendas and don’t know how to live life. They just want the title — married, engaged, in a relationship, somebody loves me,” she says after Tuesday night’s event.

“A lot of people don’t have a sense of self and real identity,” she says. “They’re afraid to be individuals.”

A few minutes later, matchmaker Jacoby comes up to Davis: “How old are you?” she asks. “I might have someone for you.”

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