Market for Romance Goes From Bullish to Sheepish

Are Guys With Less to Spend Less of a Catch?

Niko Papademetriou said unemployment is "definitely putting stress" on his relationship with his girlfriend.
Niko Papademetriou said unemployment is "definitely putting stress" on his relationship with his girlfriend. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 25, 2009; Page A01

See the tall, gregarious young man in the Eighteenth Street Lounge, moving easily toward a group of receptive women as the floor vibrates with reggae music? He's dressed in a sharp Hugo Boss suit, and he knows that the minimum for a table is $240.

But he's not offering to buy the drinks. And the suit? He bought it a year ago, when he had a six-figure salary.

Dating in the time of the pink slip means feeling the squeeze of the drastically reduced paycheck, the sudden sting of the layoff. From investment bankers to real estate developers to construction workers, no job means no buying rounds of $15 martinis for a pretty woman and her girlfriends. No hosting parties in the bachelor loft. And often, no idea how to present one's new self on the dating market.

"It's been incredibly stressful for me," said Neil Welsh, 27, the guy in the suit, who until last year was marketing director for a booming real estate company. "I was so used to using my financial situation to leverage my dating."

For many affected by the recession, dating is the least of their worries. But the market crash has had a particular impact on young adults who developed their dating skills in fat times, the twentysomethings who spent lavishly to show that they could afford the finer things. Now, with national unemployment rates at 8.8 percent for people 25 to 34, they are looking for more creative ways to attract partners -- and reassessing what all that big spending really meant.

Formal studies on the matter are hard to find, and Washington area employment rates are still higher than those of many other metropolitan areas. But interviews with young singles in area nightclubs and cafes and at parties reveals that financial stress is affecting the romantic lives of those who have lost sizable disposable incomes.

Alexandria native Niko Papademetriou, 27, became an investment banker with a Cleveland firm soon after he graduated from college. The money was steady enough for him to fly regularly to Manhattan to see his girlfriend and take her to upscale restaurants such as Bond Street and Cafe Gray.

"A large aspect of my life -- three out of the first five conversations that we had -- I told her, 'You're not going to see much of me in the next 15 years if we start dating, because I'm going to be making a lot of money.' " He thinks that worked in his favor, "not so much for the money, but for the drive. It's one of those things in men that women find attractive."

Since being laid off in November, he has moved back to Alexandria to live with his mother. He now takes the Chinatown bus -- for as little as $5 each way -- to visit his girlfriend. Round-trip airfare between Cleveland and New York City averages more than $200.

"It's definitely putting stress on our relationship," he said recently, sitting in an Old Town cafe. "It comes back to this whole manhood thing. Like, can you be the provider, not just for yourself but for others?"

It's been tough on his girlfriend, he said. "She knows that she needs to be this understanding, positive influence in my life. At the same time, there is a lot of fear on her part, knowing that my industry and the one that we had kind of mentally projected ourselves and our way of life on could be over, or at least on pause for a while."

For Natalie Huddleston, 27, a marketer at a law firm, dating itself is on hold. Standing with her girlfriends on an outdoor deck of the Eighteenth Street Lounge, nursing a Manhattan, the Arlington resident said men ask her out much less since the market crash.

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