The couple is the most selfish social entity in the world.

-- Al, 43 and never married

I've come to have compassion for them {singles}.

-- Kathleen Sullivan, married newscaster, concluding a "Good Morning America" series on singles

STAN AND MARGE HAVE SPENT SATURDAY afternoon at Ikea, gauging oak veneer wall units for the second set of Fiesta Ware. They're too beat, and too full of those snack bar Swedish meatballs to go out for dinner. They dial Domino's for a medium pie with extra cheese, cue up "Ruthless People" on the VCR, and by 11 they're punching in their personal comfort levels on the dual-control electric blanket.

By '80s standards, this is hip. This is now. This is the vaunted new Staying In.

Bob and Carol have been at Ikea, too. He needed one of those rubber things you put under the dish drain; she wanted a bathroom rug. Bob and Carol don't know each other. They shopped purposefully, singly, and returned to their Crystal City condos, alone. He opted for "RoboCop" and Amstel Light; she read Edith Wharton and microwaved a plate of Lean Cuisine Turkey Dijon.

By '80s standards, this is pathetic. Staying In was never hip for singles. And it isn't now.

The dual social standards persist. They've even sharpened as singles of the Me-First '70s have become the Committed-and-Coupled of the '80s. For the baby boomers, this is the We Decade. The more boomers snuggle a` deux, the more easily they forget: THERE ARE OTHER PEOPLE OUT THERE.

After all, it's a binary vogue, this banking of domestic fires at the video hearth. The professional trendmeisters are calling it "cocooning." "Home is where the hip are," writes columnist Ellen Goodman, who reports that she spent this past New Year's Eve cocooning at home in sweat clothes with her husband.

Magazine trend pieces further parse the phenomenon:

"Young Fogies," according to one social chronicler, are upscale stay-ins who tell Ivan Boesky jokes and dress like Ralph Lauren ads. And while they order in tekka maki and goat cheese pizzettes, their middle-income counterparts -- couch potatoes -- are setting new marketing records for microwave popcorn, video rentals and, yes, top-of-the-line couches.

Couch potatoes constitute "The New Nightlife," according to a cover story in New York magazine. The stars of this nightlife, it was noted, "share their living space with at least one other Couch Potato, usually a spouse, and often with at least one child, or New Potato."

If the hot new club is the shag-carpeted family room, the admissions policy is tougher than the glare of the biggest, baddest disco doorman. Couples Only is the firm if unspoken rule. Fogies, cocooners and couch potatoes do tend to come in pairs. And they own the bragging rights to the New Staying In. What's in a pronoun these days? Listen:

We never go out anymore. How many times have you heard that smug couples cant recently?

I never go out anymore. Ever hear a sane single spud volunteer this information -- except while reclining on a $75-per-hour couch? Ever see a Lonely Guy in one of those High Yup Canada Dry ads sipping ginger ale and gleefully telling his Rottweiler: "Hey, Rocco, we're staying in again"?

Nah. And don't hold your breath for it. Couples are the rule, couples are the rage, especially with telemarketers. I rang up the creative director who developed that Canada Dry TV spot, the one where the nuzzling thirtysomething couple decides to stay in -- again. Marcia Grace, of the Wells, Rich, Greene ad agency, says they'd never consider pitching their fizzy woo with a single in the ad.

"That was part of the whole concept. We'd seen all the studies. We knew that revenues from clubs and restaurants were down, and they were way up for takeout food, VCR movie rentals. Couples were being cozier. Couples wanted to withdraw a bit and focus more on each other."

I'd drink to that unreservedly -- but there's a troubling little footnote to this new/old-fashioned domesticity. Read between the lines of all these trends, and it's clear that much of the ballyhooed We-ness is just an '80s update on '70s Me-ness. We is just another kind of Me in this double incarnation of self-involvement. At its extreme, it's tough to take.

Call them coupleniks, these fortunate folks, these devotees to Coupledom Uber Alles. They tend to be between 30 and 45, married or cohabiting. They tend to "dialogue" for hours on all details of their coupleness, their twin corduroys bulging with tile samples and paint chips, their magazine racks engorged with shelter books and glossy food porn like Bon Appetit and Gourmet. Willy-nilly, they toss their We's and their I's into conversational bouillabaisse. They're always congratulating themselves on their Subaru good sense and thanking God they're not single.

Understandably, coupleniks don't notice the social fallout of their insular ways, but singles feel the chill. To some singles, it's the Tyranny of the Couple. Commitment Obsession. Coupleniks can argue that they're just doing what comes naturally, two by two. But this Noah's ark attitude is harsh indeed if you're left ashore. Singles' discomfort isn't measurable in surveys or marriage demographics. It's just always there.

"I've read all those famous studies that tell you the probability of finding someone is worse than ever," says Julie, who is single and 40 (the age at which Newsweek said a single woman would be more likely to get killed by a terrorist than get married). "I can live with the odds. But I can't handle the general attitude these days. Somehow, in half a decade I went from being a swinging single to Pitiful Pearl."

Question: How does a single woman get rid of roaches in her apartment? Answer: She asks them for a commitment.

THIRTY YEARS AGO, THE unmarried, man-chasing woman was the butt of dozens of desperation jokes ("Take my sister-in-law, please"). Now that unmarried woman packs a briefcase, a beeper and a condo mortgage, but the jokes keep getting nastier. You didn't much hear stuff like that in the '60s and '70s -- which gets to the heart of the matter. Retreat to the domestic hearth may be a positive trend; what's insufferable is the smugness that can accompany it. It's a social regression that bounces back through the Age of Aquarius and lands smack in the Life of Riley.

Historically, up through the '50s, singles were considered pitiable indeed. Then, for a while, the situation improved. If the '60s and '70s did nothing else, they left us with an appreciation for alternatives to biological and biblical mandates. Communards and singles, me's, we's, couples, triples. At least there was tolerance, if not approval, for lives outside the standard binary format.

Even couples made Big Stuff out of doing their own things -- be it in women's groups or poker games. Back when the now-cocooning boomers were still out looking for the right persons to hyphenate surnames with, being single was even a desirable state. It was acknowledged that any life, single or paired, was bearable -- indeed, at one point enviable -- when lived to the individual's fullest potential.

What's startling and depressing is the attitudinal amnesia now fogging so many '60s progressives -- the kind that relegates their identity to half of a matched pair. Recently, I heard a friend in his thirties actually say to a bar table of colleagues, "Gotta go. The wife's expecting me."

The wife?

"Who're you?" I asked him. "Ralph Kramden in a Perry Ellis suit?"

"Delia {the wife} thinks it's cute," he countered. I polled the table. None of the guys could remember ever having heard Delia's name before.

Life-style apologists defend retro tendencies under the rubric of "The New Traditionalism." They point to pertinent stats. For the first time in 15 years, the divorce rate has leveled off. (In D.C., there's been an appreciable drop since 1980 -- from 7.3 per thousand to 4.6 per thousand by 1984.) "How to Stay Married," a recent Newsweek cover story, announced that "the age of the disposable marriage is over . . . The new bywords are commitment and responsibility."

Even lone stud Sonny Crockett got married on this season's "Miami Vice." "Moonlighting" 's having a baby. Folks are circling their wagons, poring over "partnership" manuals, opting for quiet retrenchment in the Lands End catalogue. Instead of TM and est, they sign up for intimacy courses. The Commitment-Hungry, the AIDS-Fearing, the Madly Procreating Boomers are all tucking up -- and looking backward with dewy eyes to the Ozzie-and-Harriet decade they were born into. VH1, MTV's other cable station, ran a "How to Be Donna Reed" primer that aired before the very popular "Donna" reruns. They also held a Perfect American Sitcom contest. Nostalgia is rampant, in the minds and in the malls.

This is because coupleniks and the New Traditionalism go together like Hostess Twin Cupcakes. And Lord knows, they can shop for the props: La-Z-Boys and Barcaloungers are back. Backyard barbecuing is enjoying a huge revival. Now it's called grilling, but beneath that pricey mesquite smoke burns the charcoal legacy of the '50s Patio King.

It follows that couples events flourish anew. I know some thirties types who attended a black-tie, couples-only slumber party in Virginia on New Year's Eve. In town, and in the burbs, grown-up cocktail parties are suddenly chic. "Even gin is back in fashion," trills the life-style page of The New York Times. "The stock market is foundering and we are all, willy-nilly, growing up at last." If this continues, canned Vienna sausages will soon be leaching their nitrites back into the boomer blood stock. An antiques dealer at Eastern Market says he can't lay his hands on enough of those ginchy old cocktail sets -- the ones with rocket-shaped shakers and leggy Fred Astaire stemware.

"They tell me they dress up at home and everything," he says of his customers. "One couple told me they play Glenn Miller records they pinched from their parents."

Yes, retro domesticity can be cute as a bug. But the thinking beneath it has all the natural sparkle of a glass of warm Tang.

It's spooky, but I'm starting to see Ward and June Cleaver in some of my married friends. I mean, it's great that they've deep-sixed the tofu and put real butter on their mashed potatoes now. Some of them even wear silly Kiss the Chef barbecue aprons. Okay. Cute. What's not so cute is that other '50s domestic tic. Doing everything in couples. Or foursomes. We tend to socialize as couples, they tell you. I grind my teeth when I hear that. They've just gotten into couples orbits. And the rest of us are these weird asteroids. -- Lynn, 34

MOST IN SINGLES SPACE, with a ticking biological clock, it can seem spooky indeed. Age is a critical factor here; you will hear few complaints about couples from singles in their twenties. Singleness is still an expected, accepted state at that age. But over 30, gynecological imperatives and grim demographics dump singles into the black hole of loneliness so peculiar to this generation. Adult life may be complete, in terms of career, car payments, IRAs and aerobic pastimes. But it's harder than ever in history to become part of the primal pair. Bugs and birds can do it -- but not accountants from Falls Church.

And oh, how they want it, that coveted coupleness. A recent survey by Great Expectations, a nationwide chain of video dating services, found that 72 percent of single women and 56 percent of single men said they wanted to get married in the next year; 42 percent of women talk about marriage and kids on the first date. Is it any wonder they chafe at coupleniks' bonded bliss?

Some singles simply envy the mystical state of coupleness. You can miss what you've never had, they'll insist. One longtime bachelor says he's come to view marriage like some impregnable Masonic Temple -- a lodge with intimate secrets and rituals an outsider can't possibly understand. He wishes he could just peek inside -- without paying the dues.

Before you send in any letters signed "Single in Gaithersburg and Loving It," before you coupleniks fluff up your matching down vests and cluck about the high price of commitment and babysitters, let me make it clear that I posit no intentional animosity between the two camps. No out-and-out war of the We's and Me's. I see instead a widening gulf between the haves and have-nots, and a creeping conservatism in social options. Campaigning Democrats are calling our increasing self-involvement the product of eight years of a Me-First administration. But it goes beyond mere politics. Too many couples have the same attitude toward singles as they do toward the homeless. They thank God it's not them -- and walk on by. It's a pretty passive transgression.

What are the specific sins of omission? Listen:

Not long after I was divorced, I noticed that I got bumped from the Saturday night A list. Married friends, coupled friends still stay in touch, still invite me, but not on those couples-only nights. It's more like, "Come over on Wednesday night, we'll rent 'The Way We Were.' The kids will still be up, we'll order a pizza." I've been served two cooked dinners since my divorce. You'd think they raise Cornish game hens only to be consumed in pairs. I used to wear silk shirts to visit these people. Now it's sweat pants and double pepperoni. I'm happy to go, but the change in status hurts. They're willing to draw me in as part of the extended couch potato family, but not as a sexual being. Or even someone who can add to an adult dinner discussion on mortgage rates or the Deaver trial. I know they don't mean it. They just don't think." -- Sarah, 37

Here's a test for sensitive couples out there. When was the last time you invited a single person to a weekend dinner party -- if you weren't trying to fix him or her up? Snubbed singles like Sarah understand that it's more an oversight than a deliberate exclusion. They just don't think. Here, from aggrieved singles, are some frequent couplenik faux pas:

1. Odd Number Phobia. This is a corollary to Sarah's complaint about the couples-only A list. When socializing, some couples have an aversion to prime numbers like 5, 7 and 11. Dining room chairs seem to come in multiples of two, and so do invitations. Singles will be invited to couples-heavy events, as long as they can help even the numbers. This tendency has made one Gaithersburg bachelor feel like an interchangeable spare part.

"One night at a Georgetown dinner party, I overheard a woman -- a fellow guest -- talking about me to our hostess during drinks. 'Wherever do you find these spare men?' she wanted to know. By the time we were digging into the cre`me caramel, this woman was inviting me to a dinner she was having the following week. I didn't feel particularly flattered, since she mentioned she was 'looking for an eighth.' I guess I had the right stuff. I didn't slurp my consomme'. And I was an unattached mass of XY chromosomes."

2. The Weekend Gulag. "Weekends are the time for true couples tyranny," says Al, a long-practicing single of 43. "Ask any single how often he or she gets invited to couples' weekend houses. I don't know what it is -- whether they think you throw off the dynamic, or they just don't want to waste a whole bedroom on one person. If you do get to the beach house, you'll listen to couples speculating on the singles group house down the boardwalk. 'Gawd, I couldn't live that way, labeling yogurt containers, negotiating for bedrooms.' I want to holler, 'Thank God you don't have to.' But I keep quiet -- so they'll invite me back."

3. Overuse of Couplespeak. In the '70s, folks were mighty conscious of all those new name permutations, hyphenations and the practice of Keeping One's Own Name. You heard "Charlie" and "Melissa" instead of "my husband" or "my wife." But these generic spousal terms have crept back into egregious usage.

"I do catch myself calling Bob 'my husband' more than I used to," a married friend told me. "Looking around, I'm just so damned glad to have him, I guess I like him labeled that -- my husband -- for all the world to hear."

Pronoun abuse is also on the rise. It's fine to agree with one's partner, but delivering opinions, pronouncements and the like with the ubiquitous We-word can make a couple sound like they share a cerebral cortex as well as an address. We resent Hart's reentry . . . We're concerned about radon . . . We hated Woody's new film. The most grating example of Couplespeak? Anything prefaced with As a couple, we feel . . .

4. The Dossier. This is a pet peeve of Michael, who has somehow reached his late thirties unattached. The dossier is the name he gives to the way his coupled friends "explain" him to other guests. How does this work? "I go to a small social gathering at some couple's home," he says. "I'm introduced to John, who's a lawyer, and Jane, who's a CPA, and they're married -- enough said. They have an easy identity. So it goes with all the other couples. And as the evening progresses, I realize they all know far more about me than I do about them. They know I've just redone my apartment, that I've been in California on business, that I hate arugula. 'I've heard all about you,' they say. Well, I haven't heard all about them. I used to get paranoid until I realized they'd all been briefed. I now understand that singles require a certain amount of explanation."

Sarah, too, found the dossier an encumbrance. "For the first six months as a single, I felt that everyone I met knew my story. You know -- Aw, her husband left her. They'd say stuff like "I understand you've had a rough go of it lately . . ." They'd been given a synopsis by the host couple. I know they meant to be kind, but it made me feel I had a big D for divorce on my forehead. And that's all anyone could see."

5. Spectator Sex. This is a conspiratorial couplenik vice -- fun, vicarious and without viral consequences. They like to watch the skirmishes on the battleground they've escaped. It's a team sport -- the half of the couple that is the same sex as the single handles the inquisition. And female coupleniks can be especially direct: "So, how was he? How does it work nowadays -- do you bring condoms or does he?"

"I dread when my poker game knows I had a date," says a 33-year-old dentist named Rob. "The married guys act like they're in high school. So, how was she?" Rob points out that the sanctity of couplenik sex is rarely violated. "Who's going to dare ask a married guy, 'Hey, you gettin' any?' "

It's understandable that some singles have developed certain small dysfunctions in response to the oppression of coupleniks. One of them is the tendency to prevaricate when recounting one's sexual history. Our pal Al, who has endured two decades of long- and short-term dating but never anything that made him give up closet space, explains it this way:

"I lie. I can't help myself. It would sound better at this point if I was twice divorced than never married. But as I meet couples, as I continue, God help me, to date, I hear my voice giving longer durations to past relationships. A woman I haven't thought of in years -- who was never a main event -- will drift through conversations as a Long Lost Love. I've even exaggerated about living with someone. It's just easier than having to explain why not. It's not paranoia. Over and over again, people ask you flat out:

SO HOW COME YOU'RE STILL SINGLE?"

I've come to realize that I'd have probably been better off in the '50s. Back then, people accepted the notion of the Confirmed Bachelor. I have the sense that if you were in your thirties and forties and not married or attached, people didn't assume you were hopeless. Or gay. Or deeply troubled. I mean, just look at the term. Confirmed bachelor. Confirmation is a generally positive state. In that respect, it implied these guys chose singleness. Well, I'm 39, I've never even lived with someone, let alone got married. I'm not confirmed. I'm commitment-less. And that makes me weird. One couple calls me Felix. Felix Unger, for godsakes. -- Fred, 39

WE ALL KNOW FELIX, THE neurasthenic half of the Odd Couple. His cologne is Lysol, his aphrodisiac, nasal spray. Felix is a classic sitcom single -- a divorced nerd, a whiny totem of the small screen gap between our pop culture We's and Me's. As the "TV generation," we learned American domesticity at home and from the tube, albeit in lampoon form. ("My, you're looking lovely today, Mrs. Cleaver . . .") In the 25 years it took pug-nosed Wally Cleaver to become the patriarch on the new "Beaver" show, it's clear there's been sitcom seepage into the suggestible boomer brainpan.

Take a look at the listings today, and you'll see updates on '50s and early '60s couples hegemony -- a remake of the glorious era of Ozzie and Harriet, Lucy and Ricky, George and Gracie, Ward and June, Ralph and Alice, Ed and Trixie, Rob and Laura, Fred and Wilma. Couple style has come full circle, from "Father Knows Best" to that funky professional father, Bill Cosby, and his wry-but-respectful brood. On "Cosby," "Family Ties" and "Growing Pains," the family unit is close, closed and carefully composed: wise-cracking teens, cute twerps, loving, beleaguered parents. Kinda nutty, but normal.

Not so for the single. Since the '50s, should singles sail into a sketch, they've been vampy divorce'es, dangerously suave mambo teachers, spinster sisters -- or the Fonz, cartoon megastud. The other extreme is well-represented: Barney Fife, Lenny and Squiggy. It's the Battle of the Network Nerds. Oh, we've loved those wacky single guys 'n' gals. But they've never been quite . . . normal.

Think about it -- for one heroically single Mary (Tyler Moore) Richards, there's a handful of single-gal airheads: My Little Margie. Laverne and Shirley. Suzanne Somers. Betty Boop. Olive Oyl. Diane, the brainy waitress on "Cheers," was an airhead with reverse spin; she could quote Shelley and conjugate in French, but succumbed to being a fool for lust, falling for hot but dimwitted Sam. Last spring, NBC unveiled a promising '80s successor to MTM called "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd." Single, divorced Molly (Blair Brown) sallied forth bravely with no steady boyfriend and no laugh track. NBC says she'll be back soon -- but at press time had yet to give our Molly a date.

Single moms like Kate and Allie have fared better, perhaps out of sheer respect for motherhood. Alice the waitress was a stalwart type, but she was still flanked by the man-hungry Flo and her pea-brain sidekick Vera.

Men started out stronger as TV singles, perhaps owing to traditions struck by those confirmed bachelors of the '50s: "Love That Bob" Cummings and the impeccably suave John Forsythe as "Bachelor Father." But it's been a downhill slide. Dorky Dobie Gillis. Gomer Pyle. Gilligan. Cousin It. Lenny and Squiggy. Mork.

Some had great heart beneath the cartoon fac ade. A decade before Tony Randall perfected the soulful single geek as Felix Unger, Don Knotts was winning Emmys for his trembling, bantamweight deputy sheriff on "The Andy Griffith Show." Barney Fife signaled a sea change in sitcom singles. He was faithful, lovable, beautifully wrought and ultimately pathetic. The Poor Soul.

The desperation is worse than ever. I see it in my practice. I see it all around me. People -- meaning single women -- may have gotten over the shock of that study {citing women's dismal mating prospects}. But they're still obsessional about marriage and relationships. People are so single-minded about becoming part of a couple that they lose sight of how to live life everyday. They forget about inner peace -- all that quality-of-life stuff we were supposed to have learned in the '60s and '70s. You're just not going to get anywhere until you break through that obsession." -- Melvyn Kinder, co-author of Smart Women, Foolish Choices and Women Men Love, Women Men Leave.

OH, BUT THAT Obsession sells. Just as food fixation sells mountains of diet books. And Commitment Obsession has spun off a sprawling genre of Intimacy and Agony Auteurs. Women Who Love Too Much. Love and Addiction. How to Marry a Good Man. Living and Loving After Divorce. Women and Love. Passive Men, Wild Women. Why Do I Think I Am Nothing Without a Man? Fittingly, there are growth industries tugging at both ends of the couples/singles dynamic -- microwave popcorn explosions and takeout "pizza wars" on the cocooning side; and, for the singles, agony books, dating services, personal ad tabloids and pay-to-rap phone services like D.C.'s Party Line and Go Go Line.

As the We/Me schism deepens, American industry leaps into the breach. It's the final, if unintentional, stage of couplenik oppression. People's livelihoods depend on the perpetuity of longing.

I asked Melvyn Kinder, one of the agony lit pioneers, how he and his co-author, Dr. Connell Cowan, decided to specialize. He explained that as clinical psychologists with Beverly Hills practices, they were seeing lots of unhappy single women.

"Smart women," Kinder says. "Strong women. Successful women. And my God, they were miserable. Too picky. Or picking all the wrong guys. 'What's going on out there?' we wondered. 'How can we help them?' "

Smart Women, Foolish Choices, their first book, did provide a field guide to common male creeps: "rats," "clams," the "pseudo-liberated," "the perpetual adolescent." The doctors gave women lots of quizzes to take, stuff about "autonomy needs," a love addiction test, plus 16 rules for Finding the Right Man. These days, women and men seem to be seizing on Rule No. 8:

Fewer expectations lead to greater aliveness.

"Amid the chronic desperation, I'm beginning to see resignation," Kinder says. "I think singles are settling in, establishing their own, stable life styles. They're resigned to the fact that it's hard to meet people. And they're trying to adjust to that fact, to stop looking desperately. Friends are spending time together."

Singles' cocooning?

"Yeah, I guess. Finding their own versions of this traditional life style that's coming back into vogue. I mean, you can't just jump off a bridge."

Still, he doesn't advocate giving up hope. "I say to other people -- are you aware of how difficult it is? I encourage them to matchmake among their friends. Me? I fix people up all the time. I tell them to use dating services." At a time when commitment is more important than ever . . . -- Jeffrey Ullman, president, Great Expectations

SO BEGINS THE PITCH for one of the '80s' most successful agony industries, Great Expectations (GE). The video dating service now has 20 locations nationwide, with another 11 to open within the year. Franchises are available for $55,000 and up -- depending on area demographics -- and if the Me/We standoff persists, they could be as popular with singles as Pizza Hut is with cocooning coupleniks.

Californian Jeffrey Ullman, a '60s radical turned agony entrepreneur, started his business 12 years ago with his "typical Jewish mother" Estelle. He now spends up to $7 million a year spraying TV, print and direct-mail ads to singles; this year, earnings are projected at $38 million, double last year's take. Ullman, who may turn out to be the Ray Kroc of McDates, has sold his service around the concept of "quality singles." You have to want it bad to get your five minutes on VHS tape in the GE library; memberships require a $1,450 to $1,850 commitment.

So far, more than 40,000 singles have been punching up Possibles on Ullman's state-of-the-art equipment. You never have to leave the warm video booth; members experience rejection only on a computer printout with generic reasons ("don't want smoker"; "not my type"). Find someone -- become a Couple -- and both of you are allowed to "freeze" your membership indefinitely, or "go inactive," in GE parlance. Should you tumble out of your love cocoon, you just have them lift the red "DO NOT SELECT" banner off your photo and get back to it.

Ullman has found that Washington is a tough town for singles, with its 60-hour work weeks, its transitory population. GE's Georgetown branch is the chain's second busiest center, after Los Angeles.

This was one Georgetown singles spa I had to see. I took the elevator up to the penthouse floor of the new, six-story office building on 31st Street NW. Past the perky male receptionist, past the heart-shaped graphics that boast 1,795 marriages so far, Sony video monitors flicker in smoked-glass viewing booths. The men and women perusing possibles in the gray and lavender "library" look like people you'd meet at a respectable fern bar. Or a Dole fundraiser.

Watching cassettes crammed with the hopeful -- from 18 to 80 -- I heard more dreams of coupleness from a busy obstetrician; a broadcast journalist; a deejay; a Georgetown Junior League type with a grown son and a power tennis game. Describing themselves, they used adjectives like "successful," "goal-oriented," "driven." A lot of them "love to dance."

All of them, according to Ullman, have had the gumption -- and the cash -- to "stop whining, stop complaining about how hard it is, get up offa their duffs and do something about it."

Janine Muzidal, a 27-year-old Burke dental hygienist, gave herself a GE membership for her birthday in 1986, and here is why:

"You don't meet too many men in a small private dental practice. And weekends were getting old. It was a bunch of girlfriends getting all dressed up. For what? To stand at a bar together, while a bunch of guys stood 10 feet away, staring. And taking until 12:30 or 1 a.m. to get up the nerve to talk. I said later on that."

Gregory Chase, also 27, came to Fairfax from Buffalo. He is a pharmacist for People's Drug in Vienna. Works nights, weekends sometimes. His roommates filled out the GE mailer with his name and sent it in. When GE called, he went in, and signed up.

"You can't meet people in this town. Not if you work the hours that I do. This thing was comfortable. I went out with about 12 or 14 women. And then, by some miracle, Janine and I both selected each other."

It started with dinner at the Rusty Scupper in Tysons Corner. Within a month and a half, Greg popped the question:

You think we should deactivate?

Together, they drove into Georgetown and arranged to have the red "Do Not Select" stickers cover their files. Together, they went to a nearby deli and bought a couple of beers to celebrate. They are getting married on May 7 at St. Mark's in Vienna. Already, Greg has transferred his membership to one of the roommates he'll be leaving behind. And since becoming a couple, they say they have not really altered the mixed couples-and-singles socializing that characterized their lives as Me's.

"We're two completely different people," says Janine. "We were on our own for a long time since college. I have a home, I support myself, I have friends. I'm real happy to be part of a couple. But I'll never forget how hard it was. You just feel like you'll never find anyone. I feel for all singles out there. And that's not going to change once the ring's on my finger."

She hopes that they will never, ever behave like coupleniks. Greg, too, says he still feels more like a Me than a We. But he's not certain how long that will last.

"I'm sure the guys will still be hanging around our living room," he says. "But in a few years . . . maybe you don't think about it. Maybe you do focus inward. Maybe you just do."

IF SOME SINGLE FOLKS choose GE for its discretion, others flaunt their coupleness cravings on broadcast TV -- a medium that proves not every video match is made in high-tech heaven. Ain't no creatures quite like the TV-game-show We's and wishful Me's. Nothing reflects our Commitment Obsession more than the current proliferation of coupling contests: "The New Newlywed Game," "The New Dating Game." And the astonishing horrors of my particular favorite, "The Love Connection."

The Connection is a nasty little secret among people who won't normally even admit to watching game-show TV. Dustin Hoffman digs it. So does Connie Chung. And now that it's moved to evenings here in D.C., I try not to miss it. Its audience has grown exponentially in the five years it's been on the air, to 132 cities covering 88 percent of the country's syndicated markets. There are no cash prizes for contestants, but the show earns Lorimar-Telepictures $25 million a year. Lorimar has found it sells especially well in the late-night weird zone, around Carson and Letterman.

The gist is simple -- and grisly. "The Love Connection" matches contestants by video, then sends them out on a date. The couple return to recount the date in hair-raising detail, and assess whether they've made The Connection. This is a show where you risk getting your liver eaten out before millions. Date crimes made public are ugly indeed: bad sport coats, slipping dentures, nebbishy wine choices and lousy eighth-grade kissing.

"Chuck," complained one rejected swain to host Chuck Woolery, "she ordered everything on the menu but 'thank you.' "

Separately, they bemoan the obstacles to Coupling:

Chuck! He came to my door in polyester. Excuse me Chuck, she don't know a gentleman. Chuck! I've seen better legs in a bucket of chicken.

Yeesh. Ick. Hose 'em down there, Chuck, you want to yell at the tube. Stop the syndicated carnage. But no, Chuck probes deeper. Chuck needs to know. Were you disappointed when he showed up at your door? What'd you think when you saw her for the first time?

The studio audience howls loudest when dates go sour. Failing to Couple -- the cruelest fate -- is greeted with merry derision. The audience is stacked around the stage, coliseum style, with voting devices to give a potential match thumbs up or down. They fairly leap to the challenge, whooping, whistling, bashing their buttons for thrice-divorced waitresses, and Never Married karate instructors.

It's the closest thing we have to the Thunderdome -- and the most telling burlesque of the Couple Uber Alles. "The Love Connection" lifts the smooth flagstone of coupleness to reveal all the squirmy things underneath, long before the Commitment bell tolls. The magic formula is sheer desperation. Daily, 300 lonely lemmings assail the studio, trying to get on. If you will risk all this for a free set of Lee Sculpture Nails and the chance to become part of a real, not-for-prime-time couple, YOU WANT IT BAD.