Check your baggage: It's the men's turn to offer dating complaints

If many women over 40 find the dating scene a dark continent, older single men have their own news to share: It's not all that great for them, either.

The landscape can be rife with trophy hunters, online wastelands and women carrying not just baggage, but emotional steamer trunks. While some men claim they love dating women their own age ("Why I find women in their 40s and 50s to be so adorable," read a recent Craig's List ad), others complain the women they're meeting are not so much sweet as extra, extra tart.

"A lot of women in their 50s are very bitter," says Tom Dempsey, 58, a Bellevue retiree who's been dating steadily since his divorce. "I met a woman out dancing and hadn't talked to her more than two minutes before she went off about men. She was angry that they weren't meeting her expectations, angry that they wouldn't commit. She's a nice lady, but I'd never date her because that immediately turned me off. And that sort of thing's happened more than once."

Nobody likes a sourpuss. In fact, 42 percent of single men in their 50s named bitter baggage as their No. 1 complaint, according to a 2003 AARP survey of 3,500 baby boomers. Thirty-five percent of women had a problem with this, as well.

But it's not just bitterness that gets a big thumb's down from the guys. The calculating manner of certain women (listen up, all you Anna Nicole Srs.) can also be a big pain, particularly in the back pocket.

"I'll meet a woman and the first thing she'll do is ask 'What do you do?' They'll weigh your wallet," says Scott Abraham, a 53-year-old Seattle counselor who says he's given up on dating. "I have a friend who's a doctor, but he never wants to tell women that because he'll be treated differently. We went out one time and he said, 'OK, tonight, you be the doctor.' He's a good-looking guy, but that night, I got all the attention. I had my choice of three or four women. He said he sold cars and he got no attention."

But is it a lavish "got rocks" lifestyle that these women are hoping to cash in on? Or the simple white picket fence so many women over 40 are conditioned from birth to expect?

"Women this age are looking for security, and that means different things for different people," says Marla Prouty of the Seattle Singles Yacht Club. "Some women want emotional security. Others need a man who makes a certain income."

Considering the huge array of belief systems within this age group, from June Cleaver to Sex in the City's Samantha Jones, it's no surprise there's confusion — and even anger — when it comes to sorting out issues like money, expectations and gender roles (nobody likes to be objectified, whether it's for their body or their bucks).

Baggage check

Craig Sawyer, a 50-year-old Seattle single, spent five years learning the dating ropes before meeting "the love of his life" on Match.com. He thinks the trick is to check your baggage at the dating door.

"If a woman says 'What do you do for a living?' that doesn't mean she's out for your money, it means she's trying to find out about you," says Sawyer. "We screen people all the time over the dumbest things, and it's a shame, because later, you'll realize that person wasn't so bad, it was just your own baggage coming up and blocking it."

Yes, more than one babe has been summarily tossed out with the bath water, including Sawyer himself, who says he was dropped by a date who felt he had ex-wife issues.

"I told her a few stories about my ex and she took that to mean it was going to be this big hassle," he says. "Even though we had great chemistry, she didn't want to pursue things any further. A lot of people are like that. They see one thing and think, Oh, I ran into that with my ex, I don't want to deal with that."

Of course, many women don't have time to deal with anything. They're running businesses, raising kids, and in their spare time, they're kayaking, skiing, jogging, volunteering for a few nonprofits and producing the costumes for the school play. They're active, they're accomplished, and at times, they're just a teensy bit off-putting.

"Sometimes when I read these women's personal ads, I wonder how they ever found the time to even sit down and compose them," says Stephen Cook, a 45-year-old single dad. "It's like they're obsessed with being active all the time, like it's a neurosis. I just wonder, are they going to be able to fit me in?"

Cynthia Hickey, a 46-year-old single who juggles a demanding job, college classes, and an active outdoor life which includes volunteer search and rescue work, is one of those busy women, although she says she's never too busy for a potential partner.

"I've never felt that I couldn't engage in a relationship because I was too busy," she says. "But I'm not going to clear my schedule and wait for someone to fill it. I'll keep it as full and rich as possible and adjust it accordingly for friends or a partner."

Where the boys (and girls) are

It's finding that partner that can be tricky, in fact, the top question on both sides of the gender fence seems to be: Where the heck are you?

Bellevue bachelor Tom Dempsey is out dancing, usually with the Seattle Swing Dance Club (other options include the Mountaineers, Living Traditions, Washington Dance Club, or the Century Ballroom).

"Dating is a numbers game," he says. "The more people you meet, the better chance you have of meeting quality people and to me, dancing is a good way to meet them. It's not like you're being set up, it's not like a Match.com type of thing. You've got a girl in your arms for two and a half minutes. You can talk. They're right there."

Single dad Stephen Cook is looking for love online, as are thousands of other Seattle singles. Match.com lists 9,000 local members in their 40s, nearly 60 percent of them men. There are another 5,000 in their 50s.

Seattle's own PerfectMatch.com currently has more than 100,000 "over-39" members in the Seattle/Tacoma area. According to Duane Dahl, CEO and founder, the over-39 category is one of their fastest growing age groups.

Cook says he'd love to meet a single mom, but what he'd really love is a return to a more traditional way of meeting people.

"I lament the passage of the dinner party," he says. "Growing up, my parents had dinner parties all the time. They were great social events, full of singles and couples, and they don't seem to happen any more."

While these old social traditions have faded, new social networks take their place. Some local options: PlayDate Seattle, Space City Mixer, Elements of Soul and Spartay.com, which recently added events for the 35 to 55 set.

Craig Sawyer is off the market these days but says he went through "a jillion first dates" (and three years of self-awareness classes) on his way to meeting his match, who he plans to marry.

His advice?

"You've got to work on your baggage and then you've got to get out there and meet people. Julius Caesar was a great general who would go into battle with less men than the enemy, but he was smart, he was good and he won. Dating's the same."

Diane Mapes is a frequent contributor to The Seattle Times: dimapes@nwlink.com