He tried the singles bar scene just after his divorce, but always had the feeling the people he mixed with were on stage, playing a part because they were afraid they'd be rejected if anyone found out who they really were.
"They were there to meet other people, but there are a lot of defenses up in those places. It's very superficial," said Robert Leary, a 49-year-old Irvine resident who has been single for 12 years.
What Leary was seeking--and what he stopped looking for in singles hangouts some time ago--is intimacy. The kind you most wish you had when you see a couple connect with a warm glance or a whispered confidence or a brief kiss--a natural extension of the deeper sharing that goes on in private places.
The desire to be one of those exchanging glances rather than observing them is what led Leary and about 35 other singles to attend a recent seminar in Irvine called "Close Encounters of the Right Kind: Intimacy in Relationships."
The seminar was part of a monthly series offered by three single Newport Beach marriage, family and child counselors--Susan Scott, Patricia Lane and Andrea Heiden--who have started a business called The Singles Forum to provide individual and group counseling as well as educational programs for the unattached.
Scott says the seminars are offered to help singles "learn how to deal with certain concerns and then practice what they have learned in a non-threatening, comfortable, casual atmosphere."
There didn't seem to be much practice going on during the most recent workshop led by Scott and Lane at The Sports Club/Irvine, but that may have been because of the nature of the subject. Those who learned anything at the seminar were not likely to rush into a close encounter, because, as Lane stressed, real intimacy doesn't happen overnight.
"It's not sex," she said at the start of the seminar. "It's a deep personal sharing of who you really are with another human being.
"You can't have intimacy without trust, and it takes a long time to build trust. We have to know it's safe to expose ourselves--that what we tell our partner won't be used against us."
Being intimate also requires a willingness to be vulnerable and a mutual commitment to "building and growing together" in an exclusive relationship, Lane said.
When the seminar participants were asked to form small discussion groups, one woman pointed out that many singles miss out on intimacy because of their insecurity.
"You have to love yourself enough to not worry about what others think," said Ann, who asked that her last name not be used. "Then you can be yourself, and people will feel they can get close to you."
"It's hard work to be a phony," noted another woman with the conviction of one who's tried.
It's also "very tiring," she added, for singles to have to start the process of developing intimacy from scratch whenever a relationship falls apart--or fails to take off.
Scott's "red flags"--signs that a person is shying away from intimacy--might help singles save their energy for the relationships that really have a chance.
She advised seminar participants to be wary of the person who "walks away or tunes you out" instead of working to resolve conflicts.
You also might have reason to be concerned if your significant other is warm and open at night when the lights are out, but becomes hostile as soon as the sun comes up. Those who are uncomfortable with intimacy often counteract a vulnerable moment by starting a fight to create distance, Scott noted.
Then there are those who are so needy that they aren't capable of the kind of giving intimacy requires.
"They have a greater need to be wanted than to be loved," Scott said. "Their neediness becomes smothering. When you're with someone like this, you have to ask yourself, 'Is this really good for me?' "
Self-righteousness is another barrier to intimacy, Scott noted. When you're with people who think "it's better to be right than to be loved," you're constantly trying to please them, and it's easy to lose sight of the fact that "you can never do enough," the therapist said.
Rigidity is another enemy of intimacy.
"If you can't compromise, you can't be intimate," Scott said.
Singles often work so hard at trying to please someone when a relationship is getting started that they don't find out whether that person is willing to compromise until it's too late to avoid being hurt.
Take the risk of expressing your needs and desires from the beginning--even on matters as simple as choosing a restaurant, Scott advised. Then you'll quickly learn whether there's going to be give and take in the relationship.
"It's to everyone's best advantage to be open and honest in the beginning," Scott said. "It saves a lot of heartache in the end."
She said singles tend to have more difficulty finding intimacy as they get older because the more they've been hurt, the more inclined they are to keep their guard up.
Patricia Maniscalco, a 45-year-old Irvine resident who admits she went to the intimacy workshop to meet men, said many of her single women friends are wary because they've been "burned" in past relationships.
The complaint Maniscalco hears again and again goes something like this: "All men are jerks. You try to be honest with them, and they just want to play games. If they'd just stop saying things they don't mean."
However, Maniscalco--who says she managed to emerge from her divorce without feeling bitter--hears a similar refrain from male friends.
"They're just as vulnerable as women are. They get hurt as much as we do, and they want a committed relationship as much as we do," she said.
But, she added, men aren't likely to reveal their vulnerability if they've been raised with the macho idea that it's not manly to show your emotions.
Scott agreed: "Men have more difficulty being intimate because they've learned in childhood to repress their feelings, needs, fears. They get to the point where they don't even notice them. I truly believe that when men say, 'I don't know what I'm feeling'--which sends a woman through the ceiling--they really mean it."
However, she added, "there are also many women who have a tremendous amount of difficulty with intimacy."
Many women who complain that men don't show their feelings become acutely uncomfortable when a man breaks down and cries, she noted.
"Women say they want men to be vulnerable, but when they are, some women can't put their tennis shoes on and get out the door fast enough," she said. "Women need to ask themselves, 'Are you really willing to have a man bare his soul?' "
Maniscalco said she's seen a number of women drive intimacy away by approaching every relationship with unrealistic expectations "and putting conditions on everything."
"Most women are looking for a committed relationship or marriage. They've waited so long to find the right person that they want it all--now," Maniscalco explained. "So if a man doesn't open up to them in the first month or two, they start to wonder about the future instead of just letting things develop naturally and opening up as they go along."
Robert Leary said he flees from women who give him the feeling that they're sizing him up, trying to determine whether he "passes the grade" as a candidate for a long-term relationship.
Although Leary admits intimacy used to scare him--"I used a lot of humor as a weapon to keep people from getting close"--he has learned to be open and now wants to date only those who are "mature and confident enough to share themselves."
After years of keeping women at arm's length because of his own fear of intimacy, he said, "I got tired of being so closed off."
As he began to open up, he realized that it wasn't nearly as scary as he thought it would be--and that he wasn't alone in his fear. "We all think we're the only ones who are insecure. But when you talk to others, you realize, 'My God, it isn't just me.' "
He said it was a great relief to find that he could "be with another individual and not have to shield any of myself."
He even learned that he could help others feel at ease by listening with empathy. "You just take them for what they are and after a while people see that you're a safe person, because they know they won't be ridiculed or criticized or shunned when they open up.
"The real payoff comes when you realize people respond to honesty and openness," he said. "The feedback you get is so good that you don't want to be any other way. It becomes a way of life."