Maybe Freud shouldn't have let it bother him so much—not even women seem to know what they want. That, at least, is the conclusion of two Beverly Hills psychologists who say they believe that American women are finding it increasingly difficult to form satisfying relationships with the men in their lives. The crux of the problem, says Dr. Connell Cowan, 46, is that while contemporary women maybe enlightened and successful in many respects, "they have lost touch with what they want from men. Their mothers knew, but modern women don't." Cowan and his colleague, Dr. Melvyn Kinder, also 46, address this paradox in their current best-seller, Smart Women/ Foolish Choices (Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., $13.95). They discussed some of their observations with Senior Editor Ralph Novak.

You say modern women aren't sure what they want in a man. What did their mothers want?

Kinder: Someone who was a good provider, stable, a head of the household. Someone who would care for them, provide some sense of identity. As a function of the women's movement, those things have been turned upside down. Women no longer expect men to pay the rent.

What do they expect?

Kinder: There was a time when men would say, "Oh, she's a dog. I don't want to go out with her." Now some women are doing the same thing. They've turned the tables by looking at men as sex objects.

Why is that wrong?

Kinder: It's very understandable and in some ways could be good for women to have a fling at that attitude. But ultimately it is just as self-defeating for women as it was for men.

Aren't smart men just as likely as women to choose foolishly?

Cowan: No. Women have a greater need to connect in relationships. Men take risks in other areas and aren't vulnerable to the futile and painful choices that women face.

Kinder: We're not saying men are smarter. We're saying they're more chicken about grappling with intimacy. And we're not saying that women who make foolish choices are crazy; their antennae are just a little bent.

Wouldn't it make more sense for women to write a book such as yours?

Cowan: Women have been writing about their experiences for 30 years. Helping women understand a relationship from a male point of view and pointing out what most men think about and feel in a relationship were among the main motivations for our book.

How are women affected by their relationships with their fathers?

Kinder: Foolish choices often have to do more with what the father wasn't than what he was. We're seeing the impact of that in the high divorce rate; many women create fantasies about what their fathers could have been like. I'm struck by how often such women take up with the father of a friend.

Cowan: Also, if a girl had a powerful father, she may have a difficult time finding someone to live up to him.

In what way?

Kinder: A phrase we hear from women a lot is "take charge." They want a man who is powerful, all-knowing, the protector. I have one patient who can appear callous, but underneath she's very anxious. This kind of woman is afraid there'll be nobody to take care of her when she feels weak and vulnerable. So whenever a man shows any vulnerability himself, she finds a way to sabotage the relationship. She has run from some very strong guys.

Why would a woman do that?

Cowan: It's unclear to many women how to define strength in men. Caring and a need to commit are fundamental strengths, yet all too frequently they are construed as weaknesses. Women want these qualities, but they're afraid when they get them.

Where do women get their standards of "ideal" men?

Kinder: Movies, TV—they promote the heroic, adventurous character. For every woman who wants a liberated man who's a clone of Phil Donahue, there's another one who wants Tom Selleck—the charmer, the rogue.

Can't a man be both nice and exciting?

Cowan: There's something about the way many women experience excitement that has to do with a man being elusive. Especially if early in life their definition of love involved longing for and not having something, they'll find more excitement with a man who is always a step away. The minute he says, "I care," that longing can't exist.

In your book you discuss male types to beware of. Who is the Rat?

Cowan: The classic Don Juan character is a man who has significant problems with intimacy, bonding with women. He never makes a commitment. A relationship is viewed in terms of conquest. He knows how to manipulate women, how to get them to care about him. But as soon as they do, he's gone.

What kind of manipulation do you mean? Kinder: The Rat is enamored of a woman as a reflection of his own charms. On a first date he'll wax eloquent about how he feels about a woman, but what he really wants to see is the effect of what he's saying in her eyes, as a validation of his wonderfulness. It's a solo, a narcissistic trip.

Who is the man you call the Clam?

Cowan: The unopenable man. Early in life he learned that expression of feeling is dangerous. A woman pits her love against his need to defend himself against it. She believes if she loves him well enough, he'll open. It can be a painful experience because the woman believes it's a deficiency in the quality of her love that causes the problem.

How can a woman avoid such a man?

Cowan: If she really has her headlights on she can get a sense of him by talking about a poignant scene in a movie, or observing the way the man reacts to children or animals—to see how he behaves in situations that normally would stimulate tenderness and compassion.

Can a woman change the Clam—or any man?

Cowan: The circumstances that change men are very seldom related to women's behavior. But sometimes the last thing a woman wants to hear is, "Maybe he's not right for you."

Both of you are married, each for the second time. What were you like when you were single?

Kinder: I was sensitive but disguised as a Rat. I knew what women wanted. I showed my rascal bad-boy side up front because I knew women loved it. I was cool, aloof, charming, hard to get—yet I could be warm and engaging at other times.

Cowan: By our definitions, maybe I was the Diamond in the Rough. I was shy, not good at parties. The women I connected with were in situations where I didn't have to perform in some kind of immediate way. But I learned how to use the way I am; certain women find shyness interesting.

What do you mean when you talk about women becoming "love addicts"?

Kinder: We're talking about women who define themselves in terms of desirability and attractiveness. There's a constant search for men to validate the woman's sense of self-worth.

Cowan: When she finds one, it's a high that doesn't really have a payoff. Once it's over, the woman is off to find another spoonful of sugar somewhere else.

Does a woman have to compromise her expectations?

Kinder: If you're looking for a prince, someone who's not princelike will fall way short. But the words "settling" or "compromise" aren't really applicable. We're talking about broadening, not lowering, expectations.

Cowan: The trick is to trust your own instincts even if they run counter to the media packaging of what's attractive. Lots of interesting men get missed.

Are there common tactical mistakes women make?

Kinder: One error is believing that they can make a pretty good evaluation of a man after knowing him for an hour or two. I'm a trained psychologist, and people are willing to spill their guts to me. After an hour, how much do I know?

What can parents of a young daughter do now to help her avoid problems with men later?

Kinder: Don't train her to see her self-worth in terms of attractiveness. Remind her that even if a boy she's crazy about stops paying attention to her, she's still the same girl, still terrific.

All right, here's a woman about to go on a first date with a new man. What can she do to avoid making a foolish choice?

Kinder: Be as free of preconceptions as possible. Keep a sense of freshness and spontaneity. Let go of anxious negative expectations because they become self-fulfilling prophecies. They are the enemy of intimacy. They stifle chemistry.

Cowan: If we could all—men and women—relax a bit, let down and simply be with one another, a lot more interesting things would come out. There is tremendous anxiety about relationships. If we could let go of it, we could all have more fun.