Relationship Roundtable

updated 06/01/2001 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/01/2001 AT 01:00 AM EDT

ASK THE WOMEN OF Sex and the City and they'll tell you that the search for Mr. Right (or even Mr. Big) is one of life's more daunting quests. PEOPLE correspondents Mary Green in Los Angeles, Barbara Sandler in Chicago and Toby Kahn in New York City spoke with six relationship experts to get their take on why women often have trouble sticking with one guy, even when he seems like the man of their dreams.

Our panel: Ellen Fein, 43, and Sherrie Schneider, 42, authors of The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right; Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich (pronounced "Shmeek"), 47, who has also written the Brenda Starr comic strip since 1985; Dr. Connell Cowan, 62, a Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist and coauthor of Smart Women, Foolish Choices; Dr. Jennifer Berman, 36, a urological surgeon, and her sister Dr. Laura Berman, 32, a sex and relationship therapist, coauthors of For Women Only: A Revolutionary Guide to Overcoming Sexual Dysfunction and Reclaiming Your Sex Life and codirectors of UCLA's Female Sexual Medicine Center in Los Angeles.

PEOPLE: Does Sex and the City make women feel better—or worse—about being single and in the dating pool?

SHERRIE SCHNEIDER: It makes women feel really good about themselves. It shows how you can not be married but dress great, have a great career. It's okay—you're not a loser!

LAURA BERMAN: I don't think only single women can relate to the show—all women can. There's a sense of empowerment and identification.

PEOPLE: As Carrie suggests, are some women more interested in the hunt than in getting the guy?

MARY SCHMICH: Some people are more interested in the hunt. Some women are, just as some men are—they just want to know they can get it.

CONNELL COWAN: I do think there's something about the search being over that's kind of depressing.

PEOPLE: Why do some women—Carrie among them—worry when a relationship appears to be working out?

MARY SCHMICH: A lot of women fear that the guy simply can't be as perfect as he seems. There's also the fear of becoming bored. Women often find themselves torn between a craving for drama and a yearning for some peace.

CONNELL COWAN: When you have commitment issues, everyday flaws become the hook upon which you can justify leaving. They function as easy excuses, so they're something people glom on to. In many respects, some women don't seem to want to make a commitment, even though they're obviously out there looking for Mr. Perfect.

PEOPLE: Is there a fear of commitment? What's behind it?

JENNIFER BERMAN: Its probably a mixture of being commitment-phobic and having self-esteem issues, like "If he's so into me, there must be something wrong with him."

LAURA BERMAN: I think that's something a lot of women can relate to.

CONNELL COWAN: Sometimes women have some of the same issues, but they get hidden in a man's more obvious reluctance to move forward.

SHERRIE SCHNEIDER: I know very few women who have a fear of commitment; they are just not with the guy they really want.

ELLEN FEIN: On the show, it's not a fear of commitment; it's called "I really want this other guy!"

PEOPLE: Miranda seems to assume the typical guy's role: wanting to take her relationship slowly. Is this common among women today?

LAURA BERMAN: There are so many fewer reasons to get married early than there were 10 years ago, including the lack of social pressure.

MARY SCHMICH: I think the fear of the wrong commitment runs very deep. Women fear it will compromise them in some unacceptable way. I don't think that unmarried women are afraid of compromise or commitments in general, but by the time a woman is in her 30s, she has had a lot of relationships with men, and there is an inevitable wariness that comes with that. She can be open and romantic and still be very wary.

PEOPLE: Have you noticed a trend among professional women to not settle for a guy who is less than perfect?

CONNELL COWAN: Marriage today is much more a sense of choice, as opposed to a past generation, when women felt like they had to get married. Or they had to get married to be seen as socially acceptable. It's now something you do because you want to, not because you're looking for someone to take care of you.

ELLEN FEIN: In my mother's generation, you had to get married. Today you can get a job; you can make $300,000 a year as a corporate executive. The only reason to get married now is for love, so there's no push.

SHERRIE SCHNEIDER: Now you want somebody you can spend time with and be psychologically compatible with and all these things you didn't look for before.

PEOPLE: Do you think some women worry most about losing their identity—that no man is worth giving that up for?

LAURA BERMAN: The fit is more complicated. As a woman is more defined as her own individual with her own sense of power and career and needs, and as she wants to fit that into a permanent relationship with somebody else, it's a much harder ticket.

MARY SCHMICH: I do think that by the time you're in your 30s, you have created a place in the world—an identity, a sense of self. You're less permeable, less pliable, less willing to give up what feels like part of your essential self. And because so many women have money now, they don't have to give up their identity. As a 24-year-old, you're much more willing to take on someone else's identity—be interested in what he's interested in, be guided, sculpted, parented. Later in life, you still want some of that, but you don't want someone telling you what to do.

PEOPLE: Do women fear that if they settle down they might be missing out on someone better?

MARY SCHMICH: A lot of women worry about that: Do you marry the nice guy at 34, and then at 36 meet the guy who'll give you everything you ever wanted? At 34, you can still wonder, "Could I meet someone who stirs me more?"

CONNELL COWAN: Don't you think that's a pretty common fantasy for men and women? "Maybe I can do just a little bit better. Just one notch up. Is this the best person for me?"

JENNIFER BERMAN: Which usually means it's not!

LAURA BERMAN: It's also where you are in your life. It's meeting the right person at the right time.

PEOPLE: Finally, do you think that women are being too picky?

SHERRIE SCHNEIDER: Women today are pickier than they were in our mothers' era. Then, it was "That looks good!" and that was the end of it. Now we want somebody we can spend time with and be psychologically compatible with.

ELLEN FEIN: Today we have a choice. There is nothing wrong with a woman being on her own and independent. It's better than being in an unhappy marriage.

MARY SCHMICH: I don't believe that there's such a thing as being too picky. Women should be picky. Men should be picky. Marriage should be the consequence of a whole lot of pickiness.

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