Last year, all within the space of a few months, Jean Gallagher's father died, her youngest child went off to college, and she moved from her familiar Los Angeles surroundings to the foreign land of Newport Beach.
Understandably, she felt a bit lonely.
"I work 15 hours a day," said Gallagher, a real estate developer. "As much enjoyment as I get out of it, I came to the realization that I have been using work as an escape. Although I'm content with my life, I remember how nice it was to be in a relationship."
Divorced for 18 years, Gallagher, 46, found it easier to meet available men in Los Angeles than in Orange County. "I live in a family neighborhood where you don't run into that many singles my age," she said.
"But more than that, I just haven't been trying very hard. I needed some kind of jolt to get back into relationships."
A friend told her about a workshop that possibly could provide the jolt she sought. Its title sums up in two words Gallagher's mission--"Project: Relationship."
For the past month and a half, Gallagher has made the long haul to Los Angeles once a week to attend meetings. So impressed is she with the workshop that she offered to host it for an Orange County stint.
And, beginning next week, the six-week workshop will take place Tuesday nights, 7:15 to 10, at Gallagher's Newport Beach home.
"The workshop stresses that it's more important to focus on the kind of relationship you want rather than on the kind of person you want," Gallagher said.
"What I want is a nurturing relationship, but I've always been attracted to men with high-power jobs who travel a lot and are involved in all kinds of activities. Their focus is on a million other things besides their relationships."
Rachel Robbins, 31, started "Project: Relationship" two years ago after encountering the same frustrations of dating expressed by Gallagher.
"I had a strong pattern of getting involved with men who were unavailable emotionally for the kind of relationship I wanted," she said. "Relationship problems have been a recurring theme in my life."
A native of New York City, Robbins moved to Los Angeles in 1984 to pursue her acting career. Between acting jobs, she gave company managers seminars on intercorporate relationships.
"To be successful in business, you define a goal and then you devise a plan to attain it," she said. "It occurred to me that this same approach could be transferred into personal relationships."
The biggest obstacle men and women set up between themselves is that of unrealistic expectations, Robbins said. "I've had clients go to singles parties where there were 500 people, and then say to me, 'Oh, nobody was my type.' They join a video dating service and look at 5,000 tapes and say, 'I didn't see anybody I wanted to meet.'
"It's much safer to stand apart and judge, and to decide that nobody is good enough for you," she said. "I teach my clients to go back to those parties and videotapes and be less judgmental."
Robbins has imparted her philosophy of open-mindedness to more than 500 customers through her workshop, which she keeps to about a dozen participants per session. She said 40% of her former clients are now in satisfying relationships.
No, Robbins does not have a Ph.D in psychology. She is merely a foot soldier in the battle of love and concocted "Project: Relationship" from firsthand experience rather than from academic knowledge. Thus, an uninitiated visitor might be tempted to observe one of her classes with a grain of skepticism--especially considering the workshop's $425 price tag.
However, the self-appointed counselor's personable and charismatic presence quickly garners her the benefit of the doubt. At a recent meeting in Los Angeles, Robbins was good-humored, warm and frank in her sharing of down-to-earth advice.
"Two years ago, I never wore any makeup, I was 15 pounds overweight, I kept my hair pulled straight back, I always wore baggy clothing," she said, while encouraging her students to make the most of their looks. "I was keen on men wanting me for my mind and not my body. It wasn't until recently that I discovered the joy of expressing myself through my appearance."
It's hard to imagine this strikingly attractive woman frumpy and nondescript. The contrasting images alone could inspire a diet and a shopping spree.
Participants--who in this particular class were all women, and ranged in age from late 20s to mid-40s--discussed their various dating dilemmas and triumphs of the past week.
A shy young woman volunteered that she had mustered the courage to telephone a man and ask him out.
Another woman said she finally had communicated to her lover her desire for a commitment from him. She was even so bold as to send him a little gift after their conversation.