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COMMITMENTS : Oh, the Dating Games People Play : Nowhere else is the art of deception between men and women practiced with more verve than in L.A.

July 25, 1994|KRISTINA SAUERWEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Men keep zonking out on Helen Argyriou's couch.

No matter how hard she pretends to be interested in her date's passion for French toast. No matter how long she primps and perfects her Mediterranean looks. No matter how riveting her life stories are.

Awake one minute, unconscious the next.

Argyriou, a 30ish Santa Monica fashion designer, sighs as she ponders four recent dates, each with a different man. "I don't get it," she says. "Why do these men fall asleep on me? They don't even try to seduce me."

Not yet, anyway, says Michael Evans, 37, a Los Angeles bachelor. He's never met Argyriou, but he claims to know why men snooze on her sofa.

He laughingly calls it the "civilized seduction trick," in which a man who desires intimacy with a woman--but doesn't want her to hurl names relating to animals or sewage--feigns slumber once inside her place for coffee.

In theory, the woman finds him so adorable, she relents from disturbing his rock-solid repose. He leaves before dawn, calls her to apologize for his exhaustion and sweet-talks another rendezvous. On it, he repeats "sleep" until fate suddenly awakens him, urging him to consummate this new bond he has with the woman.

Men who've suggested such things to Argyriou have failed.

"Sometimes it backfires," Evans acknowledges, but "sometimes it works, which just goes to show how important dating games are."

Played by many of the nation's 71 million singles age 18 and older, dating games can range from elaborate seduction schemes to simple exaggeration of income, athletic feats or chest configuration. They are games that, most experts caution, seldom produce any lasting winners.

Kris Rosenberg, a Pittsburgh psychologist who has counseled countless deceiving and deceived daters, distinguishes between making a good impression (being polite, well-groomed) and acting like someone you're not (assuming another personality, suppressing beliefs).

Making a good impression sours with bad intentions, Rosenberg says. There is nothing wrong, for example, with enhancing an appearance with a pushup bra or a toupee, as long as reality, if and when exposed, is not a shock.

"Think about what is motivating you to look or act a certain way," Rosenberg advises, "because the greater the lie, the bigger the dating game."

Those who do the latter will inevitably feel particularly rejected and disillusioned when a relationship falters. "The true self always comes out," says Rosenberg, author of "Talk to Me: A Therapist's Guide to Breaking Through Male Silence" (Tarcher Putnam, 1994).

Psychologist Joyce Block agrees that singles should ditch their insecurities and be direct about who they are when they first encounter a potential mate.

Adults who must pretend in order to impress a love interest should examine relationships with their parents, suggests Block, an adjunct psychology professor at Notre Dame University and author of "Family Myths: Living Our Roles, Betraying Ourselves" (Simon & Schuster, 1994).

Children often create false images to please a parent, she says. Those who did not receive approval carry immature behavior with them into their grown-up years. "Then only slowly and painfully will they learn," she says, "that (dating games) do not work for people who want intimacy and meaning."

Karen Mangini, a 38-year-old fashion consultant, wants both. Before the evening begins, the self-described "dating queen" insists on organized rituals and ruses to both entice and screen men.

Three nights a week, she struts her long legs in short skirts, bolsters her bosom and poufs her blond hair. When a security guard announces her date's arrival, Mangini waits to stage her dramatic descent down the stairs of her Sherman Oaks condo. She even practiced the slink.

The opening show is a test. "I don't need a man who's intimidated by my looks, my black BMW, my condo or my life, which is so together," says Mangini, who plucks most of her prospects from a dating service. "It just says he has this void that needs filling. I'm not into co-dependents."

Assuming he passes, the games end and "everything else is reality," she says. "I'm into honesty. I want a man who can be himself."

Gamesmanship may be at its height in Southern California, home of performers and others fascinated by their own appearance, says John Toomey, regional executive director of Personal Search International, a matchmaking service. And Americans are more immature and insecure than singles in other countries in which Toomey's agency does business, he says.

"I know I'm making generalizations, but there is no other culture like ours," says Toomey, 37. He adds that members in other countries tend to look for partners based on character and react with shock when they hear about U.S. dating standards. "Few (Americans) are interested in inner qualities, especially in L.A. It's always big chests or big salaries."

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