Travis, 37, is a vow-averse management consultant in Baltimore whose singlehood is regarded with bemusement by his friends' wives because he has a 24-year-old girlfriend and takes trips to Vegas twice a year with married buddies. "Travis likes being spontaneous, doing new things," his friend Toni, a 33-year-old stay-at-home mom, says. "He has the misconception that if you're married it's a ball and chain." Besides, Toni adds, Travis "is the most socially skilled person I've ever met. He has no problem picking up the best-looking girl in the room." For anyone with that much game, being bonded to one person for life would be like losing a huge part of his identity. "I'm just not ready," Travis says. "A lot of people want to get married and are looking—I'm not." He holds that his approach to life reflects the way most men feel, and that the pent-up frustration of his married friends only confirms this. "They're the bad influences, and they're the ones who are married. Going out with me is an excuse to get crazy again," he says. "Some of them take off their wedding rings at bars just to talk to girls and flirt."

In fact, seeing friends' marriages fail can make never-wed guys more gun-shy. Which brings us to another stereotype: that these guys are afraid of being saddled with a less-than-perfect match. Eric Mark, 41, a partner at a national consulting firm in Los Angeles who last year was the best man at a friend's second nuptials (after having been a guest at the first), estimates that 70 to 75 percent of the weddings he's attended have resulted in broken marriages. Mark, like a lot of unmarried guys past 40, says that anecdotal evidence like that should be a satisfactory explanation for why he's still single. Why hustle down the aisle if you'll just end up single again at 45? But Mark's real problem may be his hustling. A peek at his BlackBerry calendar reveals he barely has enough free time to wink at a hot woman—let alone go on a date. He travels 30 to 50 times a year for his job, does pro bono work, and performs stand-up comedy at L.A. clubs. "I've spread myself so thin it makes me question how I can have a social life at all, work on existing relationships, let alone start a new one," Mark says. His friend Louisa, 37, says it's not time that's the issue; it's pickiness. "Eric has a very specific idea of what he likes," she says. His ideal partner is smart, compassionate, and well-educated and has a sense of humor. "And looks like Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco," Mark says.

This kind of overreaching is typical of the unmarried guy in his early forties, who tends to be convinced that nothing is good enough for him—that the perfect partner isn't right around the corner.