WHEN SOME girlfriends of mine meet an eligible guy over, say 40, who has never been married, their eyes immediately narrow.

Never married? And no kids, either? Humph. Instead of viewing the man as a rare find - an uncoupled male of a certain age who's also free of ex-wives and child- support payments - they wind up giving the poor guy an extra once-over. Kind of a, what's wrong with you? Clearly, they've been influenced by conventional wisdom: A never-married male 40 or older is either a commitment-phobe, gay, or a jerk.

"You see it all the time," said Frank Cavalier, 55, an independent transportation consultant who lives in Mayfair and has never married.

Cavalier, who has held a succession of jobs over the years, isn't bitter about it. "Women are judged unfairly most of the time, too. I understand that. I accept that," he said. "But once I state my case, then I move on."

But Carl Weisman, another longtime bachelor, chafed in light of such characterizations of never-married men. So, the 49-year-old writer set out to discover the real reasons why older fellas defy what can be intense social pressure from friends and relatives and stay single.

And what Weisman discovered was that most of the 1,533 men he interviewed kept telling him the same thing: The reason they hadn't married had nothing to do with their wanting to be "players" or being opposed to the concept of settling down with just one person. Over and over, men told him that they were just afraid of picking the wrong person, making a huge mistake.

"Men are 10 times more scared of marrying the wrong person than of never getting married at all," says Weisman, whose new book is "So Why Have You Never Been Married? - Ten Insights into Why He Hasn't Wed."

"This is the first generation of people who have grown up with bad divorces. People assume there is something wrong if you don't marry, but these are men who have made a different choice and not given in to social pressures."

Weisman cites U.S. statistics showing that in 1980 about 6 percent of men in their early 40s had never married. That number now is about 17 percent.

"It is a sign of psychological health to be socially independent, self-reliant and self-sufficient," said Bruce N. Eimer, a psychologist based in Huntingdon Valley. "Many vocationally successful, single, 30something-year-old men in my practice are kept quite busy between their careers, their friends, their family of origin and their hobbies. The last thing they want is to get stuck with a partner with whom they are not emotionally, socially or intellectually compatible."

Money is also a big factor - given how unfairly men can get treated in divorce court, those with big bucks fear losing assets while those with limited funds worry about not being equal financial partners with a mate. Sitting on the sidelines of the marriage issue puts those worries aside - indefinitely.

Take Kurt Patat, 31, an editor for Asylum.com - a men's lifestyle Web site. He doesn't plan to get married until he's at least 40. The product of a divorced home, Patat has witnessed firsthand the heartbreak of divorce and is hoping to avoid that for himself. Besides, as he pointed out when we talked, "People really don't feel like they need a partner to go through life with, so people are holding out." *

Reuters contributed to this report.

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