Changing Nature Of Dating Across History
The definition and practice of dating continues to change across time and varies significantly among different cultures. For example, in 1977, according to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, dating in the United States was defined as a “social engagement between two people of the opposite sex.”
Recently, however, this definition of dating in the United States has been modified in several ways. First, the construct of dating is no longer restricted to heterosexual interactions; instead, it can also transpire between two individuals of the same sex. At present, dating can also take place in groups rather than being restricted to a dyadic exchange. Furthermore, although dating is still considered a social engagement, this interaction no longer has to occur in person. In current culture, dating can, and often does, take place over the Internet or via some other type of technology. Today’s dating can also occur in a variety of novel contexts such as part of a television reality show, as a result of joining a dating service, or as a consequence of placing a personal advertisement in a newspaper or another print medium.
Finally, while most empirical studies have focused on the dating behaviors of adolescents and never-married young adults, because of changing demographics in the United States, which include later marital age, increased frequency of divorce, and the aging of the American population, dating is now an activity that includes people of all ages. In fact, even married couples have been admonished by the popular press to “keep dating” in order to keep the romance alive.
Dating among older Americans has some distinctly different features when compared with adolescent dating. For example, 50% of men 40 to 69 years of age date women 5 or more years younger than themselves, whereas less than 20% of women in this age group date men 5 or more years younger than themselves. Some gender differences in dating attitudes are also apparent among older daters. Men in this age group are 10 times more likely than women in this age group to think that sex on the first date is acceptable.
Therefore, to better encompass the current dimensions of dating, in the 2001 version of the New Oxford American Dictionary, the word date was redefined more broadly as “a special or romantic appointment or engagement,” while dating was articulated as the process of “going out with someone in whom one is romantically or sexually interested,” regardless of whether the individuals who are dating are heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual, adolescent or older, in person or via the Internet, or single, divorced, or married.
To add complexity to the issue, debate exists about the extent to which both participants in the social engagement must agree that the shared event is a “date.” According to adolescent self-report, being “in love” corresponded to being in a reciprocal love relationship only about half the time. In 1991, Sugarman and Hotaling theorized that dating can be said to occur in interactions that are characterized by commitment, expectation of future interactions, and physical intimacy. In practice, however, the two parties on the date may have quite different opinions about their commitment level, their expectations for future interactions, and/or the degree to which they want to share or have already shared physical intimacy. Data confirm that there is significant variation along these three dimensions, even among events that are clearly designated by both participants as dates. Thus, there does not currently seem to be a uniformly agreed upon indication that a particular social interaction is, in fact, a date.
Disagreement in designating an engagement as a date appears to be particularly common in the initial stages of adolescent relationships. Typically, romantic interest is assumed on the part of the individual who initiated the date; however, the degree of interest experienced by the invitee can often remain unclear throughout the first date. Moreover, uncertainty about commitment levels can continue throughout the dating relationship.
The language used to describe different types of dates has also changed significantly over time and tends to reflect cultural notions of dating. These dating descriptors provide dating partners and observers important information about the nature of the dating relationship, including its exclusivity, seriousness, and/or its inclusion of sexuality (e.g., one-night stand, blind date, friend with benefits, fling, prom date or dance date, going out, getting together, boyfriend/girlfriend, significant other, fiancée, and life partner).
Historically, dating has been viewed as the typical way to find a marriage partner in many cultures. As such, the nature of dating has changed in keeping with norms regarding the function and timing of marriage and the degree to which sexual experience is considered taboo premaritally. For example, in the early to middle 1900s, the typical age of marriage was in the early twenties and virginity prior to marriage was the norm. Adherence to traditional gender roles was socially expected during courtship. Correspondingly, during this period, most dates began with the man initiating the date with the woman. Female-initiated dates were atypical. In general, the rules of dating etiquette were well established and formed the basis of books as well as newspaper columns. Men were expected to plan dates and pay for them. A “gentleman” arrived on time, interacted politely with the women’s parents, and displayed fine manners. Physical contact was expected to be either nonexistent or restricted to a light kiss goodnight after one of the early dates. The woman’s role on the date was to maintain decorum, halt amorous advances, listen to her date, and dress appropriately for the occasion.
Ideals for age of dating onset and the types of dating permitted for each age were also clearly specified. For example, in a national advice column published in the Ladies Home Journal in the 1950s, girls 12 to 14 years of age could attend chaperoned parties at one another’s homes; however, “solo” dates could not start until age 16 or later. Girls were also cautioned about dating boys who were more than 2 years older than themselves or who belonged to a different social group, religion, or race.
In the new millennium, dating continues to be a source of intimacy, support, and companionship for youth. Moreover, dating etiquette is still a prime subject of magazines, newspaper articles, and popular books. However, current literature describes today’s dating as more casual, spontaneous, cooperative, and unrestricted than the dating that occurred 50 to 70 years ago. Dating one partner also occurs at an earlier age (often between the ages of 13 and 15), even though the current age of first marriage is later than it has been in previous decades. According to recent research, by age 16, 80% of adolescents have already experienced a significant romantic relationship within the preceding year.
These early adolescent dating relationships are generally short lived and less mature than later dating relationships. This has led theorists to view adolescent dating relationships as occurring along a continuum from close friendships, to casual dating, to exclusive dating. Similarly, Roche (1986) delineated a five-stage model of dating (dating with no particular affection; dating with affection but not love; dating and being in love; dating one person only and being in love; and, finally, engaged). Roche then demonstrated that men’s and women’s views of proper behavior also differed significantly by stage of dating.
The psychological nature of dating relationships also changes with increased age. Individuals describe their adolescent dating relationships as engulfing and meeting their needs for companionship, yet more problem-filled than adult relationships. In contrast, young adult dating relationships are described as more trustworthy, supportive, and stable than adolescent relationships. This suggests that there are both qualitative and quantitative differences in emotional involvement among different levels of dating relationships. However, across most time periods and throughout adolescence and young adulthood, dating has also consistently functioned as both a recreational event and as a means of learning about the opposite sex and how to behave with them. These latter definitions of dating highlight its important role in helping individuals develop social skills and mature into adults who are capable of both independence and interdependence.
Importance For Socialization
On this basis, adolescent dating has been recognized by scholars as an important developmental event. Generally, according to Hansen, Christopher, and Nangle (1992), all adolescent social interactions function to provide an emotional support system for youth while offering a venue in which adolescents can explore their morals and values and establish their own personal identity. In addition to these functions, adolescent dating relationships are thought to be particularly critical in promoting interpersonal competence and adult-like social behavior; recreation and entertainment; enhancement of status within the peer group; enhancement of independence, which facilitates separation from the family of origin; a context for experimentation with sexual activity and sex role behaviors; and increased skills with relation to courtship and mate selection.
Of note within these functions is that adolescent dating has been explicitly tied to the developmental task of separation and individuation from the nuclear family. Specifically, employing a developmental-contextual perspective, Brown (1999) theorized that adolescents experience a four-step sequence in their development of romantic relationships. The first step is the initiation phase. This phase coincides with puberty and is a time when youth become reoriented to members of the opposite sex while expanding self-concept. Dating during this phase typically occurs in groups and consists of unplanned meetings or casual interactions. The focus of the initiation phase is on the self.
The second stage is the status phase. During this phase, adolescents experience peer pressure related to whom they are dating and what kind of dating relationship they are involved in. By the end of this phase, it is expected that adolescents will have gained relationship skills and will be more willing and able to assert themselves within their peer group. The focus of the status phase is on the context in which the relationship is occurring.
The third phase is the affection phase. The focus in this phase is on the actual relationship, which is experienced as more involving, rewarding, and personal. The final stage is the bonding phase. The relationship is also central to this stage. As in the affection phase, feelings of involvement for the relationship dominate; however, other pragmatic concerns surface with regard to the degree to which the dating partner will remain a lifetime romantic partner. Identity concerns may resurface either as each partner’s individual identity becomes merged with the other or as a couple identity is formed from which the individual identities are inseparable.
Other theories of the development of adolescent relationships include (a) considering attachment theory as it relates first from parent to child and then from child to romantic partner; (b) relating the increased intimacy in adolescent dating relationships to changes in the adolescent’s relationship to parents, as occurring in the current context of prolonged dependency and delayed transition to adulthood; and (c) integrating developmental changes in peer relationships
with those occurring in dating relationships in a developmental sequence.
Parental And Cultural Prohibitions Across Time
A number of parent factors are related to adolescents’ timing and experiencing of dating. For example, parents who raise their children with traditional sex role orientations are more likely to have sons who have a sexual orientation toward dating and daughters who have a romantic or affectional orientation toward dating. Mothers with higher educational attainment are less likely to have daughters who are sexually active in their early dating relationships; these daughters are also more likely to marry at an older age. Parental religious involvement may also impact adolescent dating behavior because individuals who are active in their church communities tend to be more sexually conservative in their dating. Adolescents raised in one-parent families are more likely to start dating at an early age and have a higher divorce rate when their dating relationships turn into marriage. Similarly, studies of adolescents who have formed close online relationships indicate that these youth are more likely to come from families characterized by high levels of conflict (adolescent girls) or low levels of communication (adolescent boys). Conversely, closeness in the parent-child relationship and in the parent-parent relationship is a predictor of romantic intimacy capacity for adolescents and young adults.
Parents (and peers) also engage in behaviors that can serve either to promote or deter the progression of particular dating relationships. Parental behaviors that signal relationship approval include relaying phone messages and communications from the dating partner, asking about the partner, being welcoming and pleasant to the partner, including the partner in family activities and events, and letting their child and the partner have time alone together. In contrast, disapproving behaviors include talking about other people that their child could date, making disparaging remarks about the dating partner, cautioning the offspring about their involvement in the dating relationship, and telling their child that it is better to wait before getting too serious in this dating relationship.
Interracial And Intercultural Dating
Although interracial and intercultural romantic relationships have been present throughout history, they have rarely been culturally encouraged or even accepted. In fact, these relationships have often been prohibited. For example, in 1966, 17 of the 50 United States legally banned interracial relationships that transpired between individuals of White decent and “persons with one eighth or more of Negro blood or those related within three generations to a member of a particular racial group” (as cited in Martin et al., 2003, p. 54).
On June 12, 1967, in the case Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court ruled these prohibitions illegal. However, it took 33 more years for all 50 states to concur. It was not until the year 2000 that Alabama finally modified its law against interracial marriages. Ultimately, however, an increase in racial and/or ethnic diversity within the United States should cause a corresponding increase in interracial and intercultural dating and marriage, eventually promoting greater acceptance of these relationships.
Researchers have studied why people choose to become involved in interracial romantic relationships, given their likelihood of social disapproval. According to research, demographics such as socioeconomic status, education, occupation, and residence influence the initiation, development, and maintenance of interracial dating relationships and marriages. The political and social contexts in which interracial and intercultural relations transpire also appear to influence whether friendships and/or romantic relationships develop between individuals of different races. Empirical research shows that individuals (a) who live in diverse neighborhoods, (b) who have interracially diverse friendships, and (c) who have family members who date people of other races and cultures are most likely to date interracially and interculturally. These findings have led to the general contact hypothesis, which states that “when people come into contact with others who are different from them under favorable conditions (neighborhood playgrounds, integrated classrooms, intercultural friends of the family), negative attitudes decrease, positive attitudes increase, and intercultural friendships and romantic relationships are likely to develop” (Martin et al., 2003, p. 67).
Sexuality And Dating
Much of the research on dating relationships has considered the degree to which these relationships include particular sexual behaviors. For example, several recent surveys of never-married men between the ages of 20 and 39 revealed that more than 85% of the men were nonvirgins. When asked about their sexual behavior within the preceding year and a half, most of these single men had had a single coital partner; however, about 20% of the men had had four or more sexual partners during this time period.
Similar studies of single women between the ages of 20 and 29 indicated that about 80% of these women were nonvirgins. Again, the majority of these women had had only one sexual partner during the preceding 18 months, and less than 10% of these young single women reported having had five or more coital partners during this time period.
Dating and the initiation of sexual behavior seem to be sequentially related. By age 14, about 50% of girls have started dating. Three years later, about 50% of girls have had sexual intercourse. Thus, there typically appears to be a few years’ delay between first date and first experience of sexual intercourse.
Studies conducted in the late 1960s through the early 1980s demonstrated a growing permissiveness toward sexual behavior and attitudes within American culture. However, more recent research suggests that these permissive attitudes have been waning, perhaps because of the public concern regarding the spread of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) and other sexually transmitted diseases. Acceptance of sexual intimacy as part of dating relationships has also been shown to vary by culture. For example, North American men have been shown to be more accepting of premarital sex than Japanese men, for both men and women, whereas Russian men were more likely to endorse the traditional double standard, which grants more sexual freedom to men than women.
Greater acceptance of premarital sex has been shown to associate with an absence or reduction of religiosity, as well as with being young, politically liberal, Black, male, and single. A strong commitment to one’s dating partner also predicts greater support for engaging in premarital coitus. Four primary factors have been shown to influence one’s decision to engage in sexual intercourse with a dating partner for the first time: quality of relationship, sexual arousal, pressure, and circumstances related to the use of drugs and/or alcohol. Dating partners are also motivated to participate in sexually intimate acts in order to feel nurturing toward or show emotional commitment to their partner and/or to experience pleasure. Conversely, empirical research has found that men and women refrain from participating in initiated sexual activity for reasons including concern regarding pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and AIDS; moral reasons; concern that their partner would view sex as commitment; and/or not liking their partner enough.
Dating Relationships At Risk For Violence Or Rape
Thus, while dating relationships are clearly developmentally important, they are not risk free. Current research indicates that dating relationships can also include psychological, physical, and sexual violence. In fact, these events may be even more likely in dating relationships than in marital relationships. Efforts to predict which relationships are at risk or which dating partners are dangerous are ongoing. Data indicate that physical violence has occurred in approximately one third of all dating relationships, according to at least one partner’s report. Male perpetrators are more likely to have low socioeconomic status, be undereducated, come from a family characterized by violence or in which sexual victimization occurred, have high levels of anger and hostility, have problems with depression, and be experiencing problems with alcohol and/or drugs. The rates of psychological abuse occurring in dating relationships are even higher than those for physical abuse. Perpetration of psychological abuse may be even harder to predict because it is ubiquitous.
Date rape is also a potential risk in relationships. This type of rape has been associated with family alienation, dating significantly older men, drug and alcohol use on the date, miscommunication about whether the woman was interested in sex, whether the man initiated the date and drove her to the date in his vehicle, and the degree to which he spent a lot of money on the women. Victim characteristics include earlier age of menarche, prior sexual activity, younger age at first intercourse, dating less familiar men, more sexually active with same-sex friends, poor peer relationships, and poorer emotional health. Perpetrator characteristics include attitudes condoning rape and violence against women, traditional sex role beliefs, personal irresponsibility, and lack of social conscience.
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- Christopher, F. , & Sprecher, S. (2000). Sexuality in marriage, dating, and other relationships: A decade review. Journal of Family and Marriage, 62, 999–1017.
- Hansen, J., Christopher, J. S., & Nangle, D. W. (1992). Adolescent heterosexual interactions and dating. In V. D. Van Hasselt & M. Hersen (Eds.), Handbook of social development: A lifespan perspective (pp. 371–394). New York: Plenum.
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- Roche, P. (1986). Premarital sex: Attitudes and behavior by dating stage. Adolescence, 21, 107–121.
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- Sugarman, B., & Hotaling, G. T. (1991). Dating violence: A review of contextual and risk factors. In M. Pirog-Good & J. Stets (Eds.), Dating violence: Young women in danger (pp. 100–118). New York: Seal Press.
- Zimmer-Gembeck, J., Siebenbruner, J., & Collins, W. A. (2001). Diverse aspects of dating: Associations with psychosocial functioning from early to middle adolescence. Journal of Adolescence, 24, 313–336.