“None of us marry perfection; we marry potential.” – Robert D. Hales
As I ask my classes of college students each semester, it seems that the numbers of students who go on “dates” is declining. Current research tends to support the growing trend among young people – dating has gone out of style.
Where did “dating” come from in the first place?
Courtship here in America started out with much more close contact than you might realize. Ellen Rothman writes that in the late 1700’s as many as 30% of brides were pregnant at the time of their marriage. Even though unwed pregnancy was rare, people who were engaged often began sexual intercourse before their marriage. The patterns of living enabled people to spend much more time with one another as they were courting.
As the Industrial Revolution began to reshape American society, courtship rituals also had to be adjusted to fit all the new ways of working and living. As people began to live in larger cities, work and home became two separate spheres. Interaction circles grew wider as people came into contact with more and more people and often with people of different habits.
What we now call “dating” became a custom later, after the Victorian era, when sexual norms became more restrictive. Sexual regulation became more important in families. Working class families searched for ways to better oversee their children’s social lives. When it came to courting, all sorts of obstacles prevented parental oversight. There wasn’t any privacy in their homes for young couples to socialize. There weren’t enough regular social occasions around which families could invite courting couples to participate. Who could afford it? Interaction needed to be formalized in some way.
What evolved were arranged dates and times during which a male suitor could take his female acquaintance out of her home and spend time together in another location. Her father, of course, was the one to set the day and start/stop time for this “date.”
Once “dating” became the norm, it soon spread to the other social classes. When the 20th Century arrived, romantic love and adolescent experiences became dynamic components in the development of the distinctive identity we now know as “the teenager.” Youth spent more years in school, worked outside the home and began to consume the new mass culture (television, radio and Elvis). They were developing an independent identity earlier than ever before. Dating was a central role of this new identity.
By the time most of us started, dating had also become a way for men and women to conspicuously consume – to demonstrate their social status by spending money and looking beautiful. There were very specific gender roles. The male was always the initiator and took responsibility for pleasing his date. The female, while not being the damsel in distress, was expected to follow along. Even though her role was more like that of a special guest, she had all the right to provide her opinion about the plans for the evening. As the relationship developed, they would collaborate more on choices and familiar patterns.
I am indebted to Gene H. Starbuck for this lesson
Today, things have changed. Single’s aren’t dating very much.
Most young singles in America do not describe themselves as actively looking for romantic partners. Even those who are seeking relationships are not dating frequently. About half (49%) had been on no more than one date in the previous three months. (Mary Madden and Lee Rainie, Romance in America)
When we talk about the fragmented family, it’s important to not just look at how families fall apart and come to an end but to also examine how people learn to fall in love and decide to create a family in the first place. If dating has come to the end of its usefulness, what new social practice will we use to help people create the most important bonds in their lives?