Dating relationships have no uniform defining characteristics. They have romantic or sexual overtones, occur between two people who are not married to each other or to anyone else, typically do not share a residence, have not formally acknowledged plans to marry, and may or may not expect continued involvement. These relationships vary in expectations for and level of commitment, intimacy, exclusivity, and sexual activity. Dating relationships have often been equated with “premarital” relationships or are considered part of “courtship,” though it is recognized that most “premarital” relationships do not result in marriage, nor are they intended to. Dating as a relational form emerged in the US and has received limited research attention in nonwestern countries.
The Phenomenon Of Dating Relationships
In the US, the primary type of romantic involvement among unmarried individuals has shifted from courtship as a precursor to marriage to dating as a recreational activity with little emphasis on commitment (Rollin 1999). In addition to courtship or mate selection and recreation, reasons for dating include socialization (getting to know each other), status grading (increasing one’s social status by dating popular or attractive individuals), sexual experimentation, satisfaction, and intimacy (Roscoe et al. 1987).
Some report that “dates” as formal preplanned activities are becoming less frequent (Glenn & Marquardt 2001). This has led some to proclaim that dating is becoming extinct. Others argue that dating and dating relationships simply continue to change (Surra et al. 2007). Dating forms vary from exclusive committed relationships to “getting together,” “hanging out” alone or in a group (Rollin 1999), “hooking-up” (sexual encounters between acquaintances or strangers without commitment), “speed-dating” (meeting individuals via fast-paced round robin interactions), and “pre-dates” (meeting potential dates via online interaction).
Many stage models of dating have been offered (Cate & Lloyd 1992). In the US, the most common reasons for initial attraction/interaction are physical attraction, similarity, reciprocal liking, and proximity. Reasons for breaking up include social incompatibility, low relational quality, and influence of social networks (Sprecher 1998). Relationships often develop and deteriorate at a similar pace; the more quickly partners become involved, the more abrupt the termination, whereas the more prolonged the development, the more prolonged the termination (Cate & Lloyd 1992). Scripts and expectations for dates have been examined, as have ways of ending dating relationships.
Recently, dating relationships have been studied as one context for the numerous relational processes such as self-disclosure, abuse, power, and trust that are universal in close relationships (Surra et al. 2007).
Dating From 1880 To 1960
Dating emerged in the US during the 1920s, as did the term “date” (Bailey 1988). From 1880 to 1920, “courting” was the predominant romantic form among unmarried individuals. Courting was formal. After an introduction, a man could “call on” a woman in her family home. Among the upper and middle classes, courtship was a step toward marriage. Working-class families did not have homes large enough for courting so it occurred in public. Upper-class youth adopted the idea of “going somewhere” as part of courting, and an early form of dating was born (Bailey 2004a).
In the 1920s dating, as a recreational activity separate from courtship, was established. Dating and courtship coexisted but had different objectives. The term “date” was coined and was understood as “an occasion where a boy asked a girl to join him for an afternoon’s or evening’s outing, for which he generally paid” (Rollin 1999, 54). Dating was about fun and popularity. Courting was about selecting a marital partner. Despite this distinction, a series of dates with the same person over a period of time (keeping “steady company”) was expected to result in marriage.
Into the 1930s and early 1940s the principal purpose of dating was recreation devoid of commitment (Burgess et al. 1954). “It was about competition within the peer culture” (Bailey 2004a, 35). In efforts to boost their popularity, individuals often had multiple dates with different people during the same week; the most attractive or popular dating partners were sought. Though this “rating and dating complex” (Waller 1937) did occur, the extent to which it was widespread has been questioned (Whyte 1990).
With the depression and World War II “rating and dating” waned, and arguably dating served as preparation for marriage. During the 1950s “going steady” took center stage. It involved “a whole new set of rituals” (Cate & Lloyd 1992, 26). Girls might wear boys’ class rings or “get pinned.” Going steady was an exclusive relationship, even if only for a brief period of time. Though going steady took on a semblance of preparation, this relational form was not expected to culminate in marriage. A person might “go steady” with several different individuals prior to engagement.
Dating Relationships As Precursors To Marriage
Two relevant areas of study are the progression toward marriage and the prediction of marital success. In the former, trajectories and stage models from initial attraction, first date or encounter, through “serious dating,” engagement, and marriage have been plotted (Cate & Lloyd 1992) and facets surrounding decisions to marry, marriage markets, timing, and social, political, and economic influences examined.
Larson and Holman (1994) summarize research on premarital factors associated with lower marital quality and/or instability. These include: divorced or low-quality marriage of parents; dysfunctional family backgrounds (e.g., parental mental illness); lack of support for the marriage from parents; young age; less education; lower income; premarital childbearing; depression; an unsociable personality; holding dysfunctional beliefs about marriage; and cohabitation prior to marriage. When decisions to marry are made with external pressures such as job/career concerns, economic depression, or war, success is less likely. Success is more likely the more homogeneous the partners are in terms of race, age, religion; the more similar in attitudes and beliefs; and the better partners know each other before marriage, often assessed as the length of time partners date and their ability to engage in positive communication.
Early research suggested that premarital sex and cohabitation were associated with divorce, but according to recent research neither is associated with divorce when limited to a future marital partner. Thus sex and cohabitation are becoming part of a courtship progression. However, multiple sexual and/or cohabitation partners prior to marriage have still been found to be predictive of divorce (Teachman 2003).
A problem with research on “dating relationships” is the lack of a conceptual definition and loose operationalizations. No one definition or widely shared cultural norm exists. A couple in a dating relationship might or might not go on “dates,” and a couple who are going out on dates might or might not consider themselves in a dating relationship. Even the same event or relationship might be defined differently by the two individuals involved (Chornet-Roses 2006).
Studies of dating relationships often inquire whether participants are in a dating relationship, but provide no definition. Sometimes “dating relationship” is broken into categories of “casual” and “serious.” Some might argue that participants are only in a dating relationship (or in a casual as opposed to a serious relationship) if they believe they are; so this definition serves research well. Such participant-driven definitions can result in both partners in a couple disagreeing about whether they are in a “dating relationship” (e.g., one cohabiting partner considers the relationship to be a “dating relationship,” whereas the other does not). Such definitions also make integration of studies difficult; without stated criteria, the reader has little knowledge of the nature or characteristics of the relationships under study. Collapsing into one group individuals who are in a casual relationship as well as individuals seriously and exclusively committed to each other obscures variations within dating relationships.
Also, dichotomizing relationships as “marital” or “premarital” (or marital versus single) does not allow for consideration of nonmarital romantic relationships such as civil unions and cohabitation without marriage. Though it is unlikely that researchers or relational participants will come to a consensus on what a dating relationship is, given the amount of research conducted on “college dating relationships” studies might be improved by providing conceptual definitions. Such definitions could be based on factors such as level of commitment, intimacy, exclusivity, and sexual involvement. To understand the phenomenon better, it might be fruitful to break dating relationships down into the “activity” of going on a date, the “process” of dating, and the “status” or “role” of the relationship, and to consider these aspects separately and in conjunction with each other.
Most knowledge about dating relationships comes from never-married heterosexual college students in western cultures. Clearly, more heterogeneous populations and the types of dating and dating relationships formed warrant attention. Some research on relationship formation (e.g., arranged marriages, preferences for a mate) exists. Western views of mate selection, including dating, are gradually infiltrating other cultures, though many traditions have also been maintained. Yet scholarly consideration of nonwestern dating relationships is virtually nonexistent. The limited research outside western cultures focuses almost exclusively on romantic involvements as related to marriage. Comparisons among preferred characteristics of mates, means of mate selection (e.g., free choice and parent-arranged), and beliefs about marriage (e.g., the role of love and fate) have received the most attention.
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