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, fiancee, 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 fivestage 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.
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.
Brown, B. B. (1999). "You're going out with who?" Peer group influences on adolescent romantic relationships. In W. Furman, B. B. Brown, & C. Feiring (Eds.), The development of romantic relationships in adolescence (pp. 291-329). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Christopher, F. S., & Sprecher, S. (2000). Sexuality in marriage, dating, and other relationships: A decade review. Journal of Family and Marriage, 62, 999-1017.
Hansen, D. 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.
Martin, J. N., Bradford, L. J., Drzewiecka, J. A., & Chitgopekar, A. S. (2003). Intercultural dating patterns among young white U.S. Americans: Have they changed in the past 20 years? The Howard Journal of Communications, 14, 53-73.
Roche, J. P. (1986). Premarital sex: Attitudes and behavior by dating stage. Adolescence, 21, 107-121.
Shulman, S., & Kipnis, O. (2001). Adolescent romantic relationships: A look from the future. Journal of Adolescence, 24, 337-351.
Sugarman, D. 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, M. 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.
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