Some aspects of dating are competitive in nature (i.e., a win/lose relationship in which each partner tries to get her or his own way). Researcher Mary Laner (1986, 1989) points out that competitive behaviors can be of three kinds: pleasant, unpleasant, or abusive/aggressive. Pleasant competitive behaviors consist of such tactics as using charm or diplomacy to get one's way (i.e., to win). Unpleasant competitiveness includes tactics such as using sarcasm or deceit to get one's way. Finally, abusive/aggressive tactics include displays of anger, the use of insults, and various forms of violence. Laner (1989) reports that although daters prefer cooperative (egalitarian) behaviors and attitudes, dating is rife with both pleasant and unpleasant competitive behaviors. Pleasant tactics are virtually undetectable. Unpleasant tactics, however, are associated with the likelihood of violence between the partners (such as hitting and grabbing). When asked whether such relationships are violent, fewer men and women say yes than those who identify conflict or disagreements as causing problems. The tactics themselves, however (such as slapping and punching) are reported surprisingly often by these same daters (Laner 1990). Evidently, the power struggle behind the competitiveness remains unrecognized.
Another competitive aspect of dating can be seen in the way men and women deal with potential rivals. Researchers David Buss and Lisa Dedden (1990) report that daters attempt to manipulate others' impressions of them by derogating ("putting down") suspected competitors. Men do this by making derogatory remarks about other men's strength, financial resources, and goals: all traditional masculine characteristics. Women, in contrast, put down potential competitors by derogating their attractiveness and sexual activity (calling them promiscuous), and by questioning their fidelity (e.g., "she cheats on her boyfriend"). Buss and Dedden point out that the tactics men use are more likely to be successful in keeping competitors at bay than those used by women.
Dating has been likened to a market in which the buyer must be wary and in which there is not necessarily truth in advertising. Persons compete, given their own assets, for the most status-conferring date. Willard Waller and Reuben Hill (1951) warned many years ago about the potential for exploitation in both casual and serious dating. Indeed, critics of traditional dating have decried it as a sexist bargaining system in which men are exploited for money and women for sexual favors. The superficiality of dating, its commercialization, the deceit involved, and the high levels of anxiety it can provoke are additional drawbacks. Since status differentials still characterize men and women (although women have gained status in recent years), dating may be seen as a contest in which a struggle for power and control between partners is part of "the game."