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Competitiveness, Sexuality, Delights And Discontents, Communication And Deception, Making Initial Contact, Dating Scripts

Dating, from casual to serious, is likely to involve romance and sexual activity, which distinguishes it from social outings between people who consider themselves merely friends (Newman 1999). It is related to two broader processes—courtship and mate selection. Historically, the term courtship has been applied to situations where the intent to marry was explicit and referred to the socializing between young adults on the path to marriage (Rothman 1984). The term mate selection refers to how we choose someone to marry and involves structural and social factors such as the nature of the "marriage market" (the persons from among whom we select our partners), and considerations such as age, race, class, education, religion, and cultural ideas (Schwartz and Scott 1955). The vast majority of daters are unmarried, and most studies of dating have used samples of college students who are more diverse than in the past, and are more like the general population than a group of social elites.

In contemporary North American society, "dating is the recognized means by which most people move from being single to being coupled" (Newman 1999, p. 176). However, it is not necessarily the route to couplehood in all societies. David Newman draws a distinction between individualist cultures (e.g., western Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia) and collectivist cultures (e.g., China, Vietnam, and Japan), pointing out that because the former allow free choice of potential spouses, they are more likely to include dating than are collectivist cultures.

In collectivist cultures such as China, young people (especially in the larger cities) may "go out" together, but this is probably courtship rather than dating, because their coupling has been prearranged and the goal of marriage is fixed. Another example is India where marriages are still arranged by families or trusted go-betweens. When young people are chosen for each other, it is not considered necessary that they know each other well before marriage and love is scarcely a consideration. When a meeting is arranged, following an exchange of photographs and a resume, it is not a meeting that may be followed by dates. Rather, it is a meeting to answer the question, "Am I going to marry this person?" Thus, dating, as Westerners understand it, is not applicable. Letters and flowers may be exchanged, but the couple may not spend much, if any, time together. Love is expected to grow after marriage. Faith in religion and in the wisdom of those who arranged the pairing is the basis for this system. The system prevails among Muslims in America as well as in India (Ettenborough 1998).

A third non-western example is Japan. Only about 10 percent of matings are prearranged, and others may avail themselves of "dating parties," A couple walks together in Yokohama, Japan. In Japan only about 10 percent of mate selections are prearranged. MICHAEL S. YAMASHITA/CORBIS members-only bars (where men pay steep fees and women merely register), or cell-phone dating network services (French 2001). China suffers from a huge lack of marriageable women (men outnumber women nearly two to one) and this gap will become more severe "as the first wave of people born under China's 'one-child policy' hits the marriage market. In the near future . . . countless young men may have little or no chance of landing a wife" (Chu 2001). One result is the abduction of women by "fixers" who sell them to men as wives. Under these circumstances, which have already affected thousands of Chinese women, there is neither dating nor courtship.

In marked contrast, dating in Western societies is for the most part similar to the North American pattern, which began only in the last century. Starting around 1900, the selection of dating partners began to become more autonomous (less under family supervision) than before in the United States. This was partly due to the rise of city life versus the previous predominantly rural background of most Americans, and to the related expanded employment opportunities for both sexes in the cities. Choices were less affected by considerations such as wealth (i.e., the ability to support a family) than by personal qualities such as character. Then, from about 1920 to World War II, a system of dating evolved in which there was considerable "playing the field" to demonstrate one's popularity (called casual dating), which might gradually become more exclusive (called going steady). Going steady might in turn result in an engagement or in marriage.

By the 1950s, a youth culture had developed in which dating started at earlier ages than before (e.g., among pre-teens). Moreover, the sexual exploration (ranging from kissing to sexual intercourse) which had previously been part of the last stage of courtship (engagement), now often occurred earlier, even among very young couples.

The "youth revolution" of the 1960s was partly about the right of unmarried people to express themselves sexually and partly about the widespread rejection of the belief that a woman's value lay in her virtue (virginity). The revolution was a struggle for power, freedom, equality, and autonomy, but the gains in freedom undermined the old rules; that is, courtship, and dating within it, began to lose coherence as the what, why, and even how became less clear (Bailey 1988).

Today, self-help books proliferate in response to that lack of clarity; for example, Dating for Dummies (Browne 1996), The Rules (Fein and Schneider 1995), and Mars and Venus on a Date (Gray 1998). Some of these guides are highly traditional, counseling that daters should behave in accordance with pre-1960s gender roles. Some are semi-egalitarian and semi-traditional. Still others, intended primarily for women (such as Lerner's The Dance of Anger, 1997) are egalitarian, rejecting the man-superior/woman-subordinate traditional view. Curiously, scholars who have studied dating behavior report that both men and women who claim to be egalitarian behave in traditional ways on dates (Laner and Ventrone 1998; 2000).

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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationships