"Can you tell me something: What does it mean to date? Because I don't know anymore." This was a question posed by my male friend at dinner a week ago. The fact that he was seeking for a definition also shed light on the fact that men were equally struggling with attempting to follow the fuzzy definitions of dating. It also lead to an evening full of questions as we tried to ponder what seemed to be a modern day mystery. Dating in the new millennia, what is it? What has it meant to date over the past 10-15 years as opposed to before? Do we need guidelines to help all of us in the dark about this process?
Long before my conversation with my friend, I've been interested in observing how people connect. I always enjoy talking to couples or individuals about their attraction to partners and the workings of their present/past relationships. As I have intermittently braved the singles scene, I would often become confused about how to behave and be as a single person. A part of it was based on the fact that I would swiftly go from being in committed relationship or marriage to this strange land of singledom. I was very much like a visitor from another dimension as I found myself clumsily navigating what it means to be dating. It seemed like being single required me to adapt a new language, set of conduct and way of being if I was going to participate in it (we could use the same argument for being in relationship, but that is another story). I watched my friends approach it different ways while we had endless conversations about decoding the behavior in singledom. Was it always so confusing or exhausting to engage in dating?
Arguably, no. There was a time that dating involved following a set of rules. The hooking up, for example, might something that was hidden as opposed to the general norm. Historically, marriage seemed to be the main relationship choice and depending on ones class/status, it was primarily a business arrangement. This "arrangement" was also created by the parents of the individuals who would be involved in the marriage. In her book Marriage, A History, Stephanie Coontz talks about the shift in marriage and the introduction of dating culture. In the late 19th century, the growing youth culture challenged previous views of what it meant to choose a partner. As the culture entered into the 20th century, an elaborate courtship ritual seemed to develop. Coontz states that the concept of dating was initially working class slang, but in 1914, " the respectable middle-class Ladies' Home Journal began to use the word A date took place in the public sphere, away from the home. In involved money, because when you moved from drinking mother's lemonade on the front porch to buying Cokes at a restaurant, someone had to pay" (199-200). In some ways, dating provided some flexibility outside of the old model of marriage as the only choice for intimate relationship. However, there were some rules and descriptions of what dating was and was not. Many years after the new phenomena of dating was introduced, it was understood or identified as the vehicle to a more permanent relationship.
In many ways, not being forced to marry a stranger alongside endless the opportunities/avenues for choosing partnership is a cause for tossing up confetti. This shift allows for more diversity and some acceptance in how each individual may define commitment and create family. Arguably, the choices appear to be less oppressive for women, the LGBTQQAI community, and anyone who suffered under oppressive social rules of intimate relationship. On the other hand, alongside our endless menus for being in romantic relationship we have entered an era of mass confusion. Does the true definition of dating mean that you are seeing multiple people? If a couple is dating and not seeing anyone else, does that mean they are in a relationship? Is there a difference between exclusively dating and a relationship? If a "hook-up" continues for weeks or even months, has it now become a relationship with some type of expectation? To cause a further traffic jam on the intimacy interstate, a new term that has entered the dating lexicon is a flirtationship (less than a relationship but more than a friendship). Does that fit into any of this?
Many could say that none of this matters because is what the people involved decide. Thus titles or clarification may be more for those on the outside than the individuals actually having their intimate experience. However, how many times have you helped your friends (or had to seek the help of your friends) to decode the behavior within the dating/musical-beds culture? Regardless of playing the too cool card by going label-less and as one who is guilty of such a thing, clarification is helpful. It might be as simple as communication but indeed we may still need to shape a better culture around this. Beyond dating, I have observed intimate human relationship as one big mosh pit--hooking up mimics what we might call dating; dating masquerades as a committed relationship; and relationships (especially long term ones) are the doppelgangers to marriage. As things have become interchangeable, it has allowed fluidity within human relationship. But in exchange for the variety befuddlement has become our lover in this world of dating. It has lead to a mass grave of casualties as we all work in the dark upon this tapestry of intimate human relationship. There is no clear answer nor am I arguing for an inflexible set of procedures for dating. However, we should consider establishing standards or perhaps protocol to possibly provide some clarity. Maybe this will limit the confusion or we will just create more questions uncertainty even within that!
Shanta Crowley is a regular contributor to the Brattleboro Reformer. She writes from Brattleboro. She also writes a blog at www.Reformer802.com/realtalk.