Not 'Dating' Exactly

There are lots of things on the web about dating. But what about the other 'quasi-romantic' scenarios that we don't really have a word for?

What is dating?

The term 'dating' has traditionally been used to refer to an occasion in which a young man and woman go out to spend some time together in a more formal sense. This doesn't mean 'formal' in style, but rather that there is a fairly clear, socially defined set of expectations about it. This distinguishes dating from other occasions where the sexes might mingle in less defined ways yet having undercurrents of 'interest' of a potentially romantic kind. Nowadays the waters have been muddied by 'hooking up' and casual sex, so that many people never even go on 'dates' in the more traditional sense.

The social context for dating

Not so long ago it was fairly common for young people to have a fairly stable group of friends and friendly acquaintances with whom they would mix socially but not with any specific romantic intentions. They had an implicit interest in finding someone, but at an earlier age were not looking to 'pair off' but could spend several years in later youth and early young adulthood simply mixing and getting to know each other without feeling pressured to have sex.

It was within this more general context that dating took place, sometimes as a simple youthful thing implying no special attachment, but eventually as something more serious once people felt old enough to start looking for a serious relationship. So dating was not a 'stand alone' thing, but presumed this general social context.

There are still places where this happens, and it would be a good thing if this was more common. But in many places these more clear cut expectations have dissolved into an amorphous and indeterminate 'hanging out' and 'hooking up', often not even involving actual friendship, but sex between people who are merely acquaintances. I consider this a bad thing, and none of the suggestions or advice I will give envisage or advocate any of this.

A context of potential romantic interest

The situation I am referring to when I say 'not dating exactly' is the set of social encounters where young people of both sexes mingle socially, without dating in the formal sense, but nevertheless having an undercurrent of 'potential romantic interest'. It would be good if we had a name for this. Then it would not need to be grouped under the heading of 'dating', even though many of the issues involved are the same.

So what is going on during that period? You will often hear people give advice such as 'learn to be friends first' before beginning a more overtly romantic relationship. It is good advice, as far as it goes, and is what I have been getting at in describing the social context from which dating preferably arises. However it can also be a bit inaccurate in describing what is going on.

The real challenge at this time of life is how to live in that space in between simple friendship and romantic attraction. You are trying to find a balance of both. It undersells it a bit to characterise this as being 'just friends'. In the public, formal sense you are just friends, but in reality you are trying to explore the feelings of being 'more than friends'. You are trying to figure out what these feelings mean and how to become more emotionally mature and socially adept while under the pressure of such feelings.

Some practical implications

Someone might say, 'Isn't that just splitting hairs? Everyone knows there are going to be undercurrents of romantic interest.' It would be except for some quite practical implications. The key one is this - what kind of occasions do we envisage promoting as quality social encounters for young men and women during this period of life?

I'll look at this in relation to a 'church youth scene'. There is a whole range of activities that might come under such an umbrella. These would include religious, educational, cultural, charitable and social events and programs. When considering the current question we could clarify by considering two different approaches. I will call these two approaches 'just friends' or 'friends plus'.

'Just Friends' or 'Friends Plus'

A 'just friends' approach would involve only activities in which no distinction was made between the sexes. For example, a charitable works project would simply involve young men and women doing the same tasks together. An educational program would simply deal with issues equally relevant to both sexes. A social event would not involve distinctions between the sexes, or games or kinds of activities that drew attention to such distinctions.

A 'friends plus' approach would include all those kinds of things but would also include activities that intentionally drew attention to masculine-feminine difference. Social events would include dances, including those that formally distinguished the sexes, theatre-type events would include the relations between the sexes as subject matter, and educational projects would include courses on relations between the sexes.

It might seem at first glance that there would be little difference between these two approaches. But the 'friends plus' approach seeks to help people learn specific kinds of things and develop social skills of particular kinds. This approach would put an intentional focus on those things that are otherwise left to look after themselves. Yet these are the very kinds of things that won't look after themselves very well.

So the 'friends plus' approach adds a dimension to the 'just friends' approach by deliberately drawing attention to the differences between the sexes and the significance of this. It would aim to encourage emotional development by putting people in 'training scenarios'. For example, something as simple as a traditional style dance puts young people in a situation of heightened awareness of masculine-feminine complementarity. By contrast, an unstructured contemporary style dance that treats people simply as individuals leaves those potentials implicit. No intentional help is given to help people learn their way through the different feelings involved.

Dating 'Minus'

So the category of 'socialising' (Social) includes the 'quasi-dating' or 'dating minus' type experiences that can arise within a structured social program intentionally designed to encourage emotional and social growth. Many suggestions will be made about these things as we go along.