Whatever Happened to Dating?

What is 'hanging out'? How does it relate to 'hooking up'? And whatever happened to dating?

Who asks out whom?

Let's start with a simple question. If you ask – "Who asks out whom on a date?" almost everyone will answer "The man asks the woman". The great majority of people would be aware that when it comes to an actual date, in the formal sense, that the convention is for the man to take the initiative. And this is not a mere convention, as if it could just as easily be the other way round. The great majority of both women and men want it that way. However, as to why that might be is a bigger question that we will leave till another occasion.

Nevertheless, the fact that there are underlying reasons for this convention, and that they can be fairly subtle, causes some confusion between the sexes when it comes to dating. There is plenty of scope for misunderstanding.

There are many subtleties in the relations between the sexes, and in order to bring clarity to them we need conventions of behaviour.

A young man might have little clear understanding of what women's deeper hopes and expectations are, but some at least can be clarified by making them a social convention. One such convention is: the man asks the woman out on a date, not vice versa.

It is a simple, clear rule which feels fairly natural even when its underlying reasons are not well understood. Importantly it gives a man a clear guideline for action.

The Quasi-Romantic Environment

Things are not so simple though when it comes to the broader romantic and quasi-romantic environment. Many men would not go on from that convention and thereby deduce that they should take on an initiating role in other, less clear circumstances. Yet many women would have this kind of expectation that men would take the initiative in a general way across the range of romantic and possibly romantic situations. A certain frustration then appears on women's part when men do not take these initiatives.

This is further exacerbated when such conventions generally have broken down, and in the current situation formal dating has in many places largely disappeared. Yet it has not been replaced by other conventions that would give men a clear guideline for action.

Whose initiative is it to 'hang out' or 'hook up'?

Often no one's. They just 'kind of happen'. Or either sex takes the initiative but in indirect, non-committal and unclear ways.

It would be possible to simply criticise this situation, but a certain amount of this indirectness is normal, even in fairly structured environments. But present social conditions make it even more understandable. The key factor is the dilution and fragmentation of community. The kind of communal settings in which young adults could mingle with a sizeable group of like-minded friends of both sexes without any undue romantic pressure have greatly diminished.

A Loss of Community

In the not so distant past the most likely places where local community was experienced were churches or local community associations of some broad kind. People lived and worked locally, often had no transport to easily go further away, and mixed in a recognisable community, larger than the family but not a merely specialised setting such as a workplace or sporting club.

With the loss of community comprising families, people of all ages and both sexes, and regular social gatherings of a conducive kind, many young adults now have no natural setting in which to mingle with a fair number of the other sex over a period of years, gradually working out their feelings and eventually beginning to date more seriously. If you have to go from a 'standing start' to a formal date it is less likely to happen.

An important intermediate step is missing. And so there emerges a kind of non-localised 'virtual community' of first-time acquaintances whose lives intersect in an unstable joint search for companionship. It is not surprising in such a situation that formal dating has diminished.

But this 'hooking up' and 'hanging out' is not so much a substitute for dating as an attempted substitute for the absent, more stable community of friends and friendly acquaintances.

Then it goes on to be also a substitute for dating, as couples just kind of slide on from hanging out to hooking up to living together without it ever really having taken on any communal dimension, let alone any definite romantic form.

Dating Needs a Communal Context

For a time dating flourished, or at least stumbled along adequately, because there was still a communal context. But as that communal context has diminished, dating has tended to degenerate into an indeterminate kind of 'hanging out' and 'hooking up'.

Dating now has to try and exist, not in a community, but in the midst of a large aggregate of strangers.

The 'classic' form of dating presumes a social context where people can get to know each other indirectly and by stages. Then, based on that familiarity and supportive context, a young man would start to test the waters by asking a young woman out on a fairly clearly defined social event called a 'date'. There were reasonably clear expectations on both sides, and on the part of their families.

But what happens now? I don't know what the proportions would be, but a lot of dates now occur 'from a standing start'. Many are arranged on the internet between strangers. There is often no social context at all, no mutual friends, no family living nearby, and if the date doesn't work out, no subsequent contact between the two strangers who so briefly met.

This is a very fragile social context in which to try and foster fruitful meetings between young (and not so young) men and women looking for lifelong love.

Defaulting to Informality

It is not surprising then that dating itself has greatly diminished. Young men and women either have great difficulty in even meeting anyone - literally - or the relationships they do have are very tentative.

People can be inclined to think that dating is a simple, natural thing - but it's not.

In order to fulfil its purpose properly it needs an 'ecosystem' of supporting attitudes and behaviours.

Let's pick up the issue we began with - the role of men in initiating dates. The romantic arena is not a walk in the park but more of an emotional obstacle course. So, how might you go about it?

PLAN A: Meet an attractive young woman who quickly shows signs of interest and begin a serious relationship with a view to marriage.

Isn't that what everyone wants, but how often does it happen? Not very.

PLAN B: Embark on a long, obscure and frustrating process of dating in hopes of finding someone - somewhere - who might be a suitable prospect.

Let's assume Plan A didn't work. Let's also assume no supportive communal context and no clear cultural conventions of behaviour that would be conducive to success in pursuing Plan B. What do you do?

PLAN C: Try and latch onto someone you've met at some stage and hang out together and hope you can just kind of drift your way to cohabitation and hopefully something more committed as time goes by.

In this last scenario dating, such as it is, is informal and 'after the fact'. It is an attempt to add a bit more form and 'specialness' in the midst of an already existing quasi-intimate relationship.

What happened to men?

In this scenario what happened to men's role of initiative, desired by both sexes? It got lost in vagueness and indecision. Men lose clarity of role and purpose, and women are left struggling to get any 'romantic traction'. They are left adrift in a fog.

Where is the white knight? Where is the man with clarity, purpose and direction in his life who comes calling with an invitation for her to join him in a grand adventure? Somewhere out in the fog as well.

The solution has to begin with men. Women want that. And under the surface men want that as well. But the solution cannot be adequately categorised simply as 'better dating'. It requires rebuilding community.

Men not only need to clarify their own individual purpose and vocation in life, they also need to join a community of some substance.

A Beginning Strategy

So how could things improve? It can begin from the base of a few families who have the wherewithal to provide some solidity, tradition and structure. It can happen by joining a church related group. It can begin with retaining and building on a network of friendships from childhood and teenage years. Let's consider the first of these approaches.

Things can improve if married couples recognise these issues and consciously adopt a more intentional role of encouraging young singles, usually beginning with their own children, and drawing them into their family orbit. It is best if this can be a joint project with a number of other couples.

There are strong families where this already happens, but there are many more where it doesn't. If married couples can get together with a few like-minded couples they could more intentionally begin to gather a community of young people around them.

They can invite them to a regular family dinner, and this can be gradually extended with other gatherings. These can begin in the host couple's home, with various kinds of parties and social events. They can then have gatherings that begin at their home, where the young people go for an outing, and return later to draw things together.

This family > youth outing > family dynamic can give a supportive context, a sense of 'centring' that builds community, and introduces young people to some adults to whom they can turn for private advice, and to work through some of the feelings they experience interacting with the other sex.

This approach begins building a communal context to give sense and shape to young people's search for romance. It can sustain hope by being both realistic and supportive.


You might also like to read "Dating and Community".