The impetus for this blog, as with many others, came during a conversation with my mother. I had mentioned that, according to Facebook, a friend of mine was now in a relationship. My mom remarked, speaking of him and of some of my other friends, "They're pairing off awfully young."
A little unsure what she meant, I pointed out that none of my friends are engaged or anything, just dating. From what I can tell, getting one's first boyfriend or girlfriend partway through the first year of college is, while not unusual, later than many--I thought my friends were demonstrating pretty good judgment.
This led into a discussion of the meaning of "dating." Mom's view, and consequently the expectations I was raised with, don't seem to hold true in today's world--as far as I can tell. (DISCLAIMER: I'm not really much in touch with the dating scene, so I don't know anything stated here for sure. But I have my impressions.)
Mom's approach to dating is much looser than the general definition seems to be today. As she put it, "Everyone dates lots of people." You go on a date with someone and it's just one date--nothing more or less implied, unless and until one of you asks the other out again. You do this with multiple people in more or less the same period of time. If you enjoy someone's company, you go out with them more often. Eventually, if you find someone you really seem to click with, you might consider an exclusive relationship with them.
The pattern I tend to see instead--a couple dating exclusively for a few weeks or months or years, then breaking up and finding new partners--Mom refers to as "serial monogamy." Neither she nor I think this approach makes a whole lot of sense, as you don't get to know many people that way. If you go out with somebody casually once or twice, there's a lot less pressure and you can decide whether or not you'd want to go out with them again.
I explained that, as far as I can tell, nobody does that anymore. It'd be weird; it's not in the common mindset. In fact, if someone asked me out and I wanted to accept that one date only, without jeopardizing any pre-existing friendship, I would have to explain as much very carefully--to everyone involved--or risk creating confusion and hurt feelings. Furthermore, if I were to be seen on a date with someone, others would probably assume we were a couple, rather than figure it was a one-time thing.
There are obviously different opinions on this. One of my friends, when I tried to explain the "playing the field" philosophy, even seemed to think it was nearly unethical. Her argument, if I understand correctly, was that if you're interested in someone enough to go out with them more than once or twice, you ought to make an exclusive commitment. (This could also be influenced by the view that since playing the field is unusual, not committing right away would be nerve-wracking for the guy in question, and it'd be cruel to keep someone in suspense.)
The difference in these viewpoints centers around the purpose of a date, whether it is a data-gathering experience ("Am I interested in this person?") or a declaration of romantic intent ("I am interested in this person"). Mom and I take the former viewpoint, while--as far as I can tell--most of society takes the latter.
So, to respond to the argument above--that if you like someone enough to go out with them you ought to make it exclusive--I posit this scenario. What if there are two people you are equally interested (or semi-interested) in, or even three? Do you commit to one of them and forget about the others? If you could go out a few times with each of them, you wouldn't be closing off opportunities as quickly. You might even realize that you like them all, but don't really want to go out with any of them. And that's fine. Your relationships with all of them go back to more or less the way they were. You're not stuck in a relationship you're unsure of, held in place by inertia and guilt. There's no breakup trauma if there was never a couple to break.
Dating lots of people is important, so that you can learn what you like and don't like in a romantic partner. If you're dating multiple people at once, you can compare more easily: "he's funny and kind of subversive, which is exciting, but he can be harsh and put people down when he gets carried away." "He doesn't reveal much about himself, but he's friendly and helpful to everyone." "He's incredibly smart, but a little too shy." "I like his insight into people, but he's got a real sense of entitlement, and his aftershave is awful." Whatever.
Of course, you can learn a lot about people just by hanging out with them, too, in a group or one-on-one. You can spend lots of time with people, learn their usual patterns of behavior, their likes and dislikes. Hanging out is much less structured or formal than dating, and it seems to me that it's often a forerunner to dating. Certainly, much drama and stress are spent on hanging out, especially in high school. The stereotypical teen girl reaction would be something along the lines of, "OMG, he's coming over to hang out and watch TV! Where's my cute top? And I have to do my hair!!" I don't know what guys do to prepare for hanging out, but there's probably some nervousness on that end too.
But I believe that there are some things you just don't learn about how someone will act in a quasi-romantic situation unless you actually get them in a quasi-romantic situation. A normally snarky person may reveal an unexpected sweet side; another might start making decisions (where to go, etc.) without consulting you on your preferences (the eternal question of "Who does what" in the Great Morass of Gender Issues); or they might open up to you more, feeling that they can invest more in the relationship. (To skeptics: yes, they can. Going out with somebody means you are interested in them, that you enjoy and value their company and see potential in the relationship. It's just "potential" rather than a hard commitment.)
My mom was frustrated by the mind-game structure of hanging out. "It's like they think they're saving face by not actually coming right out and saying, 'I like this, this, and this about you and would like to spend more time with you one-on-one.'" I think fear of rejection might play into this, or the fear of it being taken too seriously--again, it seems like any hint of romance makes two people a semi-permanent couple. It also could be seen as a little too formal, or not relaxed and spontaneous enough. But it makes sense, to me anyway, to be up-front and honest about things, to show you've put in time and energy into thinking about this person as an individual. And it's infinitely less stressful than agonizing over what it means that he took half an hour to reply to that text.
As it stands, hanging out is the only romantic-ish thing you can do without getting into a tangled web of obligations. Actually going out seems to be a big, formalizing step in the relationship. If you're going out, you're a couple; therefore, asking someone out (without saying "just for one thing, you know, casually" or some other qualifier) would be tantamount to an invitation to a semi-permanent relationship. The implication is that more dates will follow, unless the first date goes spectacularly poorly. The outside viewpoint follows this line of reasoning: if two people are seen in a date-like setting, people are more likely to assume they're a couple than that it's a one-time deal.
Mom compared the many-consecutive-exclusive-relationships paradigm to "going steady," the phrase from old fifties-era movies and books. She laughed, but that's actually the best way to put it. There is a difference, however: in the fifties, since there was a word for being paired off like that, there must have been a lot of going out that was NOT going steady going on. (If you parsed that sentence correctly on the first try, my hat is off to you.) So far as I can tell, when people date many people in succession today, they're auditioning for someone to pair off with as soon as possible. Simply going out once or twice, for fun or to see how it'd work out, doesn't seem to be an option.
To summarize, the current system seems to be more a chariot race than playing the field--rather than interacting freely with a lot of people, you're harnessed to someone else until one or both of you get tired. There's nothing wrong with this, but it seems to me to add unnecessary stress and complication to life--there are obligations and commitments that come with exclusivity, and this is a college relationship: it is, most likely, not going to be permanent. Playing the field to start with sounds like a lot more fun. But if you wanted to actually do that, in the current social environment, you'd have to explain your reasoning carefully so that your partner understands you're not trying to let them down gently.
I don't think my friends are "pairing off early." I think that after another few months, or a year, they will break up or drift apart and go out with other people. I know that, sometimes, people don't want to casually date a bunch of people: they like the person they're with and wouldn't really want to go out with anyone else. (I've been there.) But in my opinion, going through the process to find that kind of person would be a lot easier--and a lot less nerve-wracking--if playing the field was a more common practice.
I repeat that I am not an expert on the dating scene--far from it--and my own approach to dating seems likely to keep me out of it for quite a while. This blog is more a question than a manifesto. Is there such a thing as playing the field anymore? Is there a middle ground between a couple and a hookup? Because it sure doesn't look like it.
I look forward to your thoughts (in the comment box below).
--Oh, and one free bit of advice: whoever asks, pays.