{ "Dating" and other tricky words }

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.


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{ Responses To This Entry }

As someone involved in the college dating scene, and who has experienced both aspects of relationships, both serious and not, I think that there is definitely such thing as playing the field in today's college culture. I might even say that field playing occurs more nowadays, than before. Many people not only go on "just dates", but engage in one night stands and casual emotion-free relationships. This seems to be just as common in college as serious and exclusive relationships. As to whether or not college is too early to engage in a serious relationship that's not likely to last, I can't help but to disagree. Most of my friends' parents met in college, as well as my own. I agree that casual dating is important to discover what kind of people one is looking for, and just plain fun. But there is a point when someone meets a person they really click with, and wants to be with exclusively. These friends of yours, as well as many college students, have simply reached this point. They may or may not have dated multiple people before that, but the end point is the same. Does it really matter, if they're happy? A good relationship does not bring stress or worry into your life, it is supposed to enrich it with another person you can share your life with. If a serious relationship is bringing this kind of stress, it's most likely that the person isn't ready for a relationship at this point of their life, or it isn't with the right person. Just my thoughts.

Posted by: Maddy Longhurst on July 26, 2010 9:36 PM


Note: I did say I'm talking about a middle ground between hookups and couples. Hooking up is not playing the field. Hookups are, as you said, emotion-free, so it's not gradually exploring a relationship; it's something totally different.

You make some good points, and I'm not saying that being in an exclusive relationship is bad (assuming it's not angst-ridden). When one of the people in it "clicks" with someone else as well, however, what do they do? The choices seem to be (1) ignore it, no matter how much you like the other person, simply because you're already committed; (2) go through a dramatic, guilt-plagued period of cheating on someone; or (3) break up. Whichever way, you don't get to explore this new possibility without creating considerable drama. As I see it, it doesn't make any sense to act like you're married when you are, after all, just dating.

Furthermore, practically speaking, what are the odds that you'll marry someone you meet in your freshman year of college? And, more to the point, how do you know you want to spend the rest of your life with them if you don't ever spend one-on-one time with anyone else?

My parents met in college and got married a year after my dad (who's a year younger than my mom) graduated. Their marriage has worked out great. But they've also advised me that twenty-four is really too young to get married.

I'm not saying people shouldn't get into couples, or that they shouldn't hook up, for that matter--it's none of my business. But people should realize there's a third alternative, a way to explore things semi-seriously and see how people act in a romantic setting without tying up weeks or months of mental energy into it.

Posted by: Tess on July 26, 2010 10:44 PM


Thanks so much for writing this.

This is something that has bothered me for a little while about the dating scene at Oberlin and is bothering me more. I think you're right—there are some casual hookups which people generally seem to agree (perhaps crazily) should be emotion-free and untethered—and there are some intensely committed exclusive couples—but there's not a lot in between or a lot of variety in the way people conduct these relationships. In fact—as you point out—I often see that as soon as two people do become emotionally engaged they move into exclusive couple territory. It's frightening to believe those are the only two fields one can live in.

You're right that some of these relationships are short-lived but some of them aren't. I know people who have been together since freshman year, some of whom have since graduated. I find this both wonderful and frightening. It's wonderful that they feel so strongly about each other that they want to maintain that bond indefinitely. It's frightening because how can they know what they want without exploring their options? Perhaps I'm unromantic. It obviously works for some people—and don't get me wrong: that is wonderful; but for myself, I can't imagine it.

Maybe I'm just looking in the wrong places? I've been doing a lot of reading about relationships lately and consequently talking to a lot of Obies about relationships and so I know that there is a desire among to conduct sex, love, and romance a different way—and if the desire is there, more than likely at least a few people are already doing it.

This no doubt occurred to you already, but the title-text on this xkcd is entirely relevant. :)

Posted by: Harris on July 27, 2010 4:06 AM


Thank you so much for this post. I definitely think that this is concerning and baffling aspect of modern society. In a move to become more 'open and accepting' and break away from the stigmas of our parents generation, we have somehow become more conservative. Also I completely agree with what Harris said, their should be more than the binary and definitely no need to explain yourself/your opinion of life/love/happiness every time you go on a date for fear of sending mixed messages.

Posted by: D on July 27, 2010 2:24 PM


If you think this is bewildering, I suggest you never set one foot within an 80-mile radius of any BYU campus.

Where I go, people play "for keeps." Forget serial monogamy, it seems to me that there's this weird mindset that if you are dating someone exclusively, then you are going to get married. My roommate has been with a guy since April, and people ask them ALL THE TIME when/if they are getting married.

There is no concept of "single and happy." There is "single and daydreaming wistfully of the day when my prince charming will sweep me off my feet with a 3-carat engagement ring" and "blissfully engaged/wed." It sort of leaves those of us who would like to be out of school and making a significant living before we think about marriage in an awkward place. Because this weird idea of INSTANT MATRIMONY? It's so ingrained into the culture of the place that there's no escape.

Luckily, though, we do seem to have the concept of "dating" the way your mom defines it. If you're single, you're assumed "dating" (unless you're me, because my first date left me wanting to be a nun/hermit). It's only when you go on multiple dates with the same person (including "hanging out", spooning on the couch, making out under a tree in the horticultural gardens, etc.) that you're "off the market."

Posted by: Amanda Cardon on July 27, 2010 7:46 PM



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