Friday, March 13, 2009

Have We Dated? What Is Dating, Anyway?

A few months ago, I posed these questions to my Facebook friends, and I was surprised by the responses. It seems everyone has a different idea of what dating is, and the prevailing answer was something like the Supreme Court’s definition of obscenity: “We can’t define it, but we know it when we see it.”

But do we know it when we see it? It seems some people who are obviously dating say they are not, and occasionally, the people involved don’t even agree on whether they are dating. Dating in the traditional sense has been replaced by hooking up, being in a relationship, and having “friends with benefits.” But Facebook still has “We dated” as one of its choices in its Friend Details, so the term must still be in use in some form. How do I know whether I should check that box?

I’ve been out of the dating scene for more than a decade, but the way people form romantic relationships still interests me. I’ve always loved to hear “how we met” stories, and that hasn’t changed since I have a story of my own. My editorial tendencies, which desire specific definitions and the right word for every situation, also fuel my interest in the question of what dating is.

At one time, a traditional date (one person calls up another and makes arrangements to spend a specific time together at a specific place) could define dating, but by the time I was a teenager, it was possible to go out with guys who were nothing more than friends. (Some people say that men and women can’t really be friends and nothing more, but that’s a debate for a different day.) Maybe dating requires some sort of physical relationship, but many couples hold off from even kissing each other before they marry. Is it right to say they haven’t dated, while couples who meet, have sex, and never see each other again have dated? I don’t think so.

Maybe a dating relationship requires some possibility of a future together. Then again, there are a few guys I would say I dated who, even at the time, I never expected to spend my life with. And how do you account for those unmarried couples who consist of one person in love and one who is just in “like?”

I suppose that the courting that was in vogue in the Christian community in the mid-1990s addressed just that issue; courting couples only went out with people they thought they might marry. But how could you know if you might want to marry someone until you went out with them? And would those couples who did court and marry each other now check the Facebook box that says they dated?

I may be the only one uncomfortable with not having a solid definition of dating, especially among us old married folk, but I hate any ambiguity of language. And I can’t help but wonder whether many of our problems with romantic relationships have their roots in our inability to define dating. If single people could enter a dating relationship with specific expectations instead of unspoken questions (“Does he see me as a potential mate or just as someone to keep him company for a few months until he finds someone better?” “Am I free to date other people until we’ve stated otherwise or am I expected to date her exclusively from the start?” “Can I call him ‘my boyfriend,’ or will that scare him off?”), a lot of misunderstandings and broken hearts could be avoided entirely.


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