Dating has traditionally been the social custom for two people to form a monogamous intimate relationship based on mutual attraction as a prerequisite for marriage, if desired. Sometimes called courtship, dating comprises a variety behaviors and activities that strengthens the bond between the couple and fosters emotional and often sexual fulfillment. The cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s transformed many of Western society's traditional criteria for choosing a partner. Nevertheless, research indicates that fundamental differences between the sexes have remained unchanged.
Any discussion of dating begins with an exploration of the reasons why people date. For many people, dating is a serious commitment between two emotionally connected partners that ultimately leads to marriage. For others with no express intention of marriage, dating can still be an important avenue for personal happiness and emotional security in the context of exclusive closeness, or intimacy. Others engage in what has been termed "casual" dating.
Casual daters exhibit no attachment or commitment to any one partner and choose to go out on dates with different people. Some date casually as a social activity and as a way to meet new people. Others date casually as a pretext for finding a suitable long-term dating or marriage partner. Casual dating may or may not include some manner of sexual activity, depending the dater's preference and level of comfort.
In the context of dating, sexuality spans a range of physical interactions that range from kissing and manual stimulation, or "petting," to intercourse. The role of sexuality in dating has evolved since the 1960s and 1970s. Prior to this time, Western culture predominantly viewed sex as an act of consummation reserved for marriage and procreation. The innovation of contraceptive pills and devices (for example, condoms and diaphragms) substantially reduced the health and pregnancy risks associated with sex. Consequently, daters could now engage in sex more freely.
To understand the motivations behind dating, it is important to explore who dates. People in the West engage in dating across all age groups. The frequency of dating and dating behaviors differ from one age group to another. For this reason, most studies center on high school- and college-aged populations, since dating occurs most frequently among these groups. In addition, dating behaviors among these groups reflect how relationships and values change between adolescence and adulthood.
For high school-age people, dating is usually part of the socialization process that accompanies adolescence and sexual maturation. The motivations for high school-aged people to date are largely exploratory. Relationships are characterized by emotional bonding based on each partner's material perceptions of each other. Budding sexuality combined with emotion, and often peer pressure, leads frequently to experimentation and even sexual intercourse.
College-aged daters in their late teens and early 20s shift their focus from exploration to more meaningful pursuits. Many college-aged daters have had much dating experience by this age. As a result, they have a better sense of their own likes and dislikes concerning relationship partners. College-aged daters look for specific personality traits in potential partners as a pathway to compatibility. Level of physical attractiveness and appearance are still important, but tend to take a lower priority.
The actualization of a dating relationship, successful or not, depends partly on how a people choose dating partners. People base these choices on emotional as well as practical considerations. Studies have shown the men and women choose partners based on different criteria. These criteria have changed since the 1960 and 1970s to accommodate the shift in men's and women's expectations of one another.
Traditionally, the Western model of a heterosexual relationship placed the female partner subordinate to the male partner. The male partner was expected to protect and support the female partner financially. In a marriage, the female partner, or wife, was expected to keep the home in order and manage activities associated with child-rearing.
Several studies have shown that men are largely attracted to women who are relatively thin and aesthetically pleasing, but who also exhibit deferential behavior and subordination. Similar studies have indicated that women are primarily attracted to men who display an outward confidence and strength combined with a kind and gentle demeanor. Toward the end of the 20th century, increasing numbers of women entered the professional workforce. As a result, fewer women felt compelled to look for a man's financial support. Women have indicated that a man's profession and income are important, but subsequent studies have prioritized these less and less.
The culture of dating adds a dimension of meaning to people's lives whether it is on a short-term basis or for the purpose of eventual marriage. As much as the roles of the sexes change, human needs continue to endure. Dating provides and will continue to play an important role in human development and have an enriching impact on individual experience.