Gordon E. Seirup
First there was the passing notes, hand holding and name-calling of middle school. Then you survived your first heartbreak when your high school sweetheart decided it would be best to “just be friends.” Now swept away in college life, with an important aspect being dorm life, you hardly take the time to step back and ask yourself, “What am I doing here? Who’s bed did I just wake up in, and how the hell did I get here?!” Okay, so the second part may not be applicable to all students, but at the same time you cannot deny that it happens, likely more often than one would be comfortable thinking about. If you have not yet taken the time to ponder what it is you plan to do with the so-called “best four years of your life,” besides studying and eating dorm food, perhaps it is about time you did. What do you want to be accomplishing in these prime dating years? More importantly, is that what you are accomplishing?
In short, the purpose of this writing is to discuss the question: “What role should dating play in college students’ lives?” Initially one might think this is a frivolous subject. On the contrary, there is a quite a range of opinions on the subject with marriage incorporated into a number of them. Marriage is not a frivolous topic. Consequently its precursor, dating, also bears significance.
One might also think that college students, being in the midst of their own dating lives, would be able to define dating, be familiar with their intentions, and have a strong concept of where the decisions they make today will take them tomorrow, as they relate to dating. Surprisingly, of the students I spoke with here on the Colorado State University campus, while conducting an informal survey, none would have met that standard. All hesitated greatly when asked to simply “define dating.” Once done struggling through that answer, they were asked “In your opinion, what is the purpose of dating in college?” These students’ answers ranged from “getting laid!” to “discover more about yourself through others and to find the person you want to marry” to “I have no clue.” Clearly, the college masses are blissfully unaware of exactly what it is they are doing when they are in pursuit of the attractive sex. Let us address this problem.
First, what is dating? For purposes of this analysis, dating is defined as seeing a member of the attractive sex socially in a one-on-one setting. Other terms used within the following pages are “hooking up” and “courtship,” defined as non-committal sexual acts and non-serial exclusive dating with the intention of marriage, respectively. What I mean by “non-serial” dating is that when you choose to date someone, it is your every intention to marry them. While this may not work out, and thus cause you to enter this process again, each person you choose to date is sincerely meant to be your spouse. In this way, while you may court more than one person, that action is not serialized by your intention being to date many people. Now, with these terms clearly defined, we may delve into just what the various opinions are as to the purpose of dating.
I have defined five major approaches based on their common purpose, values and motivations, in addition to their general line of reasoning. These five groups, as I have titled them, are as follows: Casual Dating, Exclusive Dating, Courting, Cannot Date and Hooking up. Naturally, each of these groups is mainly composed of college students.
Casual dating is a concept that got its best reputation during the American 1950s. Casual daters value meeting new people, discovering and/or reinventing who you are as a person, and enjoying yourself. The scenario goes something like this: The hero of our story, Guy, meets a Girl, decides he would like to see her socially and asks her to join him at the diner for hamburgers and a shared milkshake. If this date goes well, they may see each other again. After about three dates there is a good chance Guy would be graced with a goodnight kiss. Granted, while this template has changed a bit in the past fifty years, the basic construct remains. Guy asks out a Girl, or vice versa, and they see each other socially in a one-on-one setting. These dates do not imply exclusivity or any concrete commitment at all. They are designed for our subjects to enjoy each other’s company. While social enjoyment is the driving force behind the Casual Dating approach, there are two other important aspects: meeting new people and discovering yourself. By the simple act of participating in these dates, each party naturally learns more about themselves through their interaction in addition to getting to know the other person. “Dating one-on-one gives you a chance to become comfortable with new people” (Baugher, 2002, p. 2) says Julie Baugher, Georgetown University’s premier relationship columnist.
According to Lee Ann Hamilton, a health educator at the University of Arizona, “College is the time to re-invent yourself and try new things; many people don’t want to be tied down” (Hill, 2003, p. 1). It is very important to keep in mind that not being “tied down,” as Ms. Hamilton put it, is a fundamental aspect of the Casual Dating approach. Columnist Julie Baugher has laid out some guidelines helpful to circumventing our typical defensive maneuvers when it comes to dating. (It may be useful to remember these next time you are asked out for a date.) “Don’t think about whether you want to Date him with an uppercase ‘D’ (meaning exclusive dating). Don’t conclude that he isn’t ‘your type.’ Don’t assume this is the beginning of a long-term relationship that you’re not ready for” (Baugher, 2002, p. 2). With this agreement of casual interaction, one may date as many people as there are nights available in the week, so long as all parties involved know the arrangement.
Similar to the Casual Dating approach is the Exclusive Dating approach. Both value dating as an activity for social enjoyment, as well as self-education. Exclusive dating may be thought of as the “next step” from casual dating, and indeed commonly tends to grow out of casual dating. When exclusively dating, you are not only learning more about yourself, but also consciously aware of what you are learning about your partner. Which characteristics can you see yourself living with for the rest of your life? Which make you want to run away and never date again? “Through several short-term relationships, students can find personalities with which they are most compatible,” claims Matt West, a writer at the University of Virginia. “Relationships at this age allow you to explore what you like and don’t like in a partner” agrees Mary Anne Knapp, a clinical social worker. Through a series of exclusive relationships, one forms a model of the ideal spouse (Pleiss, 2003, p. 1).
However, here is the crucial detail for this approach: This model of spousal qualifications and fleeting thoughts of marriage are solely a mental exercise. Marriage is not a goal of the exclusive dating approach. Exclusively dating college students are aware of their proximity to marriage; however, they are not going to let that detail dominate their lives. The goal is the assemblage of knowledge. This distinction is memorably worded by Jennifer Graham, a senior staff writer at Stanford University: “I think I’m going to put marriage on the backburner and, at least for the time being, refrain from appraising my peer’s credentials for parenthood. There’s no need to sap all the joy from life” (2003, p. 3). One must be careful not to misinterpret her as saying she wishes to ignore completely her peer’s credentials for parenthood, rather it is at which stage in the dating process they come into play that is the importance of her quote. When making the choice of whether or not to date someone, these marriage-related thoughts are minimally important. However, while in the relationship, it would be wise to take note of these credentials so that when you are shopping for a spouse you know what you are looking for.
To add to the strength of the Exclusive Dating approach, there is expert testimony. Clinical social worker Mary Anne Knapp, quoted in an article published at Penn State University, says these exclusive relationships are healthy and “serve more of a purpose than just having a permanent date every Friday night” (Pleiss, 2003, p. 1). This is because, as she was also paraphrased to have said, “Having a supportive partner, someone who knows you and is on your side, is good for a positive outlook on life” (Pleiss, 2003, p. 1).
The Courting approach states that dating should play no role in the lives of college students. In essence, supporters believe in a return to the practice of courtship rather than dating, and thus hold marriage absolutely paramount. Furthermore, this courtship would best take place after college, in their opinion. This is the only approach in which it may be said that the majority of the members fall into a distinct group of students. In general, students who believe and speak for the Courting approach are of strong religious backgrounds, and actively use their faith to both justify their opinion and denounce the others. In fact, the approach is as much their adamant opposition to dating as it is their support of courtship, saying: Casual dating is “a bankrupt convention…a training ground for divorce [and]…a cheap imitation of the love and intimacy of a real marriage.” Furthermore, they believe that the practice of casual dating is futile, “If the couple never intends to get married in the first place, then breaking up is a foregone conclusion, and their relationship is doomed” (Jensen, 2003, pp. 1-2).
Those who take this approach value the unique bonds that are formed between husband and wife and purity upon entering marriage. Courtship “is the only way to date with true love, respect and honesty because it is rooted in a desire to take the relationship to its complete and glorious fulfillment” (Jensen, 2003, p. 2). Those seeking courtship seek others who seek the same. This reason is rooted in the principle that if you have kept pure in pursuit of marriage, you should expect the same of your to-be spouse. Though, today this makes for a slim selection. “It’s hard enough to meet somebody who doesn’t have a past relationship that is like a skeleton in her closet” says Matt Sweet, finance major at the University of Virginia. According to those who take the Courting approach, if college students were to adopt their strategy, this problem would cease to be.
In the nature of whole-hearted commitment, seeking the best possible education while in college is also a view of the proponents of the Courting approach. A great deal of value is placed on the concept of college students being just that— students. Their primary job at this stage in life is to pursue the best education possible and, while involved in this pursuit, they have neither the time nor energy to responsibly court a spouse. Therefore, being graduated from college and adequately settled into their career is when it is best for people to engage in courtship.
Another approach that calls for dating to play no role in the lives of college students is the Cannot Date approach. Rather than opposing the concept of dating, these students have tried to date, or at least wanted to, but deemed it to be impossible. Like the Courting approach, these students value their standing as students and hold education as a very high priority. Students are practically overwhelmed with balancing their schedules as is, before the addition of a dating relationship. This is aptly worded up by a student at the University of Arizona: “While pursuing a double major, interning, working, maintaining a social life and attending school full time, Danielle Demirjian, a business economics and finance senior, finds exclusive dating too much of a commitment” (Hill, 2003, p. 1). This is a common complaint among college students. Despite their desire to date, exclusively or casually, there just does not seem to be the time, though time alone is not the only issue. For those students advanced in their time management skills, the emotional burden may be too great. Jaime Dutton, a sophomore at Johns Hopkins University says, “It’s hard enough to have fun here with all the work you have to do, [that] there’s no reason to have the extra drama in your life” (Saxe, 2003, p. 1). Nicole Kucewitz, a writer for the Rocky Mountain Collegian, circulated at Colorado State University agrees, “Relationships take time and patience, and in college, both of these can be very limited” (2001, p. 1).
Finally, there is the Hooking Up approach. This last group also does not date, but rather has an alternate social structure to replace traditional dating. Their philosophy: at the college level, formally dating is unnecessary. For social activities, in contrast with the one-on-one date, groups are ideal. As for sexual needs, non-committal hooking up is not only acceptable; it’s preferred. Common values amongst this group include enjoying yourself socially with friends, casually fulfilling sexual needs, and avoiding commitment. This “new age” form of dating is the solution that has flourished as a result of the gripes of the Cannot Date approach.
Many of the students who fall into this approach see the dating arena as split into two distinct portions: “People are either single or practically married” (Burney, 2003, p. 1). Hence, here is the solution for those people who wish to, for the most part, retain their single status, while still satisfying their social and sexual needs, all the while avoiding the “marriage-type” exclusive relationship like the plague. Dan, a student at Duke University, puts it this way: “In the real world, there is an expectation that after the third date, you might get a hookup. At Duke, there is the expectation that after the third hookup, you might get a date” (Beckett, 2003, p. 1). So perhaps once college students reach the “real world” this approach will fade away, nevertheless as for the role of dating while in college, this approach holds the largest number of students.
One appealing aspect to this approach is the avoidance of complication when compared to the old style of formal or even casual dating. With this approach, future hookup partners spend time in groups and get to know each other in a more friendly context first. In this way a lot of the awkward chess-like strategies common to the pre-date period are circumvented. Or even simpler, the story goes like this: “Now all a guy in a decent fraternity has to do to hookup on a Saturday night is to sit on the couch long enough at a party. It’s slow at first, but eventually a girl will plop herself down beside him, they’ll sit there drinking, he’ll make a joke, she’ll laugh, their eyes will meet, sparks will fly, and the mission is accomplished. And you want me to tell this guy to call a girl, spend $100 on dinner and hope for a goodnight kiss?” (Beckett, 2003, p. 1) This trend is perpetuated by “the beds [being] short walks from the parties. This increases the likelihood of the drunken hookup, while simultaneously decreasing the frequency of actual dates” according to Tom Burney, a columnist and student at Duke University.
With this tendency to go from partying to hooking up, a critic may be quick to draw the conclusion that alcohol is the driving force behind this approach. On the contrary, this is a premeditated method of pursuing the attractive sex by getting to know them as friends (at least superficially) first. David Brunkow, computer science major at Colorado State University, attests to this: “Most of the people I’ve been with were already my friends…It’s so much easier that way. You already know they’re a good person and that they’re not going to screw you over. Also, if things don’t work out, you don’t lose your friend” (Borra, 2002, p. 2).
It is now clear that the issue of college dating holds several opinions both in practice and theory. These are the complexities, in addition to academic and academic-related extra-curricular activities, that college students find themselves caught up in every day. Simply being aware of the situation that constantly surrounds them will be helpful to the majority of students. While no one theory is clearly ideal for all students, there does seem to be an acceptable theory available to any given individual, despite a wide range of personal beliefs. For that matter, one may choose to mix and match these approaches. Obviously some do not mix as well as others, though it would be quite feasible to be casually dating and hooking up simultaneously, in addition to possibly looking for an exclusive dating relationship.
Which approach is most appealing and applicable in your life? Would you choose to make the time and emotional investment to exclusively date? Maybe the ease of hooking up is more attractive. Perhaps you would prefer to casually date and enjoy the romance of wining and dining. Conversely, you may be most interested in marriage and will choose not to date. Or you may be so committed to other aspects of your life that you deem it an impossibility to date. No matter. This is clearly an issue of personal choice. Regardless of the decision made it is liable to change at any given time.
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