Indicators of Child, Family, and Community Connections, Companion Volume of Related Papers. II. Changing Patterns of Courtship and Dating


The pathways to stable intimate unions are best understood as developmental trajectories in which a series of steps, or stages, lead to a marriage or other intimate relationship. There are typical, or customary patterns of mate-selection found in all societies, ranging from arranged marriages by parents to virtually unfettered individual free choice by the couple themselves. At the same time, these cultural patterns change, often quickly, in response to larger social conditions. To put the current situation in perspective, I offer an abbreviated history of American courtship and dating customs.

Largely as a result of their ethnic composition, mate-selection of the early American settlers closely resembled the European customs of courtship. Parents were heavily involved in courtship because the consequences of marriage had implications for them (in the form of offspring, property, or social alliances.) At least until the middle 19th century, couples met and associated mainly in public, at church, dances, picnics, or other communal gatherings. As things progressed, young men would call on young women at their homes where parents would supervise. Not until the couple was betrothed were they allowed much privacy or sexual intimacy (which meant kissing and petting.)(4) But the barriers to privacy were ended by the early 20th century as youths began to enjoy greater financial and social independence. Parents became less involved in courtship as the primary consequences of marriage shifted from the older generation to the younger couple themselves. Mass, mandatory public education meant that all youths were segregated among other single youths for most of a new phase of life that came to be called adolescence.(5) Increasing numbers of young adults (including women) in newly developing urban centers had their own ability to earn incomes. And changing technologies such as movie theaters and automobiles (and back seats) allowed much greater privacy.

Courtship was replaced by dating in the first two or three decades of the 20th century.(6) Dating stressed physical attractiveness, some sexual intimacy, and competition rather than the more traditional concerns over family name and homogamous economic position. More importantly, dating, unlike courtship, was peer supervised. A date took place away from home and was not chaperoned by parents. Not the occurrence of emotional or physical intimacy but the question of whose advice guided young people in developing heterosexual ties was the critical difference between dating and the practice of "calling" and "keeping company" (i.e., courtship) that is was rapidly supplanting in the 1920's.(7)

Dating, though much less subject to parental (and community) scrutiny, was still highly organized and regulated. The regulation, however, was mainly by peers rather than parents. Dating was a competitive form of recreation in which boys and girls attempted to be both good dates, and maintain good reputations. Especially for girls, this meant avoiding the label of being "easy." Youths segregated themselves into cliques based on their attractiveness and restrictiveness. High school dating cultures developed to enforce conformity. The involvement of parents was more indirect than it had been in earlier times. Parents sought to influence their children's choice of dates, though there was less overt attempt to control such decisions. Pairings were strongly regulated by one's status in the dating market in a pattern that was described as "rating and dating."(8) Strong norms, in short, were quite evident. Beyond visible symbols, word of mouth was powerful when everybody was likely to know everybodyGossip, of course, regulated behavior, and chiding served to educate boys to the proper ways of behaving toward girls so that the rules of the dating system might be learned even by those more backward among them.(9)

Engagement intervened between dating and marriage for most of the 20th century, as had betrothal during courtship. The relationship during an engagement period was a more serious stage in the family-formation process lasting, on average, six months to a year. Engaged couples were held to much less restricted sexual standards. But most importantly, once couples were engaged, they became more immune from monitoring and control from peers or parents.

The children of the Baby Boom (children who were in high school in the latter 1960s and 1970s) continued to date, as their parents had. But a new pattern in dating emerged, going steady. Already evident by the latter 1950s, the more serious monogamous relationship of a dating couple was associated with greater individual freedom and, accordingly, less competition.

Until the middle of the 20th century, however, couples moving toward marriage lived at home until they were, in fact, married.(10) In the mid and late 20th century, a new pattern emerged for growing numbers of youths, the establishment of an independent household prior to marriage. Lengthened educational preparation and later ages at marriage meant that youthful dating in high school assumed much less importance as a pathway to a serious intimate union.

The custom of dating ended during the 1970s and 1980s. Challenges to gender roles were part of the reason. Dating had been an asymmetrical form of male-female relationship. It required a rather formal type of reciprocity, initiated (and paid for) by the male. The formality and competition of dating, as well as the rigid structures it imposed on relationships were rejected by the youths of the 1970s and 1980s. Instead of dating, more casual, mixed sex group activities became popular. Hanging out replaced dating. Girls could initiate a pairing up, as could boys. But the freedom and variety associated with these casual types of associations meant that there was less structure imposed on relationships by youthful peers. The control of heterosexual relationships among youths, in short, had moved from parents (courtship,) to peers (dating,) to partners (casual groups and hanging out) in the course of a century. As noted earlier, pathways to unions are typically organized, but often change quickly. We are now in such a period of rapid change.

Unions are now formed through a variety of ways, and marriage, if it occurs at all, occurs much later. By comparison with the early and mid 20th century, there is now much greater variety in how people meet and in the relationships they form. Demographers Lynne Casper and Suzanne Bianchi summarize the extensive demography of union formation with these vignettes:

  • Consider the life of a young woman reaching adulthood in the 1950s or early 1960s. Such a woman was likely to marry straight out of high school or to take a clerical or retail sales job until she married. She would have moved out of her parents' home only after she married, to form a new household with her husband. This young woman was likely to marry by age 20 and begin a family soon after. If she was working when she became pregnant, she would probably have quit her job and stayed home to care for her children while her husband had a steady job that paid enough to support the entire family.
  • Fast forward to the last few years of the 20th century. A young woman reaching adulthood in the late 1990s is not likely to marry before her 25th birthday. She will probably attend college and is likely to live by herself, with a boyfriend, or with roommates before marrying. She may move in and out of her parents' house several times before she gets married. Like her counterpart reaching adulthood in the 1950s, she is likely to marry and have at least one child, but the sequence of those events may well be reversed. She probably will not drop out of the labor force after she has children, although she may curtail the number of hours she is employed to balance work and family. She is also much more likely to divorce and possibly even to remarry compared with a young woman in the 1950s or 1960s.(11)

An historically abrupt change occurred when a sequence of events lost its chronological predictability (viz., dating, going steady, leaving home, an engagement, marriage, and childbearing.) Union formation is no longer so strongly associated with nest leaving. Rather, it occurs much later in life, after several possible routes that could include college attendance, occupational training, moving back into the parent's home, one or more unmarried cohabitating arrangements, and even childbearing. A uniform and rather predictable set of events (variously referred to as courtship, dating, or going steady) has been replaced by a diverse set of vaguely defined options including casual groups ("hanging out,") informal and occasional sexual encounters ("hooking up,") more serious boyfriend/girlfriend arrangements of varying types ("friends,") or co-residential cohabitation ("partners.").(12)

Demographic changes have produced an entirely new stage of life. Intervening between late adolescence and mature adulthood is a stage of life that lasts almost ten years. Legal emancipation occurs at age 18, though many youths continue to receive substantial support from parents after that. The median age at marriage in 2003 was 26.9 for men and 25.3 for women. Between leaving home somewhere around age 18, and marrying in the mid to late 20s, an entirely new stage of life has emerged. Never before in our history has such a period existed. It is during this uncharted stage of life that the pathway to marriage or some alternative arrangement now typically occurs.(13) It is also after marriages end, much later in life, that union formation increasingly occurs. These are the uncharted times and processes for which we must develop measures.

It is currently impossible to understand the wide range of relationship types found among adults looking for intimate unions. Nor is it currently possible to measure the customary expectations associated with each type of union. Relationships are governed by fewer social norms and expectations. When a college student tells her roommate that she and a man "hooked up" last night, this may mean that they kissed, had oral sex, had intercourse, or any combination. The term is intentionally vague to permit students to use it without implying any degree of commitment or emotional engagement. When a young person describes another as her "friend," this may imply a sexual relationship, or not. It may imply a serious degree of commitment, or not. It may imply an exclusive sexual arrangement, or it may not. Quite simply, we do not know the types of relationships that currently define the pathways to marriage (or cohabitation). Nor do we know the behaviors and values associated with each.

The most crucial dynamic dimension in the pathway to a stable union is the development of mutual commitment. Commitment varies to the extent that an individual perceives costs to terminating a relationship. And those costs are the consequence of extensive inter-dependencies. The anticipated costs of ending a relationship are central for understanding why it persists. Knowing such perceived "exit costs" would reveal a great deal about the degree of commitment to a relationship. Were an individual to perceive absolutely no costs to terminating a relationship, we could describe that person as having virtually no commitment to it. It is crucial that we collect data to provide an understanding of the development of commitment in the new landscape of union formation options.

Commitment can be viewed as the imagined costs of ending a relationship. Not until each partner sees large negative consequences of ending a relationship is it possible to describe the couple as mutually committed to one another and to their relationship. The development of commitment is thus the single most important issue to chart as people navigate the pathways to marriage or other intimate relationships.

View full report


"papers.pdf" (pdf, 639.68Kb)

Note: Documents in PDF format require the Adobe Acrobat Reader®. If you experience problems with PDF documents, please download the latest version of the Reader®