If Dating Is Dead, What’s Next?

If Dating Is Dead, What’s Next?

My role on university campuses for the past 30 years has given me a front row seat for the movie titled Dating. Relationships between college students have become so nebulous that the defining question on campus is, “Is this a date?”

I owe my understanding of the cultural shift in dating to Dr. Scott Stanley. He visited Trevecca Nazarene University in the fall of 2014 and lectured on the topic “Sliding vs. Deciding.” Dr. Stanley is a research psychologist and professor at the University of Denver and is a recognized specialist on cohabitation (living together without being married). His assumption is that dating builds the necessary foundation skills for commitment in marriage and that the demise of dating has left us sliding into relationships rather than deciding about relationships.

For the generation now in college, the marriage many of them saw in their home was not that appealing. They have seen divorce, mechanical relationships, significant conflict, affairs, and people who came unglued. They are not sure they want to be married to another human in the same way their parents were attached. And who can blame them? If marriage brings this kind of pain, why say “I do”?

They have attachment anxieties that make it difficult for them to commit to another person. Since love is risky, maybe it is better to stay somewhat disconnected and remain indecisive about the relationship. If you never actually say, “Would you go out on a date with me this Friday night?,” you don’t risk the pain of hearing, “Not on your life!” It’s easier to say, “Want to go do something?” or “Want to hang out?” This allows you to stay non-committal.

So it becomes unclear then whether you are on a date that is the beginning of a deeper relationship or just hanging out. And when one of the persons on the hang-out begins to be interested in the relationship, and the other person on the hang-out is afraid to commit to anything, pain is in the making. Because if it is unclear that something is beginning, it is even more unclear that something is ending. It is hard to stop something that might not have actually begun.

What Dating Used To Be Like

Once upon a time, there were dating rituals. I actually called Denise on the phone and asked her to go out on a date with me, at a specific time, to a specific place, and to do a specific thing. I picked her up, we followed the event plan, and I dropped her off at her dorm hoping to get some indication of a continuing relationship – a hug, a kiss, or a word of affirmation about the date. Then she went back to her dorm and dissected the date with her suite mates. The next day one of them might give me a hint regarding the future. Our dating had defined stages – dating, dating seriously, dating exclusively, going steady, getting serious, engaged, married. Each stage called for a deepening commitment to the relationship. With each choice made, the options narrowed.

And if the relationship ended, there were also decisive rituals. The “Dear John” letter was written by those who could not do it in person. Letter jackets, sweaters, and rings were returned to the rightful owner. Suite mates totally rejected you for a semester. You avoided each other.

Dating Today=Relationships Without Commitment

Now, breakup is hard because there was no commitment to break up from. Since you hang out with the same friends, does one of you leave the island? Do you unfriend the other person or berate them on Facebook? Do you stalk what the other is doing on social media? Is there even anything to return that symbolically says this is over?

Scott Stanley is on to something when he says that we used to commit to relationships at some level but now we slide into relationships without commitment. The essence of commitment is making a choice to give up other choices. It is to declare by communicating where the relationship is and where we are in it. But a culture ripe with attachment anxiety believes it is easier to slide, just hang out. Then we don’t risk the pain of love or the possibility of rejection.

Let me illustrate in another realm. I see college students who can’t make their mind up about a major. They like professors in every field and don’t want to disappoint them by not picking their major.  They shift back and forth, taking one semester aimed at engineering and the next semester falling in love with drama. Their attachment anxiety is displaying itself in the act of selecting a field of study. Before they know it, they are entering their senior year with no chance of accumulating enough hours to graduate with any major. Their indecisiveness is damaging their capacity to be ready to commit to any vocation or be skilled for the work. To choose a major, to decide rather than slide, is to make a choice to give up other choices. If they keep hooking up with multiple disciplines, they will never fully commit themselves to one. They are practicing the art of ambiguity, indecisiveness, choice avoidance.

I see the same pattern in dating, which does not bode well for the possibility of a committed marriage. Yet surveys tell us that over 90% of college students want to get married. And puberty is arriving earlier than it ever has before. And this combination of strong sexual desire + attachment anxiety + the hope of a good marriage = a perfect storm.

In my next post, I’ll write more about today’s hookup culture and what that means for the future.

Today’s post is an excerpt from my new book, Human Sexuality: A Primer for Christians. Click here to download a free sample chapter.



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