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Couplin'

November 2, 2006 By:
Frank Rosci
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The dating scene for young people seems to be changing. One of the latest theories is that the young are less into playing the field, less into the merry-go-round of numerous dating partners in a short period of time, and more into longer -- and long-lasting -- monogamous relationships.

Factors at work and play in this new scenario for those in their early to late 20s range from the dynamics of satisfying basic emotional needs and heartfelt one-to-one connections to the practical aspects of keeping dating simple, and even meeting economic considerations, according to experts.

"Yes, I do see that this is happening more and more among young people, including with my own college-age daughters, one of whom is in college and one of whom has graduated," reported Alan Wofsey, M.D., chief of psychiatry, Lankenau Hospital, and associate clinical professor of psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania.

"It used to be that a young person would ask another out on a date, based on some attraction or other, and if it worked out it did and if it didn't, well, that was okay. Nowadays, that doesn't seem to be the case.

"Today, kids feel a need to establish that they are an item first, usually through a period of very intense discussions, almost negotiations, done either face to face or through friends. After this, they begin to date, which very often leads to a long-term relationship," he explained. "The sexual free-for-all of the '60s is definitely over."

And young people tend to stay in these relationships, even if they're not good ones, for an inordinately long period of time, up to a year or two, he continued, because the pain of being in a bad relationship is better, in their view, than having no relationship at all.

This behavior reflects a basic sense of insecurity, according to Wofsey, because many young people aren't either able or comfortable handling the risk attendant to being involved.

Reasons for the long-term associations can include being under an enormous amount of stress because "kids feel they can't trust their parents, authority figures and even religious leaders," he noted. "As a result, the young become very peer-oriented, trying to grab on to someone and something that gives them a sense of security, thinking that if I have this person in my life I have security -- which they may need, for example, if their parents are divorced."

Illegitimacy Not an Issue?

What's also new in this monogamous dating dynamic is the relative lack of concern about having illegitimate children, among the young and their parents: "The young will try to solidify a relationship by having a child. Yuppies will buy a house; kids will have a baby to stay together. In the past, sex was a way of opening the door to a relationship. Now, it's used as a way to stay together."

At the University of Pennsylvania, Robert Kurzban, Ph.D., an evolutionary psychologist, and member of the faculty, department of psychology, addressed why people are monogamous.

"A powerful force here is the 'parental investment theory' that's been around since the early 1970s, and that suggests it takes two parents by nature to nurture their offspring in such a way that they develop lasting pair bonds of their own. This is seen among many species of birds, for example," he said.

With this force come adaptations for lasting love and adaptations for polygamy as well, he added: "Humans can be quite flexible with regard to historical, religious and cultural representations, and they can be quite variable in their choices, with everyone being capable of being either a latent polygamist or latent monogamist."

As for what's driving monogamous dating among young people, Kurzban pointed to the fear of sexually transmitted diseases (a potential problem with more than one partner); the economic consideration of two people combining resources to cut costs; and even the rise of certain political ideas that influence lifestyle choices -- left vs. right, liberal vs. conservative -- as possible reasons.

Meanwhile, at Temple University, Beth Bailey, historian and specialist in gender/sexuality, history department, talked of other contemporary patterns.

"Today's dating styles vary a great deal and depend on the peer group to which young people (late teens to early 20s) belong, which is a matter of choice. Developments over the last 30 years or so show the loss of one dominant pattern, so it's very possible there is a large number of young people now who date just one person for a long while," she said.

"But this is more typical traditionally among somewhat older people, so that would be a major change among younger daters."

Up until World War II, she said, it was the rule for young people to date as many people as possible. After the war, until the 1960s, having just one person -- a steady -- was the norm.

Hanging out with a bunch of people became popular in the 1970s, with dating making a comeback in the '80s, while today, again, there are diverse models of behavior, she stressed.

"Actually, the sexual revolution of the 1960s undermined a set of understandings that left many young women vulnerable, and perceived as cheap and unmarriable when, in fact, the sexual revolution didn't always mean free love with a lot of different people.

"It didn't always mean that someone was always sexually active either. What it really meant was that it allowed people to make choices about their sexual lives," confirmed Bailey.

"It also meant, in part, that a young couple didn't have to sneak around. They could be in a monogamous relationship through which they asserted their right to sleep together."

As she explained, "Free love was part of it, but you also have to credit the sexual revolution with fostering monogamous dating."

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