Old-fashioned Valentine’s Day traditions include cards, flowers, and going on dates. Today, a lot of single young adults might wonder what happened to this last tradition, as a culture of casual sexual encounters has largely replaced dating. This is a problem that’s not just on manufactured holidays like Valentine’s Day: Dating served an important role for society, and singles are suffering from its decline.
Traditional dating allows young adults to get to know one another, practice communication skills, and figure out if they are compatible before introducing the complicated emotions that come with getting physical. We hardly need a study to tell us something so obvious, but scientists have confirmed that when sexually aroused, both men and women make poorer decisions. Cooler jets lead to clearer thinking.
Additionally, a slow-moving dating relationship provides a more solid foundation for the long run, putting young adults on a path to marriage and maturity. Throughout life, there are chapters where two partners may not be able to engage in sex — a period of long distance separation due to a move or a deployment, the recent birth of a child, or a major illness. It’s important that friendship and true compatibility exist as the foundation during these times, and that partners know how to show and share their love in ways beyond the physical.
Understandably, dating can be difficult, especially in an era of rapid change in the way people meet and communicate. But it’s worth it – dating has better returns in the long run, even when it results in a break-up.
Dating helps young adults prioritize what’s important to them in a partner, and over time they become more selective as a result. This forgotten process is what used to drive most young adults to marriage.
Dating also can teach good life lessons, even for the perpetually single. Relationships require that we learn to communicate well, to be patient, to set goals and boundaries, and to compromise.
In fact, even from a young age (the teen years), dating helps youth understand how affection and intimacy function within a relationship, according to Gateway, a publication from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign about teen issues. We continue this learning process as adults.
That is, unless we choose to go another way, and act immaturely, engaging only in so-called “hook-ups.”
“Hooking up,” which has largely replaced traditional dating, puts things in reverse. The sex comes first, and the — maybe — couples will explore if there is more there than physical attraction.
Some might ask if hooking up and dating have to be mutually exclusive. Many dating relationships started as a hook-up, but turned more serious as feelings got involved. This isn’t uncommon, but it’s not what’s best. In fact, this phenomenon can lead to mismatched expectations among hook-up partners, and ultimately to bitterness, confusion, and regret.
When asked, most young adults describe their hooking-up experiences negatively or ambivalently. According to author Donna Freitas, who interviewed college students on hooking up, they commonly used words like “regretful,” “empty,” “miserable,” “disgusted,” and “ashamed.” Nothing changes about this after college.
Dating, on the other hand, has the benefit of being shame free. When a relationship doesn’t work out, but both parties acted honestly and in good faith, then the two can walk away with clear consciences (and yes, sometimes heavy hearts). The real shame lies in short-selling yourself as anything less than a person who deserves to be known and loved fully, not just used for a one-night fling.
This Valentine’s Day, bring back dating. It has benefits for young singles who are looking for love, and it also has benefits to society more broadly, by better preparing people for adult life. The dating experience might come with many highs and lows, but for most, the result is a strong relationship with a better bond – and yes, ultimately, better sex – than any short-lived “hook up” might provide.
Hadley Heath Manning is a senior policy analyst for the Independent Women’s Forum.?