Does Dating Have to Be Exclusive?

Author: Mary Beth Bonacci

"Does Dating Have to Be Exclusive?"


Why is it that if a girl goes out with more than one guy, people look down on her?

One of the most difficult aspects of modern dating is figuring out at what point a relationship is expected to become "exclusive." It seems to me that after two or three dates, two people somehow magically become a "couple," and a huge "unavailable" sign appears over each of their heads, warding off all other interested parties.

I was not around in the 1950s, but from what I have heard, they handled dating a little bit differently. They seem to have recognized that dating is about getting to know people. If you wanted to get to know someone, you went on a date. If you both wanted to get to know each other better, you went on more dates. If, in the mean time, there was someone else you wanted to know, you could go on a date with that person also. "Going steady," as it was called back then, was a big step. Agreeing not to date others was generally accepted as an indication that a couple was seriously considering marriage. But as long as you had not taken that step, there was nothing socially unacceptable about dating several different people at once.

Try that today and see what kind of names people call you. What happened to change things? Sex. It is no big deal to go to dinner and a movie with someone and then hear that he had dinner and a movie with someone else. It is a big deal, however, to go to bed with someone and then to hear the he went to bed with someone else. We are not made to share our sexual partners. Sex speaks a permanent, exclusive language. Sex says, "You and only you," not, "you and my date next Saturday and anyone else I happen meet in the mean time."

After the sexual revolution, sex outside marriage became acceptable. Dating changed radically. This permanent bond began to enter temporary dating relationships and those relationships became much more intense, unstable and painful. Dating at that point became much more monogamous , or at least there was an expectation that dating would be monogamous. People who were dating several people at the same time were assumed to be sleeping with several different people and that still is not considered socially (or morally) acceptable in many circles. As soon as a couple had been on two or three dates, it was generally assumed that they would no longer date others.

The '50s may not have been perfect, but I believe that we should return to a dating system which in some ways resembles their system. Dating should be about getting to know members of the opposite sex. There should be nothing wrong with going on dates with several different people. Every time you accept a date with someone, it shouldn't mean that you can't date anyone else in the foreseeable future. "Going steady" should be a big deal. It should imply that a couple is seriously considering marriage. It shouldn't just be some kind of "artificial marriage," taking you out of circulation, tying you down to someone you probably won't marry and guaranteeing a painful breakup down the line.

Of course, if we were going to return to a system like that, we would need to make some other changes. There could not be sexual activity in dating. You can't date multiple people and still engage in sexual activity on those dates. That wouldn't be dating, it would be promiscuity. Dating would have to be about talking and getting to know each other, not about having sex or making out or getting "hot and bothered" in the back seat of a car. Affection in this kind of dating would have to be limited to hugs and light kisses.

To return to a system like this would also mean that dating would not be a good place to "find love" in the short run. If you believe that every new date is someone who will cure your loneliness and love you unconditionally, this kind of system won't work for you. Of course, no system will. Dating is conditional , by definition. It is about dating and rejecting a lot of different people until you find one with whom you want to spent the rest of your life. In the mean time, your needs for love, support and companionship must be met elsewhere , by friends, family and community. Those people will be around for the long run.

Until there is a ring on your finger, you shouldn't be relying on dates for love or for anything but respectful treatment and pleasant conversation. And while you're dating, you should be able to enjoy that respectful treatment and pleasant conversation with as many people as you like.

Don't get trapped in the "fake marriage" of premature committed relationships. Enjoy being single for a while.

Bonacci is a frequent lecturer on chastity.

This article appeared in the February 15, 1996 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald."

Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information, call 1-800-377-0511 or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.