Fighting Fear

Confronting phobias and other fears

Dating: Then and Now

The social rules for dating and dating expectations change over time.

The social rules for dating change from one generation to the next. There was a time when a proper young man and woman could not speak to each other unless they had been formally introduced. That practice seems silly now. On the other hand, I understand from my patients that it is considered bad manners now for young people to date someone who has previously dated one of their friends. Such a rule did not hold in my time, at least not among the people I knew. I went to an all-men’s college. The only women any of us ever saw were women that were dating our friends. If it were not permissible to date them in our turn, we would have had no one to date. I remember a few girls who went out with as many as three of my friends without anyone thinking that they—or the men they dated—were behaving improperly. Back in those days—before computers, or portable phones, or, even, electric typewriters—the rules were different. (Of course, I go back a long way, to a time when there were streetcars going up and down Broadway. I could buy a milkshake for a dime. All the telephones were black.)

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It was common, around that time, for men and women to meet at parties or at dances. The kind of dances performed then required holding each other, which put those of us who were shy at a disadvantage. Otherwise, a fellow and a girl would be “fixed up” on a blind date by a mutual friend. Meetings in bars happened from time to time, but were considered somewhat dangerous—at least by the women.

Then the times changed. Colleges became co-ed, and young people were thrown together informally, making it easy to meet someone of the opposite sex. Certain social expectations changed also. Instead of couples marrying in their early twenties, they married later.  Often men and women graduated college without yet entering into a serious, let alone permanent, relationship. During that particular time, after college, men and women sometimes found it difficult to find each other. The same was true for those who did not go to college in the first place. In another time and place, matchmakers would have been called upon to make the necessary arrangements; but no such social institution existed here in this country. There was need for an organized way for young couples to meet for the first time.

Advertising.  Way, way back in frontier days, men in the wilderness advertised in Eastern newspapers for a bride. Women made the trip west with the expectation that they would marry and be happy-- more or less. And it turned out they did and were, although there is never very much evidence about whether or not a particular married couple is really happy.  Similarly, during parts of the latter half of the 20th century, people once again began to use newspapers and magazines to make known their wishes to meet someone of the opposite sex. These small blurbs appeared in the personals section. The advertisements in The Village Voice were different than those in the various Jewish newspapers and different, also, from those in the New York Magazine.  Someone answering ads in one place might be replying to an invitation to engage in some sort of sex. Every sort, really. Others were directed at more sober individuals who were thinking of getting married somewhere down the line. Answering advertisements was not yet entirely respectable, but I knew of some doctors and lawyers who married someone they met under these circumstances, (including a friend, who was a psychiatrist. The person he met and married was another psychiatrist.)                                                                                                

There were two problems inherent in advertising for dating purposes, or answering such advertisements. The lesser problem was the concern that women had that they were endangering themselves meeting strangers about whom they knew very little. Commonly, parents warned against this practice. Stories circulated about women being lured to their deaths. A movie was made about such an encounter.  Consequently, stratagems were developed to make such encounters somewhat safer, that is, refusal by the woman to give her home address, or even her telephone number. Couples met for the first time in very public places. On occasion, a pseudonym was employed. This was before the time of the “date rape” drugs; but women were especially careful, nevertheless, to drink very little.

These precautions seemed less important after the first few times a woman responded to these published invitations to meet. It turned out the men they were introduced to this way were no more or less dangerous than men encountered for the first time in a bar, or even men whom they met through the recommendation of a friend. The women reported to me that they did not feel threatened—although they were very likely to report that they felt disappointed. Or annoyed.  Or, even, disgusted, on occasion. (A somewhat older, recently divorced, woman told me she was sitting with her date at a fancy restaurant when he took out his teeth and put them in a wine glass.)

Being pro-active, as I usually am, I encouraged men and women, too, to try dating this way, although, certainly, only after taking reasonable precautions. Most of the precautions I thought were important were against being stuck for a whole evening with a boring date. I especially recommended arranging to meet for the first time only for coffee or a drink. Spending a couple of hours with someone who was unattractive and unappealing was not too much of a price to pay for the chance to have met someone who might be attractive and appealing. It was also possible, sometimes, to do something that was entertaining, even with someone who was unattractive and unappealing.

I remember, now, an experience I had when I was in medical school. I lived at the Hall of Residence and helped make ends meet by working at the switchboard, (Believe it or not, there was such a thing as a switchboard.) I tried to connect a woman who wanted to reach one of the medical students. The fellow  turned out not to be in his room. Somehow, she and I got into a conversation. After a time, she asked if I would accompany her to the theater. I was really impressed. To be forward that way meant either that she was desperate or that she had tremendous self-confidence. I consented.  When I met her, I decided  she was probably desperate. It would not be gallant of me to describe her; but I had a good time anyway! It was a good play.

By the way, the men who advertised, or answered advertisements, had their own concerns. They were afraid they would be rejected out of hand, or made fun of. And they, too, were afraid of being trapped into being with someone who was undesirable.

The second problem in responding to these advertisements was that some people thought doing so implied that they were desperate. (See my reaction reported above.) No one wants to seem desperate.

Both men and women often find it difficult to approach someone at a party, let alone announce to the world that they are eager to meet someone.  In a larger context, this is a problem that impacts all dating situations: how to seem interested without seeming desperate.

I remember a young, single, attractive (I thought) woman who was working in a hospital and, to my surprise, going unnoticed. It turned out, I realized after a time, that she had hidden herself by looking away when she walked by someone in a hallway or when she stood next to someone in front of an elevator. She was too shy to try talking to them. But there was an interne whom she thought was nice. She would have liked going out with him, she told me.

“You have a good excuse to say hello to him,” I told her. “”He examined you when you had a sore throat. When you run into him in the hospital, thank him. Tell him you’re better now, and you want to thank him by buying him a cup of coffee.”

“Oh, no. I couldn’t do that,” she replied.

“Why not?”

“What would he think?”

What she would have liked him to think—what she should have liked him to think-- was that she was a friendly and nice girl—and just possibly interested in him as a man. The trick in these situations is to be friendly and allow of the interpretation that you might be interested in the other person. Being friendly and inviting, is not the same thing as seeming desperate. It is okay, even desirable, to show that you might be attracted to that other person. Being cool and unattainable is not a good strategy. In her case, she managed to become invisible.

The two principle impediments to answering personals in the newspaper, still apply now in the age of internet dating:

1 Women are afraid of meeting strangers because they think those encounters are potentially dangerous. They feel that men might be lying about who they are, about how educated they are, about how much money they make, even about whether they are actually single. In short, they may not be the men they are advertising themselves to be. Women, similarly, can lie about their age and weight, and anything else they think detracts from their attractiveness. Photographs are likely to be years out of date. Sometimes men, and women, have been known to put up other people’s photographs and represent them to be their own.

2. Women, and men too, are embarrassed by the idea of admitting openly that they would like to find someone to date. They think—at least some of them think—that trying to meet someone over the internet means they cannot meet anyone any other way. I have had patients who met and married perfectly presentable young men and continued to lie about the fact that they met through an internet dating service. They were still embarrassed. They would like to maintain the fiction that love happens spontaneously without their bothering to think about it. They think that is everyone’s expectation.

And there are other impediments to internet dating.

There is a right way to enter into internet dating. It is important to have reasonable expectations; and it is important to accept the fact that you want to meet someone.  Just as most other young men and women do.  (Next: an argument for internet dating.) (c) Fredric Neuman 2013 Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog

Fredric Neuman, M.D. is the Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Center at White Plains Hospital.

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