According to USA Today, an online survey found that 69 percent of 2,647 singles ages 18-59 years are "at least somewhat confused" about whether any given outing with a possible romantic partner is or is not a date. Eighty percent of those surveyed agree that a date is "a planned one-on-one hangout."
According to Sara Svendsen, 25, quoted in USA Today, "A date is someone personally asking you out — that sometimes can get confused with a one-on-one hangout, depending on the way they mention it or which medium they use to ask you or if it happens to be a group hangout."
The boundaries and expectations around the courtship process have loosened considerably. This is certainly not all bad. Compared to fifty years ago, men and women have more choice when it comes to who they ultimately decide to partner with. Texting, hanging out and hooking up have taken away some pressure so that many feel more free and at ease when meeting new people. At the same time, certain romantic skills are not being developed as a result of this relaxed expectation when it comes to dating and romance.
The lack of expectations the hang-out-attitude conveys, means that many are not comfortable taking their relationships seriously and are quite uncomfortable when it comes to emotional intimacy. Something about saying “let’s go on a date” is scary for Millennials, and for many single and divorced middle age adults, as if it means they are desperate or that a date signals a process designed to result in a marriage.
This fear is managed through the common practices of hooking up, hanging out and ‘friends with benefits.’ And it works. By taking away the formalities and the scary word "date" people are free to be more impersonal and feel less vulnerable.
Hanging out and hooking up takes the personal onus away so that when a relationship doesn’t work out, it is not experienced as a rejection--because no one really loses if they actually weren’t playing the game. In addition, foregoing the formalities allows people to make decisions from a distance. Many have become habituated to making choices for themselves (causes to get involved in, potential romantic partners and events to attend) through voyeuristic means, where the self is not really involved in a direct way, but stands back to assess the field. Similar to Facebook, Twitter and other social media, hanging out is a way to get information without actually having to fully bring one’s self to the table. As a result, people have generally become more and more uncomfortable with one-on-one intimacy.
Hooking up and hanging out keep tension at bay. And the more a person does it, the more uncomfortable a “real” date becomes.
The practices of hooking up and hanging out reduce feelings of vulnerability. Habitually relying on these practices allows a person to hide their innermost self while still enjoying romantic attention. Yet, in order to find the right match it is essential to learn to be at ease in a one-on-one dating context where both parties know that the other is evaluating them as a potential romantic partner.
You might ask, “Why?” Being vulnerable is a key to forging lasting relationships built on emotional intimacy. It is when we are vulnerable that we are our true selves. Of course, a willingness to be vulnerable builds over time as couples become more and more intimate. But risking close to zero vulnerability, as is generally the case with hanging out, hooking up, and friends with benefits, means the match is based more on fantasy than real life.
Whatever those awkward moments are during those first few dates for a new couple---i.e. pregnant pauses over a first meal together, inadvertently cutting off one another while speaking, the forced politeness or the inelegance of planning and executing an outing with a complete stranger, these moments are the seeds that must be sown to learn if a partnership can grow.
Flashes of discomfort are the cost when a person allows themselves to be a little vulnerable with a stranger. The level of vulnerability involved in a first date is, of course, not as encompassing as the vulnerability a couple willingly opens themselves to in an emotionally intimate relationship. But, these small moments are an entrée into this world; they give a person a hint of what it will be like to be unguarded with this particular person.
The tension, pressure and awkwardness of dealing with new people in a one-on-one context are difficult for many. A new date is a trip into the unknown, neither individual has a sure feel for how the other will behave or respond. As a result, people have to work much harder at first encounters than they do with hook up partners or with people they know very well. When we have to work at something unknown, most feel exposed.
If you cannot allow some of this vulnerability, you may find yourself continually hooking up and hanging out with the same kinds of partners or ‘types’ just so you don’t have to feel the tension of the unknown. Keep in mind, however, there are no short cuts to developing real emotional intimacy with a potential romantic partner. Using hooking up or hanging out to circumvent the harder job of a ‘real’ date means the necessary work you need to do to prepare yourself is only mounting. Each time you ‘hang out,’ you are not growing your ability to learn to be open with a real live person that is genuinely interested in knowing you.
Not playing it safe and directly labeling an outing with a potential love interest as a “date,” means you can make a better assessment of who you want to be vulnerable with for the long term.
Keep the discussion going, click here to follow Jill on Facebook or here to follow Jill on Twitter @DrJillWeber. Jill P. Weber, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy—Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships.