Here’s the thing: the 1950s were a pretty messed up time. Everything looks all glossy, yes, but there was large-scale oppression and repression, and those two things can never lead to better times. Women were more or less house pets. Minorities were lower than house pets. The nuclear family was All, and the nuclear war was Approaching. There was a definite structure to life that did not involve allowing many people to explore themselves and what they wanted from the world.
We’ve come a long way from that, or so it appears. The Civil Rights Movement happened, the Cold War ended, we’re now arguing about who should pay for women’s birth control and whether homosexuals should be allowed to marry each other. What a different landscape! Not much about the 1950s was good, besides the invention and popularization of television and most of the music.
But man, did they have dating figured out.
In the 1950s, it was more than normal to go on dates with multiple people, dates that were casual social interactions focused on getting to know another person, or many people, with the possible intention of being attracted to them. You were kind of required to go on dates, mostly because you were really only allowed to go on dates with the opposite sex and you weren’t really allowed to get to know them through any other more casual capacity. Now, if we ignore the requirements of the system, it’s a pretty good system! You found someone attractive or someone found you attractive for whatever reason, and one of you asked the other on a date to explore that attractive quality. Maybe there were other people you were going on dates with, or maybe that other person was going on dates with other people–it was all okay. You were all just getting to know people who attracted you! So you went on a few dates with this person and that person, and eventually you realized you were very attracted to a certain person, and you started going on dates with just that person, and you probably started making out with that person (this is the 1950s, remember!), and then you probably asked that person to go steady with you. There was a definite form at play there. People knew what the process was.
What they did in the 1950s was date to get to know someone, and yes, there was pressure to eventually make something more of any serious dating (i.e. marriage), and this seems to be the feature we’ve focused on most–dating as a sure-fire path to marriage. What we do now is assume we’ll get to know someone, and then we’ll want to date them seriously, and then let’s not even think about marriage because we’re both still in our late twenties and that is SUPER early to give our lives up to each other, right?
I was discussing dating with some friends of mine last night, and one of them mentioned that she had gotten flack in the past for dating multiple people at once. “You can’t do that,” her friends said. She was thinking about dating with a 1950s head: it is totally possible to get to know multiple people at once through a series of social interactions that have a predetermined interest in seeing if anything romantic happens. Her friends were thinking about dating with a 2010s head: it is potentially rude and conniving to be in relationships with multiple people at once. And that is the difference between our “dating” and the “dating” of the 1950s–we’ve come to think of dating someone as being in a relationship with someone, to think of dating as automatically “going steady” with someone, to use the appropriate 1950s lingo.
I posit this: dating your closest friends either works out really well for you once or twice or eventually you kill off all your close friendships. I had a romantically incestuous group of friends in high school, and the result was our group of friends in high school changed a few times and I don’t keep in touch with a majority of those people anymore. Our generation’s ideal relationship trajectory is this: you meet someone, you become friends with this someone, you spend time with this someone, you become closer friends with this someone, you continue to spend time together, then one day you realize you have feelings for this someone or vice versa, then someone confesses these feelings, and then you can both begin your serious relationship together at that moment, more or less at that mutual level of intimacy, and neither one of you ever has to worry about dating again because you’ve found your best friend and he/she turned into your lover and now everything’s perfect.
Yeah, good freakin’ luck with that one.
When a friend of mine my age has feelings of attraction towards someone else, it’s a blurry dreamscape that no one can seem to navigate. “Well we were flirting I think but he didn’t ask for my number, so nothing happened.” “Well she asked me to go to this thing with her but I don’t think it’s a date thing.” “Well we made out and both had a good time but neither one of us has asked about doing anything else in the future.” “Well we slept together but I don’t know, I didn’t want to ask what we were doing, you know, what we were doing here.” And then these people–and I’ve been one of them, too–spend weeks in neurotic anguish over what every little detail means, where this thing is heading, who thinks what means what, what they’re allowed to ask or discuss.
In our youthful efforts to subvert our parents’ methods of living life and our parents’ parents’ methods of living life, we have gotten ourselves into some pretty vague territory when it comes to dating. We are free-thinkers! We are career-oriented! We are either too busy or too restless or too open or too selfish or too confused or too afraid to date in that classical sense, date in that regular sense, to date at all. I don’t want to be tied down, but I also want to know what’s going on, and obviously I don’t want to be one of many, either. We don’t know what we want, and maybe that was the key to the 1950s: you were only allowed to want one thing, and that thing was marriage. Monogamy was inevitable. Eventual seriousness was a given. Dating was a tried and true method to meet enough people until you found the one with whom you thought you wanted to or could stand to or felt pressured to spend the rest of your life.
We don’t know what we want. Do I want to see my friends or have a significant other? Do I want to work a grueling job or have time to cook dinner with someone? Do I want to date someone instead of live in a city I want to live in? The list of choices goes on and on. I will say that, excluding a very few, most people I know are still trying to find someone with whom they can shack up, even if its on their own bizarre terms, or to their own peculiar liking. Too many choices can feel just as oppressive as no choices, sometimes.