How Have Intimate Relationships Changed Over the Years, and Where Does It Leave Us Now?

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I just finished reading the book ‘Modern Romance: An Investigation’ by Aziz Anzari and Eric Klinenberg, and was pleasantly surprised to see such a well researched book written predominantly by a Stand-up Comedian (with a helping hand from a Sociologist).

For those of you who don’t know Aziz, his stand-up shows typically consist of interesting observations about relationships, as does his new series ‘Master of None’:

Considering that I’d already seen and liked both his stand-up and his show, I was definitely intrigued to see his name next to a book about Modern Romance in my local bookstore. Here’s what his research found:

How Has Dating Changed?

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1. Distance

Back in 1932, a Sociologist named James Bossard examined 5000 consecutive marriage licences in the city of Philidelphia, USA, and looked into how close the partners had lived to each other before they married. Here’s what he found:

  • Same address – 12.64%
  • Same block – 4.54%
  • 1 to 2 blocks – 6.08%
  • 2 to 4 blocks – 7.3%
  • 4 to 10 blocks – 10.16%
  • 10 to 20 blocks – 9.62%
  • 20+ blocks – 17.8%
  • Different cities – 17.8%

This means that more than one-in-two individuals in Philidelphia in the 1930s were likely to marry someone who was already living in a ten block radius to them. More than one-in-six didn’t even have to cross the road to find the partner that they decided to spend the rest of their lives with.

Other Sociologists looked to see if this pattern remained in smaller towns, and found that it did whenever suitable marriage partners were available. John Ellsworth Jr., who examined marriage patterns in a Connecticut town of less than 4,000 called Simsbury declared:

“People will go as far as they have to to find a mate, but no farther.”

Whilst this quote may still be somewhat applicable in modern times, it does seem that we are much more likely to date people of different origins, cultures and addresses to us, rather than settling down with someone who lived on the same street.

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2. Places

Where we meet our romantic partners is much different too. Sociologist Michael Rosenfeld’s survey ‘How Couples Meet and Stay Together’ asked over 3,000 Americans adults of all ages when and how they met their spouse or romantic partner. Because the age of the respondents all differed, it made it possible to see how this had changed over the years between 1940 and 2010. Here’s what he found:

  • In 1940, the most common way couples met was through family (approximately 25%). Second was meeting through friends (21%), followed by meeting in church (13%), and being neighbours (12%).
  • In 1950, meeting through friends had become the most popular method to meet someone (approximately 26%). Meeting through family was still popular (24%), and was a clear second. Meeting in a bar or a restaurant (14%) was becoming more popular, and meeting at work (12%) or being neighbours (12%) was now more popular than meeting at church (10%).
  • In 1970, meeting through friends was now easily the most preferred method to meet a partner (approximately 31%), with meeting through family (20%) now being challenged by meeting at a bar or restaurant (18%). Meeting at work was now a clear fourth (15%), followed by neighbours, church and college.
  • In 1990, meeting through friends was just below 40%, meeting at work was now second (20%), followed by by meeting at a bar or a restaurant (18%). Meeting through family and being neighbours had declined as ways to meet a partner, and more people were meeting in college, presumably because more people were also going to college, and studying for longer. Some early-adopters were just starting to meet online also, but this was still the least popular method of meeting.
  • Fast forward to 2010, and meeting through friends was still the most common way couples met, but it was under 30% for the first time since 1960. Meeting at a bar or restaurant was now fighting with meeting online for the 2nd most popular method, with both around 20% (for same-sex partners, meeting online was already the most popular option in 2005, and was up around 70% by 2010). Meeting at work, meeting through family, being neighbours and meeting through church were now much less popular ways to meet someone, and even meeting at college was beginning to decline. All thanks to the rise of the internet!

In a separate study looking at how Americans met their spouses between 2005 and 2012, Psychologist John Caccioppo found that more than one-in-three married couples met online (34.95%), which was more than work (14.09%), friends (12.4%) and a bar or club (5.68%) combined. All of the recent advances in technology, especially the internet and smartphones, really has changed the dating scene dramatically, including how we meet, who we meet, how many potential partners we can meet, and even how we communicate with each other.

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3. Communication Methods

The first text ever was by a British engineer called Neil Papworth in 1992. It’s crazy to think how much this form of communication has grown in only 24 years. In 2007, text messages began to outnumber phone calls made in the US each month, and in 2010 approximately 200,000 texts were sent around the world each minute. Since 2010, the amount of people owning smartphones has dramatically increased, rising from 17 percent in 2010 to 58 percent in all American adults in 2014, and to 83% for those between the ages of 18 and 29. With greater smartphone use comes an increasing use in apps such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Viber, which only further increases the amount of instant messages that are being sent in comparison to phone calls being made.

Calling vs Texting vs Face-to-Face?

First Dates

Seeing that text messages have been a more popular way of communicating since 2007, does this mean that it is now okay to text someone to ask them out on a first date?

  • In 2010, only 10% of adults under 30 used texts to ask someone out for the first time.
  • By 2013, a Match.com survey found that this number had increased to 32%, with face-to-face still leading the way with 37%, a phone call less popular at 23%, and e-mails essentially non-existent at 1%.
  • For adults over 30, this same Match.com survey found that a phone call (52%) was definitely the most likely method of communication when asking someone out on a date, followed by face-to-face (28%), text messages (8%) and e-mail (7%).

In the focus groups that Aziz and Eric ran about whether to phone or text, older females tended to appreciate phone calls, and saw them as a sign of confidence and something which helped separate the person from other potential suitors. It also helped them to feel more safe and comfortable about going out on a date with someone that they may not know very well.

Younger females seemed just as afraid to receive phone calls as what younger males were in making them. They preferred not having to respond on the spot, and being able to have time to think of a witty or genuine reply, or to not even reply at all if they weren’t interested, and texting provided them with these options.

Breaking Up

What about breaking up – can this too be done via text without having to see the reaction of the heart that you are potentially breaking? It sure sounds easier, but is it socially acceptable?

  • In a 2014 survey of 2,712 18- to 30-year-olds, 73% said that they would be upset if they were broken up with via text, social media or email.
  • In this same survey, out of those who had ended a relationship in the previous 12 months, 25% had used text, 20% had used social media, 18% had split face-to-face, 15% had broken up through a phone call, and 11% had used email.

With texting, those who had used this method to break up said that they did so because it was “less awkward” and easier to be “more honest.” I still think that it is bad form to end a lengthy relationship over text, no matter how much easier it may be. Even though the majority of young adults still agree with me, their actions actually say the opposite. It’s only a matter of time before their attitudes begin to change in regards to this too.

Texting Guidelines for Dating:

  1. Do not just say “hey”, “hi”, “what’s up?”, “what’s going on?”
    • Generic messages like this tend to be a real turn-off for some people, especially females that receive a lot of messages like this from several different guys. It is much better to ask a specific question about them or something that refers back to the last time that you spoke.
  2. Do not just engage in endless banter that never leads to a real world catch-up.
    • Endless banter gets boring eventually, and older women in particular have less patience for constant text exchanges.
  3. Do not just ask someone if they want to “hang out sometime?”
    • It’s confusing as to whether hanging out is a date or just friends, and it may never lead to an actual date. Instead, invite them out to a particular event, or ask them to meet you at specific time and place.
  4. Do try to proof-read your text messages for correct grammar and spelling.
    • This is often a major turn off, as is shortening words or using text-slang. Determine the audience first, but if unsure, stick to “tonight” rather than “2nite”.
  5. Do use a bit of playfulness and humour, but with caution.
    • Make sure that you have a similar sense of humour before engaging in anything too risky or crude, and remember that it can be difficult to pick up on tone in text messages.
  6. Follow the other basic rules around texting:
    • Wait a while to text back instead of doing it right away, especially early in the dating process. Waiting a while implies that you have a busy life, and also builds the suspense, which can increase emotional intensity and a sense of attraction in the person who has to wait.
    • If you have already sent a text, do not send another text to the same person until you hear back from them unless it is an absolute emergency.
    • Write a similar amount in your texts to what the other person does. If you increase it slightly, they should too if they like you due to our tendency to reciprocate. If they do not, then this may mean that they are not aware of the cultural norms around texting, or they are just not that into you.
    • If you are not interested, others will tell you to be upfront and honest with them, but most people actually either pretend to be busy or stop texting back.

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4. Expectations

When choosing a partner, it seems that our expectations of what the other person needs to provide us has continued to increase over the past 50 years:

  • Prior to the 1960s, most people were happy enough with settling for a “companionate” or good-enough marriage. People didn’t spend forever looking for passion and love (even though this may have developed over time). In fact, many people saw passionate love as too volatile or irrational a thing to use as the basis for whether or not they should marry someone.
  • When looking for a prospective husband back in 1939, men with a dependable character, emotional stability, maturity and a pleasing disposition were all more highly sought after by women than men whom they felt mutual attraction and love for.
  • Even by the early 1960s, 76% of women were willing to marry a man that they didn’t love.

    “Marriage was an economic institution in which you were given a partnership for life in terms of children and social status and succession and companionship.” – Esther Perel

  • When looking for a prospective wife in 1939, men also highly valued emotional stability, maturity, a dependable character and a pleasing disposition, and interestingly also valued ambition and industriousness over mutual love and attraction.
  • By the early 1960s however, only 35% of men admitted that they were willing to marry a woman that they didn’t love, presumably because they already had more legal rights and financial freedom, and they weren’t looked down upon as much for moving out of the house and enjoying single life before getting married.
  • By the 1980s, things had definitely changed, with 86% of men and 91% of women in the US saying that they needed romantic love in order to marry someone.
  • In 2008, mutual love and attraction was now rated as the #1 factor that both men and women looked for in a prospective partner or spouse.

No longer do people settle just settle for companionship or what is good enough. We also want passion and the perfect life partner who completes us, gives us belonging and identity, mystery and awe, and truly makes us happy. Some people even declare that they are looking for their soul mate, and refuse to settle for anything less.

This search for the perfect partner seems to take a lot of emotional investment, trial and error, potential heartbreak, and much stress and indecision. If we do actually find our soul mate, the potential pay-off should theoretically be much higher than it is for an old-fashioned “companionate” marriage. However, with more potential options available to us, and so much higher expectations in terms of what we are looking for, how are we ever meant to know if we have found the one, or if we should settle down and get married?

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5. Marriages

At what age do we get married?

From 1950 until about 1968, the average age of first marriages in the US was about 20 for females, and 23 for males. In the mid 1970s this age started to rapidly increase, until it briefly stagnated at about 24 for females and 27 for males between 1999 and 2004. It then began to increase again to about 27 for females and 29 for males in 2014. In bigger cities such as New York, this number is now thought to be over 30 for both males and females.

After how long do we tend to get married?

Before the 1960s, the average couple wed after just six months, according to Stephanie Coontz, author of ‘Marriage, A History’. Obviously the dating period, as well as the engagement period tends to be much longer these days, with some couples even choosing to live together in a de-facto relationship without ever marrying.

Do we even need to get married anymore?

Before the 1960s, getting married, buying a house, and moving out of the parental home were the first major steps after adolescence that signified the transition to adulthood. Single women rarely lived alone, and many families discouraged their daughters from moving into shared housing with other girls who were working. Their parents were heavily involved in all of their decisions, even who they dated, and typically always knew about their whereabouts.

Women of previous generations would sometimes get married just to get out of the house and get their first taste of adulthood and freedom. However, once married, they were not really more free to do what they wanted, instead having to depend on their husbands for legal and financial purposes whilst being fully responsible for looking after the house and the children.

Although things still aren’t fully equal with men and women, with women typically earning less and having to do a greater proportion of the housework and child-rearing, they have been given equal legal rights regarding property and divorce. This, alongside the greater acceptance of various lifestyle choices, including being able to move out without getting married, either to live alone, with friends or with a partner, has made it so that marriage is now a choice, rather than a necessity.

6. Choices

Thanks to the advances in technology, we now have more potential options available to us at the click of a mouse or swipe of a button than we have ever had before.

Thanks to the greater rights and freedom provided to most women in Australian culture, we also have a new developmental period between adolescence and adulthood called emerging adulthood (ages 18-29), where people are able to go to university, start a career, travel, move around a bit, and have some fun and relationship experiences before settling down and getting married.

During emerging adulthood, we end up greatly expanding our pool of potential romantic partners. Once you include online dating and other apps for meeting people, the number of potential partners becomes exponentially larger, especially in bigger cities like Melbourne.

But does having more choices make it easier to find “the one”?

Research on the paradox of choice would suggest not. As I’ve already mentioned in a previous post, Barry Schwartz, a Psychologist, describes an experiment that was done at a supermarket where they offered 24 different samples of jelly (jam) to customers on day one, and only 6 different samples of jelly on day two. The day with only six options outsold the day with 24 options by ten times the amount.

Too many options lead to indecision and paralysis, as well as greater discontent after a decision has been made. So before you are searching for a partner, especially if it is online, do make sure that you have a sense of what is truly important to you, and what is not, and try to limit your search to these options. Then if you find someone who seems to be alright, give them a real chance before moving onto the next one. You’re likely to be more satisfied on a long-term basis if you do.

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Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

 

 

3 thoughts on “How Have Intimate Relationships Changed Over the Years, and Where Does It Leave Us Now?

  1. Lots of great insights in here. One big mistake people make is believing they will find their soulmate before committing to the relationship, then jumping ship the moment they hit rough waters. Soulmates don’t fall from the sky. They are made through years of working together toward common goals and struggling to make a home and a life.

    Liked by 2 people

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