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

bench man couple love

I just finished reading the book ‘Modern Romance: An Investigation’ by Aziz Ansari 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 liked his stand-up and show, I was intrigued to see his book about relationships in my local bookstore. Here’s what his research found:

How Has Dating Changed?

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%

More than half of Philidelphia in the 1930s married someone who lived in a ten-block radius to them. More than one-in-six didn’t even cross the road to find their marriage partner.

Other Sociologists looked to see if this pattern remained in smaller towns and found that it did whenever suitable marriage partners were available. For example, 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.”

While 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.

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 American adults of all ages when and how they met their spouse or romantic partner. Because the age of the respondents differed, it made it possible to see the changes between 1940 and 2010. Here’s what he found:

  • In 1940, the most common way couples met was through family (approximately 25%). The second was meeting through friends (21%), followed by meeting in church (13%), and being neighbours (12%).
  • In 1950, meeting via 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 the preferred method to find a partner (approximately 31%). Matching through family (20%) was challenged by meeting at a bar or restaurant (18%). Meeting at work was fourth (15%), followed by neighbours, church and college.
  • In 1990, meeting through friends was just below 40%, finding your partner at work was now second (20%), followed by meeting at a bar or a restaurant (18%). Meeting through family and being neighbours had declined as ways to find a partner. Instead, more people were meeting in college, presumably because more people were also going to college and studying longer. Some early adopters were starting to date online too, but this was still the least favourite method of meeting potential partners.
  • 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 fought with meeting online for the 2nd most popular method, with both around 20%. Meeting online was already the most popular option for same-sex partners in 2005 and was up to about 70% by 2010. Meeting at work, meeting through family, being neighbours and finding dates through the church was now much less popular as 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 Cacioppo 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. So 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.

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 the world sent approximately 200,000 texts each minute. Since 2010, the number of people owning smartphones has dramatically increased in the USA. It rose from 17% in 2010 to 58% in 2014. 83% of 18- to 29-year-olds already owned a smartphone in 2014. With greater smartphone use comes an increasing use in apps such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Viber, which further increases instant messages sent.

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 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 virtually non-existent at 1%.
  • For adults over 30, this same survey found that a phone call (52%) was 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%).

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

Younger females seemed just as afraid to receive phone calls as younger males were in making them. They preferred not having to respond on the spot and having time to think of a witty or genuine reply or 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 seeing the reaction of the heart that you are potentially breaking? It sure sounds more comfortable, but is it socially acceptable?

  • In a 2014 survey of 2,712 18- to 30-year-olds, 73% said they would be upset if their date broke up with them 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 it is wrong to end a long relationship over text, no matter how much easier it may be. Even though the majority of young adults still agree with me, their actions 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 who receive many texts like this from several different guys. It is much better to ask a specific question about them or something that refers to the last time 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 whether hanging out is a date or just friends, and it may never lead to an actual date. So instead, invite them out to a particular event, or ask them to meet you at a specific time and place.

4. Do try to proofread your text messages for correct grammar and spelling.

  • Incorrect spelling is often a major turn off, as is shortening words or using text slang. Determine the audience first, but stick to “tonight” rather than “2nite” if unsure.

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 challenging to pick up on tone in text messages.

6. Follow the other basic rules around texting:

  • Please wait a while to text back instead of doing it right away, especially early in the dating process. Waiting a bit implies that you have a busy life and builds suspense, increasing the emotional intensity and attraction in the person who has to wait.
  • If you have already sent a text, do not send another message 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, 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.

4. Expectations

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

  • Before 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). Many people saw passionate love as too volatile or irrational 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 they felt mutual attraction and love towards.
  • By the early 1960s, 76% of women were willing to marry a man 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 pleasing disposition, and interestingly also appreciated 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. Men already had more legal rights and financial freedom and weren’t looked down upon for moving out of the house and enjoying single life before getting married.
  • By the 1980s, things had changed, with 86% of men and 91% of women in the US saying they needed romantic love to marry someone.
  • In 2008, mutual love and attraction were rated #1 for men and women looking for a prospective partner.

No longer do people 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 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. However, if we find our soul mate, the potential pay-off should theoretically be much higher than for an old-fashioned “companionate” marriage. However, with more possible options and higher expectations, how can we know if we have found the one to marry?

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 rapidly increased until it briefly stagnated at about 24 for women and 27 for men between 1999 and 2004. It then began to rise again to about 27 for females and 29 for males in 2014. In bigger cities, such as New York, it is 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’. However, the dating period and the engagement period tend 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 were the first significant steps that signified the transition to adulthood. Single women rarely lived alone, and many families discouraged their daughters from moving into shared housing with other working girls. Their parents were heavily involved in their decisions, even who they dated, and typically always knew about their whereabouts.

Women of previous generations would sometimes get married to get out of the house and get their first taste of adulthood and freedom. However, once married, they were not always more free to do what they wanted. Instead, they had 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 more housework and child-rearing, they now have equal legal rights regarding property and divorce. Alongside the greater acceptance of various lifestyle choices, including moving out without getting married, marriage is now a choice rather than a necessity for many women.

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 the Australian culture, we also have a new developmental period between adolescence and adulthood called emerging adulthood (ages 18–29). It is a phase where people can 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 possible partners grows exponentially, 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 at a supermarket where they offered 24 different samples of jelly (jam) to customers on day one and six jellies on day two. The day with only six options outsold the day with 24 possibilities by ten times the amount.

Too many options lead to indecision and paralysis and higher discontent after a decision. So before you are searching for a partner, especially if it is online, 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.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Published by Dr Damon Ashworth

I am a Clinical Psychologist. I completed a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Monash University and a Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences and a Bachelor of Psychological Sciences with Honours at La Trobe University. I am passionate about the field of Psychology, and apply the latest empirical findings to best help individuals meet their psychological and emotional needs.

23 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 4 people

  2. Also stopping by after your follow of my blog, thanks! Exceptional post! (And I say that having edited a variety of relationship and CBT books)

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Companionship is a treasure that is sadly lost. There is a negative stigma with some. I personally love it, and love any companions the Lord allows. I can easily see why so many seniors choose companionship.
    Btw, Damon… I mentioned your blog in a recent post Bloggers Support Bloggers Award because I wanted others to know how supportive you are. I mentioned it in a section that is not part of the nomination because I know you are award and tag free. May God bless you for your heart for others.
    Here is a link to the post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree with this article. That is why I find that when my clients take the SYMBIS pre/post marital assessment they have a clear picture of who they are and what their expectations are for their partner. But so does their partner. The results for both people are side by side on each page of the assessment. Relationships take work and effort. Kissing Prince Charming and living a happy ever after existence has never happened. It is even harder today. But it is not impossible!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE? Is this really true? Not really. Loving someone is a great start but what happens when that person often becomes “unlovable”? Maybe they’re not as perfect as you thought they were. Maybe they get a little fat after a while or develop little personality quirks that start getting on your nerves. Do you “jump ship” and get a divorce? Find somebody new?

    No. You stick it out. Real love is patient, forgiving and enduring (1 Cor. 12). It requires commitment to loving your partner despite their faults – through good times – and bad times.

    You don’t jump ship the moment your relationship hits rough waters. Happy marriages are made when two people are both working together towards the common goal of love and happiness while struggling for however long it takes to make your relationship work.

    Bottom line: Good and lasting relationships take work and effort, as well as love.

    – Luis Joseph Castle

    Liked by 1 person

  6. That was very interesting. Being of the older generation research was spot on. I like the options available to everyone today but I believe it is never easy and people are still prone to making bad choices. I have two sons, both in their early 40’s, one is married now with children and one is in a long term relationship, has no children and probably never will and will also probably never marry.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What a post! As an Australian male who just entered his 30’s, I could really relate to this post. Over the years we have had so much fun, freedom and choice in relationships that it has made it a challenge to ‘settle down’ and find the one – well it has been a challenge for me anyway! Now that I want to settle down and find the right partner, it is a challenge to commit because of all the distractions and choice. The other challenge for me is that girls have a lot of guys that will throw attention at them (often for the wrong reasons) which makes it harder for them to commit and give someone time to develop a relationship with. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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