Do the rules of modern dating squelch the excitement of courtship?
Why is dating today so stressful?
The answer is simple: Sex.
I know. That sounds perilously like those counter-feminist conservatives who rail at modern woman for coldheartedly indulging her lustful desires instead of saving her precious flower for the lucky man who will someday lift her bridal veil. But my argument is based not on Puritanism but on sheer utility: The way it's done now, courtship isn't any fun.
There is currently only one broadly accepted rule of courtship: The Third Date is The Date (unless, of course, you're a glued-together-at-the-knees Rules girl). If either party declines sex on the Third Date, it's a clear sign that the relationship is going nowhere. And if the Third Date culminates in sex, they're officially a couple -- or at least, the guy's a cad if he doesn't ask the girl out again afterwards. (Sex before the Third Date is a signal that a.) you believe in love at first sight; b.) you're a promiscuous floozy; or c.) you think a, he thinks b.)
It's time for all of us to admit that the contemporary courtship model simply doesn't always work. If lightning doesn't strike by Date Three, you can end up walking away from a perfectly lovely person who might just be a little shy, or having a bad hair day. Or worse, by rushing headlong into a 'committed relationship' with someone you've met only a few times, you can end up wasting weeks, months, sometimes even years of your life on someone you don't really like very much, on the grounds that you're already 'invested' in the relationship.
If we could decide collectively that sex is worth waiting a bit longer for, we'd find that courtship itself might become a lot more fun. Right now, those first couple of dates are incredibly intense; we give ourselves only six or eight hours of conversation before deciding whether we want to commit to a monogamous sexual relationship. If we had, oh, six or eight-maybe even ten-dates to make up our minds, we could focus more on the actual date and less on its sequel. By investing a few extra hours in the process, we might draw out of a shy person an unexpected vein of sardonic wit or a deep well of political insight. With luck, we'd screen out some of those false charmers who have learned to conceal their mean-spiritedness for a week or two. And it bears mentioning that some things are greatly improved by anticipation.
Elizabeth Austin is a Chicago writer. Reprinted from The Washington Monthly (June 2003). Subscriptions: $44.95/yr. from The Washington Monthly, 733 15th St. NW, Suite 520, Washington, DC 20078-1691. Unfettered by party lines and rigid ideology, the left-wing Washington Monthly continually produces incisive political and cultural coverage.