Looking back, I’m grateful to have been young and single in an era when casual dating was common—in Christian circles, anyway. I had the good fortune to go out with guys who were gentlemen: they weren’t expecting anything from a date except the pleasure of company and conversation—really. That was the advantage of going to a college where most students took their Christianity seriously; the absence of alcohol was also a help. Both guys and girls operated under the assumption that the ultimate end of dating was to find a spouse, but many of us were in no hurry. It takes a while to find the right person (I didn’t find the “right person” at that college), and casual dating was a way to learn how well you interacted one-on-one with that cute guy who sat in the carrel next to yours at the library or the quirky philosophy major who edited the college newspaper.
Being asked out on a date didn’t mean that a guy was proposing marriage to you: a date might mean, “Hey, I want to go to this movie, and I think it’d be more fun if I had company” or “We’re both going to this concert, anyway: why not go together?” My husband was the master of casual dating: he took a drama class in college and had to attend a certain number of plays, so he typically would ask a girl to go with him; the class gave him a pretext for asking a girl out, and her presence made the play more enjoyable. For him, it was about the companionship, and it also gave him a chance to get to know the girl better.
It was important not to read too much into that first or even second date; dating was just another way of socializing and of sharing experiences. As long as everyone remembered to keep it casual, dating was fun, and no one’s feelings got hurt too much. Keeping physical involvement strictly to a minimum made casual dating possible. Here I give those young men full credit for treating me on a date the way you’d want your sister or your daughter to be treated. I was naive, and I am grateful to every guy who took me out in college and grad school for not taking advantage of me.
If nothing “happened” on those dates, what was the point? Learning how to interact with a member of the opposite sex, for one thing. Since dating was new to me, I tended to freeze when I was on a date with a guy, even if he and I interacted normally at breakfast in the cafeteria or in the newspaper section of the library. (Here’s a tip for college girls wanting to get asked out: go to breakfast. Maybe things have changed, but often I was the only girl in the dining hall at 7:30 a.m. Guys are hungry, and they will get up for breakfast if they’re on the meal plan and have no other source of food. I attribute my college dating success to the fact that I had a rigorous academic schedule and disciplined myself to make it to breakfast every morning, whether I had an 8 o’clock class or not. Wish I still had that discipline. But I digress.)
My college sponsored two annual events that encouraged dating: Kilter Night, which gave girls the power of asking guys, and Spring Banquet, which was a formal occasion with corsages and long dresses. Like high school formals, these two official dating nights probably caused more sadness than happiness, since many people didn’t go—either because they weren’t asked or were too shy to do the asking. Still, the two events did serve as catalysts for romance, although there was sometimes a twist: after Kilter Night my freshman year, I began dating a senior English major I’d interacted with at the square dance (an exemption to the no-dancing rule), but he wasn’t the guy I had invited to Kilter Night. As with any invitation, you took a risk in asking someone to Kilter Night or Spring Banquet, since there was the chance that you could be turned down. Still, sometimes the upcoming occasion was just the incentive that a guy (or girl) needed to ask someone out. In my view, it was bad manners to turn down someone for a first date; I even went on a blind date or two in my time, because why not give someone a chance?
I vividly remember my roommate’s mother saying to us, “Keep your options open, girls!” By that time, I was in grad school, and I was hoping Mr. Right would show up. I had moved from the Christian college to a public university, and finding guys with similar values was a challenge. Fortunately, I only remember one time in grad school when I found myself in the company of a guy who would have pressed his advantage: my fun-loving roommate and I had drifted into a frat party, and a dental student suggested in a creepy way that we go back to his apartment to get to know him and his friend better. Ugh. I found my roommate and insisted that we leave immediately; as we walked back across the dimly lit campus to our dorm, she tried to tell me that it would have been fine. I felt like we had had a close call. No way was I going to the apartment of a guy I’d just met. Innocent though I was, he was sending signals that were anything but casual.
Still, casual dating can be beneficial to both parties, if it stays casual. I went to the Cleveland Motor Speedway on a date with a friend. I heard Wynton Marsalis play, thanks to casual dating. I listened to Os Guiness speak on a casual date. I hope that my dates had a better time because of having my companionship at those events? I still remember a moment of humiliation as I was riding to Durham to hear the Os Guiness lecture: the traffic was heavy, and my guy friend mentioned that there was a Fleetwood Mac concert that night. “Fleetwood Mac? I don’t think I’ve ever heard him.” Stunned by my lack of pop-culture savvy, my date explained to me that Fleetwood Mac was a group. Ouch. I never listened to the radio in high school. Embarrassing moments will occur on dates, and they need to be taken lightly, if possible. The occasional faux pas is part of casual dating—it makes for a good story later, right?
My sense is that the practice of casual dating has disappeared from the Christian social scene. In my opinion, that’s a shame. Sure, group dates can be fun, but it’s harder to get to know someone in a group. Ideally, it’s better if you’ve been friends before you start dating, but what if you’re in a situation where you don’t know many people? In my case, most of my friends moved away from Chapel Hill after finishing in the masters program. After I got my masters, I started working full-time; it was harder to meet people when I was spending my daytime hours in the basement of Dey Hall. I began to feel lonely. There are worse things than loneliness, but I lived 15 hours away from my family, and my roommate at the time had a steady boyfriend and was never around. Yet, during my very first week at Carolina, I had already met the man I was going to marry. . . . (to be continued)