I doubt anyone will get a government grant to study this question but it is one that people often puzzle over. I believe this question is more than just semantics. What makes something a “date” rather than just “doing something together”? And why do we think it’s important?
Date or no date
I don’t believe you can go on a date without realizing it.
Dates don’t just happen to you; in fact people usually want to define a date as such beforehand, as in “Are you asking me out on a date?” So I would argue that how you approach the situation is more important than the other possible characteristics.
For example, there are a lot of outward circumstances that may or may not characterize dates.
- The number of people involved. A group activity doesn’t usually count as a date, even if you might want it to. Even leaving a party together probably won’t count. You might really hit it off and then later suggest that the two of you go on a “real” date.
- The kind of activity, time of day etc. These don’t really matter that much since the point of a date is way more about the time spent together than about the activity. However, night time activities are more likely to be seen as dates. Night somehow seems more serious.
- Sexual attraction. This one seems like a no-brainer, and yet as someone who works with sexually addictive behavior I can tell you that there are plenty of people who get together with another person solely for the purpose of having sex. This may be an explicit sexual hook-up or it may be a dishonest attempt by one person to use another person sexually. It need not be a date at all.
- Interest in exploring a possible intimate relationship. Bingo. This is definitely a factor in most dates. If it is not then it is more like exploring a friendship.
Characteristics of real dates
I believe that real dates have one key thing: Intentionality. In going out on a date with someone both people need to be on the same wavelength, meaning both people have to see it as a date or it isn’t one.
Have you ever gone out with someone assuming you were on a date only to find out that he or she wasn’t thinking of it that way? If you know beforehand that you can’t possibly see someone as more than a friend then you need to be clear about it. Even a blind date is one in which both people acknowledge, sometimes with grave misgivings, that getting together is a first step toward a possible courtship.
Dates are a step toward relating with someone on a more intimate level. Even if we are “playing the field,” going out on a date carries the possibility that we will end up going out on another date and another and so on.
Vagueness is fear
Why do people sometimes shy away from calling it a date?
- A date involves some risk. We are putting ourselves out there and we may get rejected. If we want someone to play tennis with and the person bails out after the first session, well it’s no big deal. Going out on a date is by definition being vulnerable. Thus it takes some courage and willingness to get hurt.
- A date involves possible intimacy. If someone is intimacy disabled or intimacy avoidant then their fear of intimacy makes them unable to have an intention. They are playing it safe because they have an underlying assumption that intimacy is a dangerous place, one they feel inadequate to navigate successfully. They act like they want to explore a dating relationship but at some point they back out.
- Intentionality is a relationship skill that not everyone has. Being clear about the intention to have a date, with all the fear and risk that may be involved means being able to know your own mind, to be clear on where you are coming from and to communicate it effectively to someone.
Intention to have a real date is a miniature commitment. If a person cannot deal openly, bravely and clearly with that requirement then their prospects for establishing a deeper intimate commitment may be questionable.