By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

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I heard once that although we don't approve of arranged marriages, we have to appreciate that in cultures where they do exist, the focus is on learning to love and building toward a peak that may come 25 years into a committed relationship. America is the antithesis to such a learning love; the peaks in the relationships we celebrate in our culture all come right off the bat, and then it's all downhill from there. The Cinderella magic is dazzling and then it's a memory. Is our country's staggering divorce rate beginning to make a little more sense?

• In the relatively short history of dating, one of the most illuminating elements of the custom is its location. In formal Victorian culture, courtship always occurred within the female's home, usually in close supervision of the female's parents (the dream setup, presumably, of John Ritter's character from "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.") This was for the same reason that women remained in the home in Victorian culture while men represented the family in working and civic life: in the moral view of the day, staying at home was a way of preserving a woman's "purity" (in a general, not just sexual sense).

Dating happened on what was clearly defined as the woman's turf, and the man was clearly defined as a guest.

Historians identify a significant shift in the dynamics of dating when it was transferred from this private haven to the public realm. As society started to shrug off its stiff Victorian formality, the importance of dating on the woman's turf started to wane. Meanwhile, America was developing a new fascination with the entertainment of its burgeoning urban centers, where a clash of cultures skewed Victorian structures of social interaction. The automobile provided the means to connect with this new world. Now dating was on the man's turf—he initiated dates and made the decisions and payments related to the evening's entertainment (and began to see his money as a down payment on the ultimate conclusion to the evening). Some say the most important social shift that shaped dating was a revolution in home architecture around the same time; as American homes began to have fewer and less-separated rooms, couples no longer had a designated place to court; family authority roles began to blur even as the barriers between rooms physically decreased. So couples started going out. That's why some say the bungalow caused an early 20th-century sexual revolution.

(There aren't any great histories of dating available online, but you can start here or here.)

In a fast-paced culture, though, even current methods of dating aren't liberating enough. Now time-conscious couples are starting to engage in a lightning-quick practice that would seem to preclude any chance at truly getting to know someone.

USA Today reported in December on couples who go to serial eight-minute dating sessions. "It's cost-effective," said one participant. "You can hit about 20 birds with one shot."

• The Internet has introduced a new phase in the shifting location of dating—from woman's turf to man's turf to no turf at all. Even though online methods of meeting are crude and fraught with peril—the Web site features an intercepted e-mail that belongs in its "How To Broadcast Embarrassing Details About Your Love Life to Millions of Strangers All Over the Planet"—people persist with their online pursuits.

But the Web raises questions of identity, authenticity, and—in the case of one ad for an online matching service I came across last week—ambiguity. The ad shows a grinning woman above the teasing tagline, "I have a thing for small businessman." Pray tell: is she referring to the size of the man's business or the man?

The horror and occasional happiness of meeting online is best related in a recent Salon series of submitted anecdotes, which make for some down-to-earth Valentine's Day reading.

• Recent accounts of the state of sex in today's marriages may make you wonder why all those fussing over dating are so earnest to find a mate. The Atlantic's Caitlin Flanigan reviews eight books, including The Sex-Starved Marriage, that all lament the lame libidos of married Westerners and offer prescriptions of varying dubiousness. Flanigan starts to hint at an irony that tends to elude the family values police—the most straining forces on today's family don't come from the cultural revolution of the 1960s, but from the individualistic drive for achievement and prosperity that leaves nuclear families increasingly isolated from relatives, unknown to their neighbors, and beholden to a regime of soccer practices that keeps us confined in our SUV's. "Once children come along," Flanigan writes, "it's easy for parents to regard each other as co-presidents of an industrious little corporation"—and not energetic lovers.

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