I went to high school in the deep south. When the time came for me to head off to college, I can’t say I was so old-school as to have the “MRS degree” mindset—you know, where you’re more focused on finding a husband than learning anything. But I definitely thought the college dating scene would look much different than it does.
My university is nestled among small towns in Michigan. There’s honestly not a lot going on, and our campus community is pretty tight-knit as a result. I don’t have a shortage of friends there, but what I—and pretty much everyone I know—do have is a dearth of dates.
Things got so bad at my school, that a nickname began to surface to describe the total farce that was our campus dating scene. Some students were spending tons of time together, to the point that you’d assume they were a couple, but even they weren’t submitting to calling it dating—they were just “hanging out.” Intentional dating, or anything symbolic of healthy, normal, young courtship, was nowhere to be found. People were so afraid of approaching romance the wrong way that they were very awkwardly avoiding it altogether.
I’m certainly no advocate of hookup culture or anything that treats love like a game of roulette, but I do think college students would be better off if we allowed ourselves to make connections and meet new people—I think we need that, and (surprisingly) based on some class enrollment stats, I think we want that, too.
For the past forty-five years, the most popular elective at Stanford’s business school has been Interpersonal Dynamics, dubbed “Touchy Feely” by the student body. In this class, graduate students learn how to be completely honest with each other, resolve conflict, and build effective relationships. It may be geared toward navigating professional relationships, but its popularity speaks volumes about young people’s desire to relate to one another.
Stanford is not the only school teaching students skills for dating. At Boston College, philosophy professor Kerry Cronin taught a relationships, spirituality, and personal development seminar with the mandatory assignment to ask someone out on a date. Duke University offers a dating workshop, the “How to Be in Love Series,” where students are taught how to fall in love, navigate relationships, and recover from breakups. (This is a real thing, people.)
My own school saw the hangout culture becoming so bad that a couple of students took action by forming a blind date program to introduce the practice of casual dating. And Verily contributor Kathryn Wales actually spoke on a panel at my school saying, “You have to figure out what kind of person is the right fit for you. But you can’t know that unless you experience different kinds of friendship, different types of people, and these are the kinds of decisions that have to be made by dating—by having dates and getting to know other people.”
The world of dating is complex—I get it. If you’re someone who hopes for marriage some day in the near future, it can be hard to feel like you belong in this modern world of hooking up and swiping right. But avoiding it altogether isn’t really the solution.
Rather than skipping out on dating, and just hanging out instead, there is a lot you can do to help create a culture of healthy, casual dating in your campus dating pool. Sure, healthy dating classes are great, but the best lessons come to us outside the classroom. Think about it, wouldn’t we learn the most about relational skills by practicing them ourselves? I would argue that an unparalleled way to improve our relationships—both within and beyond the romantic sphere—is to embrace casual dating.
Here are five ways you can embrace healthy, casual—but not careless—dating right now.
01. Be open to dates with the nerdy guys with guts.
Despite our best effort, we can’t all live the life of Julia Stiles in The Prince and Me. Prince Charming is not waiting for us in chem lab, but someone just as great might be. Dating means exploring. Maybe you're not crushing hard for this guy or maybe you aren’t crushing on him at all. But if you want to encourage casual dating, you can’t be the girl who only dates the love of her life. If a guy is respectful and has the courage to ask you on a casual first date (even if he is a little unlike what you normally go for), just say “yes.”
Think about it this way: wouldn’t you want the dreamboat who doesn’t know you exist to give you a just one chance? Remember, this is just a casual date. You are in no way committed to a second date, and you will be letting guys know that going out on a limb doesn’t equal instant shut down. Who knows, he could turn out to be a great friend—or something more.
02. Be clear about where you both stand.
We get so freaked out by wanting to be perfect and analyzing all the what-ifs of relationships, but the great thing about casual dating is that it has surprisingly low-stakes—or at least, it should. When talking to guys, keep the drama at bay by being clear and direct about what you want and how you want to be pursued. Commit to good communication about anything from date night preferences to physical boundaries. Go ahead and be honest with your date about your feelings—remember, you don’t have to be in love to go on date number four!
03. Skip the post-date postmortem.
Sometimes, you’ll go out with a guy and realize pretty quickly he’s not the one for you. And that’s OK. But, if you go on a subpar date, spare your girlfriends from the full details. The fact of the matter is, if guys know they’re not going to be dissected by you and your friends afterwards, they’ll be more willing to take the risk of asking you out. This is also important for your friends, too. Don’t scare your entire circle of friends away from going out with a guy just because you didn’t like the way he chewed his salad.
04. Start slow and casual.
A first date doesn’t have to mean a romantic candlelit dinner. Do yourself and your date a favor and suggest coffee, drinks, or some casual daytime activity for a first date. If it was fun, do something like that again. Day dates are a great idea for a low-pressure situation that still counts as an intentional date, not a hangout. Just make it clear that that’s what it is. Casual dating means no pressure to get into any forced romantic situations too soon.
05. Encourage your friends to date.
The best way we can restore casual dating is to encourage more of it among our friends too. Tell that guy you think is awesome (but not your type) to stop overthinking a measly date and take your roommate out for ice cream. If your whole group is engaged in intentional dating, you can all support each other through it. You can share fun date stories and laugh about the fubs. The whole risk of dating comes from putting yourself out there; knowing you aren’t the only one doing it makes a huge difference.
When we don’t date, we avoid a lot of heartache, but we also fail to learn the valuable (but painful) lessons dating teaches us. These are lessons that, theoretically, you can learn in those classes at Stanford and Boston College, but that we learn best simply by opening up to people more and swapping hanging out for a good, old-fashioned date.
By casually dating different people, we learn how others see us, and we form an outline of what we’re looking for in a life partner. Now, if you’re not in a place to be in a relationship (maybe you’re going through a period of crisis or simply self-discovery), that’s totally fine. But don’t avoid dating just because you’re scared of screwing things up. Don’t worry, you will—but you will learn from your mistakes, too.
Photo Credit: Erynn Christine Photography