It’s 2017, and for those of us who are single and searching, it can be tempting to wish for a bygone era. Inundated by matchmaking apps and the harsh side effects of the hookup culture, where do we look for real wisdom when it comes to romance? Most days, it’s hard to imagine there are any similarities between our modern dating dilemmas and what our grandparents went through when they were our age. But you might be surprised.
I sat down and talked to my grandma, Mimi—while Papa occasionally contributed from the background—to ask them about dating in their day. Mimi and Papa have been happily married for more than fifty years. They’ve had eight children and numerous grandchildren, and I often hear people wistfully say, “I want to be like them when I am older.” You don’t build a dynasty like that unless you’ve lived, learned, and done something right. Here are some midcentury dating lessons recounted from their younger years that just might be what we need to hear today.
01. Start Going Steady Sooner
Mimi said that when a couple had gone out on two or three dates, the practice was to begin “going steady”—in modern terms, become exclusive. She said that a boy who didn’t ask you to go steady after a couple dates was probably bad news. While it is more common nowadays not to become exclusive, in the fifties the practice was to figure out your intentions early on. “That was our culture at the time,” Mimi said, and experts say there is a lot of wisdom in this old-school approach.
In an article for the Gottman Institute, Liz Higgins, LMFTA, points out that studies have shown the benefit of commitment, including concrete health benefits and positive emotional payoffs. Higgins notes that today young people are being deterred by what is known as the choice paradox—that is, there are too many variables, so finding a mate leads to option overload and a lower likelihood of assurance once/if a mate has been chosen. This concept stands in contrast to Mimi and Papa’s experience—they liked each other, so they dated intentionally. This more practical approach is not void of romance, but it does remove the tendency to endlessly hang out, overthink every little interaction, and let fear win the day.
02. Find Ye a Gentleman, and Be Wary of Red Flags
A girl in the 1950s always kept certain unspoken rules in the back of her mind that had been passed down by mothers and sisters. One of these rules was simple: The boy must always be a gentleman, and certain missteps in behavior were signs of ungentlemanly things to come. To be sure, the intricacies of what is gentlemanly behavior may have changed in a modern context, but that he should be a gentleman should never be negotiable, Mimi said. Last-minute “dates,” comments about other women’s looks, objectifying text messages, and lack of intentionality are red flags and should be treated as such.
03. Date in Community
As it turns out, the idyllic image of the fifties being a time of soda shops, roller skating, and wholesome activities is not that far from the truth. Mimi said that she and her friends would often meet young men in public settings (yes, like at pizza parlors) and eventually go on dates with them, such as going to the movie theater or taking walks downtown. As couples became more exclusive, family gatherings such as picnics and parties were a common place to go together. Mimi and her friends met their beaus out in the community and then dated them surrounded by community. They never isolated themselves as a couple.
More and more couples are choosing to meet through dating apps such as Bumble or Tinder and often opt to wait longer to integrate one another into their lives. But, the truth is, one of the best ways to get to know someone is to get to know their family and friends. As Verily’s Relationship Editor, Monica Gabriel Marshall, said, “Your soon-to-be husband learned how to show affection and how to relate to others from his parents and siblings, so getting to know about those relationships provides good context to what you know about him now—and also what kind of man he will want to be in the future.” Marshall also suggests that the sooner you meet his friends, the better. “Having strong, positive friendships shows that he has the ability to maintain close relationships with others. It’s not the number of friends that matters; it’s the quality of his friendships that is most important.”
04. Dancing Is the Best Way to Build Intimacy
Mimi said that one of the most intimate dates for young people back in the day was dancing! As the classic song goes, even guys with two left feet come out alright if the girl is sweet (“White Christmas,” anyone?). “Big bands were very popular,” Mimi exclaimed. “The dances were anything from waltzes to jitterbug and tango. Couples danced together, and you touched each other, but it was quite different from the way young people dance now. You would talk while dancing, especially during the slow dances; other [types] you would just maybe chuckle and have fun.” Mimi and her friends would put on their best clothes—three-inch heels and a dress made in the style of Grace Kelly—and dance the night away with their suitors.
The truth is, dancing is a very intimate experience. Studies have shown that human touch can have a profound impact on the human experience. Dr. James Coan, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Virginia, conducted a study on this very idea. Dr. Coan found that holding hands made it easier for humans to cope with stressors. “Humans hold hands for a lot of reasons, but the primary one is to communicate affection, availability, and trustworthiness,” he said. Mimi’s experience with dancing was a light and fun way to get to know someone else, but what she and her friends may not have realized is that it probably helped to grow their sense of trust in others. Furthermore, dancing was a pure way to experience affection while dating. If you’re looking for good date ideas, trying a dance like swing or salsa might be a way to grow in intimacy and trust without even realizing it.
Talking to Mimi was eye-opening. She made me see that dating doesn’t have to be so complicated. She and I may have come of age fifty years apart from each other, but when it comes to finding a husband, my guidebook isn’t that different from hers, after all.
Photo Credit: Pam Kriangkum