Highly romantic pattern of mate selection

Under our highly romantic pattern of mate selection, the average youth approaches marriage after many experiences of dating, after numerous emotional thrills in the realm of romance, and after having broken at least one previous engagement.

In a society where love-making is a major pastime and where the choice of a mate is left almost entirely in the hands of youth and where the recognized goal of marriage is personal happiness, young people would seem to have a great deal more responsibility placed upon their shoulders for the future of the family institution than in societies where marriage comes without a previous history of romance and where mate selection is by parents or other elders who have in mind practical considerations rather than romance in matching the pair. At least we must admit that many of the problems of modern adolescents and youths in the realm of emotional turmoil, moral decision, and anxious deliberations over courses of action grow out of the romantic complex.

Among the youth group in high school and college, dating is used as a status-gaining device. A girl's or a boy's desirability as a date is taken as a measure of personal worth, the number of desirable dates as an index of success and popularity.

It is considered desirable today that young people "circulate" until they find a relationship that will satisfy both their emotional and intellectual taste. It is even considered that wide experience in dating is favorable to ultimate courtship. The girl who is considered desirable as a date by a number of fellows is presumed to be the one most likely to be sought after in marriage.

The extent to which this point of view is sound depends on a number of factors, the conduct of the girl in dating, for example. If she passes beyond the point of discretion in love-making, she becomes the object of exploitation and becomes the type of person few men would want to marry. If she possesses proper restraint and dignity, she may be considered highly desirable for courtship.

Because of extensive dating in contemporary society, it probably becomes increasingly difficult for the average youth to narrow down his courtship to the point where he is ready to select one mate and enter into a marriage bargain for life. Dating, however, if conducted on a proper level, gives the youth experience in evaluating different personality types and behavior patterns in the members of the opposite sex, which is probably an advantage, providing he does not associate so promiscuously that he loses the ability to decide the type of person who would be a mate satisfactory to him. Dating experience is also essential to tempering the highly romantic and unreal notion of love so characteristic in American society. Most young people after a certain amount of normal experience in dating come to appreciate that there are many individuals of the opposite sex with whom they could live happily and that there are certain other individuals with whom they could not possibly be happy.

As unsatisfactory as this form of mate selection is in terms of its consequences to the stability of family life, we must accept the fact that the pattern exists and will persist in American culture. In a mobile society where much of romance is conducted beyond the reach of parents and other interested relatives, greater responsibility is placed upon the adult group in family and school for seeing that young people have some standard by which they may evaluate themselves and those with whom they associate as prospective mates. The ability of a member of the opposite sex to inspire romance seems now to be the primary criterion for mate selection. Yet this quality alone is a highly speculative element on which to found a permanent and satisfactory marriage. A lifelong institutional relationship must have something more than impulse to guarantee its success.

For the young person in a highly mobile society who is so often, in his early adjustment to economic life and to secondary group experience, among strangers, the love element is likely to have an exaggerated importance. In strange situations deep affection for a member of the opposite sex is likely to be used as a remedy for a sense of isolation, as a device for restoring selfassurance and for protecting himself against the apparent hostility and coldness of the world about him. Love for such an individual comes to stand for success in social adjustments. It is likely that many young people in their first experience with new situations will continue in our kind of society to rate love as an emotional experience much more highly than it should be rated among the other values that are essential to successful marriage and family life.

One of the unfortunate by-products of our highly romantic conception of marriage is that the girl who fails to obtain dates and later proposals of marriage, in our society, where the male is the aggressor in dating, courtship, and marriage, feels that she has lost out in the most important competitive relationship of a woman's world. The unfortunate consequence is that many of these young women feel defeated, unreasonably frustrated, even to the point of personality distortion. This aspect of the romantic pattern is especially unfortunate at a time when we are for the first time in the nation's history entering a period when there will be a considerably higher proportion of marriageable females than of males, making it inevitable that a portion of young women in our society will have no opportunity to marry.

We need to make romance a somewhat finer art

Youth will continue to do the mating in America with little regard to the interest or wishes of teachers, parents, guardians, or society. This we may as well take for granted. Mating will be based on romance. But we must temper the romantic impulse in youth, as we do other human impulses, by instilling in their minds ideas that will restrain and guide their emotions. We need to socialize more fully this impulse as we have socialized hunger, for instance. Eating has become sort of a fine art with us as compared to its practice by savages and infants. We control the hunger drive by etiquette and by our notions of the balanced ration and regular meals. The organic drive is still there, but in civilized society we try to act as though it were not there.

We need to make romance a somewhat finer art, to elevate and direct it in the interests of a more permanent family unit and a better race. Parents could do much by building standards by which the youth can guide his selection of a mate, but reforms in custom more often begin in the school than in the home.

Most youngsters acquire a new idea of a desirable mate after going to college. They have a better ideal, and their romantic interest seeks out a type of person different from that selected before this training. College marriages on the whole turn out well. But most young people, even in our enlightened age, never go to college.

Give a young man or woman a course in eugenics and he will have set up new barriers to the free exercise of the romantic urge, for he will invariably check up on the ancestral characteristics of anyone he considers for marriage, to see whether certain weaknesses that are known to be hereditary are likely to be present in the germ plasm. Let him face economic selfresponsibility and he will have set up other barriers. He will not so easily rationalize himself into marrying on short notice with the experience-belied phrase, "Two can live as cheaply as one."

We need to give young people some practical ideas regarding marriage and the family; some standards by which they can evaluate themselves and their companions of the opposite sex with regard to their capacity for marriage and homemaking.

In most fields now we believe in giving experience vicariously through books and through the school curriculum. In this manner we pass on the best that the race has learned and experienced. Yet in the field of marriage and the family we let youth learn by experience. The establishment of a family--the basic institution of any nation--is left almost entirely to chance, as though we had no concern about the marital happiness of youth, to say nothing of the welfare of the next generation.

Perhaps our lethargy is a carry-over from the prudish days when marriage was sacred and sex was taboo. Perhaps it is due to the fact that most teachers are unmarried women whom we would not trust to educate our children for successful marriage. Probably, however, we have no reason, other than that romance is the custom to which we have entrusted this function of life and, having it safely pigeonholed, do not care to disturb it.

We need courses in high school and more courses in college dealing with marriage and the family. Perhaps after having succeeded there we can go into the lower grades. Some of the problems to be dealt with in a high-school course are (1) physical qualities essential to successful marriage, (2) social qualities essential for living together happily in the family, (3) the importance of similar culture heritages, especially in religion and in economic status, (4) personal adjustments needful in family life, (5) the economic responsibilities of the family, (6) the importance of an understanding with regard to the wife's place in the home, and (7) parenthood.Since marriage is society's ceremonial endorsement to a permanent institution, we should teach every youth to ask himself at least the following questions:

1. Do we have the physical and mental traits that guarantee reasonable hereditary equipment to the children we may have?

2. Do we have the emotional stability and ruggedness of character that is necessary to an intimate lifelong partnership?

3. Do we have the ability and training necessary to "keep the wolf from the door"?

4. Do we have culture backgrounds that would assure us. similar ideas on morals, religion, standard of living, and nationality and racial questions?

5. Are we satisfied with each other's families and with the relationships that we are likely to maintain with them after marriage?

6. Do we have similar ideas regarding the place of woman in the family and the desirability of children?

7. Do we have a sufficient number of similar vocational, reactional, and other interests so that we are likely to maintain permanent bonds of companionship?

The screen notion of love at first sight, followed by the passionate kiss, the overpowering urge, the hasty marriage, and the "lived happily ever after," has been too typical of our courtship and marriage conceptions. We may as well admit that such practice does not work so well as it might, and try to draw a more realistic picture of marriage and the family for youth in the schoolroom where we are supposed to have some respect for reality.

Romantic love is not entirely a matter of unguided impulse

Romantic love is not entirely a matter of unguided impulse. If it were, there would be little hope of improving mate selection. Although individual tastes and perhaps unanalyzed biological factors enter into romantic attraction, social factors play a large part as is indicated by studies of the attitudes of high-school and college students with reference to traits they expect in a member of the opposite sex.

A questionnaire was given to a group of 869 high-school students in the sophomore, junior, and senior classes, 426 boys and 443 girls being asked to rate 25 traits, putting a 1 by the trait they considered most important in the person they would like to go with, and a 25 by the trait they disliked the most, arranging numbers from 1 to 25 for the other traits in terms of their desirability.

Both boys and girls listed "real brains" as the most important trait. Girls listed second "cleanliness," third "good health," fourth "dependability," fifth "cheerfulness." Boys considered "real brains" of first importance, "good health" of second importance, "good looks" third, "cleanliness" fourth, "cheerfulness" fifth. It was interesting to notice that girls, rather than listing "good looks" as third in importance, listed it as eleventh.

Because these young people were in school, where good marks are a basis for competition, they tended to rate "real brains" more highly than young people under other situations would.

Studies of college students show that they rate certain personality traits very high. For example, a study at New York University showed that both men and women rated "disposition" extremely high; 98 per cent of men and 96 per cent of women said they would not marry a person with an unattractive disposition and personality. This study also showed that men rate looks much higher in their marriage partners than do women. Sixty-eight per cent of the men would not marry girls who were not good-looking; whereas 79 per cent of the girls would marry husbands who were not good-looking.

It will be seen that these choices reflect definitely the values of our own culture, as they affect choices in general and as they affect differences in choices between men and women. Being goodlooking, as in the other studies, is rated much more highly by young men than by young women. In our society good looks is considered a very important attribute of women, not of men. Young women are much more insistent on having a husband who has more education than they. This relates directly to the role of the man as breadwinner. His occupation determines the status of the family, their standard of living and income. Young women want a man who is older and established financially. Other results in the test reflect unique factors in our marriage customs which clearly affect romantic tastes.

All these studies indicate clearly that young people do not face the problem of mate selection on the basis of romance alone. They are guided by the general standards prevalent in our culture which affect notions of beauty, character, and disposition and by the fundamental factors that affect economic security. The fact that such values do act as a check upon romance and a guide to it indicates clearly that the family, the church, the school, any institutions having to do with the training of youth, can provide values which will guide adolescents and youth more intelligently in their evaluation of a person as a prospective marriage partner. This important field of social behavior need not be left in the realm of chance even in an age when adolescents and youth, rather than parents or other adults, select their own mates.

Romantic Beginnings

Before we discuss how physical attractiveness operates in both the fantasy and reality of the dating marketplace, let's begin at the beginning. Just how many people are out their bargaining in the marketplace, and who are they?

Remember "Old Maid"? Whoever got stuck with the homely old crone was clearly the loser. This card game symbolizes the stigma once attached to being single, particularly if one was a woman. Single women, "old maids," or "spinsters," were assumed to have no choice in the matter--they were single because no one found them attractive enough to marry. Single men were "bachelors"; it was assumed they chose to remain single because they loved an exciting life.Today, it is more acceptable to remain single--even for women. In fact, in 1978 about 48 million adult Americans (about one-third the adult population) were single. Here are some other facts:

Most college students are single.

More than one-half of Americans aged 18 to 39 are single.

At any age, there are more single women than single men. This gap increases with age. For people in their forties, there are 233 unattached (never married, divorced, widowed) women for every 100 men.

Today, many people are choosing to remain single for a longer period (or all) of their adulthood. There are several reasons why they are choosing not to marry. Many women find this choice gives them greater freedom to pursue a career. Other individuals have developed negative attitudes about marriage, perhaps from growing up in a broken home. Some develop such negative attitudes about attachment to one person that they choose to be "creatively single."

Other people, however, are reluctantly alone. Rather than choosing not to select, they are not selected. These people may have problems being selected because of unattractiveness or lack of social skills. The emptiness and despair of such singles is portrayed in the following comment by a young, single man:

I have cried over my general inability to meet women--once even in my car in the parking lot of a disco in L.A. after having an extremely difficult time conversing with a number of girls who I was really attracted to (which is rare). I have been intrigued with the subject of suicide and realize that it is the most effective way to cure one's depression. . . . My depressions always center around my inability to meet women. Period. I really envy guys who have the "gift of gab" and who can just walk up to strange women and start a conversation. If I had that ability, it would solve all my problems, I'm convinced of it.

Although many single people are involved in romantic relationships, many are not. There are many adults truly unattached. Although they may not always stay home on Saturday night, there really is no special person in their lives.

The Dating Age

As soon as she turned 16, Jaimi Semper started going out with the same guy every week - her father.

"We'd go to dinner and a movie, to a museum or to the Mall in the District for a Frisbee-throwing competition," Mr. Semper says. "I strove to be a role model so she would know what a gentleman acts like."

An ex-Prince George's County police officer, Mr. Semper teaches leadership workshops for at-risk youths. He says his proactive approach to his daughter's dating debut was necessary to counteract the sexual and violent messages bombarding teen-agers.

Teen magazines tell them how to hook up with a babe, make a hunk happy and have an orgasm. Their favorite TV programs teach them that to be in love is necessary, but temporary. And their music encourages them to wallow in the agony of it all.

Unless parents agree with pop culture's version of the birds and the bees, they need to get involved when their teen-age sons and daughters become interested in dating, warn Mr. Semper, psychologists and child-rearing experts.

"Too many parents practice the ostrich theory: They either ignore or refuse to acknowledge that their children have become interested in the opposite sex," Mr. Semper says. "Many parents are afraid to discuss what their kids see on TV every day."

The stakes are higher than ever. According to Robin Sawyer, assistant professor of health education at the University of Maryland, 54 percent of all high school students nationwide have experienced sexual intercourse, with that figure increasing to 72 percent for high school seniors.


Mr. Semper insisted that Jaimi's dates pick her up at the family's Mitchellville home and sometimes asked for their parents' telephone numbers - just in case.

Sometimes he would warn them: "This is my heart; she better be returned to me safely."

Call him strict, overprotective, even old-fashioned, but Mr. Semper says his rigid rules helped his teen-age children survive the thrills and spills of the high school dating game.

He's not alone. When Sandy of Lanham discovered that her teen-age daughter was dating a boy with a bad reputation, she and her husband "just had to put our foot down" and forbid her to see him anymore. She requested that her last name not be printed to protect her daughter's privacy.

"It was really hard. She didn't get over it for several months," Sandy recalls. "But he ended up dropping out of school and getting another girl pregnant. She came to me and said, `Mom, you were right.' That made me feel good."

Jaimi Semper, now 21, says she appreciated her father's vigilance, though it was "unusual for my generation."

His straight talk didn't embarrass her but assured her of his love and protection, she explains. "My friends thought he was cool."

While many parents would rather censor themselves than risk recriminations for humiliating their children, Mr. Semper would warn Jaimi's suitors: "I was 16 once, and I know what you've got on your mind. I'm not going to make it easy for you."

Taken out of context, Mr. Semper's straight-talking cop routine "could be disastrous in another family," his daughter says. But it worked because he had always played the tough guy with a soft heart.

"I'm tough, but they like me because it comes from my concern for them," Mr. Semper explains.

Most psychologists say there is no one style - or particular set of rules - that works best with teen-agers who want to date. Rather, parents need to communicate the family's expectations and values clearly and consistently to their children as they grow up.

"Whatever happens to teen-agers in their high school years with regard to relationships is an outgrowth of the early years of their life," says Laura Kastner, a psychologist who counsels teen-agers and is co-author of "The Seven Year Stretch: How Families Work Together to Grow Through Adolescence."

"It's not a matter of adopting a certain stance on an issue in high school - it's how you parent every day for 15 years."


Besides the physical risks, the emotional and psychological perils of teen romance can wreak havoc on a teen-ager's self-esteem and school performance, says Connie Marshner, mother of five and author of "Decent Exposure: How to Teach Your Children About Sex."

While most parents strive to prevent their teen-agers from becoming sexually active and want to protect them from the pitfalls of dating, they don't always agree on how to do it.

Mrs. Marshner, a Christian and conservative activist, discourages dating until a person is ready to settle down: "Why say to yourself, `I probably don't want to marry this person or spend the rest of my life with him, but I'll go ahead and fall in love and get myself kicked in the teeth'? That's the kind of stupidity the dating culture engenders."

Mrs. Marshner, whose children range in age from 7 to 22 years old, didn't allow her sons, now in their 20s, to date until they were 18. That's probably still too young, she says, especially if a young man or woman aspires to go to college.

"Why imitate courtship behavior if you're not in the position to get married?" she wonders.

In fact, she contends, serious dating teaches divorce skills, not marriage skills.

"The heart is hardened, defense systems are developed, and cynicism is fostered until one is unwilling - or even unable - to make a commitment, which is the legendary problem among adult singles," she wrote in an essay that appeared recently in Insight magazine.

Mrs. Kastner, a psychologist, disagrees. The mother of two, ages 9 and 12, says dating can be a healthy part of a teen-ager's development. But it takes some parental guidance.

"Part of what we're looking for as parents is a chance for our children to have a safe, tolerable practice at the world of relationships," Mrs. Kastner says. "We don't have to put our teen-agers in cold storage," but parents have to keep a vigilant eye and be observant, she adds.

Both women agree that platonic friendships between boys and girls are a good way to learn about the opposite sex.

Mrs. Kastner sees the trend toward group dating as positive. "Often, it's a wonderfully innocent" way to socialize, she says. "There's lots of cross talk, lots of interesting dynamics without being intense. It takes a lot of the pressure off to go out on a date."

The more group activities parents can find for teen-agers, the better, Mrs. Marshner says. Hanging out with other teen-agers keeps the focus of the relationship from becoming too exclusive, too intense.

"The way to truly get to know each other is to have a common interest, like working on a volunteer project together. Then you'll see who's lazy, who's cheerful, who's nice and who's nasty," she says. "Once the focus is on each other, they put on masks to try to be what the other person wants them to be."


"Parents may not like this, but nearly all [teen-age] sexual intercourse happens within the context of going steady," says Mr. Sawyer, of the University of Maryland. "It's when you see an awful lot of someone and you start to feel awfully comfortable with them" that sexual exploration happens.

That's why Carmen Pate believes dating - especially going steady - should be strongly discouraged. As vice president of Concerned Women for America, an organization that promotes chastity until marriage, she works to convince teens and parents that abstinence is a viable option.

"Teen-agers are not animals. They are given the capability to make wise choices," she says. "It's so much safer and healthier to teach them how not to have sex."

The consequences of teen sex certainly are grim.

In 1990, about 1 million teen-agers between 15 and 19 years old became pregnant, and 521,626 gave birth, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Every year, about 3 million teen-agers are infected with sexually transmitted diseases, while a quarter of all new HIV infections occur in people 21 and younger, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Sandy says she would prefer to see her children wait until marriage before having sex, but because of the risks, she sat down with her daughter to discuss birth control and protection before her daughter graduated from her parochial high school.

"I thought I couldn't tell them simply not to have sex," she says. "When the passion hits, they'll find a way to do it."

Agrees Mrs. Kastner: "Parents can talk abstinence over and over, but given that sex can be lethal, I also talk about keeping yourself alive."

Mrs. Pate couldn't disagree more. Telling teen-agers they shouldn't, but be careful if they do, gives them a mixed message, she says.

Meanwhile, those who abstain from having sex really aren't missing much, according to a survey of 332 sexually active college students conducted by Mr. Sawyer.

The mean age at which both men and women first had intercourse was 16 1/2. Eighty-six percent of the women and 59 percent of men reported that they had been in a dating relationship at the time, while 67 percent of women and 26 percent of men said they had considered themselves to be in love.

However, in retrospect, 38 percent of women and 20 percent of men said they wished they had not lost their virginity when they did. The most common reason stated was related to having the "wrong" partner, either because the respondent didn't care enough about the person or felt the person didn't care enough for him or her.

In terms of physical pleasure, women rated their first sexual experience a 2 on a scale of 1 to 10; men gave it a 5. Both men and women said the emotional satisfaction of the act rated about a 5.

Though Mr. Sawyer says his study could be instructive for adolescents, he still believes teen-agers will want to "find out for themselves" what sex is like.

Nancy Samalin, a mother of adult sons who's been teaching parenting courses for 20 years and has written three books on the topic, says there's no sure technique to keep teen-agers from experimenting and rebelling. But those who have their parents' trust, who understand that their parents have their best interests at heart and who enjoy a relationship based on mutual respect are less likely to betray the values with which they've grown up, she says.

That's what parents should strive for, she says, because "as soon as your child leaves the house, you have no control except psychological control."