When a boy and girl date only each other to the exclusion of anyone else, they are said to be “going steady.” This is something new in dating practice. In former generations a courting pair might be “keeping steady company,” but this usually meant that they were serious enough about each other to be planning marriage. Going steady nowadays frequently implies no such commitment to the future. It may come very early in a relationship. It may involve “an understanding” before getting pinned or engaged, or it may simply be a matter of mutual convenience with no plans or prospects for the future.
Going steady is a controversial question about which both young people and adults feel strongly. Some openly and vigorously oppose it. Others champion it quite as strongly. Many young people are genuinely confused about it.
Teen-agers have many questions about why adults tend to oppose going steady, about when to start going steady, about how to keep from going steady, and about how to get back in circulation again after breaking off with a steady. These are all important questions. The answers are not simple but they are discussable.
HOW ADULTS SEE IT
Some parents prefer their sons and daughters to go steady rather than to play the field. These parents state that they feel much safer when a son or daughter dates someone they know and like instead of a series of comparative strangers.
Far more numerous and vocal are the parents and adult leaders who oppose going steady. A particularly vigorous attack on the practice was made recently by the Director of the Family Life Bureau of the National Catholic Welfare Conference who was quoted in the press as saying:
Going steady is pagan unless there is a reasonable chance of getting married within two years. The teenage custom will have to be stopped if the concept of Christian marriage is to be saved.
This position reflects the concern of many adults. They feel that when a boy and girl see so much of each other, they are apt to become involved emotionally or sexually to the point where their futures are jeopardized.
WHY GO STEADY?
When the University of Michigan interviewed 2,000 girls between eleven and eighteen years of age in a nationwide study in 1956, approximately one-fifth of the girls were found to be in favor of going steady. The investigation revealed that older girls tended to approve of going steady more than younger girls did. Comparable data are not available for teenage boys. But the pros and cons of going steady are so widely discussed by members of both sexes that it’s possible to summarize the reasons young people generally give for going steady.
Safer and Easier
Boys generally agree that it’s “just easier” to go steady than to date around. Teen-age boys say that when they date a girl regularly they know what she expects. They’re more comfortable with a steady date than with a strange girl every time. They don’t have to get up courage each time to ask a new girl for a date or run the risk of her refusing.
College boys frankly report that going steady is cheaper than taking a new girl out all the time. “The girl you haven’t dated before expects you to show her the town,” they say. “Your steady knows how you’re fixed financially and so doesn’t expect as much or as expensive entertainment.”
Teen-age girls seem to feel that they’re safer dating steadily than when they date around among many boys. They put it this way. “When you date good old Joe, you know what the evening holds and you’re sure you can handle any situation that might come up while you’re with him. With a strange boy, you can never be sure of what will happen, what he will expect of you, or whether you can manage the situations that may arise with him.”
This may be the chief reason why going steady has increased in recent years. Now when so many teen-agers go to large consolidated schools or live in areas with transient or diversified populations, an individual can rarely be sure of what standards a date may have. In contrast, during “the good old days,” dates were selected from a small, homogeneous neighborhood where everyone pretty much agreed on codes of conduct, and where the date was usually known not only by the girl but by her family as well. Then, too, dates were more carefully supervised by responsible adults; today’s automobile dating makes such chaperoning impossible. Therefore young people today find that it’s easier and safer to steady-date someone they know and trust than it is to risk a variety of expectations from the wide assortment of accessible young people.
Girls, especially, comment upon the social security they find in going steady. When a girl is not going steady she may not be able to get a date for the social affairs she wants to attend. She worries for weeks before the big events for fear that she will not be asked. Even a Saturday night date is dubious if she’s not dating steadily. Going steady remedies all that—she’s more likely to get to the big social affairs, and Saturday night dates are more assured.
A recent study shows clearly that girls who go steady have more dates than those who don’t go steady. One simple reason is that the mutual expectation of going out together makes it easy for a boy to ask his steady girl friend for a date. It also makes it easy for her to accept, as a matter of course. Boys too report that having a date when they want one without having to scour available possibilities and face the chance of a “No” gives them a nice feeling of security.
In some communities and on some campuses the practice of going steady is so well established that it’s generally expected of everyone. Social pressure for going steady in such situations means that if you go at all, you go steady.
Here is a fairly typical picture. Joe takes Mary to a social affair on Friday evening; they are seen together on Saturday afternoon. By Monday they are considered to be going steady. Whether Mary and Joe have discussed it or not, the other boys assume that Mary is Joe’s girl and so they don’t ask her for dates. Simultaneously the other girls come to the same conclusion and assume that “Joe will do right by her.” Before the two persons have had a chance to decide whether they want to go steady or not, they feel the social pressure so strongly that it’s hard to resist. As a coed phrases it, “Have one or two dates with the same guy and you’re stuck.” Some fellows say that the fear of being “tagged” as belonging to a girl keeps them from dating at all, in many cases.
In the community or on the campus where social pressure toward going steady prevails, young people of both sexes need to learn (1) how to keep from going steady if they don’t want to, and (2) how to stop going steady when they no longer find it promising. Both of these problems are considered later in the chapter. Now let us continue with further reasons young people have for going steady.
Preferring Each Other
There is such a thing as “prestige” dating. It occurs frequently in colleges or schools where a person is actually rated by the kind of date he has. When a high-ranking coed must date a BMOC (Big Man on Campus) in order to maintain her standing and please her sorority sisters, going steady is her way of maintaining her standing.
Similarly, the BMOC whose name is linked with that of a high-ranking coed goes steady with her as a way of maintaining his social position on campus. This process starts in high school where the most popular girl goes steady with the president of the senior class or the captain of the football team, not just because they like each other, but because they prefer to be seen together rather than in the company of a lesser catch.
Of course, sometimes two people genuinely prefer each other’s company over anyone else available. When a couple are in love, whether it lasts permanently or not, they want to date only each other. Feelings of jealousy that so often accompany the early loves of teen-agers also tend to make one or both members of the pair resist dating anyone else.
There are couples whose affection and mutual preference for each other is mature enough to be the basis for future plans. Then, going steady leads on to further commitment.
Having an Understanding
Going steady is ultimately preliminary to getting engaged. The two people have an understanding that if they continue to care for each other they will, when the time is right, announce their engagement to marry. Having an understanding is a tacit recognition between the dating pair that they plan eventually to marry. It’s similar to what their grandparents called “keeping steady company”—the step just preceding the posting of banns and the announcing of the engagement. Few persons have any objection to this kind of going steady. When two people are genuinely in love and “right for each other,” they understandably want to date each other exclusively.
But what about the other reasons given for going steady-are some of them spurious? Aren’t there times when going steady is not wise? What do young people themselves consider the disadvantages of going steady?
WHEN NOT TO GO STEADY?
Both boys and girls tend to feel that it’s not wise to go steady just because you’re pushed into it. When the social pressure in your community or school is so strong that you re tagged with anyone you have dated twice, then something must be done to offset such coercion.
The obvious solution is not to date the same person more than once or twice in succession. The girl who doesn’t want to go steady will have to refuse a boy whom she has just recently dated, until she has been seen with others. A boy will take a given girl out only occasionally, be seen with a number of girls, and even go out occasionally with the fellows to show that he’s not going steady.
Another way to avoid getting stuck is simply to let all your friends clearly understand that you do not consider yourselves “steadies,” that you don’t want your names linked together.
When It Limits Your Friendships
Let’s face it, when you go steady you have less opportunity for getting to know other persons of the opposite sex. This means you as a girl are limiting your knowledge of the kinds of boys you should know before you can make a wise choice of a life partner. Conversely, the boy who goes steady with one girl doesn’t get acquainted with enough other girls in a dating situation to know whether he really prefers his steady to other girls or not.
This is an especial concern of very young teen-agers who need to experience different kinds of dating partners in different kinds of dating situations. After a teen-ager has dated around for some time, he may want to focus on one preferred date, but in the early stages of dating there are many reasons why going steady is not wise.
When It Restricts Your Development
It is well known that human personality grows in relationship with others. Each of us is different with different people.
Each close friend we have draws out a different set of responses from us and has a different kind of influence upon us. During the second decade of life most boys and girls are learning how they feel about members of the other sex. Especially in the teens, there should be enough friendships with different members of the other sex to enable you to know your emotional capacities.
Take young Sam as a good illustration. He found that he was in love with three different girls at the same time! The first was Ann who lived next door, and with whom he could discuss anything. Ann was a pleasant companion, a good sport. She really understood him, and he loved her for it. But he had never kissed her; in fact, he never even felt like it. The love Sam had for Ann was that of a comrade, a pal, a true friend.
But Rosie was the sort of girl who brought out all the male in Sam. He couldn’t discuss much of anything with Rosie. But he didn’t have to, for when he was with her, talking didn’t seem important. His love for her was passionate, lusty, frighteningly intense.
Mary brought out still a different set of feelings. Mary went to his church, and when the two of them stood holding a hymnal together, the most uplifting feelings coursed through him. With Mary he thought big thoughts, he dreamed big dreams. He wanted to go out into the world and do things that would be worthy of the love he felt for her. In short, his love for Mary was spiritual and inspirational—the type that a man needs to find in a woman.
In truth, what young Sam was discovering was three different aspects of his own ability to love a woman. Each of the girls in his life was helping him develop three parts of himself that will be important in his future life as a man, a husband, and a father. No one of these three girls could promote a total development of personality for Sam. And no one of them would satisfy him for going steady too long. But someday, having developed a many-faceted capacity for love, he will find a woman who elicits in him his full ability to love and to be loved in these three ways, and more.
The person who starts going steady too soon may miss important aspects of his personality development that might be discovered through a variety of friendships. After experience with many persons has matured you, you can bring to a mature love relationship the rich repertoire of response that would have been impossible earlier.
When It Gets Involved
Two people who go steady see so much of each other that they are apt to get involved before they’re ready to marry and settle down. They are likely to become emotionally or sexually entangled before they have developed the other facets of their relationship which will enable them to live together compatibly.
Sexual attraction between two people is a powerful urge that builds up to impressive proportions, especially if the two persons are in constant association. They begin to dream of each other even when they’re apart. When they’re close, they find their responses becoming more and more ardent, and more difficult to restrain.
One of the most frequent reasons that couples quit going steady is that their relationship becomes so emotionally explosive that they are practically blown apart. They either go further than they find comfortable in their love-making, or their frequent association builds up tensions that induce squabbles that eventually neither can stand. This is why if you care for another person, it’s wise not to get into too tight and steady a relationship too soon or you will find yourselves heading for a breakup.
When Someone Gets Hurt
Going steady can result in heartbreak when one is more in love than the other. That member of the pair who takes the relationship more seriously is bound to be hurt when the break comes.
Sometimes it’s the girl who tires of her steady first. Then she asks, “How can I get rid of good old Joe? He hangs around all the time. He takes me for granted. Yet he hasn’t done anything that I can pick a fight about. I just don’t want to go steady with him any more.”
One of the most frequent questions that college boys ask is how to get a girl back into circulation after going steady with her. The sensitive, thoughtful boy doesn’t want to hurt a girl who counts on him. He realizes that she may have a hard time recovering from their affair. Yet he finds that he’s desperately eager to be rid of her before she maneuvers him even more deeply into their unpromising relationship.
Sometimes two people mutually realize that the time has come for them to break off going steady. Even then the question arises as to how it can be done most effectively and comfortably for them both.
BREAKING OFF THE AFFAIR
Nowadays so many young people go steady with several persons before entering a relationship that leads to marriage that it becomes important for both sexes to learn how to break off with a steady when the time comes. Since terminating a relationship that has been meaningful is apt to be painful, the considerate boy or girl wants to know how to break things off without hurting the other person. “After all, she has invested the best months of her life in me, and I don’t want to hurt her now,” says a college boy.
Avoiding Each Other
There are some men who simply break off a relationship abruptly and finally by not seeing a girl again. Such a fellow makes his actions talk for him. He stays away. He does not call the girl. He avoids the places they used to frequent together. He sometimes goes out of town without leaving her a forwarding address. Or he is seen about town with another girl or with a group of fellows. By this time the girl realizes that they are not going steady any more.
A girl may not be quite as successful in this approach, because her boy friend is accustomed to coming to her residence, where she finds it difficult to avoid him. Even if she could, she might not want to break off this abruptly. A girl is more apt to taper off gradually in breaking up with a steady.
Young people who are sensitive of others’ feelings realize that breaking off abruptly is unnecessarily harsh and hurtful. A thoughtful boy would rather part on good terms with his former girl friend than drop her suddenly. A girl would rather hear directly from a fellow that things are over between them than learn it from gossipmongers. She’s humiliated if others are aware before she is that she’s no longer going steady.
And she’s miserable during that period of uncertainty when she is no longer sure of her status.
Discussing the Break
Unfortunately, many a girl can’t keep from going into long agonizing discussions of “how washed up we are.” She may torment the boy with embarrassing questions such as, “What did I do to lose your love?” She may beg him to reconsider and take her back again. Such fanning of dead ashes rarely makes a relationship burst into flame again. On the contrary, it usually makes the break even more necessary for the boy and more difficult for the girl.
Some couples find that they can discuss their relationship without rancor, and decide in a friendly fashion that it’s time to break up. They try to understand what led up to their break so that the experience can give them insight. Sometimes such a couple end up as friends.
An increasing number of young people seem to have such good rapport with each other that they can sense when their friendship should shift to another basis. These are usually mature individuals who have learned that friendships change as one develops, and that not all relationships last indefinitely. A boy and girl can recognize that although their friendship has been something special, with changed feelings and interests it has become pointless. Then it is that they can break off mutually without hurting one another.
These are the young people who often can help each other get back into circulation again after the breakup. Returning to the social whirl is a difficult step for many boys and for most girls, regardless of whether the end of the affair was painful or easy.
BACK IN CIRCULATION AGAIN
After a couple break off, there is something of an interval before either of them becomes re-established as a member of the dating crowd again. If they themselves can accept their breaking up fairly well, they can help each other get back into circulation once more in a number of ways.
Mary can let her friends know that she’s at the point of breaking off with Tom. Then, as certain of her girl friends express an interest in him, she, more easily than anyone else, can arrange a date between them. Similarly, Tom could arrange a double date with Jack who’s long had a yen for Mary. In the course of the date Tom can see to it that Jack and Mary get acquainted. If Tom and Mary still like each other, they can be of great mutual support during the trying period of transition until each of them begins to date again.
If the break has been painful, full of recriminations and regrets, then a couple may have to face the double problem of getting over their emotional scars and re-establishing themselves as best they can without each other’s help.
Both of them may need a period of relative solitude in which to get back on their feet emotionally. They will devote more time to work, to friendships with members of their own sex, to activities with their families, until interest in dating again develops. Then they will let others know they are ready to accept invitations again that may lead to dating. Sometimes, going to another community for a while, visiting a relative, taking a trip or a vacation, helps a person get over a broken love affair and find himself or herself again.
GOING STEADY WHEN SEPARATED
Frequently the question comes up as to whether it is wise for a couple to try to go steady when they will have to be separated. She may have to go off to college; they may be heading to different campuses; he leaves for military service or a job in another community. What should they do then? Try to continue going steady during the period of separation? Or should they break off and make themselves available for a normal social life, since they’re so far apart that dating isn’t possible?
The answer seems to depend upon how much their relationship means to them. If they’re devoted to each other, and feel that their relationship is definitely headed toward engagement and marriage, then very possibly they will attempt to maintain close contact through correspondence and visits and not date others during the period of their separation.
But if they have been going steady as a matter of mutual convenience, then their separation offers a pleasant way of moving on to other relationships. If neither of them is ready for permanent commitments as yet, they may agree that theirs has been a meaningful companionship, but now that they must part, they will date others and see what happens. If, when they’re both ready to settle down, they still prefer each other to anyone else they have known in the interim, then they might well re-establish their relationship. In the meantime their freedom to date others has meant that they have kept alive socially and so are presumably more mature and ready for ultimate marriage than if they had been living in lonely isolation throughout the period of separation.
Deciding together whether it will be wise to date others during the separation is a constructive way of approaching the problem. If a couple mutually agree that dating others is wise, their problem is solved. If they both feel that they want to be faithful to each other, they then must figure out how to continue contact with each other, and with other persons generally, while they’re so far apart. If the two disagree on policy in the matter of trying to go steady during the separation, time and continued efforts to find an acceptable solution to their dilemma will tell.
Going steady offers two young people a chance to get to know one another as personalities. As they date each other in numerous situations, they see each other as they really are. A girl who has gone steady with a boy over a period of time becomes able to anticipate his interests, to recognize his moods, and to meet his needs. As he gets increasingly well acquainted with her he becomes familiar with her reactions, wishes, standards, and values. In many ways going steady is good preparation for marriage in that it provides a couple with opportunities for becoming closely sensitive to each other as two whole persons. Through experience they have learned how to meet each other’s need for companionship. As one fellow puts it:
“Going steady has done a great deal of good for both of us. We have learned to make sacrifices for each other and are making plans for the future. We have different opinions on things and we always talk them out.”
When a couple start going steady before they’re ready to settle down or assume responsibility for keeping their relationship on an even keel, they may be headed for painful situations and emotional distress. Real problems can result from rushing into exclusive dating without being sure of one’s own readiness for the step. This is why steady dating among young teen-agers is so often questioned by the same people who approve of it for older, more mature young people.
Those who oppose going steady have a point. Those who feel that going steady has advantages are right too. Whether going steady will be wise or not for a particular couple at a particular point in their relationship, only they can tell. As they understand more about what is involved, they will be better able to make such a choice wisely and well.