The changing world of dating: what you need to know


“When I met my husband in the mid-90s, internet dating didn’t exist. We met hanging out with friends and never went on a real ‘date’! By the time we split 15 years later, the dating scene had completely changed. I didn’t know how to meet people, I had no clue what was ‘normal’ and I was very nervous on dates. But I ended up having fun. I tried internet dating and singles events, met some interesting people, formed a few nice friendships, and eventually met my boyfriend.”

If you’re entering the dating world, especially later in life or after a long break, you may be surprised to discover that it’s barely recognisable from when you were last ‘stepping out’. Rapid developments in digital technology, and the Americanisation of UK culture, has led to a strange new world of dating. Here, we highlight some of the changes, and offer tips for negotiating them…

The rise of digital dating

Many people still meet their partners in the traditional ways: through friends, at parties, at church, while volunteering, at work or through a hobby. However, those ways of meeting people are in deep decline. For instance, research in the US shows that in 1940, over 15% of married couples had met at church. By 2000, that had dropped to 5%; today it is barely 2%.

Meanwhile, the internet has opened a world of possibilities for people looking for love. Social media, dating websites and dating apps (on phones) mean we now have instant access to millions of potential partners. Around 45% of single adults have tried internet dating, and an estimated 27% of married couples first meet online. People of all ages – including those in their 50s, 60s and beyond – go online to meet people, while dating apps are the method of choice for younger people. The digital dating revolution is here to stay.

Dating websites can be a blessing for Christians. The number of marriageable singles in the church is low. This means that believers – particularly those in their 30s and above – are unlikely to meet a partner in their own church, or by leaving it to chance. A Christian dating website is a great resource for making contact with other believers who you wouldn’t otherwise cross paths with.

Make it work for you:

At a time when we can order anything at the touch of a button, the desire for instant gratification can spill over into our dating lives. However, relationships still take time, investment and commitment. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the number of people ‘available’ online, or get drawn into perpetual digital communication instead of real-life interactions. For successful online dating, experts advise proactively contacting and chatting to lots of people, meeting anyone with potential as quickly as possible (this also helps to avoid scammers), and then building relationships in the real world – just like the old days! For more advice on online dating, check out our guide.

Dating vs ‘exclusive’

Here in the UK, people would traditionally date one partner at a time. Only once it’s established that there is no relationship potential would they be free to meet up with someone else. Increasingly, however, there is now another dating custom, imported from the USA, of seeing multiple people at once.

For an active dater, this might mean meeting one person for lunch, another for post-work drinks, and a third for the evening, to increase their chances of meeting someone compatible. But it may also mean having extended relationships, including kissing and even sex, with several people at once. Only after a couple agrees to be ‘exclusive’ is there any expectation of being faithful to one person. This is particularly common among younger people, but can be found in all generations.

In the very early stages of dating, when ‘dates’ are merely first meetings without any commitment, this may be an acceptable approach. In fact, some Christian dating books positively encourage it. However, it can come as a shock to discover that your dating partner is seeing other people or still actively using a dating website. 

Make it work for you:

It’s good to approach early dates in a relaxed, casual way, with no expectations or assumptions. After all, you’re just learning about each other and deciding whether you’re interested in more. However, if a relationship starts to develop, it’s wise to make sure you’re singing from the same hymn sheet to avoid misunderstandings or upset. You could open the conversation with something like, ‘I only date one person at a time – what’s your approach?’ You have a right to decide what’s acceptable to you, and to negotiate or remove yourself from a situation if you’re not happy.

An expectation of sex

Outside the church (and sometimes within it), it’s now considered completely normal for dating couples to have a sexual relationship. Very few people wait for marriage these days, and many expect sex within a few dates. However, a new vogue (hopefully not yet widespread) is to have sex before dating, to check compatibility and chemistry. This is part of a culture that can view sex as something for personal gratification, as opposed to the Christian view of sex as an expression of love in a committed relationship, with each person serving the other.

Dating within Christian circles, you are less likely to encounter this approach, but you certainly can’t assume that just because someone shares your faith, they will also share your beliefs or expectations about sex. While many Christians still choose to abstain, this may come as news to others, who see sex as a natural part of a loving relationship. Churches don’t always help by preaching a hard line on sex before marriage, without giving single church members any guidance on dealing with these complex issues.

Make it work for you:

It’s important to know your own sexual boundaries, and to communicate them clearly to the person you’re dating, even if it’s awkward. Some people choose to do this up-front – for instance, by stating it on their online dating profile. You have every right to protect your boundaries. Never allow yourself to be pressured into doing anything you’re not comfortable with – and never pressure someone else to engage in something they’re not 100% happy with.

A divided life

In a high-speed world of networking, mobility and convenience, and the breakdown of communities, people increasingly have completely separate groups or individuals to fulfil different needs in their life – work colleagues, friends to hang out with, people to share hobbies with, individuals they may date, and people for sexual recreation.

This has given rise to the ‘friends with benefits’ (FWB) phenomenon, where people may meet regularly for sex but don’t have a relationship. They may say this is because they don’t have time for a relationship, are not emotionally attached to the person, or want sexual gratification without strings when they are ‘between’ relationships. They may see no conflict between having sex with their ‘FWB’ while actively looking for a long-term relationship.

This compartmentalising of sex and love, and using people for sexual gratification (even with their consent), sits very uncomfortably with Christian beliefs. The Bible teaches that we are all of infinite value, and that sexual closeness is a reflection of deepening emotional, mental and spiritual bonds between two people.

Make it work for you:

In some ways, having different people to fulfil different areas in your life isn’t a bad thing – many marriages fail because people expect their spouses to be everything: best friend, counsellor, co-parent, hobby buddy, housekeeper and passionate sex partner and more. However, categorising people for emotional, recreational or sexual purposes encourages a view of them as objects, and may be a sign of attachment difficulties. Single people can sometimes feel desperate for attention and affection, making them easy prey for someone who doesn’t want a real relationship. It’s important to value yourself as a child of God and not allow yourself to be used. It may also be wise to avoid relationships people who have a history of compartmentalising and using others in this way. 

Changing gender roles

These days, it’s not unusual for women to make the first move in dating by contacting a man online or asking him out. This can be jarring if you’re used to a more traditional approach. In fact, many churches teach that it’s the man’s place to do the pursuing. However, in a world where women are now recognised as equals, many of the old ‘rules’ are falling by the wayside, including in the church. When Single Friendly Church did an informal poll asking men whether they’d be embarrassed if a woman made the first move, they overwhelmingly said they wouldn’t be, and would even welcome it.

Make it work for you:

Keep an open mind. You may prefer to do the asking (if you’re a man) or to be pursued (if you’re a woman), and those preferences are fine. But remember that many happy Christian relationships have formed after a woman found the courage to make her interest clear – which can also come as a great relief to a shy man! In fact, research shows that men will rarely make the first move without some indication of success in advance – so even if a man does the ‘asking’, it’s usually the woman who first makes it clear that he’ll get a ‘yes’! Ultimately, what matters is the quality of the relationship, not who makes the first move.   

Catherine Francis & David Pullinger, 28 May 2018