Story at a glance
- A new survey found young adults are more likely than their older counterparts to say they were once friends with their partner before becoming romantically involved.
- The rise of social media, along with shifts in relationship priorities, may help explain this trend.
- But generational differences in partner pools and dating customs make direct comparisons tricky.
There’s no doubt that dating norms have changed for young adults in the past couple of decades amid the rise of dating apps and hookup culture.
But now, a growing number of Gen Z and younger millennials appear to be rejecting those new norms and once again changing how they’re dating, and whom.
In 2023, these Americans are increasingly turning to their friends to find romantic partners, as opposed to strangers.
The trend represents a significant split from older generations. A recent poll from the Survey Center on American Life found just 21 percent of people over age 65 said they were friends with their partner or spouse before dating, compared with 44 percent of those aged 18 through 29.
And while more than half of seniors said they did not know their partner at all before they got together, just 35 percent of young people said the same, according to the report.
The potential reasons behind the shift are complicated, involving technological advancements as well as changing relationship priorities and societal shifts brought on by the “Me Too” movement.
For one thing, the wide web of acquaintances offered by social media has made dating a friend easier. In today’s digital world, the term “friend” can mean a lot of things.
Thanks to social media, “it’s just a lot easier to know a lot more people,” said Juliana Trujillo, 19, a junior at New Mexico State University, even if these people aren’t friends in the traditional sense.
“For me personally, a lot of people that I have romantic relationships with, even though I don’t know them personally, I know of them. And I know people who know them and so they aren’t technically strangers, but still kind of so,” Trujillo said.
More than one third of Gen Z and millennials have met a partner through social media, according to surveys conducted by YPulse, a market researcher that focuses on the two generations.
For many, dating someone they’re already friends with, or someone who is a friend of a friend, can often feel like a safer option than dating a stranger.
“Dating someone who you meet through a friend gives you that sense of trust,” said Arielle Kuperberg, an associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina Greensboro.
If you meet a romantic partner through a friend, and something goes wrong, “there’s kind of this third person that they’re accountable to,” said Kuperberg.
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On the other hand, meeting a stranger online or in the street does not come with that third-person accountability, she added.
Social media makes it “easier to know more people so there’s [less of a chance to] find attraction to a stranger,” said Trujillo, which may explain why more young people find themselves dating “friends” these days.
Changing societal norms might also make it less likely for young adults to pursue romantic partnerships with complete strangers in 2023.
As a result of the “Me Too” movement, “it’s become much less acceptable to approach people at work, or even in school, to some extent,” said Kuperberg.
“There’s been an increase in focus on sexual harassment, which is, I think, a good thing but it’s also greatly limited the degree to which people are willing to kind of approach strangers,” she said.
That leaves the people that they’re friends with, or who they have pre-existing relationships with, as a potential dating pool, she added.
Then there’s the fact that Gen Z and young millennials are seeking different things in romantic relationships than older generations.
In decades past, settling down with a partner was often a decision based on financial security. Nowadays, “what people are looking for in relationships is very, very different,” said Anastasia Pelot, a content marketing manager for YPulse.
As more women entered the workforce, the traditional gender breakdowns in marriages — where men were seen as the breadwinners and women as homemakers — shifted. If both partners are providing income for the household, it prompts the question, “What is it that I’m getting from you?” said Pelot.
For young adults, the answer could be something more intangible that they’ve already found within their friend group.
YPulse’s data shows Gen Z “are highly, highly prioritizing friendships in ways that other generations really just depended on their romantic relationships for,” said Pelot.
Nearly three-quarters of Gen Z and millennials view friendships as a lifelong commitment, the researchers found.
“It makes total sense that their friend groups — where they’re cultivating these people that they want to be like, that they want to emulate — that’s where they’re finding their partners as well,” said Pelot.
Young people are also prioritizing their own well-being and happiness and finding love as it comes, Pelot said. According to YPulse’s data, 86 percent of young people agree it’s important to have a strong relationship with yourself before focusing on your relationship with others.
This feeling was echoed by Cayman Handley, 22, a senior at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.
“When you know yourself better as a person, that’s when you know what you actually want in life, and knowing that will make a relationship or any dating style last really, really long, in a way,” Handley said.
Handley also feels that, compared with older adults, Gen Z has normalized prioritizing mental and physical health.
“I feel like a lot of [people] from the previous generations, they never had the opportunity to actually find themselves and find who they are on the inside rather than just dating the first person they saw.”
These shifts in priorities could also help explain the so-called sex recession among young people, which happens to coincide with the rise of hookup culture.
Hookup culture between men and women or men and other men tends to be pretty transactional, explained Lisa Wade, an associate professor in the department of sociology and the gender and sexuality studies program at Tulane University.
“You have to be kind of up for and able to perform and tolerate a certain level of disinterest or lack of interest in your partner, whether that’s a fact or not. And so it doesn’t sit well with everybody,” Wade explained.
Wade, who tracks college hookup culture, says it has co-opted other ways of finding relationships, too.
As opposed to going on a few dates to get to know someone romantically before engaging in sexual activity, “a typical way to get into a relationship if you’re a young person today is to hook up with someone once and then twice and then a few more times. And then maybe over time, you drop the veil of it being merely transactional,” Wade said.
Because so many young people don’t feel all that comfortable with hookup culture, “it would make sense to me that the alternative way of getting into a relationship would probably be hooking up with your friends, which feels a little bit safer than hooking up with strangers or might just naturally evolve out of getting to know one another,” Wade said.
Pelot agrees that young people may be searching for romantic partners among their friends in part due to disillusionment with the current dating culture.
“A lot of them want serious, meaningful, committed relationships in the future. But right now, they’re feeling like they’re surrounded by a hookup culture,” she said.
“It makes total sense that they’re starting in their friend groups with these people that they share values and community with, and then realizing that ‘hey, actually, this is what I’m looking for in a partner too.’”
That young people are increasingly forming relationships with people they’re already friends with may seem counterintuitive given the rise of dating apps — where most people who connect are strangers.
But the dynamics of who uses a dating app or site are different from who actually meets a partner on the site, explained Reuben Thomas, an associate professor in the department of sociology and criminology at The University of New Mexico.
“The site’s users are disproportionately young people,” said Thomas. “But when you sample couples in the United States, the ones who met online and actually formed a long term relationship, they’re disproportionately middle aged.”
When YPulse queried young adults about why they’re on dating apps, many said just for fun or to pass the time, or to find new friends.
“I think [dating apps] can be very beneficial for older people, more beneficial than it is for Gen Z and millennial people because I feel like younger people take it more as of a joke, you can say, and not seeking a serious partner,” said Trujillo.
The friendship circles of middle aged singles also “tend to be more dominated by people who are already partnered up,” compared with younger adults, Thomas said, meaning they may turn to other options to find partners.
That may in part explain why more older couples said they were strangers before they started dating.
But the differences appear to go beyond age as well. The Survey Center on American Life also found half of young women said they were close friends or friends who were not that close with their partner before they became romantically involved, compared with 34 percent of young men.
This could be because the dating pools for each group are different, Thomas explained. “Young women are not dating the young men, necessarily,” he said. “Young women disproportionately date older men, compared to young men dating older women.”
“It’s actually really complicated,” said Thomas. “These may not actually be the same people dating within the same pool. They may have very different dating pools that they’re talking about.”
It’s hard to make generalizations about dating between generations without understanding all the nuanced differences between older Americans and younger Americans and how dating overall has shifted throughout the decades, experts warned.
One thing does seem fairly constant across all the changing norms and varied approaches to romantic relationships: Whether it’s through online dating, meeting via friends or randomly on the street, all options can lead to happiness down the line. Because the survey also found those who married strangers were no less satisfied than those who married close friends.
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