Social and relationship roles are in flux in modern society. There is no clear guidance or script for anyone to follow in dating and relating. For example, traditionally the man was expected to ask for dates—and pay for them too.
However, that script is gone. It has been replaced with uncertainty.
Given the confusion and lack of direction, I am routinely asked:
Who should ask for a date and who should pay for the date?
Is it still chivalrous and romantic if a man pays, or “try hard” and “needy”?
Is it egalitarian and attractive if a woman asks for a date, or too forward and “slutty”?
The good news is that today I am going to answer those questions. I am going to explain the functions of courtship – and help each of you decide whether asking and paying will help you reach your dating goals. Read on…
The function of dating and courtship processes
Traditional dating and courtship rituals serve two main goals – one evolved, the other social.
1) From an evolutionary psychology standpoint — due to differential parental investment, females are more reproductively valuable than males. As a result, males of many species “earn” female reproductive access through resource allocation, gifts, and provisioning.
Because resources, status, and ambition are attractive to women (Buss, 2003), the process also piques female interest and helps them in mate selection.
Therefore, from an evolutionary standpoint, the traditional male asks-and-pays model serves to attract women through displays of status and ambition, “earns” women through provisioning, and compensates for discrepancies in later reproductive value.
2) From a social psychological standpoint — traditional male-led dating is also a process of socialization and gender role establishment.
Repetition of decision-making and behavior in both men and women leads to self-image change via processes of commitment/consistency (Cialdini, 2009) and self-perception (Bem, 1972).
In other words, the later traditional relationship gender roles that are internalized for the man (at least ostensibly) obligated to decide and lead, with the woman following, are established in these early dating interactions.
By expecting the man to lead, ask, and pay, these early behaviors, over time, influence the development of norms and roles in the relationship. Essentially, it sets the precedent of the relationship structure to follow, with the man as dominant/leader in the relationship.
What about modern dating?
The answers here are not so simple… This is particularly because gender roles are not so cut and dried. In some modern relationships, both individuals do still choose a “traditional” male-led arrangement. Others, however, establish female-led households, or more egalitarian partnerships.
Nevertheless, the social psychology and “socializing” function of dating and courtship gives us a clue how to proceed. Essentially, whether you chose to ask and pay for dates determines whether you establish yourself as a leader or follower in the ensuing relationship. That would lead to the following…
For individuals interested in traditional male-led relationships, it might make sense for the man to still be expected to make all of the moves, ask for the date, and pay. Men who do this are illustrating their status, ambition, and leadership potential. Women who expect and accept such requests are at the least “buying in” to the arrangement, if not actively choosing, appreciating, and being attracted to the display.
Sure, it is possible to “cheat” the system—with the woman seizing control at a later date, or the man discontinuing leadership. However, in general, accepting such a dating arrangement is leading down a particular socializing path that will influence later relationship dynamics. So, if you don’t want “traditional”, then it would be inadvisable to follow the traditional script from the start. If you do want that…then it could make sense for the guy to face rejection and reach for his wallet—as long as that is earning him respect, reciprocity, and deference in the process.
In contrast, if a traditional relationship is a turn off, then it is unadvisable from an influence standpoint to follow the traditional dating script. Particularly, if a woman wants to lead or be equal in a relationship, it doesn’t set a good precedent to be passive and dependent when that relationship is established. At the least, it sends the wrong signal—if not putting her at a power disadvantage.
Therefore, for women-led and egalitarian relationships, it makes persuasive sense for the woman to make the first date request and pay for the first date. This clearly establishes her disinterest in a passive relationship role. It also gives her the added benefit of actively selecting a lover of her choosing—rather than just passively accepting/rejecting men who make a request. There is, however, a greater chance of rejection (see here). But, that appears to be the social price for choice, influence, and leadership.
From the first date, much like the traditional script, if the woman would like full leadership in the later relationship, it might benefit her to continue to pay and escalate the intimacy. This would further establish the desired roles, with her deciding and leading.
In contrast, after the first date, equal sharing of payment and escalation might be advisable for those with more egalitarian notions. Telling the guy “he can get the next one” would easily send such a clear signal of reciprocity and equality. It would also test his intentions to put equal effort in too!
In any case, the men receiving requests might then be understood to have certain social obligations. First, much as they would like women to do, they should decline unwanted requests politely. Given their decreased power in the arrangement, it might also behoove them to screen, test, and select the woman well. Also, it is poor etiquette to take advantage of gifts with no intention of reciprocity. Finally, given the fact that male passivity may not be evolutionarily attractive to a woman, it might be beneficial to monitor for signs of waning attraction — not to mention learning to be “attractive” in other ways.
Although we’ve worked through a complicated analysis, the conclusion is simple (and influential). If you want to lead in the relationship, you should lead in the dating – by requesting dates, escalating intimacy, and paying. In contrast, if you passively accept such choices and favors, then you are setting a precedent for a future passive role.
However, if you want an equal relationship, it might be best to initially break from the traditional dating script, let the woman ask and pay first, then let the man “get the next one”. This sends the signal clearly for both equality and reciprocity. Power and leadership will be more clearly shared as a result.
So, before you open your mouth (or reach for your wallet), it might help to first envision the type of relationship you desire. What role do you see yourself playing? Will your date respect that arrangement? Then set the standard and act accordingly.