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ISW Journal

Literature from Interdisciplinary Social Sciences (ISW)

Alexandra van Veen


The ideal of a romantic relationship has been the subject of ideological change over time. Only 50 years ago, the average age for getting married was around the age of 20 (Arnett, 2004). Since then, this average age has steadily increased. Since romantic relationships have always played an important role in human life, many scholars have written about this theme. As can be derived from the existing literature about modern love, the general conclusion concerns a delay in getting into a serious romantic commitment. The aim of this paper is to find out why young people nowadays seem to be more cautious about getting into a romantic relationship. Collins (2003) gives the following definition of a romantic relationship: ‘Romantic relationships, like friendships, are on-going voluntary interactions that are mutually acknowledged, rather than identified by only one member of a pair. Romantic relationships, however, also have a peculiar intensity and the intensity can be marked by expressions of affection—including physical ones and, perhaps, the expectation of sexual relations, eventually if not now’ (Collins, 2003, p. 2).

According to psychologist Arnett (2004), the delay in getting into a romantic relationship has partly to do with prolonged education, birth control and the rise of women’s emancipation. But long before these developments, Marx and Engels already predicted a society where human values, including love, are exchanged for material values, like money (Marx & Engels, in Calhoun, 1996). This corrupts the authentic nature of human relationships that are naturally based on love and commitment.

But, the exchange of human for material values that Marx and Engels predicted is not exclusively characteristic for the last decades (Marx & Engels, in Calhoun, 1996). The discussion about the changing meaning of interpersonal relationships is an ongoing debate. From a sociological perspective, three main approaches can be distinguished that focus on changing interpersonal relationships (Bulcroft, Bulcroft, Bradley, & Simpson, 2000). Firstly, Weber (1925) argues that a characteristic of modernity and capitalist society is rationality. This rationality means that the focus in society is no longer on emotional aspects. According to Weber, this is not only the case in the formal or public sphere, but also in interpersonal relations. As a consequence, social relationships are becoming less emotional and more rational. Weber states that this rationalization of personal life has a negative influence on the meaning and quality of interpersonal (including romantic) relationships.

In contrast, Habermas’ (1990) approach on rationality as an aspect of modernity is slightly more positive. He acknowledges that rationality is a characteristic of modern society, especially in the formal and public sphere. The private sphere of interpersonal relationships is also influenced by the process of rationalization, but the consequence is not just a loss of the importance of emotion. The rationalization of the private sphere also means increasing self-reflection with higher quality relationships as a result (Bulcroft et al, 2000; Habermas, 1990).

A third view on changing romantic values comes from Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (1995). They argue that enhanced individualism and rationality lead to increased risks in partner selection. While the need for interpersonal relationships increases, the possibility for achieving such relationships decreases in a society that is marked by a high level of individualism. As the need for interpersonal relationships increases, the more important the successful maintenance of such relationships becomes. However, structures like individualism and a fast consumer society make it increasingly difficult to successfully maintain interpersonal relationships. This paradox increases the risk of getting into a romantic relationship; people need an intimate relationship, but at the same time the maintenance of this relationship is becoming increasingly unlikely to succeed.

These theories about changing romantic values provide a framework for the question that is central in this paper. The aim of this paper is to investigate the ways in which students in Amsterdam give meaning to romantic relationships. The changes in romantic values are confusing for many students, which is why lectures and articles about this theme are highly visited and shared (Tinder Love, 2016). The uncertainties young people face are mostly centered around the phase when they have been dating for a while with the same person, and start to like this person in a romantic way. Although it seems quite obvious that the other person is also romantically interested in most cases, labeling the relationship seems too serious a step for both men and women.

This research is focused on this ‘prela-phase’ (pre-relationship): when someone is involved in a romantic relationship but labeling the other as boy- or girlfriend is for some reason not happening. What does the label ‘relationship’ mean, what makes this label that important? Does the concept ‘relationship’ correspond with a different meaning over time? To answer these questions, I start with an overview of changes in romantic values over time. In the second part of this paper, I describe the romantic discourse of eight students in Amsterdam.

Changing romantic values over time

As mentioned before, the number of people getting married has dramatically decreased over the past 50 years. But there have been many other significant changes in romantic discourse over time. These changes will be discussed based on the model of Collins (2003). Collins has conceptualized a framework for the study of romantic relationships, dividing the romantic relationship into five different stages.

The first stage is the involvement stage. This stage provides information about the average age people are getting romantically active and view themselves as part of the dating scene. The second stage is the partner selection stage. This stage includes the degree of freedom of choice in partner selection and characteristics of the potential partner that influence the partner selection. The content of relationships is the third stage by which Collins (2003) analyzes romantic relationships. This stage tells something about the nature of the relationship. Is the base of the relationship mainly practical or romantic? The fourth stage is about the quality of relationships. This refers to what is seen as a high-quality relationship by both partners. The emphasis on both partners is made, because the experienced quality may differ between men and women. The fifth and last stage is about cognitive and emotional processes. This includes the degree in which romantic relationships are shaped by the individuals’ cognitive and emotional processes.

All these aspects of romantic relationships have changed over time in Western society (Bulcroft et al., 2000). In the period between 1750 and 1850, romantic relationships already became a more individualistic matter (Bulcroft et al., 2000). The involvement in romantic relationships and marriage became increasingly important, as it provided status and stability. Although love became a more important aspect, the partner selection was mainly influenced by economic motives. The content of romantic relationships was therefore often based on economic grounds. The increasing importance of love changed the meaning of a high-quality relationship. In contrast with previous times, personal fulfillment became increasingly important in marriage. In this time period there was an emphasis on cognitive aspects of romantic relationships, but a change was coming in favor of the emotional aspects.

The romantic discourse in the following period, between 1850 and 1960, was greatly influenced by this change. The average age for getting married became younger and more people chose for married life (involvement). The partner selection became more autonomous for men: they had increased freedom to choose someone whom they had fallen in love with. Love became therefore an aspect of the content of marriage. This increased freedom of partner selection was not the case for women, who were strongly restricted by social norms. Especially for women, marriage provided higher social status. All this contributed to what was seen as a marriage of good quality: religious morality, status and childbearing. So all in all the importance of emotional aspects, like love, became a more important aspect of marriage. But this emotional aspect was still restricted by many cognitive aspects, like status, social class and religion.

According to Bulcroft et al. (2000), the modern discourse about romantic values emerged around 1960. From 1960 to current times the focus of romantic relationships shifted from the family to the individual. This is in line with the rise of the individualistic society (Berting, 2006). The involvement in romantic relationships like marriage starts at an older age, but people do get involved in experimental romantic relationships at a younger age than ever before (Arnett, 2004). Partner selection became highly autonomous, which means a greater and more diverse potential partner pool. This lack of control by family members or social norms makes the partner selection not only more autonomous, but also more uncertain. The criteria for a ‘good’ partner are loose and this results in more personal criteria. As a consequence the importance of love as a content of a romantic relationship increased according to Bulcroft et al. (2000). A good quality romantic relationship is defined by a romantic relationship based on true love and emotional benefits for both partners. The link between a high-quality relationship and economic and practical benefits becomes less important; personal fulfillment for both partners is the highest goal. According to this view, the emotional aspects are more evident in present-day love life than ever before.

A contrasting approach on modern love comes from Bauman (2003). Bauman argues that the opposite is happening in present-day love life. In his book Liquid Love (Bauman, 2003) he states that modern love is a reflection of broader processes in contemporary society. Bauman views contemporary society as a liquid society. The most important feature of a liquid society is uncertainty. This uncertainty can be found in all aspects of life, such as flexible employment contracts, uncertain social norms and loose human relationships. This uncertainty has become an important and dangerous aspect of modern romantic relationships. Characteristics of present-day love are fast, flexible and unreliable relationships. All these characteristics are also applicable to the neoliberal market economy. Romantic values are therefore dominated by economic values.

The influence of the economic system on romantic relationships has grown to such an extent that we become shoppers for the perfect lover (Bauman, 2003). This way, love becomes a consumer good that has to be ‘purchased’. As love is seen as a consumer good, it is not particularly meant to last forever. As soon as the efforts for love become greater than the personal satisfaction one gets from love, the time has come to end the romantic relationship and ‘purchase’ a new one. In this sense, the rational aspect of love is more important than the emotional aspect.

In sum, there is an ongoing debate about the meaning of recent changes in romantic values. Bulcroft et al. (2000) point out that in the past there was less space for emotional aspects of romantic values. While Bauman states that with the rise of liquid love in modern society the emotional aspects in romantic relationships are disappearing. In the next section I will discuss romantic relationships of eight young people who are dealing with current changes in romantic values, to find out how they experience this change in romantic discourse.

Contemporary romances

For this research, two focus groups have been conducted, each group consisting of three young women, as well as two semi-structured individual interviews with two young men. In this paper they are designated by pseudonyms for privacy reasons. One of the men, Werner (26), is the co-founder of one of the latest dating apps in the Netherlands. He is single and very active in the dating scene. The other man, Jim (24), is in a two-year relationship at the moment of the interview. Five of the six young women (Lonneke, Lianne, Rosa, Sasha, and Lina) are single at the moment of the interview, only Nicky is in a labelled romantic relationship. All of the respondents are currently studying in Amsterdam and in the age range of 20-26.

Since I’m a student in Amsterdam myself, I consider myself to be an insider of the research population. More importantly, my respondents also view me as an insider of the group. On the one hand, this has advantages like sharing the same implicit language as the respondents and easy access to informants (Raby, 2007; Zackariasson, 2014). On the other hand, there are also disadvantages of being an insider. Assumptions made by the researcher can change the meaning described to a situation by a respondent. Furthermore, the role duality of the researcher can be difficult for both the respondent and the researcher. In my interviews this was the case, since most of my respondents are close to me. But all in all I believe that being an insider of the respondent group was an advantage in conducting the research. I knew something about the dating life of all my respondents and this helped in creating a sphere of intimacy during the interviews. Being an insider of the group has made it not only easier to gain access to the respondents themselves, but also to gain access to their inner feelings about romantic values.

Intimate relationships

When asked to describe the road to romantic relationships, one of the girls, Nicky, pointed out that the term romantic relationship was inaccurate for the relationships that students in Amsterdam involved themselves in. I asked the other respondents what they thought about the term and all of them agreed with Nicky’s comment. They preferred the term intimate relationship. They would rather view themselves as active in the dating world, but as inactive in the sphere of romantic relationships. This distinction is important to be made, because especially the romantic part appears to be lacking in many intimate relationships. When asked to describe what an intimate relationship means to them, all respondents gave a definition more or less similar to Collins’ (2003) definition of a romantic relationship. Werner, who has never had a romantic relationship but is very active in the dating world gave the following definition of the term:

An intimate relationship could refer to someone who you get physically intimate with. But it could also be physically and mentally intimate. I’ve been with girls that made me laugh, whom I trusted and had sex with.

Werner’s definition of an intimate relationship is more or less similar to the definition the other respondents gave to their intimate relationships. As Sasha, who labels herself as single for the last three years but who has had several intimate relationships in this period, describes:

‘It’s just something like a real relationship, but without the labeling and the long-term commitment.’

Since all of the respondents preferred to talk about intimate rather than romantic relationships, this term will be used from now on.

Participation in intimate relationships

All of the respondents had some experience with intimate relationships. When asked about their involvement in intimate relationships, Lina and Werner described a mismatch between their personal romantic values and their practices. Lina, who had four sexual partners and one intimate relationship that was based on physical intimacy, had the least experience with intimate relationships. Her only intimate relationship was two years ago and they usually met at a bar or another public space. Lina emphasized that, although this is her only experience with an intimate relationship, this dating style is not a  reflection of her romantic values:

I hear about people who are dating for like 6 months, but this just never happens to me.. It makes me kind of sad, I mean, everybody is dating, why aren’t I?’

This reflects the personal importance for Lina to be involved in intimate relationships. She feels frustrated, she wants to get involved with someone but it’s difficult to achieve this. It feels to Lina like no one is willing to get into an intimate relationship with her, or only at a physical level. On the other side of the spectrum, Werner had the most experience, yet he was also not pleased about his own involvement in intimate relationships. Werner has had more than 100 sexual partners and three mentally intimate relationships.

‘I know it’s sad and I would like to settle for something on the long run, but I just don’t know how to truly be open to someone. So the short term of an intimate relationship is an easy way to get at least some intimacy.’

He refers to his own sexual experience and intimacy as sad, so in a way he’s also emphasizing that his involvement in intimate relationships doesn’t reflect his romantic values. He feels like he’s unable to truly be involved with someone, but he still craves for intimacy. This leads to intimacy with many different persons to avoid commitment.

The other six respondents were to varying degrees pleased with their involvement. The number of sexual partners they had varied between two and twelve. Two of them had a romantic relationship, three of them described themselves as in the prela phase or in an intimate relationship and one of them was not in any kind of relationship with someone. The age when they became sexually active greatly varied. Lianne had her first sexual contact when she was eleven and she felt this was much too early. Lonneke had her first sexual experience when she was twenty-two. She felt like she had to become sexual active, because everyone else already was. The age when the others became sexually active varied between sixteen and twenty years old. They all said to be satisfied with the age they got involved in sexual relations.

To sum up, most of the respondents are content about their involvement in intimate relationships. The two who consider themselves as un- or overinvolved are less content about their involvement. The age of becoming sexually active differed between the respondents, but as for the extent of involvement the respondents who were somewhere in the middle of the ‘extremes’ were the most content about the age they got sexually active. It seems that average involvement amounts to feelings of success in the dating world while being different from the average creates feelings of failure and frustration. As we will find out in the following section, there are many different phases of intimate relationships. Feelings of failure and frustration are not only influenced by the number of intimate relationships one has experienced, but also by the phase these intimate relationships have reached.

Phases of the intimate relationship

Respondents used the term intimate relationship to cover a range of phases in relationships, with different content and qualities for each phase. The starting point can either be physical or emotional intimacy; some people start their relationship with sexual contacts, others with lots of (online) contact. Eventually also intimate relationships that had started with emotional intimacy ended in sexual contact. This state of intimacy could last for months and sometimes this is the ending phase. After a while, questions about exclusivity arise. In the exclusivity phase, both partners promise to only be intimate with the other partner. After this phase of exclusivity, arrives the prela-phase, when partners find out if they want to be in a labelled relationship. In this phase the underlying assumption is the end goal of a labelled relationship.

At the moment of the interview, Rosa has been seeing someone for five months. They are practically in a relationship, but exclusivity appears to be a difficult subject:

‘What if one of us kisses someone else? I would never do that and I would be devastated to find out he did.. But I don’t want to ask him to be exclusive, I’m afraid I might scare him.’

This phase is marked by uncertainties and insecurities. The first phase of an intimate relationship is all about experimenting and finding out what you personally want from the other. Once this decision is made, either the intimate relationship ends, or enters this state of uncertainty. One has to find out if the other is interested in something ‘more’. This is not something that simply can be asked and it may take months to find out. Jim has been dating for eight months with his girlfriend. He knew already after two dates he wanted to be exclusive. But it took him five more months to discuss this with her:

‘I was so in love with her, that it [exclusivity] only became more difficult to talk about.., Although I kind of knew she felt the same way… What if she didn’t and my question about being exclusive would make her turn away from me?’

His girlfriend later told him she was waiting for him to ask to be exclusive and if it would have taken him one more month she might have left. This emphasizes the importance of perfect timing: If you want to be exclusive too soon, you might scare the other with your crave for commitment. But if you wait too long, the other might think you’re unwilling ‘to give up your freedom’. All of the respondents made clear that timing is a crucial factor, if it goes wrong the other person might leave. As a consequence of the high importance of timing, both parties become afraid to bring up the question of exclusivity. Lonneke, who has had two intimate relationships that ended in this phase partly because neither of them dared to ask the exclusivity question, explains:

‘Yes of course I wanted to be exclusive. But I will never ask something like that, I mean if he wanted to be exclusive with me he would  have asked, right? At this point I was like, you didn’t ask me to be exclusive, so I don’t think you like me enough’

This kind of thinking is recognized by all of the respondents and could lead to a situation where both parties are waiting for the other to ask for exclusivity. They don’t want to ask it themselves, because the question puts them in a vulnerable position. If the other is unwilling to be exclusive this leads to feelings of rejection. If one dares to ask the question of exclusivity, there are many ways to do so. A few examples the respondents gave are the following:

‘He asked me if I wanted to kiss other boys. I replied I didn’t and then he asked me to be exclusive.’  (Lianne)

‘Well we found it out the hard way, I was drunk and kissed someone else. This made her upset and from then on I promised her to never kiss someone else and we were exclusive.’ (Werner)

‘I asked him if he wanted to be exclusive.’ (Sasha)

So there are different roads to exclusivity, but the question always brings up feelings of  insecurity. If the exclusivity phase is successfully reached, this provides a more stable intimate relationship. This phase creates feelings of comfort and security, both parties have shown to be willing to make some efforts for each other. The next phase is the labeling phase, which is the first step to the more serious phase of an intimate relationship.


After the exclusivity phase the step to a labelled relationship seems a small one to take. But many exclusive intimate relationships don’t make it through the labeling phase. Labeling is a way of saying that you’re into someone for the long-term. The anxiety of failure of this long-term commitment gives the label a loaded content. This feeling of anxiety can be produced by personal feelings or others reactions. The difference between the exclusivity phase and the labelled relationship is for all respondents a difference in responsibilities and commitment. Lina and Lianne talk about the meaning of labeling:

Why would you label? If it’s fun, no label is needed. It’s a big pressure to label something, I’m not sure if I’m ready for a label like that.’ (Lina)

Same for me. I mean if you’re in a relationship you have to meet the parents. It’s something more real if you label. I have many friends who practically are in a relationship, they’re doing everything together. The label wouldn’t change anything, but still it seems too serious.’ (Lianne)

According to them, the label has the meaning of making the intimate relationship real. This is exactly what frightens Werner the most. Werner tells that the ‘prela’ phase is a time for experimenting and learning more about the other. Once the label of a relationship is given, the time of experimenting is over. So in other words, you have chosen that the other is the one you like the most out of all the others. You choose to be with that person after a long time of experimenting, so the choice has to be a good one. As Werner puts it:

The non-labeling is because you want to make sure that everything is perfect. The moment you start to name it, it becomes a possibility to break up and it’s much more of a big deal from then on. This would feel like failure to me.’

So for Werner, the meaning of a label is admitting that the relationship is expected to last on the long-term. This anxiety for a potential break-up makes the meaning of a label so important that he avoids the potential break-up by not labeling a relationship. Rosa is frightened by the potential break-up in a different way. While Werner is scared for the personal feelings of failure after a break-up, Rosa is more scared for the reactions of others:

It’s better to just tell we’re not seeing each other anymore, instead of having to say you broke up. Then everybody is like omg how are you??’

When the label of a relationship is given after a very short time of being in the ‘prela’-phase, reactions from others indeed can be judgmental. Lianne tells us something about social norms and labeling:

Sometimes you hear people who are in a relationship after one month of dating, and then everyone is just like whatttt, you just can’t take something like that serious.’

It appears to be socially unacceptable to label too soon. This gives the label an even more pressuring meaning. Despite these pressures, people of course still label their relationship. According to both men and women, there’s a strong gender division in the way this usually happens. Both men agree with the women that the question preferably is asked by the man in a heterosexual relationship:

‘After one year I asked her if she wanted to be my girlfriend. I was completely sure about us and I knew she was too. I knew it was my job to ask it, and although it scared me it also makes you feel very … masculine I guess.’ (Jim)

‘I would be embarrassed if the girl asked me that question. I mean, man up, you want to conquer the girl, not the other way around.’ (Werner)

All the women agree with the statement that men are the ones who have to ask for the relationship to be official (label). Just as the question of exclusivity can be brought up in many different ways, the labeling question can be asked in different forms. Nicky was not very pleased by the way her boyfriend asked her to make their relationship official:

‘It took him ages to ask.. And then he asked me to be his girlfriend when we were having dinner in a super cheap Italian restaurant at Leidse Square. I mean come on.’

This disappointment shows that with the labeling question some expectations come up. Firstly the man has to ask the question, and secondly the question should be asked in a special way. It differs what is seen as special enough, as we can conclude from the following example:

‘I planned to ask her the question the night before, I brought roses and all that. But when I saw her I got nervous and gave her the rose, without asking it.. So I felt like ruining my chances for the night. I slept over and the next morning we were lying in bed, her head on my chess. I felt so happy at the time that I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut and asked her if she  wanted to be my girlfriend. It was a very romantic moment .’ (Jim)

In sum there are many anxieties about labeling a relationship. Once these anxieties are overcome, certain expectations come up with the labeling of a relationship. The question is preferably asked by men in a ‘special’ way.


In this research the focus was on changing romantic values in present-day society. Firstly it has been shown that the meaning of romantic relationships has changed in all five stages that Collin’s (2003) distinguished. People are getting involved and experiment with intimate relationships at a younger age, but a romantic commitment is made at an older age (Arnett, 2004). The partner selection has become an increasingly personal matter and love is an important aspect of the content of present-day labelled relationships (Bulcroft et al., 2000). A high-quality relationship means a relationship that provides benefits for both partners (Bauman, 2003). According to Bauman (2003) romantic relationships are shaped by rational analyses and on the contrary Bulcroft et al. (2000) state that emotional aspects are increasingly important.

These conclusions from existing literature on changing romantic discourse are partly in line with the way students in Amsterdam give meaning to their romantic values. Involvement of the interviewed students is mainly experimental. This changes the content of their intimate relationships. According to the respondents, intimate relationships can be divided into different phases with different content. Intimate relationships always start with emotional or physical intimacy. There’s an important difference between physical and emotional intimacy, this is no longer automatically related to the same person. The first phase is all about experimenting and can last for months. The following stage is the ‘prela’-phase. In this stage both partners promise to be exclusively intimate with the other partner. This phase is still about experimenting and finding out if the other is a potential partner for a labelled relationship. Even if both partners like each other enough to get into a labelled relationship, the question to label the relationship is a difficult one to ask. The labeling question brings up several anxieties and expectations for both parties. Preferably the man asks in a special way to label the relationship.

All the respondents used words like ‘anxiety’, ‘scared’ and ‘uncertainty’ to describe their feelings about transitions in relationship phases. On the one hand, all respondents expressed to eventually want a labelled intimate relationship. On the other hand, nobody wants to be the one who is the first to say this out loud. As a consequence, both partners get scared to ask for a transition into the next phase. This is partly because of personal anxiety about choosing the wrong person. The label of a relationship implies the expectation of a longstanding relationship. So before putting this label on the intimate relationship, the maintenance of the relationship has to be likely to succeed. In the labeling phase the thought of all those other persons, potential partners, who are nowadays so easily reached through social media, creates anxiety about choosing the wrong person. This corresponds to Bauman’s (2003) Liquid Love concept. According to Bauman it almost feels natural to look for improvement in every aspect of our life. One of those aspects that becomes the subject of this improvement, is our love life. The feeling of wanting someone better looking, funnier, sweeter, more masculine/feminine corrupts the feeling of being happy with the person in front of you. As a consequence, the experimenting phase could last for many months.

Besides this anxiety based on personal matters, anxiety about transition to the next phase of the intimate relationship is based on uncertainties about what the other might think. All the respondents are extremely aware of the fact that the other is also trying to find out if the partner might be someone to get a labelled relationship with. Timing of the transition to the next phase is therefore crucial. If questions about the next phase are asked too soon, this might have a negative impact on the way the other views the potential partner.

These feelings of anxiety and uncertainty can be traced back to the high degree of freedom of partner selection and the quality aspect (Bauman, 2003; Bulcroft et al., 2000). The most important aspect of a high-quality relationship is personal fulfillment for both partners. The high degree of freedom in partner selection creates possibilities in choosing the partner who seems to be able to provide most personal fulfillment. On the one side of the spectrum, this creates feelings of happiness about being with the person you want to be with. On the other side of the spectrum, it is exactly this aspect of freedom that creates feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. After all, if a high degree of personal fulfillment is lacking, there seems to be no reason to stay in the romantic commitment. Considering the high degree of freedom of partner selection, it might be the best option to look for another person who is able to provide a high degree of personal fulfillment. This gives the romantic relationship a more temporary and uncertain nature than ever before.

(Research paper written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)


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