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Dating, Hanging Out, or Hooking Up: Your Values - Your Decisions

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If you’re a young adult negotiating today’s complex world of love and relationships, things may sometimes feel pretty confusing and undefined. Was last night just a hookup…or something more? Are we going out…or just hanging out? Is it time for the “define the relationship” talk?

You may need to ask yourself: am I dating, hanging out, or hooking up? And what do I actually want?


Traditionally, when we talk about a couple as dating, we probably mean that they’re seeing each other regularly in a romantic way. These couples “go out” to venues together and think of each other as attached.

Still, it’s always a good idea to make your expectations clear with your partner so no one gets blindsided (this is where that “define the relationship” talk comes in). Can you see other people as well, or are you exclusive? And what are the both of you thinking as far as the physical relationship and your future?

In recent years, older adults and relationship experts have expressed concerns that traditional dating is in decline or even going extinct among college students and young people. However, research finds that while the practice may be a bit less common, it definitely still exists! And young people still express plenty of interest in finding a long-term partner—men even more so than women.

Traditional dating has its positive sides, for sure. You’ll learn more about yourself and your partner, and the relationship is likely to be safer and more satisfying than casual flings. However, at times, you may not be ready for the kind of commitment that comes with more serious dating relationships.

“Hanging Out”

Getting together in a large or small group, or maybe even one on one at the library or someone’s apartment, can be one way to be together without a lot of pressure. Because it’s free from the idea that the situation is an actual date (with potential expectation for commitment or sexual activity) it can be a good way to get to know someone.

However, keep in mind that people may act differently in groups than they would otherwise. Hanging out in groups can also often turn into partying and drinking, which can present real hazards and might not end up as you were hoping. Also, hanging out can be confusingly nebulous at times. You may not know what you’re heading into, if anything.

Hooking Up

Casual one-night “hook-ups” or “friends with benefits” situations are often seen as concerningly common among young people. Researchers confirm that hook-ups (not always with intercourse) are indeed somewhat common in this age group, but also say that they haven’t increased dramatically over the last few decades. It’s also interesting to know that most college students hook up twice a year or less, but assume their peers are doing so much more often.

Researchers who study the “hook-up” phenomenon find that casual sex leads to very mixed feelings. Emotions range from happiness to regret to embarrassment, neutrality, or disappointment, with no single response dominating. However, women tend to feel more negative about hookups than men do, and one-night stands and sex with semi-strangers tend to make people feel the worst. It’s also important to know that sexual satisfaction during hookups is much lower than that experienced in committed relationships, especially for women.

Unwanted sex and sexual assault are also far more common during hook-up situations. And in one study, over a quarter of students who’d hooked up said they hadn’t really meant to, but were under the influence of alcohol and drugs at the time. 

Amazingly, one study found that while under 5% of both men and women expected a serious relationship to develop from their hookups, 30-40% wished that one would. It makes you wonder…how many hook-ups conceal a desire for something more?

The Choice is Yours

Whatever decision you end up making about your dating and social life at this age, make it an informed one, based on your own preferences and desires. What are you looking for-- at this time, and in the future? What are your hopes and aspirations for romantic relationships? What kind of relationship will make you feel loved, respected, and honored as a person?

Also remember to keep issues of consent and safety in mind, including the role of alcohol. And if you’re sexually active, make safe choices regarding contraception and safe sex.

This time of life can be romantically confusing, but also exciting. Enjoy meeting new people and discovering what works for you.

Looking for ways to connect and get closer with your partner? Want to know more about healthy relationships? The SMART Couples project is offering ELEVATE, a free, research-backed relationship enhancement class for couples, in Florida counties across the state. All our programs are taught by trained professionals and are welcoming to all. Sign up today!

By Carol Church, lead writer, SMART Couples, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, University of Florida


Holman, A., & Sillars, A. (2012). Talk about “hooking up”: The influence of college student social networks on nonrelationship sex. Health Communication, 27(2), 205-16.

Kuperberg, A. (2016). The date’s not dead after all: new findings on hooking up, dating and romantic relationships in college. Retrieved from

Monto, M.A., & Carey, A.G. (2014). A new standard of sexual behavior? Are claims associated with the "hookup culture" supported by general social survey data? Journal of Sex Research, 51(6), 605-15.

Pope, S. E. (2010). Has hanging out replaced traditional dating? Retrieved from

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