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In the twentieth century, dating was sometimes seen as a precursor to marriage but it could also be considered as an end-in-itself, that is, an informal social activity akin to friendship.It generally happened in that portion of a person's life before the age of marriage, enabled dates to be arranged without face-to-face contact.

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Women eventually won the right to vote in many countries and own property and receive equal treatment by the law, and these changes had profound impacts on the relationships between men and women. In many societies, individuals could decide—on their own—whether they should marry, whom they should marry, and when they should marry.

A few centuries ago, dating was sometimes described as a "courtship ritual where young women entertained gentleman callers, usually in the home, under the watchful eye of a chaperone," but increasingly, in many Western countries, it became a self-initiated activity with two young people going out as a couple in public together.

Each culture has particular patterns which determine such choices as whether the man asks the woman out, where people might meet, whether kissing is acceptable on a first date, the substance of conversation, who should pay for meals or entertainment, Since dating can be a stressful situation, there is the possibility of humor to try to reduce tensions.

For example, director Blake Edwards wanted to date singing star Julie Andrews, and he joked in parties about her persona by saying that her "endlessly cheerful governess" image from movies such as Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music gave her the image of possibly having "lilacs for pubic hair"; While the term dating has many meanings, the most common refers to a trial period in which two people explore whether to take the relationship further towards a more permanent relationship; in this sense, dating refers to the time when people are physically together in public as opposed to the earlier time period in which people are arranging the date, perhaps by corresponding by email or text or phone.

New types of relationships formed; it was possible for people to live together without marrying and without children.