"I'd rather pay the entire bill myself than split it," says Katrina, a young professional who lives in Center City.
"They can pay the whole thing, I'll pay the whole thing, whatever. But splitting it down the middle takes it from being a romantic thing to two friends hanging out. It's just how it feels."
When surveyed about their opinions on paying for dates, many folks I asked replied with rationales far more emotional than mathematical. Those who believed in going Dutch seemed to do so out of an instinct that it was inherently fair. Meanwhile those who maintain that a man must pay for a first date simply said they feel uncomfortable doing it any other way.
A common stance was that whoever asks for the date should expect to cover it, while others argued that you should plan to pay for yourself and just be pleasantly surprised if the outcome is different.
Money is symbolic in general and within romantic relationships especially so.
On one hand, there's the inescapable history of women being property without their own wealth. So the tradition that men must pay for everything was, for a long time, simply because there was no other option. On the other hand, expecting that everyone should throw in the same amount gets sticky when two people don't have the same incomes, didn't order comparable amounts of food or the there's a question of whether the meal is actually a date.
For instance, a guy friend told me that he had recently gone on what he thought was a romantic get-together. After ordering drinks, my friend tried to grab the tab. He came to realize the encounter was platonic when the woman requested separate checks. This subtle choice was able to fill in the gaps of their communication about where they stood.
For Sarah, a woman I talked to in Rittenhouse Park, paying for her portion of the check was awkwardness insurance. "I just feel better, like I don't owe them anything," she remarked. "If we keep going out, then we'll probably end up switching back and forth with one of us covering this time and the other one covering the next time. That's what my boyfriend and I do now."
Research tells us that, even if it's unintentional, by paying for a date a person exerts control. Being the one who holds the purse strings translates into power, providing the position to make decisions, set the tone of the relationship and, as Sarah alluded to, feel entitled to certain things from their dates.
Shelling out cash might feel like it's an act of submission, taking care of someone whom you want to show a good time. However, because of the deeply ingrained socialization we have around money, being the one who pays is perceived as an act of taking leadership. This can shape the character of the couple's interactions, leading towards a power dynamic whether the folks involved are looking for that or not.
Even among feminists the debate is far from settled. Many argue that if women want equality, that should include handling their portion of the bill. But others argue that men should pick up the check because, due to the wage gap, they're more likely to have a higher income. This isn't even relevant when we're talking same-sex couples who have their own gender-related nuances to navigate.
There's not a lot of information about how much we spend on dating. The available stats are largely anecdotal or contingent on who is doing the asking. For instance, one often-cited survey was conducted by a dating site where men bid to go out with women. They suggested the average American man spends $120 on a first date, but it would be bad research methods to suggest we can assume the guys who took their survey are representative of everybody.
In asking folks about date-paying behaviors, I was shocked by how often people assumed others would interpret things the same way they did. There are a lot of deeply held beliefs about the meaning of choices around bill paying but, from the sounds of it, we aren't telling the right people about our expectations.
"When a guy says 'shall we split it?' I immediately think, 'well, this is our last date. He's minimizing his investment,'" suggested one woman. "If he pays for it, though, I can be like, 'cool, I'll get the next one' and now we have an automatic second date." She's describing a stealthy system where both partners throw in evenly, retaining equal footing, yet the romantic gesture can be sustained.
But again, she's not actually communicating directly to her date about what bill paying means to her.
And perhaps that's the real issue: being able to talk to a potential partner about what money means to us and what is being conveyed when we whip out the Visa and say, "no, I got this." Perhaps this can be our first opportunity to practice talking openly about a challenging subject with someone with whom we are auditioning to have many more serious discussions. If we can't talk about the assumptions, expectations and symbolic gestures of bill paying, how can we hope to navigate talking about bigger issues of a romantic relationship?
Dr. Timaree Schmit earned her Ph.D. in Human Sexuality from Widener University, where she now trains future sexologists and clinicians. Her passion is bringing rational, empirically-based, sex-positive information to the world, empowering others to celebrate their bodies, build intimacy and experience pleasure.