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Historically, marriages in most societies were arranged by parents and older relatives with the goal not being love but legacy and "economic stability and political alliances", according to anthropologists.

Accordingly, there was little need for a temporary trial period such as dating before a permanent community-recognized union was formed between a man and a woman.

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Dating is a stage of romantic relationships in humans whereby two people meet socially with the aim of each assessing the other's suitability as a prospective partner in an intimate relationship or marriage.

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.

Still, dating varies considerably by nation, custom, religious upbringing, technology, and social class, and important exceptions with regards to individual freedoms remain as many countries today still practice arranged marriages, request dowries, and forbid same-sex pairings.

Men and women became more equal politically, financially, and socially in many nations.

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.

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Dating may also involve two or more people who have already decided that they share romantic or sexual feelings toward each other.

These people will have dates on a regular basis, and they may or may not be having sexual relations.

This period of courtship is sometimes seen as a precursor to engagement.

Dating as an institution is a relatively recent phenomenon which has mainly emerged in the last few centuries.