While the term has several meanings, the most frequent usage refers to two or more people exploring whether they are romantically and/or sexually compatible by participating in dates with the other.

While pair-bonds of varying forms were recognized by most societies as acceptable social arrangements, marriage was reserved for heterosexual pairings and had a transactional nature, where wives were in many cases a form of property being exchanged between father and husband, and who would have to serve the function of reproduction.

Communities exerted pressure on people to form pair-bonds in places such as Europe; in China, society "demanded people get married before having a sexual relationship" and many societies found that some formally recognized bond between a man and a woman was the best way of rearing and educating children as well as helping to avoid conflicts and misunderstandings regarding competition for mates.

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From the standpoint of anthropology and sociology, dating is linked with other institutions such as marriage and the family which have also been changing rapidly and which have been subject to many forces, including advances in technology and medicine.

As humans have evolved from hunter-gatherers into civilized societies and more recently into modern societies, there have been substantial changes in the relationship between men and women, with perhaps one of a few remaining biological constants being that both adult women and men must have sexual intercourse for human procreation to happen.

These species-particular behavior patterns provide a context for aspects of human reproduction, including dating.