Why is it that so many of these eligible men and women we know who say that marriage is in their future aren't even dating? My friends and I often muse this. Most of us live in vibrant and fun cities and we aim to surround ourselves with a constant influx of professional, often like-minded, individuals. Yet my friends and I can count dozens of eligible bachelors and bachelorettes, ourselves often included, who, unless they're very secretive about their dating lives, aren't out on dates very often. And as it turns out, we're not alone in this dating drought.

According to a 2006 Pew Research report, of those singles in America who are eighteen and older and looking for a romantic partner, 49 percent had been on one or no dates in the past month. Twenty-two percent had been on two to four dates. And only a quarter of singles looking for romantic partners had been on five or more dates in the past month. Which raises the question: How do these singles expect to meet their significant other if they're not engaging in the age-old dance of dating?

[Young adults] are on this trajectory to have great careers by the age of 30, a 23-year-old graduate student told me recently, but none of us really expect to be single and 30 as well.

Are you going to play matchmaker at the end of this? another young woman asked me as I interviewed her about her discontent with the dating culture -- or lack thereof -- particularly as it related to men expressing interest in her only to never initiate even a first date.

Long gone seems the casual dating environment our parents and grandparents tell us of, when a man asked a women on a date, not necessarily because he wanted to marry her, but rather because he noticed her. Likewise, a woman was not hesitant to accept such an invitation because, as way she saw it, a night on the town was a fun, enjoyable way to see if such a man was a worthy romantic partner. We hear that individuals might have had a handful of such dates during any given week. And that they would forgo other potential significant others when they found one they felt a suitable romantic partner. Today, such casual encounters do happen, but they're so rare that calling them a casual date hardly seems appropriate.

Instead, somewhere between hanging out and hooking up, young adults seem to be hoping to find their Mr. or Ms. Right. These vague dating scripts and intentions often leave one or both individuals mildly confused and uncertain as to how to act throughout the entire courting process.

Like any goal in life, the quest for romance requires that we keep our eye on the ball and take intentional steps to get there. Happy relationships and marriages aren't born out of thin air, after all.

A report conducted by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia summarized that the grassroots initiative The Date Night Opportunity for married couples has strengthened a number of areas connected with martial bliss. When couples set aside at least a night a week for fun and enjoyable couple time, as the Date Night Opportunity recommends, married couples are likely to see an increase in communication, novelty or excitement and appreciation, a stronger sense of attraction and a deeper commitment to each other and the relationship.

W. Bradford Wilcox and Jeffery Dew, the writers of the report, summarized that it is unclear if date nights and martial happiness influence one another in a particular way. But one can be certain that date nights and happiness in marriage go together.

What's the lesson for singles looking for romance?

Simply those similar results in dating in marriage can be found in a more consistent dating life for singles. There can be excitement and novelty in dating when the pressure is off to make this rare opportunity work. Additionally, the more an individual dates, the more they'll learn about themselves, the opposite gender, and how to relate to another. Even casual dating, not just hanging out or hooking up, signals that one is serious about their intention to find happy and lasting love.

Dating is just a step on the road to love and marriage, but it's a rather important step, considering it's the start.

Meg McDonnell is a Phillips Foundation Robert Novak Journalism Fellow working on a project about young Americans and marriage trends.