Opinion: romantic relationships have taken centre place in the evolution of culture over the last century

While some may hold the dating customs and romantic ideals of morality of old in high esteem, others welcome today's online dating apps which provide instantaneous social connection. Each dating era has not been without merits and demerits. Romantic relationships have taken centre place in the evolution of culture over the last century.

The concept of dating began in the early part of the 20th century. Previously, the ultimate goal was that of marriage. This contrasts sharply with today's dating environment in which marriage may not surface, if at all, for several years. The early days of the 20th century witnessed the gentleman caller, who followed a strict protocol when he visited the family home of a potential spouse in the hope of being invited in. If he was invited back for subsequent visits, he would be obliged to comply with the appointments specified by her parents.

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From RTÉ Brainstorm, Marion McGerry on the strange love lives of our ancestors

Alternatively, women and their parents would meet with potential suitors as part of the marriage making process. Financial and social status were the chief determinants of a suitable marital partnership. Once the choice was made, the couple's courtship progressed in the presence of others. In rural areas, a matchmaker was co-opted to broker the best bargain for both parties. Courtship was a private, unemotional and business like affair.

The practice of unsupervised outings by couples did not gain purchase until well into the 20th century. As the 1920s progressed, however, the practice of supervised visits became outdated and was replaced by couples going out on dates. This resulted in a changed relationship dynamic. Now, it was the man's duty to organise and pay for excursions and activities, whereas it was the woman and her parents who previously dictated the terms of the visit.

The basic difference between courtship and dating is that of freedom. Traditional courtship had a set of rigid rules, whereas dating was less structured. Courtship was regarded as an essential part of the fabric of a well-functioning society. When people started dating, relationships became less restricted and more personal. This shift was instigated by education and workplaces, which exposed young people to potential dating partners. The purpose of dating was primarily to have fun, not to find a marriage partner. However, couples would form, if they were interested in having more exclusive relationships. Thus modern dating began and the ritual of courtship was forgotten.

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From RTÉ Archives, TV Gaga looks at the Dublin dating scene in 1985

The introduction of dating was accompanied by a focus on love, rather than compliance with society's aim of finding a potential life partner. Previously, love was not seen as being an essential component of a marriage and, if it was to emerge, it was usually within the confines of married life. But with the introduction of dating, there came an increased desire for romance and love before deciding to commit to marriage.

As dating evolved with personal pleasure being its main focus, the expression of sexuality developed. This was fuelled by a desire for revolution and experimentation amongst young people who began to resist and shirk staid social conventions. Young people in the 1950s experimented with sex and the 1960s saw an explosion of sexual activity in a quest for freedom. Young people in the 1960s were not restricted, contraception was available and sex before marriage was commonplace. Dating rules ceased to exist and young people did as and when they wished.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Louise McSharry, Michael-David McKernan on his film How to Fall in Love in a Pandemic

This has been followed by online matchmaking services. Today, the majority of young people have at least one dating app such as Tinder, Bumble or Plenty of Fish. The current pandemic has led to an exponential reliance on online dating. While some people believe in online dating, others regard it less favourably. Many believe that dating nowadays is overly complicated, even though technology was designed to make it easier.

Today, the individual occupies a central position, something facilitated by technology and the selfie. This generation is more focused on themselves and casual one night stands and friends with benefits make dating and a steady relationship less appealing.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Ryan Tubridy Show, photographer Sean de Burca on his professional photoshoots for Tinder profile pictures

This makes the ideal of meeting a life partner with a view to marriage difficult. This is further exacerbated by the recent explosion of revenge porn, where former partners share online private images as a form of revenge. This image-based sexual abuse causes social and psychological distress, which is exacerbated by the manner in which victims may have contributed to their own public online exposure through voluntary sharing of these images with former partners.

Perhaps one of the key impacts of the pandemic may be how it has transformed dating practices. While there has been a seismic shift in courting and dating practices over the last century, the ideal of full individual autonomy over one’s ability to choose a partner remains as elusive as ever.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ