What Happened To Courtship And How Do We Get It Back?

From my love of Disney Princess movies as a kid and to Jane Austen novels as a teenager, it’s pretty safe to say that I’ve always been a hopeless romantic. However, my journey to find my Prince Charming or Mr. Darcy hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows.

By Meghan Dillon3 min read
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Even though I know I’ll never find the idealized version of a man we see in fiction because it’s unrealistic, I expected dating in my twenties to be a little more romantic. But balls have been replaced with bars and dating apps, and guys looking for a relationship have been replaced by guys who are looking for a casual fling or guys who conveniently forget to mention that they have a girlfriend (yes, this has happened to me more than once).

This leads me to ask what happened to courtship and romance? And what can we do to get it back?

The Reason for Most Marriages Has Changed

In Jane Austen’s time, for most people, marriage was more of an "economic institution" than something they did when they fell in love and wanted to spend the rest of their lives with someone. A major plot point of Austen’s most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, explores this theme in depth. The five Bennett sisters can’t inherit their father’s estate due to their gender, so they have to marry a (preferably wealthy) man to keep a roof over their heads. What makes the novel so amazing and romantic is that Jane didn’t fall for Mr. Bingley because of his wealth and neither did Elizabeth with Mr. Darcy. They fell in love with them for the men they were, making them an exception to the rule. (Unlike Charlotte Lucas, who marries the irritating Mr. Collins purely for economic security.)

Even in the centuries before the Regency Era, marriages were used to keep money and land in the family, to forge or strengthen political alliances, or to acquire power or social status. 

Since most women in the West now have economic and political freedom, marriage is no longer seen as an economic or political institution. Don’t get me wrong, I love having economic freedom and I think gender equality is wonderful. This isn’t me longing for a time when women had fewer rights (I know I’m going to get those comments) — I’m longing for romance and courtship.

How Do We Get Courtship and Romance Back?

There are three things that young women need to do if we want to get romance and courtship back.

Courting Is Not Dating

Courting is different from dating. Courting means to pursue a relationship with the end goal being marriage. It’s intentional. And usually the relationship status and the man’s intentions are very clear from the beginning. In Austen’s day, there were social rules and cues that indicated a couple had engaged in courtship: walking a girl home after church, visiting her at home regularly, asking her to dance multiple times at the same event, sitting next to her in public, etc. And everyone knew that if the man continued to court that young lady, they would end up engaged and, shortly thereafter, married.

In contrast, dating nowadays means anything from going steady to hooking up occasionally, and it doesn't necessarily indicate an interest in marriage. Dating today is often vague, unlabelled, and unintentional. And because “anything goes,” we don’t get any help from social etiquette and cues about what our relationship status is. So we have to have those awkward “what are we” conversations. 

Approaching a relationship with intentionality and openness will help us engage in courtship instead of nebulous dating.

We Need To Make Our Priorities Clear

Fabby Brown of Thought Catalog says it best. She writes, “Finding love, whether for a night or forever, has evolved into a quick and effortless endeavor — at least, that’s what we expect it to be. Who has the time or motivation to search for a date? We want immediate results and action, moving on quickly if we find neither in a potential mate or situation.”

If you’re looking for a committed relationship, you need to put effort into it and be patient.

In short, if you’re looking for a committed relationship, you need to put effort into it and be patient. This starts by looking for guys who want the same things you want out of relationships, which is why it’s so important to make your priorities clear. (A great way to clarify your priorities for yourself is by writing a list of non-negotiables and “it would be nice if”s.) If you really like a guy who just wants to hook up and you secretly want something more, he’s not going to know because he’s not a mind reader. We need to spare ourselves the heartache and be honest about our expectations.

Think about it. Elizabeth enticed Darcy because she was clear about what she wanted. If she had wanted to marry for money, she would have married Mr. Collins (gross), but she turned him down because she wanted something more. If she hadn't been honest about what she wanted, she wouldn’t have found love with Darcy. We need to start taking a similar approach in our relationships if we want to reach our desired outcome.

We Need To Change How We Date

Let’s be honest with ourselves. As young women, we don’t truly date anymore. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic limited our use of bars and restaurants, many of us preferred to just Netflix and chill with the guy we’re interested in. This often leads to more casual relationships without labels and to casual sex. However, casual sex takes away the most intimate parts of sex and romance. Randi Gunther, Ph.D, writes, “The beauty of romantic intimacy can only happen when lovemaking includes all the ways in which partners experience each other. The multiple dimensions of spiritual connection, emotional bonding, intellectual fusion, and physical affection must all be present before the sexual experience is at its best.”

Romance can only happen when a guy knows you and cares enough to show that in a meaningful way.

If a casual relationship is what you’re looking for, go for it. However, you shouldn’t go for it if you’re looking for a relationship. If you’re looking for a relationship, apps designed for hookups like Tinder probably aren’t the best idea.

Instead, focus on building a relationship. Asking meaningful questions. Share meaningful experiences outside the bedroom. Get to know him as a person — his hopes, dreams, ambitions, history, and values. Share those parts of yourself with him. Romance is only possible when he knows enough about who you are to make the gesture meaningful. He could buy you a random assortment of flowers — any guy can do that — but a bouquet of your favorite flowers in your favorite colors? That’s romantic. And that’s built on knowledge about you — that he cared enough to remember. 

Closing Thoughts

Dating culture has changed in the two centuries since Jane Austen’s death, but that doesn’t mean romance has gone out of style. It’s time we embrace our inner Elizabeth Bennet if we want to find our Darcy by dating with purpose, reassessing our dating priorities, and being honest about what we want in a relationship.