You Weren’t Born At The Wrong Time—Dating Has Always Been Hard

It’s common for singles today to lament the unique struggles that modern dating culture presents and to wish they’d been born decades ago, in a “simpler” time, when finding love was “easier.” But was it actually?

By Keelia Clarkson5 min read
Pexels/Suzy Hazelwood

If there’s one thing every single person can agree on, it’s this: Dating can be hard. It can be disheartening to go on a string of first dates, only for none of them to lead to anything lasting. It can be tiring trying to decipher whether or not a guy is truly interested in you. It can be painful to hear well-meaning but embarrassing questions like “How are you still single?” at every family gathering. It can be frustrating to feel like you’re giving finding love your best effort but keep coming up empty. Dating, for many, isn’t simple.

All of these ingredients mixed together can cause you to blame the modern dating landscape for your lack of luck in finding The One. After all, you think, it’s because of the illusion of options that no one wants to settle down anymore; an endless supply of singles in our area makes us think that there’s always something “better” just around the corner, so we shy away from committing to anyone.

You struggle not to feel like you were born at the wrong time. You wish you’d been born decades prior, at a time when dating apps didn’t exist and marriage was a given. A time when hookup culture wasn’t the norm, and people seemingly found love easily. A time when commitment wasn’t a scary word, and a first date led to something more serious and lasting. You feel nostalgic for a time that you never experienced but feels more in line with your deepest desires.

This is understandable, but is your conclusion correct? Was finding love in the olden days actually easier than it is today? Is the modern dating culture really that much harder than the dating culture of yesteryear?

Yes, Modern Dating Is Hard

There is no doubt about it – dating today is difficult. That’s what the general consensus is, at least. In a 2020 Pew Research Center poll, almost half (47%) of Americans surveyed said that dating now is harder than it was 10 years ago. Women were more likely to report feeling that dating has become more challenging (but that’s not to say that men didn’t agree). What were some of the reasons those polled felt dating was harder today? Physical danger, getting scammed or lied to, technology, dating having become more impersonal, and the rise of casual connections. The same survey found that 67% of singles who were looking for a relationship didn’t feel their search was going well.

Along with the worry of being catfished or unintentionally falling into “situationships,” the rise of dating apps has created a sort of “made to order” approach toward dating. We set up filters, swipe based on height or hair color, and ghost as soon as the person on the other end of the conversation doesn’t align with the vision we have of our “perfect” match. “It has…left us with the impression that if the person in front of us doesn’t meet our needs, there are plenty more where they came from and I can just find a new one. …I can order something off of Amazon and get it within 24 to 48 hours, and I can find someone who more perfectly suits my wants and needs,” says Nicole Richardson, a licensed marriage and family therapist.

And lastly, many young singles today are wary of putting a label on their romances, with the volume of unlabeled relationships increasing. The “talking phase” has become increasingly drawn out and murky; the lines between a casual fling and a committed relationship have become blurred; the worry of being tied down has become more potent. Jordana Narin, winner of the Modern Love College Essay Contest, wrote about this shift in The New York Times: “We aren’t supposed to want anything serious; not now, anyway. But a void is created when we refrain from telling it like it is, from allowing ourselves to feel how we feel. And in that unoccupied space, we’re dangerously free to create our own realities. Women today have more power. We don’t crave attachment to just one man. We keep our options open. We’re in control.”

Dating in the Olden Days Had Its Own Challenges

These undeniably modern-day issues will naturally make us yearn for the old days, when two people would meet at school, fall in love, and live happily ever after. It all seems so simple when we picture it that way, without the modern trappings of dating apps and hookup culture and commitment-phobia. We imagine what it would have been like to be young just a century ago or to escape into Jane Austen novels, in which the heroine always falls in love with a handsome suitor. But what we fail to recognize is that dating back in the day was hard, too – just in a different way.

“I’m 27 years old. I’ve no money and no prospects. I’m already a burden to my parents. And I’m frightened.” Many of us have come across this quote by way of a TikTok audio trend, but its origin stems from Pride and Prejudice, the beloved regency-era tale of love and class struggle and family. The now-famous movie line is delivered by Charlotte Lucas, a friend of Lizzie Bennet, everyone’s favorite Austen heroine. Charlotte says this when Lizzie discovers that Charlotte has accepted a marriage proposal from the odious Mr. Collins. Apparently, not that much in the world of dating has changed from 1813 to 2024. Charlotte’s worries sound a whole lot like many women’s worries today. Single women today are hardly the first women to worry whether they’ll ever find a man to marry.

But even if we step away from what single women back in the day had in common with the single women of today, we still come to find that dating in times past presented its own unique struggles. The number of available men you could potentially end up with was incredibly limited. Limited by proximity and social connections – a few towns over was out of the question – and limited by social class. On top of that, the competition was high; if another woman charmed the man you had your eye on before you did, it was back to the (now smaller) drawing board. While it’s true that a more limited dating pool essentially eliminates the illusion of options, it also meant that there were very few people to choose from when picking a person to spend your life with.

Not to mention, marrying for love wasn’t a given in the way it is today. These days, we squirm at the thought of getting married for any reason other than being in love. But just a couple hundred years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to marry for economic gain, social status, or to maintain family ties. In Jane Austen’s day, while marrying for love was becoming more popular, it still was hardly the only thing that went into the equation. Dr. Sally Holloway, a historian from Oxford Brooks University, explains, “Even though you had this ideology of marrying for love being enormously important, it didn’t mean you would just wed anyone. … People were still marrying very closely within their own social circles. … It wasn’t uncommon for first cousins to marry. Cousins were people you’d known a long time. You’d be aware of their temperament. They’d have the same family background, similar upbringing, and parity of status. All features of a good match. And the marriage of cousins could also keep property within a family.”

While we’re not marrying our first cousins anymore and many of us don’t necessarily grow up in a small town and meet our soulmate there, much of what “worked” for singles when that was the norm is still possible today. Become involved in a community of a sort, whether through a place of worship, a class, or a group. Being actively involved in a community, showing up in one space for a long time, is a way in which you can still emulate the relationships formed in a small town without actually living in one.

One of the perks absolutely unique to modern-day dating is your choices aren’t nearly as limited. Yes, this can lead to choice paralysis and not choosing anyone at all, but it can also lead to meeting and falling in love with someone who, one hundred years ago, you wouldn’t have ever met. Today, it’s actually possible (and even likely) to marry someone from an entirely different state, or even country. It’s not unrealistic to look for someone who shares your values and vision for life because there’s a good chance you’ll eventually meet someone like that.

Another challenge of dating in the olden days that doesn’t exist today is the constricted timeline. One hundred years ago, the average woman was married by 22. Not too long ago, unmarried women in their late twenties were considered “spinsters.” Think of Penelope Featherington in Season 3 of Bridgerton – it’s her third season “out” as a woman available to marry, and, according to the books, she’s 28. She is near the end of her “marriageable window,” so the pressure to marry to provide financial stability and a life partner is quite real. Time was very much of the essence for women just two hundred years ago!

But today, there is no hard social line in which a woman is considered “past due” for marriage (unless you’re talking to a chronically online red piller). A woman can go to college, graduate school, and establish herself before looking around for a husband. Women can get married at any age and stage of life. There’s considerably less pressure to have made the weighty life choice of who to marry by your early twenties; we aren’t compelled to work off a timeline that doesn’t suit us on our way to the altar. Getting married young to the right person is wonderful and should be encouraged, but today, it isn’t taboo to wait longer in order to find the right person.

And lastly, dates back then looked quite a bit different from how they look today. These days, a date typically involves just the two of you, whether you meet up for dinner, go to see a movie, or have a picnic in the park. But dates back in Austen’s days and earlier required a chaperone because it wasn’t acceptable for a woman to be alone in any capacity with the opposite sex before you were engaged. It also wasn’t acceptable for a single woman to write letters to a man who wasn’t her fiancé – so no texting or dating app messages would have been permitted!

You aren’t wrong to feel frustrated with the unique issues that dating today presents. But take comfort in the fact that dating has always been difficult – it’s just that as our world and culture have shifted, so have the struggles that come along with finding love. 

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