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Valentine’s Day, the annual festival of lovers, is a great opportunity to map out how (drastically) the approach to love has changed over the past 200 years. Between the era of romanticism, on the threshold of the industrial revolution and the modern, post-industrial times of online dating websites, love had many names … In other words, it can and should be treated as a social phenomenon, definitely changing over time. The answer to the question posed in the title is: yes, because love has changed its social meaning – writes Monika Piotrowska-Marchewa PhD from the Institute of History at the University of Wrocław.

Today, the lack of affection in an officially contracted relationship can be the basis for marriage annulment. Most of us are looking for a “second half” and it is normal for us to part ways when the love between two people is fading away. Meanwhile, in the nineteenth century, the belief that marriage of convenience was superior to that of “instinctive love” was widespread. Feelings did not exist where social systems and economic ties mattered. Informal relationships or loneliness by choice, especially female ones – although they existed – they simply did not fit well within the framework of social perceptions of what was right and aroused strong controversy. Lack of husband in the late adulthood was treated as a misfortune and the effect of life failure. In the press and handbooks, a lot of space was devoted to the “art of getting a husband”. In that era, and even at the beginning of the 20th century, people were usually married within their own social class and national group. This rule was followed especially in the higher class society. In the rural and small-town community, matrimonial decisions were subordinated to the interests of the farm or family enterprise. Even after the enfranchisement of peasants, which took place in the territory of Poland until the 1860s, still over 90 percent of peasant marriages (!) were associated within the same parish and village. Love was by no means a significant criterion at the time.

The word “associated” remains the key. Well, the first symptom of changes in the approach to love relationships was the diminishing importance of parents and matchmakers in mating couples. In the upper classes, already in the mid-nineteenth century, young people began to… ask for opinion. However, true independence in these matters began to take shape along with the era of the post-property industrial revolution, which disrupted the relatively stable social structure in Poland. The more the sphere of private life, isolated from economic and professional activity grew in importance – especially in large urban centers – the more important were feelings in marriages. The loosening of conventions and permanent changes in the relations between spouses, more free from the patriarchal division of roles, was finally brought about by World War I, which successfully shook this division for the first time. However, as early as the beginning of the 20th century, around 1900, people began to think that a husband or wife should not be emotionally indifferent to each other.

Today, looking for a husband or a partner on dating websites does not surprise anyone, but the phenomenon is just only over a hundred years old. Mass migration to urban agglomerations and new industrial centers at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries meant breaking the previous family and social ties. Urban life brought revolutionary changes: the anonymity and emancipation of women from male tutelage, as well as… mutual problems with finding a partner. Probably the first periodical in Poland created specifically for the purpose of matching marriages was the Warsaw weekly “Flirt Salonowy”, which appeared in the years 1909–1912 and on the last pages printed numerous marriage advertisements. Another novelty was the fact that about 40 percent of them were posted by women at different age, most often single, middle-class residents of larger cities, especially Warsaw. They used various modest nicknames: “Flame”, “Mimosa”, “The Field Rose”, “Little Kitten”, “Dreaming”, “Charming Widow”, “Charming”, “Marriage Happiness”, “Perfect Wife”, “Care” or “Friendship”. Describing their qualities, they provided the age and the amount of dowry, and most declared that they would quit their jobs immediately after getting married.

Contemporary love was born between 1910 and 1970. The change in love and erotic habits that took place at that time, gained the name of the sexual revolution (the term first appeared in print in 1945). Its apogee came with the appearance of effective contraception from 1960 (although in Poland it was really available only after 1989). Today, almost any behavior in love is considered acceptable, depending on individual preferences. The quality of the relationship between the partners and within the family community they create – despite the pressure of traditionalists – seems to be a much more important social issue than whether or not they got married. Moreover, it is love – not the community of work or economic need as it once was – that is the constitutive factor of marriage. So in the matters of love, won … the freedom of choice.

You can read about the sociology and history of love and the institution of marriage in:

  1. Szlendak, „Architektonika romansu”, Wyd. Oficyna Naukowa, Warszawa 2002

„Obyczaje w Polsce. Od średniowiecza do czasów współczesnych” Red. A. Chwalba, Wydawnictwo PWN, Warszawa 2006

„Kobieta i małżeństwo. Społeczno-kulturowe aspekty seksualności. Wiek XIX i XX” Red. A. Szwarc, A. Żarnowska, Wyd. DiG, Warszawa 2004

Published by: Małgorzata Jurkiewicz

15 Feb 2021

last modification: 17 Feb 2021