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Love and romance

by Rosemary Du Plessis

Love is expected to be the foundation for long-term intimate relationships, and domestic and family life. It is intensely pleasurable, but sometimes fleeting and disruptive. Different people and cultures have varied ideas about love, and ways of expressing it.

Māori love stories

Māori relationships between couples were the concern of whānau, hapū and sometimes iwi, not just individuals. Māori love stories combined a focus on passion and the way marriages connected whānau, hapū and iwi. They are still used to illustrate the connection between erotic love and kinship relationships.

Hinemoa and Tūtānekai

The story of Hinemoa and Tūtānekai attracted the attention of Pākehā settlers and has been the inspiration for popular songs and several movies. Its prominence reflects Pākehā conceptions of the ideal love story. The first feature film ever made in New Zealand was Hinemoa (1914), directed by George Tarr. In the early 21st century the story was used to advertise Lake Rotorua as a location for Māori-style weddings.

Perfumed warriors

In the past men as well as women would use perfume to attract potential lovers. Sometimes the bodies of warriors were smeared with honey from the fruit (or pātangatanga) of the kiekie plant as a way of attracting the attentions of women.

Hinemoa and Tūtānekai fell in love, but her family resisted the marriage of the beautiful and high-born Hinemoa to someone of lower social status. Hinemoa would listen each night to the flute music of Tūtānekai and his friend Tiki as the sounds drifted across from their home on the island of Mokoia in Lake Rotorua. When Hinemoa’s family tried to prevent her leaving, she strung together six empty gourds for flotation and swam naked across to Mokoia at night, guided by the sound of the music. Tūtānekai found her warming herself in Waimihia, a warm pool on the island. Clothed in one of his cloaks, Hinemoa returned with Tūtānekai to his village. Their marriage was eventually the source of strong bonds among their kin.

Fleeting love

There is a Māori proverb: ‘Ahakoa, he aroha iti, he pounamu tonu.’ (A love that is brief is love nonetheless.)

Wiremu Maihi Te Rangikāheke produced the first written version of this story in 1849, which includes an account of Tūtānekai’s relationship with Tiki, his close friend or hoa takatāpui. Tiki and Tūtānekai’s story has been used to illustrate the importance for Māori of love between people of the same gender. In the 21st century, many Māori lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people began to identify themselves as takatāpui.

Māhinaarangi and Tūrongo

Māori tribes attach importance to the story of Māhinaarangi and Tūrongo, the parents of Raukawa, the founder of the Ngāti Raukawa iwi.

According to Tainui traditions, Tūrongo and his brother Whatihua were rivals for the affections of the beautiful Ruapūtahanga. Tūrongo married her and they had a child, Uenuku-tū-whatu.

Lost love

Many mōteatea (songs) have lost love as their theme. This is the lament of an East Coast woman for the husband who had deserted her:

Kāore hoki e te pō nei
Tuarua rawa ko Te Huirori
Ko taku hoa moenga ka riro kē …
Pōuri, pōtango, i te tinana ī.

This night has brought to me
Twice a vision of Te Huirori
My sleeping mate has gone elsewhere …
Dark, intensely dark is my lot.

When they broke up, Tūrongo left the Waikato and travelled to Kahotea on the East Coast of the North Island, where he distinguished himself as a builder and a hunter.

He attracted the attention of Māhinaarangi, whose parents approved of their relationship. Māhinaarangi wooed Tūrongo by meeting him late at night on his way home, and whispering in his ear, ‘Taku aroha e te tau; taku aroha!’ (My love, my beloved, my love!) Tūrongo was enchanted by his unknown night-time lover and her perfume made from raukawa leaves. Finally, he recognised her distinctive perfume and realised that she was Māhinaarangi, the puhi of the village.

The marriage of Māhinaarangi and Tūrongo established an alliance between Tainui and the peoples of Te Tai Rāwhiti, especially Ngāti Kahungunu. Tūrongo returned to the Waikato, followed by Māhinaarangi, who gave birth to their son, named Te Mutu-ki-Raukawa, at Ōkoroire. This love story, like that of Hinemoa and Tūtānekai, features a very active heroine who takes the initiative in forging the relationship. It also embeds romance within the wider context of kinship relationships and strategic alliances between kinship groups.

Pākehā love stories

Imported stories

Settlers to New Zealand brought with them a range of love stories, including the fairy tale about Cinderella and Prince Charming, the Arthurian legend about the illicit love between Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and the novels of Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Brontë sisters. These stories were often about passionate attraction between people of different social standing or people whose families were in conflict. Often they challenged social pressures on people to marry someone ‘suitable’.

Once in a lifetime

Readers of the Hawkes Bay Herald were told in 1887 that love was an ‘all-absorbing and ennobling passion’ that comes ‘but once a life time to every man and woman, and sometimes not at all’. Readers were advised that such love ‘should not be trifled with’ but also to beware the young woman whose sole aim ‘is to bring men to her feet and under her sway’1 while spurning them when she tires of their attention.

Controversial love stories

Home-grown stories about love appeared – some critical of restrictions on the expression of love. The heroine of Jane Mander’s novel The story of a New Zealand river (1920) has a child outside marriage and marries a man she does not love. In Jean Devanny’s novel The butcher shop (1926) Margaret Messenger has an affair with the manager of her husband’s farm. The novel ends dramatically with suicide and murder. It sold 15,000 copies, but was banned in New Zealand as ‘sordid, unwholesome and unclean’2 and a threat to the country’s immigration policy.

Romance writing

Romance fiction focuses on how attractive and independent young women, often in interesting locations, secure the affections of a man. A number of New Zealand authors have achieved international fame as writers of romance, including Essie Summers, who wrote 55 romance novels between 1956 and 1997. Her stories sold 17 million books, mostly published by Mills and Boon.

Movie stories

Love stories have featured in New Zealand movies, including To love a Maori, made in the early 1970s about the relationship between a young Pākehā woman and a Māori man. Films about the complexity of love between women and men include Jane Campion’s The piano (1993) and Niki Caro’s Memory and desire (1997). They both use the New Zealand landscape to symbolise the emotional turbulence associated with love and sensual desire.

Lesbians’ and gay men’s stories

Lesbians, gay men and those attracted to both women and men have also produced poetry, novels, songs, plays and movies about their experiences of love. Anika Moa’s CD Love in motion, released in 2010, includes the song ‘I am the woman who loves you’ – inspired by her relationship with burlesque artist Azaria Universe.

Feeling so good

Poet Cilla McQueen wrote this on falling in love:

I’m not quite sure what’s happening
but your image is in me like a scent
all the roses in the garden are opening up at once
it’s raining big round drops
of extraordinary sweetness
let me be serious
I’m in love with you.3

Love songs and poetry

New Zealand has produced some distinctive songs about love. They include Ken Avery’s prosaic jazz waltz about falling in love at the dog-dosing strip at Dunsandel, and the romantic First World War Māori love song ‘Pōkarekare ana’.

Poetry also explores the pleasures and discomforts of love. In ‘Yes’ Hone Tuwhare has captured the pleasure of seeing his lover ‘slip out of your things’.4 Fiona Farrell has celebrated being ‘full to the brim with you’5 while Anne French has likened the loss of love to being like ‘an amputee in a minefield’.6 A. R. D. Fairburn’s poem ‘Farewell’ invokes the moment in a relationship when ‘there is nothing we can say’.7

    • Hawke's Bay Herald, 20 August 1887, p. 3. Back
    • Bill Pearson, ‘The Banning of The butcher shop’, in Jean Devanny, The butcher shop. Edited by Heather Roberts. Auckland: Auckland University Press and Oxford University Press, 1981, p. 226. Back
    • Cilla McQueen, ‘Crikey’, in New Zealand love poems, edited by Lauris Edmond. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 10. Back
    • Hone Tuwhare, ‘Yes’, in New Zealand love poems, pp. 51–2. Back
    • Fiona Farrell, ‘Love songs’, in New Zealand love poems, pp. 51–2. Back
    • Anne French, ‘Kitchens’, in New Zealand love poems, p. 245. Back
    • A. R. D. Fairburn, ‘A farewell’, in New Zealand love poems, pp. 210–211. Back

Dances, love and courtship, 1840 to 1950

Dances and courtship, 1840 to 1917

Dances – formal balls, woolshed rural dances, tea dances, church socials, youth club rock ‘n’ roll nights, discos, night clubs or dance parties – have been places for future lovers to meet for over 100 years. Between 1840 and 1917 most dances were organised by families or communities, and young men and women had an opportunity to get to know one another and fall in love under the watchful eyes of other people.

A day for lovers

On Valentine’s Day on 14 February 1876 the North Otago Daily Times anticipated that ‘members of the fair sex’ would be receiving cards declaring love, decorated by ‘pictures of hearts, cherubs and true-lover’s knots’.1 Over a century later this festival has increased in importance. Cards are exchanged, heart-shaped chocolates proliferate and florists do a brisk trade in red roses, while city councils organise balls and carnivals.

Formal balls and dinner dances

During the colonial era, the elite organised formal balls at which unmarried women and men could meet. Young women were chaperoned by older women, and carefully recorded requests for dances on their dance cards.

Many dances, such as the lancers, the schottisches and valettas, involved two or more couples, but from the early 20th century, couple dances like the one step and the foxtrot became more popular. They gave dancers an opportunity to be physically close, while observed by others.

Women were supposed to be the experts in romance and etiquette, but men had to invite women to dance. After a dance, a man might indicate his interest in a woman by asking for other dances, or accompanying her home. Being a good dancer improved one’s opportunities for marriage, but dancers were also expected to engage in lively conversation.

Rural dances

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, dances in rural communities provided opportunities for single women and men to meet. Bachelors’ and spinsters’ balls were held in local halls, large rooms in people’s homes, or woolsheds. A supper would be served, but no alcohol. Men sometimes drank beer, but usually outside. They had to make the first move and ask women to dance.

While women and men often wanted to marry someone with practical skills who would be either a good mother and homemaker, or a farmer, earner and provider, they also wanted to ‘fall in love’. Dances were opportunities to demonstrate both attractiveness and practicality. Through designing and sewing her dance dresses, a woman could demonstrate ‘not only her beauty, but also her sewing ability and financial resources’.2

Dances in Māori communities

Māori communities quickly adopted the music and dance styles of settlers. A visitor to Ōhinemutu, Rotorua, in 1876 noted that dances were held almost every night. He recalled a moonlit dance in front of a meeting house where the women danced very well, but he had to be careful to avoid standing on their bare feet.

Dance halls and cabaret clubs, 1918 to 1938

Commercial dance halls, ballrooms and cabaret clubs opened after the First World War, particularly in cities. Young women were no longer chaperoned at dances and had a freedom unknown to their mothers, but they still had to wait to be asked to dance.

In the 1920s commercial dance halls and cabaret clubs had names like the Gaiety Palais De Dance, the De Luxe Assembly, Dixieland Cabaret, the Winter Gardens and the Majestic Cabaret. Halls were decorated with streamers and fancy lights and women dressed to impress in crepe de chine, taffeta and silk. Orchestras played ragtime and jazz, and the ‘Queen Street trot’, the ‘Symonds Street slide’ and the ‘Wanganui wobble’ replaced the waltz and the quadrille.

Young women or their mothers often made their evening dresses at home, using treadle sewing machines and commercial patterns. These dresses imitated the shifts of Hollywood stars and were coupled with newly cropped hair.

Hearts thumping together

In Janet Frame’s novel Owls do cry, sisters Francie and Daphne talk about love, dancing and sexual attraction. Francie says that ‘if you’re dancing with the right partner, your heart beats in time with his. You can feel his heart, and he can feel yours. They thump on each other.’3

Dance and romance, 1939 to 1945

During the Second World War dances were important places for servicemen to meet young women or for couples to have a last romantic dance before embarkation. More dance halls and cabarets started to serve alcohol, and beer was often smuggled into dances that had been declared ‘dry’.

American troops stationed in New Zealand had an impact on the type of music played and the dances. The jitterbug and the boogie woogie started to replace the foxtrot and the quickstep. Dancing became more expressive and uninhibited as jazz, swing and big-band style music was played in city dance halls, rural halls, woolsheds and church halls.


Movies, milk bars and nightclubs

Love at the movies

In the early 20th century cinemas became places where couples could have private conversations in a public place, and they extended young people’s opportunities for unsupervised love and romance. Just as men were expected to ask women to dance, or for their hand in marriage, so teenage boys and young men had to ask girls and women to the movies. Hand holding in the movies on a Saturday night became a new dating ritual. In the dark of the cinema, arms would extend around the shoulders of potential lovers and kisses were exchanged. Meanwhile, on the movie screen, film stars modelled how viewers should ‘do’ romance.

Love in the back row

The back row of the cinema became a key site for romantic encounters when the lights went down. In the 1920s the New Zealand Picturegoer had a weekly column titled ‘From the back row’ which featured a kissing couple who were more engaged with one another than with what was on the screen.

Milk bar meetings

In the 1940s milk bars became places where dating couples could meet in public or where people could go to meet potential partners. No alcohol was served, but milkshakes, ice cream sundaes and even coffee could be consumed. While it was often difficult for young women to go out independently at night, milk bars became places where they could meet young men during the day.

Cars, parking and dating

As more households acquired motor vehicles and more young people got driver licences, outings at night in cars became part of dating and the process of ‘falling in love’. Cars increased opportunities for privacy and sexual experimentation. ‘Parking’ in a quiet out-of-the-way place, sometimes after a movie, became an important dating activity.

Debutantes, rock ’n’ roll and discos

In the 1950s and 1960s young people participated in both debutantes’ balls and informal youth-club rock ’n’ roll evenings. When the twist became popular in the mid-1960s, young people were less likely to touch as they danced. The trend for dancing at a distance was consolidated in the late 1970s when disco music and dancing became popular.

Middlemarch bachelors’ ball

Once a year single men and women from all over the district (and further afield) converge on the small Otago town of Middlemarch for the annual singles’ ball. A special ‘Love Train’ to Dunedin takes many of the dancers home at the end of the night.

As dance styles changed, and pubs remained open after 6 p.m., the commercial dance halls started to close down. Saturday night dances at the Dunedin Town Hall – nicknamed the ‘matrimonial bureau’ – ended in 1965 after 30 years. Wellington’s Majestic Cabaret lasted until 1984.


By the late 20th century sports clubs, work social events, working men’s clubs, pubs, nightclubs and parties all provided opportunities for lovers to meet. Nightclubs multiplied, offering alcohol, dancing and live entertainment from late evening to early morning. Young adults often went out in groups, hoping to meet someone special during the evening – sometimes they were successful. In the 1990s some nightclubs started to run special ‘singles’ nights for people looking for a new relationship.

Lesbians and gay men

From the 1970s lesbians and gay men began to meet more openly in pubs such as the British Hotel in Lyttelton, and coffee bars such as the Ca d’Oro in Auckland and Carmen’s Coffee Lounge in Wellington. Wellington’s Victoria Club began to offer gay men opportunities to meet new lovers, and the lesbian KG Club opened in Auckland in 1972.

School balls

School balls retained some of the romantic aura of earlier dances with a strong emphasis on special dresses and decorated halls. In the 21st century, while schools have a no-alcohol policy, before and after ball events often combine alcohol and informal teenage socialising. Gay and lesbian students have sometimes found these events unwelcoming.

Love at any age

The desire to meet a lover extends across all age groups. People in their 40s and 50s have formed new romantic attachments while learning the tango, salsa or ceroc. Social networking sites that link people with similar interests in walking, food, movie-going, running or photography are also ways in which people of all ages may meet and form intimate relationships.

Activities pursued by those in retirement are also opportunities for new romantic relationships. In the 21st century, some people fall in love at the University of the Third Age and the Probus Club. For other people, retirement complexes provide opportunities for romance for those in their 70s and 80s.

Marriage arrangements and dating

Māori marriage arrangements

Māori marriages were traditionally relationships between whānau rather than individuals, but love was also important. Marriages were often arranged for people of high rank, while Māori marriage arrangements were usually based on both personal attraction and whānau negotiations.

A strategic alliance

Hūria Mātenga, famous for swimming through the surf to rescue the crew of the shipwrecked Delaware, entered into an arranged marriage with Hēmi Mātenga Wai-punāhau in 1858, five years before the shipwreck. She was of Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Toa descent and her ancestors came to New Zealand on the Tokomaru canoe. Her parents were the leaders of the settlement at Wakapuaka, near Nelson, and Hēmi Mātenga had large landholdings in the district. High-status Māori and Pākehā attended their wedding at Christ Church in Nelson. Hūria and Hēmi had no children, but had a whāngai (foster) daughter, Mamae.

Romantic love has connected Māori and people of other ethnicities for two centuries. Waitangi Tribunal member Ranginui Walker remarked that race relations in New Zealand are worked out in the bedrooms of the nation. In the early 2000s, some prominent Māori leaders argued that it was desirable for cultural reasons for Māori to marry Māori, especially members of their own iwi.

Pākehā marriage arrangements

While most European settlers thought that individuals should decide who they married, family members often preferred certain partners for their children. Marriages between people of similar social standing were facilitated by balls, dances, dinner parties and sporting events. Church schools, guilds and youth clubs enabled young people to ‘date’ or go out with others from similar backgrounds.

In the first half of the 20th century, young adults had more opportunities to meet potential marriage partners through employment, sporting activities and political activism, as well as going to dance halls, cinemas, milk bars, pubs and nightclubs. Family and community influence on who people met, married or lived with, declined.

Dating advertising and agencies

Classified personal advertisements directed at finding potential marriage partners appeared in New Zealand newspapers from the late 1800s. Agencies were established, such as Hannaford’s Matrimonial Agency in Auckland, which offered to find suitable marriage partners for single men from 1868. Single people would pay an agency a fee to provide them with details about suitable dating or marriage partners. If people did meet in this way, they often kept it secret.

Online dating

From the late 20th century people of all ages started to use the internet to initiate intimate relationships and find marriage partners. Personal details were uploaded to dating sites and subscribers engaged in email communication, phone calls or webcam chats before they met. Dating websites frequently offered the possibility of ‘a perfect match’. Some of the websites aimed at New Zealanders organised international marriages, often with women from Russia, Thailand or the Philippines.

Looking for love

In the 21st century people generally have more relationships before they marry or cohabit than in the past, and people over 50 are more likely to be divorced or separated. A researcher into dating services has argued that ‘with so many people seeking friends or a partner, the problem seems to be one of coordination, rather than scarcity.’1 Online dating services are emerging as a solution to the problem of ‘coordination’.

People over 50 are increasingly using online dating sites to meet potential partners. They were 14% of those registered on the New Zealand dating website Findsomeone in 2009. According to relationship experts, many older people find online dating preferable to meeting partners in pubs or bars and like getting to know someone via email, phone or Skype before meeting face-to-face.

In the 2000s online dating agencies began to offer services to particular people – single parents, over-50s, deaf people, and Jews, Christians and Indians. Many online never meet but communicate via text, audio or webcam.

Contemporary arranged marriages

Some New Zealanders have used marriage agencies in the countries from which they or their parents migrated to find a marriage partner. This was more likely to happen where there was a strong tradition of arranged marriages. Current versions of ‘cooperative’ arranged marriages involve daughters or sons choosing from a number of people that relatives consider suitable.

A culturally-arranged marriage visa that recognises the practice of arranged marriages is offered through Immigration New Zealand. Applicants must meet certain health and character requirements, have a sponsor whom they are intending to marry, show that the arrangement is culturally appropriate, and marry within three months. There must also be no legal obstacle to the marriage.

    • Massey University, ‘New ways to look for love.’ Scoop, 30 December 2008, (last accessed 19 January 2011). Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Rosemary Du Plessis, 'Love and romance', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 June 2024)

Story by Rosemary Du Plessis, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 1 May 2017