Until recent years, biologists and anthropologists believed romance to be a figment of the imagination, a Eurocentric cultural fantasy acquired through the ideals exposed to us through socialization. As romantic love is becoming more and more studied, biologists and anthropologists alike are seeing that romantic love is more than just a European phenomenon, but can be broken down biologically (see page on biology for more information) and seen cross culturally. In fact, in a study of 166 cultures across the globe, 147 of them showed to have romantic love as a prevalent part of their culture!
This poses the question of how love is expressed in different cultures. How do differing societies select a life partner, and can we find some common themes across different cultures when it comes to romantic love?
To answer all these questions, more questions need to be asked. These questions can be broken down into three simple concepts: who; how; as well as when and where?
Who should you choose? –Endogamy vs Exogamy
Who we marry is very much influenced by social structure, including the social expectation embedded in society. Our society, whether it is subtle themes or openly known requirements, provide you with a blueprint of what is expected and what to look for in a spouse. There are two sociology terms that refer to these restrictive influences: endogamy and exogamy.
Endogamy refers to the social pressure to marry within your social group taking in factors such as ethnicity/race, religion, socio-economic status, and age groups. Endogamy can be as intensive as marriage between family members. The saying, “keeping it within the family” takes on a literal meaning in many cultures around the world. In fact, in about 30% of all cultures, cousins are the preferred partner. This is most often seen in the rural areas of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and is even more prevalent in Middle Eastern nations. In fact, roughly half of the marriages in the Arabian Peninsula are with first cousins.
Exogamy on the other hand, refers to the pressures of selecting a partner outside one’s social group. Contrary to endogamy, exogamy focuses on what is socially unacceptable. Biological exogamy refers to society’s restriction of marrying and procreating with blood relatives. Cultural exogamy refers to the restriction of only being allowed to marry outside one’s tribe, clan, or social circle. Dual exogamy is a cultural tradition seen in many cultures including some Australian tribes, Turkish societies, and Eskimos, which is the exchange of wives between two groups to strengthen kinship between societies.
Who chooses? —Arranged vs. Love Marriages
While society has influence in all societies, the degree of control one has when selecting a partner varies from culture to culture. This depends on cultural traditions and what kind of society it is as a whole: individualistic or collectivistic. In an individualistic culture, the interest of the individual is more paramount than that the group. Individualistic cultures are most often modern and found in developed countries such as the United States and most countries in Europe. This individualistic culture often leads to free choice, or romantic love, where the individual gets to choose who they marry. This often leads to people in individualistic cultures to strive for an all-encompassing love in an idealistic fashion where the “whole package” is sought after. This is shown through our survey questions where most people believed in soul mates (survey question 10 & 15) and did not personally believe they could feel fulfilled without falling in love. Although love marriages are often perpetuated as the more romantic and idealistic scenario, these marriages often end in divorce, as the initial romantic “sparks” fade and the feeling of lack of satisfaction and fulfillment intellectually, emotionally, and physically replace it.
Collectivistic cultures are most prevalent in more traditional and underdeveloped countries with strong religious ties. This is when the family is very much engaged in mediating who their son or daughter will marry. This often leads to arranged marriages. As India, Middle Eastern countries, and African countries are becoming more modernized and more people are becoming educated, the individualistic spirit is becoming more prevalent, but the collectivistic culture is still dominant, especially in the rural areas that make up most of these countries. These cultures, although most often lack the initial romantic feelings, can be delevoped over time and studies show that those who have arranged marriages are more for the long haul, and result in less divorce.
How do you choose? —Hypogamy vs Hypergamy
Both hypogamy and hypergamy are two common social trends seen cross culturally when selecting a partner. Hypergamy can be more simply put as “marrying up,” and most often refers to the preferred marriages in which the woman marries a man of a higher social status. This leads to women marrying men that are comparatively older, wealthier, and of greater privilege. This is not only seen in the classic “sugar daddy” scenario or in the Playboy Mansion, but is found in conjunction with many hierarchal societies. In India, the dowry system is a very common practice where the woman seeks a man of a higher status in marriage, and the bride’s family gives the groom or the groom’s family compensation in the form of furniture, household appliances, clothing, jewelry, and cash to solidify the union. The dowry depends on the job of the groom and allows for the women to heighten her status.
Hypogamy, on the other hand, refers to marrying down, and often refers to men looking for women of lower education level, wealth, and social status. In America, there exists a large marriage squeeze, or lack of eligible suitors as both hypogamy and hypergamy come into play (Semu). This is occurring due to women becoming more educated and gaining more money than in the past. As more and more women are gaining BAs, MAs, and PhD’s and providing for themselves, there are fewer eligible men who are of equal or higher status, as well as fewer women for men of a lower social status. A study done by Columbia University shows that this gap not only result sin fewer marriages, but also contributes to the heightened divorce rate seen in America as marriages are found as less fulfilling when the intellectual needs of women are not sufficiently met.
How many?–Polygamy vs. Monogamy
Throughout cultures, it’s not only about whom you marry, but how many you marry. Although the idea of having more than one husband or wife may raise eyebrows in America, it is not only socially acceptable, but even expected and seen as a form of heightening status in other cultures. Polygamy, the practice of having more than one partner, is most often seen in third world countries and countries where women’s rights are suppressed. It is also a common practice in various religions such as Islam and Mormonism. In Middle Eastern countries, it is seen as the way of Allah to have up to four wives to show heightened status and have as many children (specifically sons) as possible.
Monogamy, on the other hand, is the more traditional route for developed countries where women’s rights are more equal to men, such as Europe, Australia, and America.
WHEN and WHERE
Proximity and Proquinity
When it comes to the matter of marriage success, more goes into it than just who you are with: timing and circumstances are key. You may have found your prince charming, but that does not matter when you are only 14 and not ready for a real relationship. Timing and circumstances play a vital role in selecting and keeping a relationship. Studies have shown that friends and lovers aren’t necessarily people you like the most or who are most compatible, but are just the people who got there first and never left. This brings on the propinquity effect, or the tendency for people to form relationships with those they encounter often and live close to. This is why long distance relationships are difficult to maintain and unfortunately, often are doomed to fail. Although cultures vary in the who and how aspect, the when and where often play the same roles cross-culturally as a common theme of romantic love around the world.