Overview: Part I

Marriage is the socially recognized union of two or more people.  Throughout the world, it is an effective method of regulating heterosexual click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced intercourse by defining who is socially acceptable as a sexual partner and who is not.  Following marriage, all people, other than one's spouse, are usually defined as off limits for sexual access.  In this way, socially disruptive sexual competition is reduced.  In male dominated societies, these sexual access restrictions often are more rigorously applied to wives than to husbands.  Marriage also functions as a glue in the organization of society.  It establishes social relationships that are the foundation for families and households.  In many societies, it also is an important tool for creating economically and politically valuable links between families.

Marriage Partner Selection

Selecting a marriage partner is very much a culturally defined process.  The rules governing selection vary widely from society to society and are often complex.  How would you go about selecting a long-term mate?  Where would you begin?  What criteria would you use?  Would you take the views and wishes of your relatives and friends into consideration?


photo of a Thai tribal woman with many metal rings around her neck

Padaung woman

When we look around the world to see how other societies deal with these questions, it is clear that love and sexual compatibility are not always the basis for selecting a spouse.  However, when romantic love is an important criterion, physical beauty is frequently a key factor.  Age, health, body shape, and especially facial appearance are usually the focus.  What is considered to be attractive varies considerably from culture to culture.  For instance, if you grew up in the Padaung click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced tribal culture of Thailand, you probably would consider the woman shown on the right with heavy neck rings to be unusually desirable.

It is clear that concepts of beauty are not universal. Some traditional societies of Africa and the South Pacific define large, plump bodies as being attractive, especially for women.  Europeans and North Americans today usually define such a body shape as being unhealthy and even ugly.  However, ideals of beauty change over time.  The slender people shown in the photo on the left below may be an ideal today, but in 18th and19th century Europe, they generally would not have been considered plump enough to be pretty.  Renoir's sketch of a woman shown below on the right reflects this preference for plumper bodies.

photo of a young man and woman at the beach 19 th century European sketch of a nude young woman showing a preference for heavier female bodies
Common North American
and European Cultural
ideal of beauty
19th century European preference
for heavier female bodies
(sketch by Auguste Renoir)

In China, round "moon-shaped" faces, like the one shown below on the left, have been considered exceptionally beautiful.  In contrast, angular Northern European faces, like the one on the right below, have been viewed as being undesirable.  Similarly, long-legged Europeans have often been stereotyped as being unattractively stork-like.  The Chinese also have traditionally thought that large female feet are ugly.  Prior to 1949, rich families sometimes bound the feet of their daughters tightly with cloth wrappings so as to stunt their growth.  This of course resulted in severe foot deformities that prevented them from walking normally.  However, it made it much easier for them to marry a rich man since they were now more attractive.  Over the last two decades, mainland China has rapidly industrialized and developed modern high-rise cities.  They have also begun to emulate the life-styles of North America and Europe.  This has resulted in a change in middle class concepts of beauty.  Taller Chinese men and women are increasingly viewed as being more attractive and successful.  Subsequently, there is a thriving business in surgery to increase leg length.  It is also becoming popular for women to use makeup and even plastic surgery to acquire more European-like faces.

photo showing the Chinese concept of feminine beauty   photo showing the European concept of feminine beauty
Comparison of traditional Chinese
and European concepts of beauty

The Chinese are no more prejudiced about appearance than are people from other parts of the world.  Ethnocentric click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced values universally play an important part in our perceptions of beauty.  However, some psychologists have suggested that in all societies the essence of beauty is a symmetrical face and body.  For instance, having the same shape eyes equidistant from the center line of the face and at the same elevation on the head would be universally considered attractive.  Individual cultural differences come into play in favoring particular shapes, sizes, and colors of eyes.  It has been suggested that body asymmetry can indicate other hidden genetic abnormalities.  If that is the case, preference for symmetry could have evolutionary advantages.

photo of a bride and groom from India 


An arranged marriage
in contemporary India 

Personality, education, wealth, and other individual characteristics also are important mate selection criteria in many societies.  In fact, they may be far more important than physical beauty.  In India, the parents of young middle class urban women seeking a husband commonly place an add in newspapers.  These adds prominently mention the potential bride's college degrees, caste click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, and implied potential for paying a large dowry click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.


photo illustrating the Western image of romantic love (a couple kissing)

Passionate kissing in public
Western image of romantic
love that makes many people
in the Middle East and East
Asia very uncomfortable)

Television, cinema, and other largely Western dominated mass media have been responsible for spreading the notion of romantic love around the world.  In previously more isolated nations, such as Nepal, the increasing stress on romantic love has been disruptive of traditional marriage practices in which two brothers marry the same women.  The Western version of romantic love fosters the desire for exclusive emotional attachments which undermines marriages in which a spouse must be shared.

Arranged marriages have been common throughout the world.  This is due to two principal considerations.  First, a marriage unites two families, not just two people.  All of a family's members become obligated by the marriage of one of its members.  In addition, marriages can be valuable tools in creating alliances and, therefore, must be considered carefully and even negotiated.  Secondly, mate selection is seen as being too important a decision to be left up to inexperienced young people, especially if they have had little contact with members of the opposite gender.  Parents are presumed to have the experience needed to help their children find a mate who is appropriate for them.


In some nations, the legal system encourages arranged marriages.  In Pakistan, for instance, the law prohibits women from marrying without parental consent.  This is based on Islamic click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced teachings in the Koran click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced that require fathers to protect their daughters.  This obligation has been interpreted as advocating arranged marriages.  Specifically, it is seen as a father's duty to find suitable husbands for his daughters, however, he should not force them into unwanted marriages.

It is common for people today in the Western World to strongly reject the idea of arranged marriages and to consider them to be barbaric infringements on the "universal human rights" of young adults and especially of women.  However, it is useful to suspend our own ethnocentric views on this matter in order to understand why arranged marriages continue to be popular in some societies.  In addition to being integral parts of their cultural traditions, arranged marriages are usually seen as being better for the young people getting married and for the community in general because they are thought to result in lasting marriages, and they bring families together.  In contrast, basing marriage selection on romantic love alone is often a socially isolating process.  The intense romantic focus on one other individual can separate people from their families and friends.  It is common for newly married couples in the Western World to set up their own independent household which may be hundreds or even thousands of miles away from family members.  This life apart is an appalling prospect for people in traditional societies that practice arranged marriages.  It is also an ethnocentric projection to see arranged marriages as being inevitably loveless.  In societies that have them, married couples often become loving life-partners.  Their marriages set them on a path of discovery to love.  In the West, marriage is usually at the end of this path.  In both cases, the destination is the same.   

Restrictions to Sexual Access

  map of Europe highlighting Italy and Greece

No society allows a person to have complete sexual access to everyone who might be a potential sexual partner.  There are always social and legal restraints.  In male dominated societies, women are usually expected to be virgins before marriage.  They are also expected to mate only with their husbands.  There often is an expectation that a woman will remain celibate after her husband dies, regardless of her age.  These same rules rarely apply to men.  Such a double standard has been a traditional cultural pattern in rural Greece, Italy, and a number of other countries around the Mediterranean Basin.

map of Muria territory in India  

At the other extreme, are societies like the Muria Tribe of Central India.  At the age of six, boys and girls traditionally are placed together into a village dormitory by their parents.  Through their early teen years, they are encouraged to carry out sexual liaisons with each other to provide them with experiences that will help in selecting compatible marital partners later in life.

All societies, including the Muria, have incest taboos click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  These are rules prohibiting sexual intercourse with close relatives.  While the definition of who is included in this prohibition varies throughout the world, it generally at least includes members of one's nuclear family click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, such as parents, brothers, and sisters.  Commonly, the taboo extends to grandparents, some cousins, uncles, aunts, and may even include more distant relatives.

Societies that have rigid class stratification tend to be more restrictive in terms of sexual experimentation before marriage.  As social inequality between the classes increases in such societies, parents become more concerned with preventing their children from marrying "beneath them."  Premarital sexual permissiveness is generally prohibited because it might lead to such undesirable attachments.  Likewise, the idea of romantic love before marriage is discouraged.  However, there are ways of getting around such restrictions in all societies. These include secret liaisons and elopements.  Shakespeare's dramatic story of Romeo and Juliet describes just such a case.  The two young lovers were forbidden to have contact by their families but they contrived to meet in secret anyway.


  Return to Menu  

  Practice Quiz  

  Next Topic  

This page was last updated on Thursday, June 29, 2006.
Copyright 1997-2006 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.
Illustration credits