Marriage Rules: Part I

There are two universal categories of marriage partner selection restrictions.  They are referred to by anthropologists as exogamy click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced and endogamy click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced rulesExogamy rules require that marriage be outside of some defined social group, such as one's own family.  In contrast, endogamy rules require that it be within some larger group, such as the local community.  In other words, rules of exogamy tell you who you cannot marry, while rules of endogamy specify who would be acceptable and preferred as a marriage partner.  Both of these types of rules operate at the same time.

illustration of the connection between endogamy and exogamy

Social distance is the key factor in this determination.  Incest taboos exclude close relatives (the exogamous click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced group).  Beyond that group are more distant relatives, friends, and associates (the endogamous click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced group) with whom marriage is usually desirable.  More distant still are all outsiders or aliens with whom marriage and sexual relations are by and large either discouraged or forbidden.


photo of a wedding in Punjab, India

Traditional wedding
in Punjab, India

In North America, the exogamous group includes an individual's siblings, parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and sometimes cousins.  There often are explicit incest laws prohibiting marriage or mating with these relatives.  The endogamous group generally consists of the members of an individual's ethnic/racial, religious, socio-economic and/or age groups.  The North American endogamy rules, which encourage marriage within these groups, are usually in the form of implicit social pressure by friends and relatives.  These rules may remain unstated below the surface until an individual tries to deviate from them.

About 30% of all cultures define some cousins as preferred mates.  In other words, the endogamous group includes relatives outside of the nuclear family but not more distant than cousins.  In the rural areas of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, it is not unusual to find that a third of marriages are with first cousins.  The rate is even higher in some Middle Eastern nations.  Roughly half of the marriages are with first cousins in much of the Arabian Peninsula, especially in the south.  Among the Bedouin Arabs click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, for instance, marriage partner preference is specifically for a patrilateral parallel cousin click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced (father's brother's child).  To understand this preference, it is first necessary to know that Bedouins traditionally determine kinship patrilineally click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced--that is, only from males to their offspring.  The red people in the diagram are all related patrilineally.

standard kinship diagram symbols

  patrilineal descent diagram

Bedouins make a distinction between cousins who are members of the patrilineal extended family (parallel cousins) and those who are not (cross cousins).  By marrying his patrilateral parallel cousin (father's brother's daughter), ego is marrying the closest female relative other than his mother, aunt, and sister.

diagram of a patrilineal descent pattern with the partilateral parallel cousins highlighted

  photo of two Bedouin men from Jordan in traditional clothes

Bedouin men in Jordan

Marrying a patrilateral parallel cousin potentially strengthens extended family solidarity and reduces obligations beyond the family.  This Bedouin marriage preference ultimately means that the family tends to be a relatively closed, isolated group.  Alliances between different extended families are inhibited.   In reality, however, genealogies are not all straight-jackets within which the Bedouins are constrained. They can be creatively manipulated or altered as social and political circumstances require.

Among the Yanomamö click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced Indians of Brazil and Venezuela, the cultural preference is to unite different patrilineal lineages by exchanges of women.  This begins by two men marrying each other's sisters, thereby creating a kinship bond between the men.  The alliance is continued by men in subsequent generations marrying their cross cousins (father's sister's daughters) as shown below.  The yellow and red extended families are linked anew each generation.

map of Yanomomöo territory   diagram of a patrilineal descent pattern with the cross cousins highlighted   photo of a Yanomamö village as seen from above

A Yanomamö village

Due to Yanomamö intermarriages in previous generations, ego's wife is not only his father's sister's daughter but also is likely to be his mother's brother's daughter.  Study the diagram above to assure yourself that this could be the case.  Since one's spouse is often related on both sides of the family, it is essentially a bilateral cross cousin click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced marriage pattern.  The net result is reinforcement each generation of ties between paired lineages that assures dependable allies in the frequent Yanomomö intervillage raiding and internal village squabbles.

Number of Spouses Permitted

How many spouses an individual is allowed to have varies from culture to culture.  The rule that is familiar to North Americans and Europeans is monogamy--that is, one man married to one woman.  While this is now by far the most common form of marriage around the world, it is, in a sense, the least preferred.  In a sample of 850 societies, less than 20% preferred monogamy over other marriage patterns. 

  photo of two Greek men talking with each other at a coffee house
 A Greek coffee house
(traditional male bastion
in conservative villages)

In North America and most other large-scale industrial societies where remarriage is permitted after divorce or death of a spouse, there often is serial monogamy--that is, marriage to multiple spouses, but only one at a time.   However, in Greek villages, women traditionally have been socially prohibited from marrying again after the death of their husbands.  On becoming widows, they are thought to rapidly go through menopause making them less desirable as potential wives for most men.  Widows take on a somewhat sexually neutral status and, therefore, are free for the first time in their lives to go into male places, such as coffee houses.  However, they must wear black clothes to indicate their widow status for the rest of their lives.  Greek men who become widowers are not similarly restricted and stigmatized as being gender neutral.

Polygamy click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, the marriage of more than one spouse at a time, has been popular on all continents except Europe.  Surprisingly, it is often popular even among women in some societies.  When most people think of polygamy, they assume that it is a pattern in which a number of women share the same husband.  This relatively common form of polygamy is known as polygyny click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  However, a rarer form, known as polyandry click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, occurs when several husbands share the same wife.   Both forms of polygamy have advantages and disadvantages over monogamy in their particular cultural settings.

  photo of a polygynous family in Nigeria

Polygynous family in Nigeria

Polygyny is most common today in Moslem nations, among cattle herding societies of East Africa, and in the remnants of the old kingdoms of West Africa.  The rationale for a man to have more than one wife is usually a combination of more sexual partners, more children, and, above all, increased social prestige.   However, the European belief that polygyny is nothing more than the exploitation of women and that wives in a polygynous click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced household are weak is somewhat of an ethnocentric projection that does not fit the reality in all societies.

map of Turkana Territory in East Africa  

Among the Turkana click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced of Kenya, for instance, a wife generally considers it an economic advantage for her family to have additional co-wives since the women help each other in doing domestic chores and in caring for their animals.  The co-wives may also help their husband find a new bride.  They interview young women with a goal of finding one who will be compatible with them and hard working.  Their husband usually must have their approval before going ahead with the wedding.  For him, an additional wife also has disadvantages.  The co-wives may get together, gang-up on him, and force him to do things that he does not want to do.  However, he achieves a higher social status by having more wives.


Polyandry is found in some isolated rural regions of India, Sri Lanka, and especially Nepal, and Tibet.  Usually, it is fraternal polyandry click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced--that is, two brothers married to the same woman.  This reduces the problem of determining what family their children belong to since both potential fathers have the same parents.  The younger brother typically marries the shared wife when he is in his early teens but often does not have sexual relations with her for years.  Her initial relationship with him is often something between a mother and a wife.

Polyandry has distinct economic advantages for these small-scale agricultural societies.  It keeps the family farm in one piece.  It allows one of the husbands to be away from the farm working for months to years at a time without disrupting the family.  It also provides economic security for the wife when one of her husbands dies.  However, it places an increased domestic work load on her.  In recent years, the introduction of the notion of romantic love has begun to be disruptive in polyandrous marriages due to growing demands for exclusive bonds with the wife by each husband.  However, occasional female infanticide resulting from the high priority placed on having a male child very likely will make polyandry a practical solution for the near future.


  Previous Topic    Return to Menu    Practice Quiz     Next Topic 

This page was last updated on Tuesday, August 04, 2009.
Copyright © 1997-2009 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.
Illustration credits