5.7.1 Marriage Partner Selection

Selecting a mate is a process that is to a large extent culturally defined. Who is considered as a suitable marriage partner differs across societies. Various criteria can be used in the evaluation of a suitable partner. Some of these are physical beauty, personality, education, wealth, social class, ethnic or racial identity and more. The relative importance of one criterion over another depends on the type of marriage that is being considered - an arranged marriage or one based on the Western concept of romantic love.

Arranged marriages have been very popular worldwide and are still being practised today. This is so because an arranged marriage represents more than a union of two individuals; it is in fact the union of two families. It can also be a basis for creating alliances between important families, communities or even countries and nations. Therefore, arranged marriages usually require careful choice and negotiations. Another reason why arranged marriages have been and are still being practised is that young people have sometimes been considered as being too inexperienced to make such a decision as that of selecting a life-long partner. The parents and other older relatives then take the responsibility of finding a suitable mate for the young people.

Even though arranged marriages are still being widely practised, marriages based on romantic love are growing in popularity. This is so because of the influence of the mass media and its effectiveness in spreading the Western image of romantic love across the world. Exclusive emotional attachments are now greatly desirable in a marriage.

Be it for an arranged or a love marriage, social rules, both explicit and implicit, are present in all societies to regulate the selection of a partner. Some examples of explicit rules are the formal laws that define the age of consent, demand the willingness of both parties, specify whether the marriage should be between persons of opposite gender, or forbid marriages between close family members (to prevent incest). Implicit social rules relative to mate selection relates to social pressures put on individuals to choose a partner from a specific social class, religion or racial/ethnic group.

Generally speaking, there are two categories of mate selection rules that operate at the same time in any given society. These are the exogamy and endogamy rules.

The exogamy rule prescribes marriage outside a defined group. It defines who an individual cannot marry. These often apply to close members of the same family.

The endogamy rule prescribes marriage inside a defined group. It defines who is a desirable partner. It is often not socially acceptable for individuals to marry someone who is too distant in a social way, for example, a marriage between individuals from different social classes.

Exogamy and endogamy are both related to the notion of social distance. The exogamous group is too closely related to form suitable marriage partners, the endogamous group is just right, and beyond the endogamous group, there are the outsiders or aliens - those who are perceived as being too different and marriage with them is usually discouraged, and sometimes even forbidden.