There is wide cross-cultural variation in the social rules governing the selection of a partner for marriage. There is variation in the degree to which partner selection is an individual decision by the partners or a collective decision by the partners’ kin groups, and there is variation in the rules regulating which partners are valid choices.
The United Nations World Fertility Report of 2003 reports that 89% of all people get married before age forty-nine. The percent of women and men who marry before age forty-nine drops to nearly 50% in some nations and reaches 100% in other nations.
In other cultures with less strict rules governing the groups from which a partner can be chosen the selection of a marriage partner may involve either the couple going through a selection process of courtship or the marriage may be by the couple’s parents or an outside party, a matchmaker.
Societies have often placed restrictions on marriage to relatives, though the degree of prohibited relationship varies widely. Marriages between parents and children, or between full siblings, with few exceptions, have been considered incest and forbidden. However, marriages between more distant relatives have been much more common, with one estimate being that 80% of all marriages in history have been between second cousins or closer. This proportion has fallen dramatically, but still more than 10% of all marriages are believed to be between first and second cousins. In the United States, such marriages are now highly stigmatized, and laws ban most or all first-cousin marriage in 30 states. Specifics vary: in South Korea, historically it was illegal to marry someone with the same last name.
An Ayunculate marriage is a marriage that occurs between an uncle and his niece or between an aunt and her nephew. Such marriages are illegal in most countries due to incest restrictions. However a small number of countries have legalized it, including Argentina, Australia, Austria, Malaysia and Russia.
.In many societies the choice of partner is limited to suitable persons from specific social groups. In some societies the rule is that a partner is selected from an individual’s own social group – endogamy, this is the case in many class and caste based societies. But in other societies a partner must be chosen from a different group than one’s own – exogamy, this is the case in many societies practicing totemic religion where society is divided into several exogamous totemic clans, such as most Aboriginal Australian societies. In other societies a person is expected to marry their cross-cousin, a woman must marry her father’s sister’s son and a man must marry his mother’s brother’s daughter – this is often the case if either a society has a rule of tracing kinship exclusively through patrilineal or matrilineal descent groups as among the Akan people of West Africa. Another kind of marriage selection is the levirate marriage in which widows are obligated to marry their husband’s brother, mostly found in societies where kinship is based on endogamous clan groups.
Religion has commonly weighed in on the matter of which relatives, if any, are allowed to marry. Relations may be by consanguinity or affinity, meaning by blood or by marriage. On the marriage of cousins, Catholic policy has evolved from initial acceptance, through a long period of general prohibition, to the contemporary requirement for a dispensation. Islam has always allowed it, while Hindu strictures vary widely.
In a wide array of lineage-based societies with a classificatory kinship system, potential spouses are sought from a specific class of relative as determined by a prescriptive marriage rule. This rule may be expressed by anthropologists using a “descriptive” kinship term, such as a “man’s mother’s brother’s daughter” (also known as a “cross-cousin”). Such descriptive rules mask the participant’s perspective: a man should marry a woman from his mother’s lineage. Within the society’s kinship terminology, such relatives are usually indicated by a specific term which sets them apart as potentially marriageable. However very few marriages ever follow the rule and that when they do so, it is for “practical kinship” reasons such as the preservation of family property, rather than the “official kinship” ideology.
Insofar as regular marriages following prescriptive rules occur, lineages are linked together in fixed relationships; these ties between lineages may form political alliances in kinship dominated societies. A pragmatic (or ‘arranged’) marriage is made easier by formal procedures of family or group politics. A responsible authority sets up or encourages the marriage; they may, indeed, engage a professional matchmaker (i.e., Yenta in Fiddler on the Roof) to find a suitable spouse for an unmarried person. The authority figure could be parents, family, a religious official, or a group consensus. In some cases, the authority figure may choose a match for purposes other than marital harmony.
A forced marriage is a marriage in which one or both of the parties is married against their will. Forced marriages continue to be practiced in parts of the world, especially in South Asia and Africa. In many places, the line between forced marriage and consensual marriage becomes blurred, because the social norms of many cultures dictate that one should never oppose the desire of one’s parents/relatives in regard to the choice of a spouse; in such cultures it is not necessary for violence, threats, intimidation etc. to occur, the person simply “consents” to the marriage even if he/she doesn’t want it, out of the implied social pressure and duty. The customs of bride price and dowry, which exist in many parts of the world, can lead to buying and selling people into marriage.
In some societies, ranging from Central Asia to the Caucasus to Africa, the custom of bride kidnapping still exists, in which a woman is captured by a man and his friends. Sometimes this covers an elopement, but sometimes it depends on sexual violence. In previous times, raptio was a larger-scale version of this, with groups of women captured by groups of men, sometimes in war; the most famous example is The Rape of the Sabine Women, which provided the first citizens of Rome with their wives.
Other marriage partners are more or less imposed on an individual. For example, widow inheritance provides a widow with another man from her late husband’s brothers.
In rural areas of India, child marriage is practiced, with parents often arranging the wedding, sometimes even before the child is born. This practice was made illegal under the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929.
It has been argued that the ‘love’ (companionate) marriage emerged at the same time as the rise of capitalism in European and American society. ‘Love’ is not the raw emotion that Western representations make it out to be, but a cultural construction shaped by the social and economic conditions of modern industrial society. Industrialization weakened the ties between extended families, and made the nuclear family the norm. In this view, love is a culturally constructed label for physiological arousal that is shrouded in cultural symbols that situate the emerging relationship within a particular set of cultural expectations – one of which leads to marriage as an institution. These cultural expectations are shaped by a number of cultural industries, such as advertising, film and television, and the ‘wedding industry’. Until the turn of the twentieth century, marriage was viewed as one of the most important financial decisions of one’s life, determined in large part by property transfers such as dowry (or dower), and romantic love was viewed as disruptive of the rational economic decision making needed. Under the development of capitalism, this changed:
Romantic love, then, precedes capitalism per se but articulates two leitmotifs that will later resonate with capitalism’s central ideological themes. One concerns the sovereignty of the individual vis à vis the group, such sovereignty being affirmed in illicit sexual choices and in the lovers’ refusal to conform to the rules of endogamy set by the group. The other concerns the distinction central to bourgeois ideology between interest and sentiments, selfishness and selflessness, embodied respectively in the public and private spheres. In this division, romantic love asserts the privilege of sentiments over social and economic interests, of gratuity over profit, of abundance over the deprivations caused by accumulation. In proclaiming the supremacy of human relationships governed by the disinterested gift of oneself, love not only celebrates the fusion of individual souls and bodies but also opens the possibility of an alternative social order. Love thus projects an aura of transgression and both promises and demands a better world.
The financial aspects of marriage vary between cultures and have changed over time.
In some cultures, dowries and bride-wealth continue to be required today. In both cases, the financial arrangements are usually made between the groom (or his family) and the bride’s family; with the bride in many cases not being involved in the arrangement, and often not having a choice in whether to participate in the marriage.