Psychology Of Partner Selection Research Paper

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Although family structures, forms, and functions vary across cultures, marriage is a central universal phenomenon in the lives of most people. Selection of a partner is a key facet of marriage, and its mechanisms vary in consonance with the social psychological construction of the concept and meaning of marriage in a given culture. Every culture has rules or normative frameworks governing the orientation towards partner search and selection.

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Interestingly, a range of changes is evident in partner selection within and across cultures, some of which are a consequence of the shifts in the macro contextual conditions, such as socioeconomic development and the women’s movement, which have impacted various cultural structures and processes. Importantly, these factors have introduced transformation in social psychological orientations, and created novel modes of interpretation of, and greater flexibility in the adherence to, the traditional cultural rules for partner search and selection.

1. Theoretical Perspectives On Partner Selection

On what basis and how do people select partners for marriage? This question has elicited considerable scientific interest, and transcends disciplinary boundaries. Different disciplines have generated theories and models to study partner selection systems and strategies. In general, however, two major theoretical perspectives are evident: the evolutionary perspective and the social psychological perspective. A recent trend is to merge disciplinary perspectives and approaches in order to comprehend the complexities involved in partner search and achieve a clearer understanding of the motives that determine the different elements of the process.

1.1 Evolutionary And Social Psychological Perspectives: Towards A Synthesis

Evolutionary theories enable understanding of the ultimate significance of heterosexual relationships, specifically the determinants of partner selection, whereas social psychological perspectives provide insight into the more proximate factors involved.

The evolutionary models of partner selection essentially view individuals as acting on the basis of evolved mechanisms, selected with a focus on maximizing ancestors’ genetic fitness or increasing the likelihood of raising healthy offspring (Kenrick et al. 1993). These models contend that gender differences in preferences or selection criteria are cross-culturally universal, and have unfolded through sexual selection pressures over millions of years. As the physical condition of females is necessary for offspring survival, males generally tend to focus upon characteristics indicative of this aspect. On the other hand, females place more value on males’ ability to contribute to resources.

A prominent theoretical model in social psychological perspectives on partner selection is the social exchange model, which posits that individuals search for partners who have resource value that is equitable with one’s own ‘market value.’ In other words, there is an exchange of valued traits or resources (Kenrick et al. 1993). Based upon the market value of each trait, which varies cross-culturally, both women and men seek partners who will maximize gains and minimize costs. Social psychological models generally explain gender differences in terms of structural powerlessness of women and traditional sex role socialization patterns. Evolutionary theories, on the other hand, emphasize gender differences in terms of the reproductive investment hypothesis (Buss and Barnes 1986).

Evidence of the universality of certain gender differences in partner selection preferences across cultures supports the role that evolutionary forces play in shaping cultural factors that mediate the gender-based criteria for partner selection (Buss et al. 1990). Nevertheless, predictions related to psychological mechanisms in selection preferences offered by evolutionary models need to be viewed in conjunction with specific cultural-environmental contexts.

The sexual strategies theory proposes an integrated contextual-evolutionary perspective of partner selection. Based on the premise that human mating is inherently goal-directed, the theory incorporates factors from the larger context that have a bearing on partner selection and states that mating strategies are context-dependent in terms of the social milieu and the duration of the relationship. Also, the principles that govern selection by women and men are different and, to that extent, the psychological strategies or mechanisms adopted to maximize reproductive success and offspring survival also differ (Buss and Schmitt 1993).

2. Culture As Mediator Of Psychological Orientations

Culture is a significant mediating factor in partner selection. The cultural context provides shared schemas of meaning and knowledge systems that serve as a framework for individual experiences. The individual as a self-reflective and interpreting subject constructs and modifies the cultural schemas, thereby engendering transformation in the cultural rule systems for different domains, including partner selection. Thus, the cultural schemas on the one hand serve as a sort of template for individual and collective experiences, and on the other hand the individual constructs and modifies them in the course of cultural history (Eckensberger 1990).

Social relationships and rule systems are at the core of culture. In cross-cultural psychology, these are conceptualized in terms of two main differentiations of self-concerned or other-concerned individual psychological orientations, related to Western and non-Western contexts, respectively (Markus and Kitayama 1991). The dichotomy of individualism and collectivism is commonly used to conceptualize the two types of cultures. Individualism emphasizes individual interests, needs, goals, and independence; collectivism refers to an orientation towards collective interests and norms with the aim to maintain social harmony (Hui and Triandis 1986).

The implications of these orientations for the structure and function of the primary social group, that is, the family, are of particular interest, in terms of the impact upon significant life events of individuals, including marriage and its integral process—selection of a partner.

3. Cross-Cultural Perspectives

Multicultural studies of partner selection reveal interesting patterns of commonalties and diversities within and across cultures, which can be substantially attributed to changes in macro contexts as a result of industrialization and modernization.

Traditional and modern or collectivist and individualist cultures represent different clusters of qualities preferred in a prospective mate. Traits such as chastity, and domestic characteristics including desire for home and children, and being a good housekeeper are valued in traditional-collectivist cultures such as in China, India, Indonesia, Taiwan, Iran, the Palestinian Arab community, South Africa, and Colombia. The modern-individualist cultures (e.g., the USA, Canada, most of Western Europe) consider such characteristics as irrelevant in the partner selection criteria or place a comparatively low value on the same. Relatively uniform gender differences across cultures are observed specifically in men’s emphasis on physical appearance and value for traditional characteristics such as domestic skills, and women’s emphasis on resource potential. Sexual dimorphism is evident most in the collectivist Asian and African cultures (Buss et al. 1990).

In the Western world, partner selection is essentially based on one’s individual criteria, largely independent of familial and societal rules. Also evident is the growing utilization of innovative formal searching services. As one focuses on non-Western societies, specifically some selected Asian and African ones, the scenario reflects an interesting melange of ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ (including Western) patterns in the process of partner selection.

The South Asian countries of China and Japan (Jew 1994, Wang 1994) demonstrate the continuance of certain traditional patterns of partner selection, such as arranged marriages, alongside the changes being introduced by Western influences. Individuals who marry are beginning to have more decision-making power. Nevertheless, parental opinion and approval are generally sought, if only as a mark of duty, obligation, and respect for them.

The ongoing transformation across the non-Western societies in particular, reveals the dynamic interface between culture and the self-reflective intentional individual who is engaged in the complex process of cultural reconstruction. Traditional normative rule systems provide a common frame for individuals’ experiences of partner selection. In response to the larger context of rapid economic and social influences, individuals are engaging in a process of reinterpretation and reconstruction of the existing rule systems. In this context, societies that are predominantly characterized by collectivist perspectives are beginning to incorporate elements of the individualist perspective, in indigenized forms. The contemporary scenario illustrates a ‘transitional phase’ with varying blends of ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ or ‘collectivist’ and ‘individualist’ perspectives and practices of partner selection represented cross-culturally.

4. The Indian Context

In Hindu India, marriage or vivaha is an inevitable significant life ritual (samskara). Marriage is considered as an alliance between two families, rather than two individuals.

4.1 Cultural Rules For Partner Selection And Emerging Social Psychological Orientations

Caste (jati) compatibility is the most important factor in a Hindu marriage. The position of the family in the caste hierarchy determines the field of selection. This rule is now applied with greater flexibility, and there are incidences of intercaste marriages. A growing emphasis on individual characteristics of the prospective partner is also evident.

Although the arranged marriage remains a largely prevalent strategy of partner selection, the system has been modified to accommodate the preferences of adult children, and the traditional ‘unconsented’ model has given way to a ‘consented’ model (Banerjee 1999). The late 1990s also witnessed the growing involvement of external intermediaries, such as matrimonial advertisements and marriage bureaus, in partner selection.

The contemporary Indian context of partner selection reflects the influences of industrialization and modernization, including the global women’s movement and the ensuing changes in values and accepted practices. These changes are revealed in the greater assertion of individual choice, the parallel instances of resistance to certain normative rules, and the diluting role of family and kin networks. Although the evolving climate is more conducive to the articulation of individualistic orientations, the value of family interdependence persists.

The Indian scenario depicts the continued resilience of traditional practices, alongside its adaptive features created to ‘fit’ with the transforming social context. It thus reveals the two-dimensional interdependent independent or relational-autonomous orientation characteristic of many non-Western contexts (Kagitcibasi 1997).

5. Future Directions

How cultures operate to ‘mate’ individuals is a significant issue that provides a rich context for studying the interaction among psychological phenomena, their developmental patterns, and the cultural context. The emerging trend of integrating the social psychological or cultural and evolutionary models needs to be strengthened. Furthermore, indigenous paradigms for theory and research must be developed to trace the ongoing transitions and the diversity in developmental models across societies. Importantly, intracultural heterogeneity must be highlighted, especially in multicultural societies.

The validity of cross-cultural trends in specific gender-based selection preferences supported by the evolutionary model needs to be further corroborated. A critical question in this context is whether and to what extent women’s education and economic independence actually enhance gender egalitarianism in the realm of partner selection. Importantly, interdisciplinary culture-based perspectives are imperative to develop conceptual frameworks for interpreting the wide-ranging diversity and complexity in the partner selection process.


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