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Culture and Marriage: Cross-Cultural Ideas

Bride and groom
In a previous blog post, I mentioned that one of the many topics that Cultural Anthropology studies is marriage. Marriage seems simple because two people get married and that’s it, right? Wrong! Different cultures handle marriage in different ways. So, I’d like to talk about culture and marriage in this post.
Let’s start out by looking at what marriage actually is—a definition of marriage. People in the USA may answer that marriage is when a woman and man are in love, and they live together and have a sexual relationship, and perhaps raise children together.
But this definition does not hold true cross-culturally. For example, in some cultures, a man and woman do not choose to be together. Other people may decide that the couple should get married. These are called arranged marriages and can be found in cultures in Asia, the Pacific, the Middle East, and Africa. In these cultures, parents see the decision as too important for young people to decide for themselves.
Culture and Marriage. Image of a bride and groom with their hands held in a heart shape.
Also, in some cultures, love is not a necessary ingredient for marriage. The couple may not even know each other before they get married, so they have not had a chance to fall in love. In contrast, marriages built on love are called companionate marriages.
And, with marriage, a couple may not even live together. For example, in villages in Melanesia, Southeast Asia, and Africa, men sleep in a men’s house, while their wives and children sleep somewhere else.
In addition, in some cultures, marriage does not have to be between a man and a woman. For example, among the Nuer of South Sudan, an older wealthy woman can marry a young girl. The young girl then has sexual relationships with young males and has children. The children are then considered a part of the older woman’s family. As another example, in parts of West Africa, a working woman who is already married to a man can marry another woman as well. Then, that woman can help with the household chores while the working woman is at work.
Culture and marriage. Image of an African woman with beaded jewelry.
Also, some marriages are not between just 2 people (which is called monogamy). Some cultures practice polygyny, which is marriage involving one man and two or more women. Examples include the Nuer of Sudan and the Brahmans of Nepal. Other cultures practice polyandry, which is a marriage between one woman and two or more men. Examples include the Nyar of India and the Nyimba of Tibet.
A few cultures don’t even really have any form of marriage at all. For example, the Musuo of south China do not have any practice that could be considered marriage. In this culture, an adult woman lives with her mother and siblings. Then, she has sexual relationships with multiple men at night. When she becomes pregnant, the man has no obligations to his children, and so they are raised by the woman and her family.
Culture and Marriage. Image of an Indian bride with gold jewelry.
Learn More
Interested in learning more about culture and marriage? Check out the “Family and Marriage” chapter of the free online Anthropology textbook, “Perspectives: An Open Introduction to Cultural Anthropology (Second Edition).”
Thanks for reading!