Why did I choose you?

Tamara Nissanka

A classroom presentation on interpersonal attraction, which I did for a social psychology course about a year ago, got me thinking ‘why people choose the marriage partners they do?’ I was focused on heterosexual relationships. So I looked up the theories of attraction, and found quite a few interesting explanations about factors that influence our choice of partners. Let’s take a look at some of those theoretical approaches, starting off with psychoanalysis.

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Most people have a conscious sense of the type of partner who would best suit their needs. They might even be able to list out the basic physical, social and psychological traits of an ‘ideal’ husband or wife. The psychoanalytic approach suggests that apart from conscious reasons, there are important unconscious factors that shape our choice. Our internal world contains important images from our childhood. When people have not completely dealt with some of those internal images from the past, they tend to repeat past situations. This unconscious pull of the past takes us back to unfinished business. Freud said that people find the kind of partners who remind them of a close parent. However, the parent doesn’t necessarily have to be ‘good’. It could as well be that memories of the parent are associated with negative emotions, and a particular partner is selected because he/she evokes the same negative feelings as the parent did. For instance, a man might like to have a wife who makes him feel dependant and powerless because his mother was dominant and evoked the same feelings in him. What influences people to repeat patterns from the past are the strong unconscious ties to the objects of their earliest love.

 

The homogamy theory says that people choose each other because of the similarities they find in one another. Similarities are sought for at different levels like; outer characteristics, in goals and values, and in ideas about gender roles. When two people share many things in common they tend to build up a good rapport, agree with each other’s values, and minimize conflicts about future expectations.

Social exchange theory sees the importance of costs and rewards in relationships. Costs are the physical, mental and emotional contributions made by each partner. Costs in a relationship could include; travelling some distance to see each other, trying to understand each other’s likes and dislikes, and providing each other with emotional support. Rewards are things that bring pleasure and satisfaction, like; receiving care and attention. Social exchange theory says that people choose partners with whom they can enjoy more rewards mutually.

Complementary needs theory explains that two people are drawn to one another because each person’s psychological strengths meet the personality needs of the other. A man who has trouble remembering names, times and places, would like to be with a partner who remembers things better. Together, they complement each other’s personalities and make a good couple.

Propinquity theory shows how people tend to chose partners who are physically nearby, because chances of meeting and getting to know one another are higher. For instance, you are more apt to marry someone from your own country than someone from another.

With the intention of finding out what Sri Lankans look for in their future spouses, I did a very simple survey using 200 randomly selected advertisements that appeared on the matrimonial pages of a weekend Sinhala newspaper at the time. Half of the advertisements (100) were from the bride’s page, and the other half, from the bridegroom’s page. Each advertisement was examined for the attributes they specified as requirements for the future husband/wife.

Out of the 100 men, 64 had wanted their partner to be physically attractive. Only four women out of 100 had specified good looks as a requirement. More men than women had wanted their partner to have good qualities (“යහපත් ගතිගුණ”). This attribute was desired by 37 men and 24 women. In their advertisement, 47 women had mentioned that their partners should have a job or business, while 30 men had specified this as a requirement. Both, men and women had placed almost equal importance on horoscope. It was a requirement for 47 men and 49 women. As for education, 24 men had asked for well-educated wives, and 19 women had wanted husbands with a good level of education. Cast was mentioned as a requirement by eight men and 13 women.

The following chart shows the attributes that men and women looked for in each other.

Interestingly, many advertisements from the bride’s party had specifically called out for bachelors from the armed forces. Was it because the security forces were in the limelight with the ongoing war at the time? A definite answer cannot be given without empirical evidence. Most of the men (who specified a particular profession) implied they preferred women who were teachers. Contrary to my guess, not many males had asked for a dowry. Yet, not having mentioned it in the advertisement does not guarantee that the bridegroom’s party did not expect a dowry.

Those who had strong points to offer, had a greater bargaining power as well. For example, parents looking for a “suitable husband” for their “25 year old pretty daughter, with a degree and a good job” expected a “well-educated, wealthy bachelor with a job, assets, good qualities” etc.

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A major limitation in this survey is that it does not exactly reflect people’s priorities. Also, since these are arranged marriages, the advertisements are often written by parents, siblings or friends of the bride and bridegroom, and they fail to give us a perfect picture of the kind of spouse the individual personally desires for him/herself.

Information gathered from my rather convenient survey, no doubt, gives only a vague understanding of how marriage partners are chosen in Sri Lanka. The theories of attraction described above explain just some ways in which we end up choosing a particular partner. There are definitely more reasons as to why we select specific people and not others. For example, the incest taboo – a norm prohibiting sex relations between members of the same family – helps narrow down the choice. The influence of social norms, cultural values, economic and political contexts of the country in which you live, and your own unique personality traits are among other factors that point you in the direction of those certain special people.

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