Marriage Around the World

An undergraduate paper from my cultural psychology class — how much have times changed in the two decades since?

In 1999, Davila et al. examined the changes in attachment which are thought to occur in American married couples after the “newlywed phase.”  They tested several theories to see how attachment style can change as people move from relationships with their peers to ones with romantic partners.  To Davila et al, “the marital relationship is typically the primary attachment relationship of married adults, and it is typically a time of transition both in terms of actual experiences…and attachment experiences.” (p 785).  They found that typically, as people move out of the newlywed phase, their attachment to one another becomes more secure as time goes by as they become more comfortable depending on one another and less anxious about being abandoned.  For them, one reason for this occurrence is that spouses are transferring their attachment functions and needs to the person with whom they are in close and consistent contact. 

            However, the results of this study may not be applicable to married couples the world over.  The study resides on the foundation that the marriage was due to some romantic involvement and not resulting from some type of obligation to family or self.  It also assumes the pair bond between husband and wife is the main bond in the marriage.  To apply the results of this study to other cultures, the function of attachment in spousal relationships for other people’s conceptions of marriage must be ascertained.  That is, is it important for there to be attachment between a man and woman for a successful marriage?  Davila et al’s study indicates that a successful marriage results from a secure attachment from both spouses where they feel they can depend on one another and that their situation will remain stable.  Such reciprocal expectations and attachment may not be stressed in other cultures as necessary.  For some, marriage is seen as a duty.  As Triandis (1995) said, there are four types of cultures created by two dimensions (individualist-collectivist, vertical-horizontal); Americans fall into the vertical individualist, which means the construct of the self is achievement oriented, while other cultures such as Japan are vertical collectivist, which means their self is constructed as dutiful.  In America, it can be hypothesized that marriage is a personal achievement while in Japan it is a personal obligation.

            In Japan, marriage as a construct is much different than in America for several reasons.  There is the idea of amae or dependent love which is a basic emotion throughout the Japanese social fabric.  While such an emotion is typically applied to the mother-child relationship, Lebra (1994) pointed out it also describes the husband-wife relationship.  “In marriage…the Japanese husband expects his wife to be an overall caregiver for him, including body care, as if he saw a mother substitute in his wife.” (p 267).  A Japanese man sees marriage as a stabilizing force while a woman sees it as the prerequisite of motherhood.  Also, in opposition to American practice, the mother-child pair bond is the more important of the two bonds in a marriage situation.  In a simple triangular relationship, the intimacy becomes one of mother and child versus father and the reason for prolonged marriage past the newlywed phase is to secure the proper environment for child rearing.  So a Japanese woman, sensing that her emotional relationship with her husband is faltering, does not see her marriage as a failure as long as any children are provided for (Hsia & Scanzoni, 1996). 

            The question then becomes on which path does attachment lie?  Is the woman more attached to the husband or to the child?  Is the husband, who is dependent upon his wife, attached to her in the same fashion American husbands are?  We know that Japanese husbands are dependent upon their wives for bodily concerns and see it as stabilizing in that way, but it is also quite common for a Japanese husband to keep a mistress for other bodily concerns (Hsia & Scanzoni, 1996).  In America, an extramarital attachment of this type would seem to go against secure attachment and lead to a dissolution of the marriage.  But if a Japanese woman’s main concern is in the well-being of their children and that allowing their husbands to have these extramarital attachments will keep them in the marriage, then such affairs seem to strengthen the marriage.  These affairs then serve to foster dependence on the man’s part and lesson anxiety about abandonment on the woman’s part.  But is this the same type of attachment?

            In Egypt there is a similar situation where the construct of marriage is different than in America.  Hoodfar (1997) wrote that in this culture, love is not seen as conducive to a productive marriage while compatibility and harmony are the keys to success.  Right away there seems to be a problem: is there attachment where there is no love?  Due to the lower status of women in Egyptian culture, they marry strategically to improve and sustain their lives and the lives of their children.  Women use marriage to ensure equality and stability not given to them by law.  They want to marry older men with higher social and economic credentials who are slightly below them education-wise, thus bringing them security that the marriage has a longer life.  Yet it is not only women but men who also manipulate marriage to serve themselves.  Stemming from traditions where marriages where arranged to serve the family, these conventions seem wholly alien to Americans who marry because they feel an emotional bond called love with the other person.  Here the Egyptians seem to take care of anxiety through strategy, but what about dependence? 

Looking at other cultures,  many questions are raised about the role of attachment in marriage.  Is there immediate dependence when there is stability?  Are these two characteristics necessarily reciprocal in order for an attachment to develop?  Is an attachment even necessary for a marriage to be successful given the culture’s construct in which it is formed?  The results of the Davila et al. study are not applicable to all cultures because of the cultural construct in which it was conducted.  However, the study itself can begin to answer these questions by exploring the role of attachment in other marriage constructs and then by a roundabout way getting at whether or not there is change in the found attachment.

Transforming the Davila et al study into a cross-cultural study seems feasible in that it only consists of questionnaires and interviews to measure attachment, but here it runs into two problems.  First, subjects from other cultures, especially China and Japan, may be reluctant to be as forthcoming as their American counterparts.  In these cultures, communication is to save face of themselves and the in-group.  According Gao (1998) in China this means communication’s ultimate goal is to maintain relationships by preserving harmony, he.  If the questions are constructed  as to ask intimate details about what they are or are not satisfied with in their marriage, then these subjects may be unwilling to tell an outsider such details which may dishonor their spouse and family.  Another problem is in defining attachment cross-culturally.  Just as emotions can mean different things to different people, the definition of a secure attachment can also change.  In Egypt, a secure attachment could be foreseeing continual stability while not being too dependent upon the other whereas in Japan stability could stem from the husband being dependent upon the wife.  For this study to be effective cross-culturally, it needs to address these two concerns.  It can be assumed such research on attachment has already been conducted by members of that culture.  And by working with these researchers, creating an assessment should follow.

As this study is not applicable to other cultures, it then raises the necessity of performing similar studies in other cultures.  Then it can be addressed how different cultures’ conceptions of marriage lead to the formation of attachment between the married pair and whether or not this is seen as a prerequisite for a successful marriage.

References

Davila, J. et al.  (1999).  Attachment change processes in the early years of marriage. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76,  p 783-802.

Gao, G.  (1998).  “Don’t take my word for it”–Understanding Chinese speaking practices. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 22,  p 163-186.

Hoodfar, H.  (1997).  Between Marriage and the Market: Intimate politics and survival in Cairo.  Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Hsia, H. & Scanzoni, J.  (1996).  Rethinking the roles of Japanese women.  Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 27,  p 309-329.

Lebra, T.  (1994).  “Mother and child in Japanese socialization: A Japan-U.S. Comparison.” (pp 259-274).  In. Greenfield, P. & Cocking, R. (Eds.)  Cross-Cultural Roots of Minority Child Development.  Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates.

Triandis, H.  (1995).  Individualism and Collectivism.  Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

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