Features of Marital Interaction Importance of the Marital Relationship

While all societies expect men and women to marry, cultures vary widely with regard to the importance that they place on the marital relationship. In some cultures it is assumed that one's spouse will be the most important person in one's life, while in others the marital bond is marginalized in favor of other human associations.

Attitudes regarding the importance of the marriage bond influence the degree to which other people encourage spouses to develop a close relationship. The Khalka Mongols view the marital relationship as the primary attachment in the life of a man or woman and support a new marriage by prohibiting a bride from making a formal visit to her natal family for 3 years after she is married. Therefore, a young wife only sees her parents if they come to visit her in her new camp (Vreeland, 1953). Contrast this with the experience of a wife among the Truk of Oceania, who value the relationship of a woman and her mother over that of a wife and her spouse. A Truk wife is also required to move away from her natal home after she is married. But here, a wife will visit her mother for a month each year if she lives far away, and will make frequent informal visits to her mother if she lives closer. A Truk mother gives comfort, aid, and advice to a daughter even after she is married (Gladwin & Sarason, 1953).

In cultures where a relationship other than the marital bond is viewed as primary, people may actively try to obstruct intimate interactions between a husband and wife. Thus, for instance, a traditional Hindu husband is warned not to look at his wife while she is eating, sneezing, yawning, breast-feeding, or relaxing comfortably, the idea being to encourage continued distance between spouses (Mace & Mace, 1959).

The expectations of spouses will also be influenced by cultural assumptions regarding the importance of the marriage. Where a culture views marriage as the primary source of emotional gratification and support in the life of an adult, men and women will bring these same hopes to their own marriage. The results of this attitude are captured in the words of an Omaha widower, who remarked that "no one is so near, no one can ever be so dear as a wife; when she dies, her husband's joy dies with her" (Dorsey, 1884). By contrast, in societies where the marital bond is viewed as secondary to the bonds between other people, a husband and wife will expect less from their marriage. When asked about their expectations regarding marriage, men living in many different regions of India agreed that a wife provides sexual satisfaction and sons and a smoothly running household. Similarly, women agreed that husbands provided financial security, protection, and children. But neither sex looked to marriage as the source of emotional support. Rather, both men and women named relatives or same-sex friends as the people to whom they would go in times of personal distress (Mace & Mace, 1959).

Where the husband-wife bond is viewed as primary, this can lead to disruptions in the relationships between a spouse and other family members. This is the case among the Iban of Borneo, where the marital relationship is assumed to be uppermost in the life of a man and woman. Iban newlyweds sometimes move in with the family of one of the spouses. When a couple lives in the house of the groom, conflicts may arise between the groom's brothers and his new wife. In such cases, the young husband's loyalties shift to his bride and the couple move into their own house (Freeman, 1958). By contrast, among the Bemba of Zambia, where a woman's relationship with her mother remains the most important bond in her life, a bride will occasionally refuse to leave own community to go and live with her husband if he wishes to live in his own village after their marriage (Richards, 1940). Among the North American Hidatsa, the attachment between a son and his mother remained strong throughout life, and was expected to do so. A new groom visited his mother whenever he liked and friends and kin at her home, not his own. A husband often ate at his mother's house and never stayed in the house that he shared with his wife if she happened to be away. Married men kept their own belongings at their mothers' lodges, and younger members of the mother's household looked after a man's horses. A son was expected to see to his mother's well-being even after he had married and moved away (Matthews, 1877). Among the matrilocal Navaho of Arizona, a husband lived with his wife's family and participated in the activities of that household. But he was also expected to meet certain ceremonial and economic responsibilities with respect to his natal household. A married man made long frequent visits to his mother's house. Wives, for their part, were more influenced by their brothers or uncles than by their husband, and were likely to side with their parents against their husband in the case of a disagreement between them (Leighton & Kluckhohn, 1969). The Creek were representative of societies in which a man's loyalties toward a spouse were less profound that those toward the natal family. Among these people, the word "home" referred to the household of a husband's own female kin, even if he had built the house in which he and his wife lived (Swanton, 1924-1925).

The marriage bond tends to be viewed as important in societies where men are particularly interested in establishing paternity. In societies of this sort, a woman's sexual activity is often restricted to the marital relationship and the marriage celebration is elaborate. In turn, male concern with paternity recognition is found predominantly in societies where descent is traced exclusively (unilineal descent) or at least partially (nonunilineal descent) through males (Frayzer, 1985). The connection between descent systems and emphasis on the social recognition of paternity can be explained by the fact that, where a child's membership in a descent group depends at least in part on the identity of his father, recognition of paternity becomes critical to assigning each person to the proper descent group.

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