Kanner Explores Cultural Variations in Understanding Marriage

November 10, 2008
By: Worcester State University News

Any discussion of marriage is obviously bound by culture.

As she examines data from a small, cross-cultural study she conducted with a psychologist at the University of Delhi, Bonnie Kanner (Psychology) may be getting close to understanding some of the different meanings of marriage.

“We looked at college students expectations of marriage,” Kanner said. “The responses to our Likert scale survey, and students written responses to a half dozen questions, have helped us understand the complexity of the marriage relationship.”

Students in the United States responded that they strongly agreed that the individual person picks a spouse. It is a personal decision. Marriage, to them, will be the central relationship in their lives.

“The married couple makes the important decisions in their lives together—they decide where to live, whether to rent or buy, whether to have children and how many,” Kanner said.

When that marriage relationship falls apart, everything else within the nuclear family falls apart, she added.

In India, which is the worlds largest democracy and the second most populous nation on the planet, marriage is not the central relationship in peoples lives, she said.

Other relationships, such as those between mother and child, father and child, daughter-in-law and mother-in-law, and father and grandfather are much more important, Kanner said. The marriage relationship is required to keep the family going, to provide generational help and support.

Thus, picking a spouse is not a young Indian’s responsibility. It’s too important a decision to leave to the inexperienced.

“The care of older generations as well as the job of raising the younger generation rests upon the marriage arrangement,” she said. “Parents know what works best, even for their young adult children. Why leave such an important decision whom to marry to young people?”

Thus, in India, families are responsible for finding suitable marriage partners for their children. The idea of personal, individual choice in a marriage partner is a foreign concept.

The love marriage, in which young people select their own spouses out of love, does exist in contemporary India.

“But the meaning of love marriage is I love you and my parents approve of you,” Kanner said.

The idea of marrying someone selected by one’s parents is an equally foreign idea to U.S. college students. They reported that selecting a marriage partner was the single most important decision they expected to make in their lives. Love will be the centerpiece of what they say will be the most intimate relationship in their lives.

Not so in India. “One of my colleagues in India told me that husbands and wives do not necessarily believe that the most intimate relationship they’ll have is with their marriage partner,” Kanner said. “Women’s most intimate relationships often are among sisters, sisters-in-law, mothers, and female cousins.”

The woman told Kanner that what she expected from a husband was a familiar face on the other pillow, a good father, a good provider and a man good to his parents. That is enough, the woman told her.

“Divorce rates in India are lower than those in the United States because marriage is not the primary relationship,” Kanner said.

Her 2007-2008 mini-grant, Cultural Variations in College Students Understanding of the Nature and Purposes of Marriage, was to be used to present these study findings at an international conference.

Two independent study students have culled the data for research papers under Kanner’s supervision. She is now analyzing the entire data set to prepare a paper for presentation at such a conference.

The data set has raised another dimension on the independence-dependence scale for her.

“What about interdependence?” Kanner asked. “Indians have a completely different view of family relationships than we do. Their approach is worth serious thought—and more study.”

Written by Barbara Zang, Ph.D.

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