In our time we speak of ‘partner choice’ as if it is more or less free. How does it come to a marriage, what precedes it?
Marriage partners most often have approximately the same age (he is usually a little older than she), the same socio-economic background, the same ethnic background, the same level of education (he usually a little more or higher than she),they belong to the same church (even when religion is no longer a dominant factor in society, the chance of divorce is still significantly higher if the background is different) and have similar interests. So there is a strong tendency to seek as a partner and marry someone from the same social category. This is called ‘homogamy’.
Also, it is definitely not true that nowadays parents and other family members or friends do not have any influence over the choice of a partner. Even in modern western culture, there are still many ways in which the opinion of peers and relatives plays a role in the selection process that leads to marriage. In this process, usually a number of partners are tried out till the ‘right’ one is found.
Also, social considerations may play an important part. Someone who aspires to become a politician, will take his public image into account when he chooses a future wife. Likewise, an ambitious woman will select a husband who will give her power and status. Furthermore, there is a strong collective influence which keeps the whole community involved in the continuation of the system of procreation, of which marriage is the public representation.
Must we conclude that in our modern times everything is exactly the same as in the dark past or older cultures elsewhere? No, the development of the past two hundred years has brought us important sexual changes. We now have the prosperity and knowledge that bring dreams of human freedom and emancipation, education and work, life fulfillment and individuality, ever closer to realization.
Since a few hundred years the idea of romantic love as a prerequisite for marriage has settled itself in most people’s minds. It is connected with self-determination as opposed to forced or arranged marriages. The whole novel tradition of the nineteenth and twentieth century has contributed to this idea, by showing how the old sexual system gets into conflict with the new world of ideas.
Next, the idea of birth control has, for the first time in history, become widely accepted . After a century of resistance by conservative religious powers, the knowledge and means are available for everyone to liberate love from reproduction, marriage and family.
Other tangible effects from this process of sexual reform are the legalization of divorce, (in theory) equal rights for men and women, increasing interest in the rights of children and criticism of the family, increased knowledge of sexuality. Many people are aware of the revolutions that have taken place in all these areas.
The greatest changes, however, still lie ahead. One of them is to reduce the importance of partner choice and intensify efforts to promote free love.