Mate Selection Theories

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Social scientists who study the family have long been interested in the question "Who marries whom?" On one level, the study of mate selection is conducted from the perspective of family as a social institution. Emphasis is placed on the customs that regulate choice of mates. A counterperspective views the family as an association. This perspective centers instead on the couple and attempts to understand the process of marital dyad formation. Both of these perspectives generate an abundance of knowledge concerning mate selection. Beginning primarily in the 1920s, theoretical and empirical work in the area of mate selection has made great advances in answering the fundamental question "Who marries whom?"


The purview of anthropologists has centered on kinship structures as they relate to mate selection in arranged marriage systems. Sociological inquiry that sees the family as a social institution in the context of the larger society focuses instead on the evolution of courtship systems as societies modernize. In this respect, it is important to note the contributions of scholars such as Bernard Murstein (1974, 1976) who have pointed out the importance of cultural and historical effects on courtship systems that lead to marriage.

Historical evidence suggests that, as a society modernizes, changes in the courtship system reflect a movement toward autonomous courtship systems. Thus, parentally arranged marriages diminish in industrialized cultures, since arranged marriages are found in societies in which strong extended kinship ties exist or in which the marriage has great significance for the family and community in terms of resources or status allocation. As societies modernize, arranged marriages are supplanted by an autonomous courtship system in which free choice of mate is the preferred form. These autonomous courtship systems are also referred to as "love" marriages, since the prerequisite for selection of a mate has shifted from the need to consolidate economic resources to that of individual choice based on love. Of course, family sociologists are quick to point out that the term "love marriage" is somewhat of a misnomer, since many other factors operate in the mate selection process.

Family social scientists have tried to understand the human mate selection process by using a variety of data sources and theoretical perspectives. The most global or macro approaches have made use of vital statistics such as census data or marriage license applications to study the factors that predict mate selection. Attention has been placed on social and cultural background characteristics such as age, social class, race, religion, and educational level.


Before considering individual background characteristics and interpersonal dynamics of the mate selection process, it is important to note the increasing attention given to the marriage market and the marriage squeeze. The term "marriage market" refers to the underlying assumption that we make choices about dating and marriage partners in a kind of free-market situation. Bargaining and exchange take place in contemporary selection processes, and these exchanges are based on common cultural understandings about the value of the units of exchange. The basis for partner selection plays out in a market situation that is influenced by common cultural values regarding individual resources, such as socioeconomic status, physical attractiveness, and earning potential. Numerous studies have concluded that gender roles play a significant part in the marriage market exchange process, with men trading their status and economic power for women's attractiveness and domestic skills. But changes in contemporary gender roles suggest that as women gain an economic viability of their own, they are less likely to seek marriage partners (Waite and Spitze 1981). Thus, the marriage market and the units of exchange are not constant but subject to substantial variation in terms of structure and selection criteria.

The premise that marital partners are selected in a rational choice process is further extended in the study of the effects of the marriage squeeze. The "marriage squeeze" refers to the gender imbalance that is reflected in the ratio of unmarried, available women to men. In theory, when a shortage of women occurs in society, marriage and monogamy are valued. But when there are greater numbers of women, marriage as an institution and monogamy itself take on lesser importance. Similarly, when women outnumber men, their gender roles are thought to be less traditional in form (Guttentag and Secord 1983).

The marriage squeeze has important effects for theoretical consideration, especially in studying the lower rates of marriage among African-American women in today's society. Due to a shortage of African-American men, coupled with greater expectations on the part of African-American women of finding mates with economic resources (Bulcroft and Bulcroft 1993), the interplay between the marriage squeeze and motivational factors to marry suggest that future research needs to disentangle the individual and structural antecedents in mate selection. These studies also point to the complexity of mate selection processes as they take place within both the social structure and cultural gender role ideologies.

The marriage squeeze is further exacerbated by the marriage gradient, which is the tendency for women to marry men of higher status. In general, the trend has been for people to marry within the same socioeconomic status and cultural background. But men have tended to marry women slightly below them in age and education (Bernard 1982). The marriage gradient puts high-status women at a disadvantage in the marriage market by limiting the number of potential partners. Recent changes in the educational status of women, however, suggest that these norms of mate selection are shifting. As this shift occurs, one can speculate that the importance of individual characteristics such as physical attractiveness, romantic love, and interpersonal communication will increasingly come to play important roles in the mate selection process in postmodern society (Beck and Beck-Gersheim 1995; Schoen and Wooldredge 1989).

Norms of endogamy require that people marry those belonging to the same group. Concomitantly, exogamous marriages are unions that take place outside certain groups. Again, changes in social structures, ethnic affiliations, and mobility patterns have dramatically affected the modern marriage market. More specifically, exogamy takes place when marriage occurs outside the family unit or across the genders. Taboos and laws regulating within-family marriage (i.e., marriages considered to be incestuous that occur between brother and sister, mother and son, etc.) and marriage to same-sex partners are examples of the principle of endogamy. Recent attempts have been made to legally recognize same-sex marriages, thus suggesting that norms of endogamy are tractable and subject to changes in the overall values structure of a society or social group.

In addition to endogamy and exogamy, the marriage market is further defined by norms of homogamy and heterogamy. Mate selection is considered to be homogenous when a partner is selected with similar individual or group characteristics. When these characteristics differ, heterogamy is evidenced. The norm of homogamy continues to be strong in American society today, but considerable evidence suggests we are in a period of change regarding social attitudes and behaviors with regard to interracial and interfaith unions.

Recent data suggest that the number of interracial marriages for African-Americans has increased from 2.6 percent in 1970 to 12.1 percent in 1993 (Besharov and Sullivan 1996). But African-American mate selection operates along lines of endogamy to a larger degree than do the mate selection processes of Asian-American, Native American, or other nonwhite groups. Nearly one-half of all Asian-Americans marry non-Asians (Takagi 1994) and over half of all Native-Americans marry non–Native Americans (Yellowbird and Snipp 1994).

Similarly, rates of interfaith marriage have increased. For example, only 6 percent of Jews chose to marry non-Jewish partners in the 1960s. Today nearly 40 percent of Jews marry non-Jewish partners (Mindel et al. 1988).

The background characteristics of age and socioeconomic status also demonstrate norms of endogamy. The Cinderella story is more of a fantasy than a reality, and self-help books with titles such as How to Marry a Rich Man (Woman) have little basis for success.

The conditions of postmodern society are shaping mate selection patterns as they relate to endogamy and homogamy. The likelihood of marrying across social class, ethnic, and religious boundaries is strongly affected by how homogeneous (similar) the population is (Blau et al. 1982). In large cities, where the opportunity structures are more heterogeneous (diverse), rates of intermarriage are higher, while in small rural communities that demonstrate homogeneous populations, the norm of endogamy is even more pronounced.

Again, the complex interplay between the marriage market and individual motives and preferences is highlighted. The extent to which marriage outside one's social group is the result of changing preferences and attitudes or largely the result of shifting opportunity structures, known as marriage market conditions, is not clear at this time (Surra 1990).

The factors that operate in the selection process of a mate also function in conjunction with opportunity structures that affect the potential for social interaction. The evidence suggests that propinquity is an important factor in determining who marries whom. Thus, those who live geographically proximate to each other are more likely to meet and marry. Early work by James Bossard (1932) shows that at the time of the marriage license application, about 25 percent of all couples live within two city blocks of each other. Bossard's Law, derived from his empirical findings, states "the proportion of marriages decreases steadily and markedly as the distance between the consenting parties increases." Or, put more simply, "Cupid's wings are best suited for short flights." Of course, current American society has changed since the time Bossard studied mate selection patterns in Philadelphia, and there is a tendency to think that as society becomes more mobile propinquity plays less of a role in the choice of a mate. Propinquitous mate selection does not mean nonmobility, however. It is simply the case that the influence of propinquity shifts as the individual geographically shifts. Thus, one is likely to marry someone who is currently near than someone previously propinquitous. The overriding effect of propinquity is that people of similar backgrounds will meet and marry, since residential homogamy remains a dominant feature of American society. However, changing marriage patterns, such as delaying age of first marriage, will impact the strength of propinquity in the mate selection process by expanding the opportunity structures and breaking down homogenous marriage markets.

One interesting area of research that often goes overlooked in discussions of the correlates of mate selection concerns homogamy of physical attractiveness. Based on the equity theory of physical attractiveness, one would expect that persons who are similar in physical attractiveness levels would marry. Many experimental designs have been conducted to test the effects of physical attractiveness on attraction to a potential dating partner. In general, the experimental conditions have yielded the findings that the more highly attractive individuals are the most desired as dating partners. But studies of couples actually involved in selecting a mate or who are already married support the notion that individuals who are similar in attractiveness marry on their own level. Thus, while attractiveness is a socially valued characteristic in choice of a mate, the norms of social exchange dictate that we select a partner who is similar in attractiveness and is thus attainable. It is only when other highly valued factors such as wealth, wit, or intelligence compensate for deficits in attractiveness that inequity of physical attractiveness in mate selection might occur.

In review, theories of mate selection are more often applied to the study of personality characteristics or process orientations than to marriage market conditions. It is important to note, however, that the basic assumption is that the marriage market operates in a social exchange framework. Men and women make selections under relative conditions of supply and demand with units of exchange. The market is further shaped by cultural norms such as endogamy and homogamy that can further restrict or expand the pool of eligibles.


While earlier work on the correlates of mate selection focused on homogamy of background characteristics, the work of Robert Winch (1958) set the stage for further investigation into the hypothesis that "opposites attract." That is, persons of dissimilar values or personality traits would marry. While value theorists speculated that similarity of values and personality would lead to great affiliation and propensity to marry, Winch posited that persons select mates whose personality traits are complementary (opposite) to their own. Inherent in Winch's theoretical work is the notion that certain specific trait combinations will be gratifying to the individuals involved. For example, a submissive person would find it gratifying or reciprocal to interact with a mate who had a dominant personality. Winch developed twelve such paired complementary personality traits, such as dominant-submissive and nurturant-receptive, for empirical testing using a very small sample of recently married couples. In Winch's work, as well as the work of others, the notion that complementarity of traits was the basis for marriage was not supported by the data.

Although empirical support for need complementarity is lacking, the concept remains viable in the study of mate selection. The appeal of the concept rests in its psychological origins, as work prior to Winch's focused primarily on structural and normative influences in mate selection. The work of Winch set the stage for research commencing in the 1960s that began to examine the processes of mate selection on the dyadic level.


The process of selecting a mate received considerable attention beginning in the 1970s. The basic form these theories take follows the "filter theory" of Alan Kerckoff and Keith Davis (1962). Kerckoff and Davis found empirical support that individuals, having met through the channels of propinquity and endogamy, proceed through a series of stages or steps in the development of the relationship. According to their theory, social status variables such as social class and race operate early on in the relationship to bring people together. The next stage involved the consensus of values, during which time the couple determines the degree of similarity in their value orientations. Couples who share similar values are likely to continue to the third stage, need complementarity. However, the data collected by Kerckoff and Davis offered only weak support for need complementarity as part of the process of mate selection.

Development of process theories of mate selection continued into the 1970s and is exemplified in the work of Ira Reiss (1960), Bernard Murstein (1970), Robert Lewis (1973), and R. Centers (1975). While these theoretical perspectives differ in terms of the order and nature of the stages, they have much in common. Melding these theories of mate selection, the following assumptions can be made concerning the stages of dyad formation that lead to marriage:

  1. There are predictable trajectories or stages of dyadic interaction that lead to marriage.
  2. The social and cultural background of a couple provides the context for the inter-personal processes.
  3. Value similarity leads to rapport in communication, self-disclosure, and the development of trust.
  4. Attraction and interaction depend on the exchange value of the assets and liabilities that the individuals bring to the relationship.
  5. Conditional factors such as age, gender, or marital history may influence the order or duration of the stages, or the probability that the relationship will end in marriage.

All the studies of the mate selection process have struggled with methodological difficulties. Most studies have relied on small, volunteer samples of couples. Most have used college-age, never-married couples. Finally, most studies have made extensive use of retrospection in assessing the process of dyad formation rather than collecting longitudinal data. These methodological difficulties may, in part, account for the recent decline in the number of studies examining the process of mate selection.

Furthermore, these stages may or may not result in marriage, but the primary focus of the research is on relationships that endure or terminate in marriage. Therefore, relatively little is known about the mate selection process as it pertains to rejection of a potential mate or how such terminations of relationships affect subsequent mate selection processes.

More current research has begun to shift away from antecedents that lead to legal marriage and turn instead to disentangling the trajectory of relationship development over the life course. More attention will turn to the formation and development of interpersonal relationships that may move through stages of romance, cohabitation, friendship, marriage, divorce, and so forth. Emphasis on relationship quality and durability, gender role negotiations, commitment processes, and romantic love have recently taken on increased importance in social science studies of mate selection (Surra and Hughes 1997; Houts et al. 1996; Surra 1990).

Many of the theories have also overlooked the influence of peer groups and family members in the mate selection process. The theoretical and empirical inquiry that has paid attention to peer and kin influences is restricted to studies of dating. Unfortunately, studies of dating and studies of mate selection have not been sufficiently integrated to provide the field with adequate data concerning the interrelationships between dating and mate selection processes.

Yet another area of research that has the potential for contribution to further understanding of the mate selection process is studies of romantic love. Process theories of mate selection seldom examine love as the basis, or even as a stage, in the development of a heterosexual relationship. While there is a large body of empirical and theoretical work on romantic love, conceptually the studies of love have been treated as quite distinct from the research on mate selection. Contrary to popular opinion, the relationship between love and marriage is not well understood.


As the family system changes in American society, so too the direction of research on mate selection shifts. As more couples delay first marriage, examination of courtship cohabitation becomes more salient. Future studies of courtship cohabitation will most likely examine the association between increasing rates of cohabitation and decreasing rates of marriage. On the individual level, the effects of the cohabitation experience on the decision to marry also warrant attention.

Research is just beginning on the mate selection process of remarriage (Bulcroft et al. 1989; Rodgers and Conrad 1986; Spanier and Glick 1980). While some factors that predict first marriage may remain constant in remarriage, such as endogamy and propinquity, other factors may come into play in remarriage. For example, age homogeneity may be less of a factor in remarriage since the pool of eligible mates is impacted by sex ratio imbalance. The exchange relationship in the mate selection process also differs in remarriage, since presence of children, prior marital history, and the economic liabilities of child support and alimony bring new dimensions to considerations of remarriage. Of particular interest are barriers to remarriage in the middle and later years of the life cycle, such that cohabitation or serious dating may offer more long-term rewards to the couple than legal marriage might provide. Thus, the strong profamilial norms that encourage the younger members of society to marry dissipate at mid and later life. Low rates of remarriage for individuals over the age of 50, in part, indicate that societal pressure to marry is greatly reduced.

Last, it has generally been assumed that homogamy of background characteristics leads to similarity of values, shared marital role expectations, rapport, and intimacy in the process of mate selection. But due to changing gender role expectations, this assumption may no longer be valid. As a result, more attention needs to be given to the process of role negotiation as part of the mate selection process.

In summary, studies of mate selection began with understanding the correlates of mate selection. Social scientists began by studying demographic data on homogamy in religion, social class, age, and other factors as these variables related to who married whom. For a brief period in the 1960s through the early 1980s, attention was turned to theories and data that examined the process of mate selection. Current research in the 1990s has not abandoned the study of the correlates and theories of mate selection, but as the nature of the family system changes, researchers have begun to consider that the generalizability of theories and findings may be limited when a researcher is trying to explain mate selection at a point later than young adulthood. Recent studies on the courtship processes of divorced (O'Flaherty and Workman 1988) and later life mate selection (Veevers 1988) point to the future focus of theories and research on mate selection processes.


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Kris Bulcroft