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Parents and children: there’s always conflict about choice of partner

A ‘tasty piece’ or someone from a good family?
11 April 2011

All over the world, parents and children have the same conflicts about choice of partner. Parents want a son- or daughter-in-law from a good family, with the same cultural and religious background. Children prefer to find a partner who’s attractive, smells nice and has a sense of humour. This has been revealed by research conducted by psychologist Shelli Dubbs. She will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 11 April.

People are strange beings. In no other species on earth do parents play such a major role in the choice of partner for their children. In cultures in the Far East and Middle East, arranged marriages are still very common. However, even in Western societies parents influence the choice of partner of their child. Examples include forbidding dates, giving solicited and unsolicited advice about relationships, and voicing opinions about their children’s potential partners.

All over the world

For many years, little attention was paid to this phenomenon by evolutionary psychology. Partly because most of the research was conducted in Western societies, many researchers assumed that children were more or less free to choose their partner. Any research there was concentrated on immigrant families. It was considered natural that migrant children had conflicts with their parents about choice of partner – after all, children adapted to the new culture much more quickly than their parents. It now appears that the same conflicts play out in non-migrant families as well – and that the same patterns can be discerned all over the world. Only the intensity of the conflicts differs.

Preferably a ‘tasty piece’

PhD candidate Shelli Dubbs questioned parents and children from all over the world (the Netherlands, the USA, Japan, etc.) about conflicts concerning choice of partner. The results are remarkable. Whether families live in a collectivist or an individualistic culture, their conflicts are similar. Parents want their child to have a partner from a good background, a secure family and with the same cultural and religious upbringing. The children find it more important that their partner is attractive, smells nice and has a sense of humour.

Source of conflict

Viewed from a distance, parents and children have the same interests – ensuring that ‘their genes’ continue. However, when examined more closely these interests are not the same after all, explains PhD candidate Dubbs. ‘Children usually attach less importance to the reliability of the partner as a parent. In an emergency, is the reasoning, they can always return to their own parental nest with their offspring and bring them up there. That is not in the parents’ interests – they can now spend less of their scarce time and money on other children and grandchildren. What is ideal for the child is thus not automatically ideal for the parents.’

Dangers for girls

The research also reveals that parents keep a sharper eye on their daughters than on their sons, and that girls have more conflicts with their parents than boys. Dubbs: ‘If a girl becomes pregnant, then she knows for sure that she will have to invest a lot of time and energy in bringing up her child. The investment for boys is significantly smaller – sometimes just a tiny bit of time and a bit of sperm. If the partner turns out not to be what the boy expected, it’s relatively easy for him just to walk away. The dangers for girls are thus significantly larger – and parents are aware of that too.’

Curriculum Vitae

Shelli Dubbs (Orlando, USA, 1982) studied biology, psychology and anthropology at Arizona State University. Her PhD research was funded by the KNAW and conducted at the department of Evolutionary Psychology of the University of Groningen. She is now a postdoc researcher at the University of Queensland, Australia. Dubbs’s supervisor was Prof. A.P. Buunk. Her thesis is entitled ‘Parent-offspring conflict over mate choice.’

Note for the press

Please contact Prof. Abraham Buunk

Last modified:13 March 2020 01.55 a.m.
View this page in: Nederlands

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