Do we really have full autonomy in choosing our marriage partners?

In the Dobe Ju/’Hoansi, we see the complexity of their kinship structure and this has caused quite a headache (maybe only to us, strangers) for choosing eligible marriage partners. Name relationships and kinship ties have created strict rules as to which men are suitable for the woman and vice versa. Following their strict rules, about 75% of all potential spouses are eliminated. Hence, it is extremely difficult to find the appropriate spouse within the Ju/’Hoansi community, given its relatively small population.

As compared to them, we as Singaporeans are relatively more fortunate in a sense that we have a wider ocean to fish in, where we definitely have larger population and less complicated restrictions. However, upon further questioning and reflection, we see that our choices are actually restrained by our own cultural rules of which most are implicitly imposed upon. One reason why we think that we have full autonomy could be due to the influence of modern ideology and capitalism which induces and promotes individualism. And it is this individualism from which we perceive that we have a freedom in choice in whoever we wish to marry.

Some of the cultural rules that I am personally expected to follow include:
1) Choosing someone of the opposite sex
2) Practice monogamy
3) Preferably is not divorced and has children
4) Same or higher socio-economic background
5) Same religion
6) Same or higher education levels and hence earning capabilities etc.

Of course, such rules differ within individuals; some even have more cultural rules restricting their choices. The point here is that though we may seem to be better off than the Dobe Ju/’Hoansi in terms of choice and not have an arranged marriage like the Ju/’Hoan do, but are we really better off? Do we really have full autonomy in choosing our marriage partners? Although it is true that our choices have definitely increased due to geographical mobility and even social mobility between classes, we do not have as much autonomy as we assume we do. Cultural rules and social expectations have implicitly shaped our minds and behaviours such that we are expected to marry a person that society deems fit for us and hence, tend to choose a person that fits this certain criteria. Hence we are indirectly influenced by society and the people around us to choose certain types of people, as such this suggests that we do not have as much autonomy as what individualism implies.

So, the next time when we look for potential spouses, think about why you chose this person, is it truly because it is your own personal choice or are there social factors influencing your choice.