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Why parents don't think your spouse is good enough

Teresa Tanoos's picture
New research uncovers explanation for parents who dislike children's mates

Parents typically exert some influence on our choice of a mate, although the degree to which we consider their opinion depends on numerous factors, including the culture we were raised in. In an arranged marriage, for example, parents actually choose the mate their children will marry. But in America, most of us choose own mates.

Regardless of how much influence parents have in determining who their child marries, they often disagree with their children over what makes a suitable mate.

According to a new study, published in the journal Evolution & Human Behavior, a University of Bristol researcher has found that this conflict over mate choice may be rooted in an evolutionary conflict over resources, which would explain why some parents try to control their children’s choice of a mate.

Bristol research fellow Dr. Tim Fawcett teamed up with researchers from the University of Groningen in an effort to find out how the mate preferences of parents and their children evolved over time.

They discovered that parents generally give more resources to children whose partners provide less support – and this, in turn, leads to a conflict over mate choice.

To simulate the evolution of parental behavior in this regard, the research team built a computer model to demonstrate how parents looking for a future husband for their daughter typically preferred a son-in-law who was more caring and supportive than their daughter would otherwise choose.

"The conflict over parental resources is central to understanding why parents and children disagree in mate choice," said Dr. Fawcett.

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When parents distributed resources equally among their children, the computer model predicted that their mate preferences would coincide exactly. However, when parents contributed more to children whose partners invested less, a conflict would arise.

"Parents are equally related to all of their children, whereas children value themselves more than their siblings, so each child wants to get more than their fair share of parental resources," explained Dr. Fawcett.

In other words, the children would settle for a mate who is less caring than their parents preferred in the ideal world.

If Dr. Fawcett’s theory is correct, it reveals an interesting characteristic of human behavior that could help explain differences in the amount of control parents have over their children’s mate choices across cultures.

"Our model predicts that the conflict will be stronger when fathers rather than mothers control resources, but this remains to be tested," said Piet van den Berg, lead author of the study, who also said that the research team has future plans to investigate preferences for different aspects of quality.

"Surveys show that children tend to place more importance on physical attractiveness, smell and sense of humor, whereas parents care more about social class and family background," he added.

"We don't yet understand the reason for this difference, but it probably has something to do with our evolutionary history."

SOURCE: The evolution of parent–offspring conflict over mate choice, 23 September 2013, by Pieter van den Berg, Tim W. Fawcett, Abraham P. Buunk, Franz J. Weissing (10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2013.07.004).