Is social status important in a relationship?

The fallacy of love

The choice of a partner is only supposedly a highly private decision, in which affection and chance play the most important roles. Thomas Klein from the Institute for Sociology demystifies the choice of partner. He describes the decision for a life partner as a complex web of different factors, which is crucially governed by the arithmetic of the marriage market.

The choice of the (spouse) partner is not just a matter of private life - it is also the subject of sociological research. The choice of partner has far-reaching social consequences when viewed in relation to social status, religion, nationality and other characteristics. Unequal social origins and / or unequal social status of the partners, for example, can lead to social advancement and relegation processes that are in no way inferior to professional advancement and relegation. One can also recognize the isolation of social classes from a dominance of partner choice of the same status. Mixed confessional marriages are a not insignificant motor of secularization. And the marriage relationships between Germans and foreigners (living here) are an important aspect of the (family) integration of foreigners into the Federal Republic. The list of social consequences of highly private partner choice decisions could be continued indefinitely. In general, it can be said that the reproduction of social structures depends on the strategies of partner choice - a purely random choice of partner would sooner or later cause many well-known social structures to disappear, class differences and class-specific educational styles would be leveled out, the continued existence of denominations and religions would be in Asked a question and much more.

The sociology of partner choice deals with the social consequences that result from the sum of individual partner choice decisions, the marriage or partner choice patterns. She also has a number of explanations of partner choice behavior ready, which not only focus on personality traits, but primarily values, norms and socialization as well as individual motives that control the choice of partner. Individual motives include, for example, social security or an attractive partner.

Sociological explanations of partner choice are also concerned with the opportunities to even get to know a partner with certain characteristics. These opportunities arise on the one hand from the integration into social action contexts (work, leisure time, etc.) and on the other hand from the overall social distribution of certain characteristics of the choice of partner. The gender-specific education distribution combined with the lower level of education of women in the older generations, for example, has made a significant contribution to the traditional educational gap between spouses. In relation to other characteristics, in social action contexts, supposedly highly private decisions are simply governed by the arithmetic of the marriage market.

How different factors interact becomes clear when choosing a binational partner. The illustration on page 29 uses the example of Spanish guest workers to show how the proportion of Spaniards living here who marry a German has developed. The curve of the Spaniards begins in the 1960s with an initially high proportion of those marrying into the German population. The curves then descend and finally show a moderate rise again.

The initially high proportion of people marrying into the German population at the beginning of the wave of immigration can be explained by the initially still small size of the foreign population group. A small foreign population group - which is possibly spread over the entire Federal Republic - is associated with a very inefficient internal marriage market. Against this background, the possibilities of finding a partner of the same nationality are severely limited. However, as immigration increases, the options become more numerous. This explains the falling marriage rate. The resurgence, however, is related to increasing assimilation.

In the initial phase of immigration, marriage market mechanisms and later cultural rapprochement and integration are decisive for the frequency of binational partner selection. This U-shaped course, also known from classic immigration countries, is typical for all so-called guest worker groups in the Federal Republic. The familial integration of the groups concerned is always in the field of tension between assimilation and endogamous marriage opportunities (the choice of partner within one's own group is called endogamous.).

Various factors interact in an even more diverse way when it comes to the question of how the educational expansion has affected the choice of educational partner. With regard to individual motives, the educational partner choice can also be interpreted as a status-based partner choice: the higher the educational level, the higher the social status. The educational expansion has, however, led to a considerable devaluation of educational certificates on the labor market. Education has thus lost its importance for social status. Against this background, it can be concluded that education has also become less important for status-related partner choice and that educational homogamy - the choice of partner with equal education - has tended to decrease rather than increase. However, the opportunity structures must also be taken into account.

From the point of view of the social action contexts in which you get to know a partner, the educational institutions are a not unimportant marriage market. Up to 22 percent of couples get to know each other in the country at school or during vocational training. The respective educational institution marriage markets are of course pre-structured in an extremely homogeneous manner in terms of education. Staying longer in school and vocational training extends the opportunity to get to know an equally educated partner. It has not yet been clarified whether overall the devaluation of educational qualifications weighs more heavily or the extended opportunities.

Finally, under the aspect of opportunities, it must also be taken into account that the expansion of education has changed the distribution of education among men and women - both in society as a whole and in the various social contexts and contexts of human activity: the proportion of the population with higher educational qualifications has increased, the distribution of education between men and women has largely converged in the younger cohorts. Surprisingly, this has the effect that the chances of choosing a partner with a homogamous education have decreased (sic!)

To understand this, the table on page 28 shows an example calculation. For the sake of simplicity, the table assumes only two levels of education, namely with and without a high school diploma. On top of that, it is based on fictitious, but realistic figures, the offsetting of which is easy to understand. In the upper part of the table it is assumed that the high school graduation rate for men was 20 percent and that for women 10 percent. In order to explain the effect of this educational distribution on educational homogamy, it is assumed that no preferences, individual motives, norms or other rules of partner choice are effective. In this case of a purely random choice of partner, the educational homogamy only depends on the educational distribution of men and women - the two marginal distributions in the table. In the absence of social rules, each partner configuration results from the product of the marginal distributions under the regime of chance: The proportion of partnerships in which both partners have a high school diploma is, for example (0.10 x 0.20 =) 2% (compare the table on Page 28, upper part). The proportion in which both do not have a high school diploma is accordingly (0.90 x 0.80 =) 72%, and the homogamy rate in the relevant society is (0.02 + 0.72 =) 74%.

At the same time, this is also the average chance of an educationally homogamous partner choice for the individual: For example, men with a high school diploma have a chance of (0.02 / 0.20 =) ten percent of finding a woman with a high school diploma, and there is a chance for men without a high school diploma the homogeneous partner choice at least (0.72 / 0.80 =) 90 percent (the influence of the group size is noticeable here). However, men with a high school diploma only make up 20 percent of the male population, and men without a high school diploma make up 80 percent. According to the rules of averaging, the average chance of a homogeneous choice of partner is calculated for the individual of (0.10 x 0.20 + 0.90 x 0.80 =) 74 percent. Of course, the calculation for women looks the same.

If one now assumes that the educational distribution of women has adjusted to that of men (table on page 28, middle section), surprisingly this does not lead to an increase, but to a reduction in the homogamy rate or the chances of homogeneous partner choice to only 68 Percent. Only for men with a high school diploma have the chances of choosing a homogeneous partner increased. If one takes into account that ultimately both genders have benefited from the expansion in education, the homogamy rate is even lower (compare the table on page 28, lower part).

The marginal distribution effects described - which are of course not only effective in the choice of education-related partner and not only influence society as a whole, but also in narrowly defined contexts of action - are not necessarily easy to grasp intuitively. In some cases, they are even counter-intuitive, and research into individual mechanisms of partner choice is not possible without taking appropriate account of social distribution parameters. A complex set of statistical instruments is often necessary for this.

In addition, when choosing a partner, the marginal distributions of the marriage market (or the partner market) work closely together with individual preferences. The marginal distributions create scarcity and competition for the most attractive partner, that is, the partner who best suits preferences. Homogamy arises as the result of competition in the marriage market, when each person (reciprocally) refuses to partner with others who are (in whatever respect) less attractive. As a consequence, people who are equally attractive have the greatest chance of a partnership - provided that the marginal distributions are balanced. In the case of a gender-specific marginal distribution (e.g. different educational distribution), it becomes clear that the decisive factor is not the balance of absolute attractiveness, but rather that of relative attractiveness on the marriage market. So the relatively most attractive man finds the relatively most attractive woman, the second most attractive the second most attractive, and so on, even if the partner's attractiveness differs significantly in each case. With different marginal distributions, the market mechanism does not contribute to homogamy but to heterogamy.

The importance of social distribution parameters when choosing a partner becomes even more apparent when one takes into account that on the real marriage market not only are the quantities of the same partner characteristics often unbalanced, but even the total number of men and women is unbalanced. Such imbalances in the marital market have a variety of causes: the current surplus of men in the younger and middle age groups, for example, is also due to the surplus of sons compared to daughters (around 106 boys for every 100 girls), and the fact that men are older on average are as her partner. In phases of a sustained decline in the birth rate, this means that the correspondingly younger women cohorts are fewer. In specific social environments or specific life situations, marriage markets may be particularly unbalanced.

An important characteristic of the life situation in this respect is simply age. The higher the age of the partner choice, the greater the probability of a heterogamous partner choice - even though the age is also interpreted as the time of the partner search and the "fit" should accordingly be greater. This contradiction cannot be explained without the marriage market. Four mechanisms play a role here: With increasing age, an increasing number of potential partners in the same age range are already married or bound in a stable partnership. This makes the partner market smaller and more inefficient. The mostly homogamously sought partner is increasingly either already "taken" or has become so rare that it is difficult to get to know him over geographical distances and other obstacles. The downsizing of the partner market is also associated with a "deterioration" (in the eyes of those involved!) - after all, it is not only those with a low tendency to remain in the market, but especially those who no one wanted (anymore). With regard to homogamy preferences, this development is likely to result in an increasing willingness to compromise.

The shrinking of the partner market is also associated with an exacerbation of numerical imbalances. This is easy to understand with an example based on real figures: In 1995, at the age of 20, 435,600 men and 413,500 women were unmarried in the Federal Republic of Germany. This doesn't sound very dramatic at first. But if after a few years each 400,000 married, the disparity on the partner market has worsened drastically from 35,600 men to only 13,500 women. In the competition for the most attractive partner, the remaining women can choose a man with "better" qualities than they offer themselves. The remaining men, on the other hand, are forced to compromise. A heterogamous choice of partner is thus also favored.

The mentioned mechanisms of numerical imbalances in the creation of increasingly heterogamous partnerships in the course of life are drastically reinforced when one realizes that these imbalances are often even more pronounced among potential partners with the same characteristics. It is precisely these structural imbalances in the partner market that worsen in the course of life to such an extent that a homogamous choice of partner may no longer be possible.

The neglect of the marginal distributions of the partner market occasionally leads to blatant misinterpretations of empirical findings. An interesting finding is, for example, that women choose increasingly younger partners as they marry. This has little to do with increasing emancipation or the like. Namely: for men it also applies that the older the man, the younger the partner. The simple reason lies in the opportunities in the partner market: the older the man or woman is, the more potential partners of the same or older age are already taken and the more the opportunity structure shifts in favor of a younger partner.

The age gap between partners, which is constant on average, is often misinterpreted in a similar manner. This is just under three years. Despite various social upheavals, this average has barely changed over the decades. Disregarding the marriage market, this constancy is often prematurely misinterpreted as an expression of the "de facto status" of women or as a sign of the persistence of traditional role orientations. These interpretation patterns overlook the fact that the average age gap leads to a marriage market imbalance, which at the same time explains the age gap: The existing gap means that the proportion of women who are still single is lower than that of men who are still single at any age. There is therefore a different age structure of "selectable" men and women on the marriage market. To the extent that this age structure of the marriage market again contributes to corresponding age differences, the age gap is constantly passed on from generation to generation.