Are married couples related

Relatives marriages : Be on the safe side with Vetter or Base

It would be the sudden end of love if you found out that you are closely related to your beloved partner. Like in Max Frisch's "Homo faber", for example. It is a taboo, it “doesn't work”, it is dangerous, the children could be born sick. We grow up in this country with this thought pattern. But there are many countries and cultures in which it is the other way round: a related partner is considered the best choice there, an unrelated candidate is considered to be more uncertain.

When the state cannot be relied on

The discussion about the extent to which there are marriages between closely related people in Berlin and whether this leads to more sick or mentally under-developed offspring has kept the city quite busy this year. Thinking outside the box hardly played a role. It is estimated that one billion marriages exist between relatives worldwide. The most common, but by no means the only form, is cousin-cousin marriage. It is often associated with the Near and Middle East. But it is also common in southern Africa and Asia, be it Indonesia or Bangladesh. In rural areas in particular, there are frequent partnerships between relatives.

There is no one answer to why that is so. According to sociologists, the causal factors can certainly be reduced to a common denominator: a completely different life - social, economic, cultural.

Relatives' marriages are particularly common in countries in which there are few welfare state institutions and there are hardly any reliable social structures. "The extended family is then the only material and health protection for the individual," says the anthropologist Edien Bartels from the Free University of Amsterdam. Bartels researches the marriage of relatives in Morocco and among Moroccan migrants in the Netherlands.

It stays in the family

According to her, the family clan takes on vital functions in Morocco, which are carried out by the health system and the welfare state in this country. "If you break a leg, you would be threatened with death and hunger without the help of the family in Morocco," says Bartels. For purely logistical reasons, you can then be dependent on the large family. You can only get to the nearest hospital reasonably safely and promptly if someone in your family has a motorcycle or a car. “It's the same with childbirth,” Bartels gives another example. “You can't count on a taxi being available, that it will come at all, and certainly not that a woman will take it with you when pregnant.” An estimated 30 percent of marriages in Morocco are relative arrangements.

There is no functioning rescue service in many countries with significant proportions of relatives marriages such as Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan or Nigeria. Those who do not have a job or are old and sick live - of course - from their family. The extended family usually shares money, bread and property with each other. Seen in this way, a liaison within the family group strengthens existential ties and solidarity. She also holds the property within the clan. Even dowry and bridal money do not leave the family.

Historically, the marriage of relatives originated in agricultural cultures. So in pre-industrial times it was probably more the rule than the exception in many places. It was also common in Europe. Families simply lived in the same village for generations. The “supply” of potential marriage partners of the right age was usually limited. And a loss of the field, the most valuable possession of a farmer, should be avoided if possible in the event of inheritance. Marriage within the family clan was one way of ensuring this.

If you do fall in love, then with your cousin

The motive of securing land has lost in importance. Because even in societies that have been reasonably well researched with regard to marriages of relatives, such as those in Morocco, India or Pakistan, urbanization has increased rapidly. The anthropologist Mary Shenk from the University of Missouri actually expected a decline in the marriage of relatives in Bangladesh due to this economic change. However, the figures she and her colleagues collected speak a different language. They seem to stay constant. Every sixth wedding there is an arrangement among relatives. According to Shenk, the ideal of romantic love is booming there, but seems to be entering into a marriage with the earlier ideal, in the sense of: falling in love with your cousin, if possible.

In any case, marriage with a stranger is still considered an unpredictable factor where relatives marriages are still common - not only economically, but also on a very personal level: with the marriage, the wife moves to the husband's house. She now mostly lives in a confined space with her mother-in-law and the husband's extended family. If there are conflicts, it can turn out to be fatal and even result in prison: the woman who has moved in is surrounded by the man's family, which will tend to stick to him rather than her. If, on the other hand, the spouses have known each other for a long time because they belong to the same clan, moving to the husband's house is at least less risky. "The members of the family can also mediate a quarrel much more easily because their and his parents know each other, because they belong to the same clan and have to get along for financial and material reasons," says Bartels.

How significant such influences are is shown by individual sociological studies, according to which, for example, Indian women in blood-related partnerships were less exposed to domestic violence. "Marriage of relatives can have advantages for the health and autonomy of women," says the internationally renowned marriage researcher Alan Bittles. However, the results of the studies differ on this point. Many of the more recent surveys cannot confirm the finding that domestic violence is less common in relatives' marriages. The belief that the woman is better protected in this way seems to be one of the motivations for relatives marriages in the respective cultures.

Social norms ... others

Bartels mentions another reason for marriage within the family: in Morocco, as in other Arab countries, the children are often given to the man in the event of a divorce and henceforth live with him. The divorce rate in Morocco is 50 percent. "If the woman belongs to the same clan, she can still see her children grow up and look after them," says Bartels. For this reason, too, some favored marrying a relative.

In some cultures - for example in Pakistan with a relative marriages share of over 50 percent - a partner from one's own clan is even a social norm. Because it is the dominant model to a large extent. For young people there is even a certain social pressure to be in a relationship with a relative.

Health scientist Neill Small from Bradford University learned how far-reaching such values ​​are when he interviewed newlywed Pakistani couples who live in Bradford. About half were related and the other half were not. Those who belonged together to an extended family reported more support from the family clan and more benevolence. They said they were happy more often. "This indicates a health benefit for related couples based on social norms," ​​says Small. The culturally conditioned microcosm of values ​​apparently also persists in the diaspora. "We are currently investigating whether related and unrelated couples in Bradford differ in their mental health after eight years of marriage."

Darwin's worries

The marriage of relatives also comes from a time when romantic love hardly played a role in the worlds of people, regardless of whether they were rich or poor, even in Europe. 150 years ago, marriages were mostly communities of convenience. Among the aristocrats, they came about for reasons of class and property. Among ordinary people it was simply true: the man feeds, the woman feeds the children. In countries where living conditions are currently so precarious that material and health care is constantly threatened, romantic love still plays a subordinate role in the initiation of marriages. Nevertheless, these relationships are not necessarily loveless. In Morocco, Bartels was always amazed at a sentence from the mouths of men and women: "With us, love comes after marriage," they said. And Small reports about his Pakistani test subjects that they often complained that, as a Western researcher, he simply did not understand their motives: "They say we only talk about the risks, they feel stigmatized - and that's true too."

The risks are real, however. Immigrants who marry a relative are mainly advised in Europe of a three to six percent higher risk of recessively inherited malformations and diseases in the offspring - and also of the fact that an infant will die. Even Charles Darwin knew this. He was worried, he married after a romantic childhood love had broken, but still married his cousin Emma, ​​with whom he had ten children.

The health consequences for children are also an issue in countries like Turkey and Morocco. As education, especially among women, increases, as urbanization and mobility increase, the proportion of relatives marriages decreases. Families in countries like Morocco and Egypt are also getting smaller because contraceptives are more widely available. As a result, marriage within the clan becomes less important - also because cousins ​​of the right age are found less often.

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