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What’s love got to do with it?

Anthropology associate professor Jeff Winking conducts research on marriage among indigenous people in Nicaragua.

By Alix Poth ’18

When it comes to marriage, anthropology associate professor Jeff Winking is asking the age-old question: What’s love got to do with it?

Along with his team, Winking is studying the predictors of marital success among an indigenous group in Nicaragua — notable because most psychological studies on relationships stick to larger Western populations, thereby omitting an extensive part of the global population. His results, based on two trips to Nicaragua where he surveyed 124 individuals, are telling.

A village next to a river in Nicaragua

Village in Nicaragua

“Our current version [of marriage], in which the primary criterion for success is a deep romantic attachment, is actually a cross-cultural and historical outlier,” Winking commented. “The patterns and challenges we’re facing are not as predictable as they have been in the past. It’s important to understand how humans operate and the tools available to explore those things.”

Interestingly, the values of marriage in small-scale populations like the one included in the study are affected by the societal expectations of early marriage, their subsistence-level farming economies, and their division of labor that requires a partner to be successful. In other words, for many non-Western populations, romantic love isn’t as much of a factor.

Winking’s research is giving us a better view on relationships around the world instead of reinforcing American ideals. And because research has shown that a good marriage is imperative to longtime health and happiness, we should understand what “good” means for all cultures.

“We should be careful in assuming that our ways of doing things are normal or natural,” Winking said. “The things we get hung up on as Americans [such as romantic love] are often culturally arbitrary.”

Because modern Western ideals are so recently developed, Winking is making a push for people to expand their definition of cross-cultural. Much is to be gained from including smaller populations that often reflect socioeconomic conditions that defined humanity for most of its existence.

The question remains the same: What’s love got to do with it? Thanks to Jeff Winking’s research, we see that the answers across cultures are substantially different.

You can read more of Jeff Winking’s research here.