Meet the Parents – but beware if they are Asian?

New research shows that parents inevitably get into conflict with their children over who they should marry - its in the genes - by Consultant Psychiatrist Raj Persaud





Although Asians in the UK, particularly younger generations, increasingly resemble the host nation in many aspects of culture and attitude, one particular area remains fairly stubbornly different.

This is the role of your parents in your choice of romantic or marital partner. Even so-called ‘modern’ young Asians today, who feel entitled to make the choice of spouse completely without reference to their parents, quiver, much more than their British counterparts, if they find themselves courting parental disapproval of their choice.

Historically Asian parents played a pivotal role in the marriage of their children, indeed, the younger generation often had no say at all. In a culture where ‘dating’ was alien this made some practical sense. Plus if you believed that strong emotions (such as ‘falling in love’) was an unreliable guide to life-long compatibility, it made some sense for your parents, who are supposed to know you well and have your interests at heart, to choose your spouse.

In a small village, historically where Asian culture evolved to cope with rural life, it was vital to avoid conflict between neighbours, so that marriage was more between two families, than two individuals. This also meant that whether the heads of household got on, became a key factor.

Now new scientific research from some US Psychologists has for the first time examined in depth how parents tend to differ from younger generations in their mate preferences for their children. This allows Asians in the UK to understand from a scientific standpoint, where conflict is most likely to develop when it comes to partner choice.

In a study entitled ‘Meet the parents: Parent-offspring convergence and divergence in mate preferences’, conducted by psychologists Carin Perilloux, Diana Fleischman and David Buss, 300 university students’ ratings of 13 traits for desirability in an ideal mate were compared with their parents’ ratings of the same traits for their offspring’s ideal mate.

Although these were not Asian parents, it may come as some comfort and interest for younger and older Asians in the UK to see how like Asians the US sample behaved. Parents in the study ranked religion higher than offspring, whereas offspring ranked physical attractiveness higher than parents. Parents preferred earning capacity and college graduation more in daughters’ mates than sons’ mates.

David Buss and his colleagues, based at the Department of Psychology, University of Texas at Austin, argue that for strong evolutionary reasons parents are likely to take a strong interest in who their children marry and reproduce with. Evolutionary theory argues that we are driven to pass on our genes to future generations, so we have a vested interest in the success of our progeny. The more successful our children become when it comes to passing on their genes, since they have so many of their parent’s genes, the more successful the parent’s genes are also being. Success in evolutionary terms means reproductive success ie having lots of children or rearing them effectively.

According to this evolutionary imperative, which is possibly operating below conscious awareness, it’s biologically and genetically wired into parents’ brains to take an interest in who their children are procreating with. They are doing what the ‘selfish gene’ within us all demands of us – work for the success of our genes – generations into the future.

Buss and colleagues in their paper, published in the prestigious academic journal ‘Personality and Individual Differences’, also concede that conflict between parents and their children is inevitable over mate choice, as their interests don’t coincide in some key areas. For example, their children will obtain different benefits from a mate than their parents can obtain from a son-in-law or daughter-in-law. It’s the younger generation who will sleep with their mate choice, not the parents, for example. So possibly parents will not take into account adequately some of the features which may play a dominant role in those considerations.

Buss and colleagues argue that because it makes genetic sense from a parental standpoint, throughout our evolutionary history, parents played a large role in their offspring’s mate choice and modern western culture’s emphasis on ‘love matching’ is something of an historical anomaly. However, even today in the West, these psychologists feel they can observe similar patterns of parental involvement in the mating lives of offspring.

American parents attempt to influence their offspring’s mate choice, subtly or not so subtly, by providing opportunities for their offspring to meet the type of mate preferred by the parents. This might be via choice of profession or university or the social class via choice of school. Persuading or punishing also occurs, Buss and colleagues argue, if the offspring chooses a mate deemed undesirable by the parents.

In this study of North Americans, offspring preferred physically attractive mates and exciting personalities much more than their parents. Parents placed good earning capacity nearly three ranks higher for sons-in-law and physically attractive nearly two ranks higher for daughters-in-law compared to their off-spring.

Sons and daughters ranked intelligent and exciting personality high, wants children and good heredity moderately low, and religious very low, particularly in comparison with their parents. Young men desired physical attractiveness in a mate more than young women, with women desiring a mate with good earning capacity and a college degree more than men. Daughters preferred a mate who was more kind and understanding than sons: daughters ranked it at the top of their list while sons ranked it third. Sons, on the other hand, ranked creative and artistic, easygoing, healthy, and good housekeeper significantly higher than daughters.

It’s vital you pinch yourself and remind yourself these are not Asians but North Americans completing the survey. Ethnically, 59% of the participants were Caucasian, 17% were Hispanic, 11% East Asian, 5% South Asian, 4% African-American, 2% Middle Eastern, and 2% chose ‘‘other ethnicity.” Their mean family income was ‘‘Middle class”.

Perhaps the key difference between ethnic groupings then when it comes to parent-child conflict over proposed romantic or marriage partners is the way the conflict is handled. It might be that Asians, supposedly from closer families or where parents are meant to have more impact on decisions, find themselves more enmeshed in ’emotional blackmail’. It might be that the kind of falling out over spousal choice leads to more devastating consequences in terms of families splitting apart. Asian parents may expect more obedience from their children in all domains, including mate choice, while the children may be more troubled about going against their parents.

As times change culture has to adapt. Perhaps North Americans have had longer to adjust to changes brought about by modernity, and increased mobility means that more than ever before in history, as we enter young adulthood, we are unlikely to live close to or even with our parents. Parental influence was inevitably going to decline as a result. It could be that Asians are having to make this adjustment in a generation or two which took the host nation several more generations to adapt to.

Either way, in my clinical practice, conflict over mate choice is a substantial cause of psychological distress in all generations in the Asians I see, much more so that in the indigenous British. This suggests that Asians in the UK urgently need to get to a better place in resolving this issue. Otherwise the consequence is a higher rate in broken marriages and broken families.

This is kind of ironic given marriage and family were historically meant to be a cultural strength of Asians.


Meet the parents: Parent-offspring convergence and divergence in mate preferences. Carin Perilloux, Diana S. Fleischman, David M. Buss. Personality and Individual Differences, 50, 253–258

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