It seems as though we engage in a number of ‘trial marriages’ in our culture, a difference only in the semantics. Other differences are present though. In our culture our boyfriends are not arranged or expected to help the girlfriend’s family economically. It is not typical for our relationships to be so diverse in age as the ! Kung. Lastly, it is not expected in our culture to find a partner for life until much later. For the ! Kung, however, their cultural decisions for marriage make sense for how they live.
For them, life expectancy is not great and biologically speaking it is natural for a species to attempt to sustain their survival. So, it seems only natural to facilitate the process by arranging a suitable partner that can provide for the family, to their young children and hopefully become a mate for life. When marriage does occur for the ! Kung, it is a time for the female, even if excited by the matching, to maintain an attitude of reluctance, unwillingness or unhappiness. This attitude usually persists because the girl is uncomfortable with the man who is her husband and is expected to have sexual relations with him.
Sometimes the girl does not consent to sex for years and the marriage could dissolve before that happens. In some cases the girl will act out her dismay with such actions as running away but these actions are tolerated. Once a girl has her first menstrual period there is a great celebration and then after the second period and celebration she is expected to succumb to the sexual aspects of marriage. When a girl has her first child she will finally be considered an adult. In the traditional marriage in the US, it is most often a happy time for all involved.
In some ways marriage here is altogether different because both the man and the woman want marriage. Here men and women date freely without commitment until they are comfortable with one other person and become engaged. It is then that they decide that they want marriage and to have this person for the rest of their lives. Sexual activity most often occurs even before engagement and the first experiences usually occur in late adolescence, not with a marriage prospect. The act of ignoring the husband and running away is not really heard of here, again because it is a mutual agreement.
Lastly, laws in the US consider children adults when they reach the age of eighteen. Not to say that one cannot marry before that age, but we do not base adulthood on the sexual maturity of the person. Rarely would one marry before sexual maturity here. In comparison though, it is understandable to secure a mate before maturity due to the life expectancies of the ! Kung. It is also reasonable to base adulthood on sexual maturity and ability to bear children because biologically speaking there is now no difference between the older members and who was once considered the child.
After maturity and time, the relationship between a ! Kung woman and her husband begins to develop. It grows with the number of children they have and the relation becomes one of support and equity. Sometimes with a successful family the man decides that he would like to take on a second wife. Many first wives become very angry with this. The polygynous life can be very hard but it does offer benefits in the means of food, companionship and daily care of the household and children. Depending on the people involved this can be a very positive way of life or negative.
It is seen that the monogamous relationships are much more stable and account for 95% of the rest of the marriages in the ! Kung culture. In the US, polygyny is clearly looked down upon and is illegal in most areas. For us, marriage is most commonly known as a sacrament according to the vast majority of religions. It is something that is to be shared with only one person. Relations outside of the marriage are known as sins and legally as grounds for divorce. It is hard to compare the acceptance of multiple wives and the ‘acceptance’ of extramarital affairs of the !
Kung because it is just not accepted here. However, in some cases marriages do go on with either one or both partners engaging in extramarital activities. I feel, however that the view of this type of lifestyle is looked down upon. As we can see by the brief look into just a part of the ! Kung culture, we are more alike than different. Many customs are in place for very good reasons, such as survival. For us, it is most likely that we have adapted their culture to form our own ideas that work best for us as a population.