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Women and men show more similarities when choosing a foreign partner

A black and a beige hand holding one another.

Increasing globalisation and international mobility have changed couple formations around the world. More people have a partner from abroad and, although it is often a migrant from a neighbouring country, cohabitation and marriage with migrants from distant countries have become more common. This has highlighted similarities and differences in the marriage patterns of men and women.

Until the turn of the millennium, Swedish men who married across national borders usually chose women from Norway and Finland. In the early 2000s, a change in men's marriage patterns crystallised. Partly because of increased international travel, Thai women became the most common group of foreign women to marry Swedish men. However, Swedish women are rarely in relationships with Thai men.

Sociologist Annika Elwert has previously studied marriage patterns in Sweden and, in a recent article, examined statistical databases of Spanish and American men and women who have a foreign partner. Their marriage patterns are similar to those of Swedes.

In the US, it is common to have a partner from neighbouring countries or Europe, but many American men also have a partner or wife from the Philippines. However, American women rarely marry Filipino men, preferring Germans and Mexicans. Among Spaniards, marriages with people from France, Germany and Argentina are common. Spanish women also choose partners from Senegal and Morocco, which is rare among Spanish men. Statistically, they prefer women from Romania and Colombia.

Although there are many commonalities in the marriage patterns of men and women, differences remain. Men more often marry much younger women from countries with lower education and living standards. The general trend is that the greater the difference in development between countries, the greater the age difference between the native man and the foreign woman. If the women come from countries with a similar level of development, the age difference is comparatively small.

"It is difficult to say why this is the case. One possible explanation is that when men have a preference for much younger women, it can be challenging to realise this preference in the domestic marriage market. It may be easier if she comes from a less developed country, where, for example, the marital age gap is usually larger," says Annika Elwert.

The same phenomenon is visible when considering countries' gender equality. Men from Spain or the US are more likely to marry partners from countries with low gender equality. In contrast, Spanish and American women rarely marry men from countries with low gender equality. An exception is American women. They are often in relationships with Mexican men.

Another part of the explanation could be physical preferences within different groups. Research on online dating from the US shows that when white Americans date people of other ethnicities, men prefer Asian women, and women prefer black men.

"Marriage is also a way for migrants to enter highly developed countries that otherwise have restrictive migration policies. Marriage between different nationalities can be an opportunity for the man to realise preferences for a young woman and for the woman to realise her migration preferences," says Annika Elwert.

When women from the US or Spain marry foreign men, the age difference is generally small. However, Annika Elwert's research shows that it has become more common for Swedish and Spanish women to have younger partners from less developed countries. This is not the case among American women.

What is considered attractive in the marriage market has become more similar for men and women in Sweden and to some extent in Spain. We don't see that in the US," says Annika Elwert.

Portrait Annika Elwert. Photo: Emma Lord.
Annika Elwert

About the study

In the scientific article "Gender Asymmetries in Cross-National Couples", Annika Elwert and researchers in Spain examined census statistics from Spain and the United States to study marriages between natives and immigrants. The question was whether Spanish and American men and women who married foreigners have similar marriage patterns in terms of their partners' country of birth, age and level of education. Countries were categorised according to the Human Development Index (HDI).

Read the article published in Population and Development Review.

Read more about Annika Elwert's research.