Family and Marriage

Cyprus Table of Contents

The structure of the family was affected by the postwar changes. The family was traditionally the most important institution in Cypriot society. Especially in village life, people thought of themselves primarily as members of families, and rarely, according to sociologist Peter Loizos, spoke of "themselves as individuals in the existential sense." Others have noted that Greek Cypriots traditionally identified themselves first as members of families, then according to their places of origin, and lastly as citizens of a nation.

The typical traditional Greek Cypriot households consisted of a father, a mother, and their unmarried children. At marriage, the parents gave their children a portion of land, if available, along with money and household items. Traditionally, the bridegroom provided the house and the bride's family the furniture and linens. This was the dowry, the allocation of an equal portion of the parents' property to the children, male or female, at the time of marriage, rather than after the death of the parents. Until the 1950s, this transfer of property at marriage was agreed to orally by the parties involved; more recently the so-called dowry contract has been introduced. A formal agreement specifying the amount of property to be given to the couple, the dowry contract is signed by all parties and enforced by religious authorities. At the engagement, for example, a priest will ask if such a contract has been considered.

After World War II, it became the bride's obligation to provide the house. Ownership of a house, given the scarcity of land (especially after the invasion of 1974) and the considerable expense of building, became a great advantage for a single woman seeking to marry. For this reason, a great part of the wages of a working woman went to the construction of a house, for a "good marriage" was as important at the beginning of the 1990s as it was in the past.

Traditionally all marriages were arranged, generally through the mediation of a matchmaker. The latter, although unrelated to either family, knew them well enough to be confident that their children were well suited. Opportunities for the young themselves to meet were rare and restricted: at church, in the presence of their parents, and at the village fountain and during the "Sunday afternoon walks," where girls and boys strolled separately. Couples were matched with a few qualities in mind, and in larger settlements were often relative strangers. Love was not seen as a good reason for marriage, for romantic love was not highly esteemed in traditional Cypriot society. Divorce and separation were virtually unknown, because through the system of marriage and dowry, kinship and economic ties were so rigidly defined that neither partner could opt out of a marriage without devastating social consequences.

Urbanization and modernization have altered Greek Cypriot attitudes toward marriage. The expansion of the school system has meant that boys and girls meet from an early age and are exposed to modern ideas about social and sexual relations. The great increase in the number of women in the work force also has liberated them from strict parental control.

Even at the beginning of the 1990s, however, economic considerations remained a decisive factor in matters of sexual morality and marriage settlements. In farming communities, for example, where daughters were financially dependent on parents, the latter could still regulate premarital behavior. Among the lower middle class of wage earners, where there was little property to divide among the children, parents still retained considerable authority over their daughters, for a "good name" was thought to increase the chances of a marriage bringing upward social mobility. Among affluent urban classes, where girls associated with boys of similar economic background, parents relaxed their vigilance considerably, and more typically modern Western attitudes toward sexual morality emerged.

In traditional Cypriot society, full manhood was attained through marriage and becoming the main support for a family. Similarly, it was only through marriage that a woman could realize what was seen as her main purpose in life, becoming a mother and homemaker. Remaining single reduced a woman to the marginal role of looking after aged parents and being on the periphery of her married siblings' lives.

The great importance of a separate "dwelling unit" for the nuclear family has always been recognized as a prerequisite for the couple's economic independence. Accordingly, the head of the family has been seen as morally justified in pursuing the interest of his dependents in all circumstances. This principle of symferon, that is, self-interest, overrides every other consideration. Acting in accordance with the principle of symferon, Greek Cypriot parents do all in their power to equip their children for the future. In present-day Cyprus, this involves providing the best possible education for sons, and securing a house as well as an acceptable education for daughters.

In traditional Cypriot villages, houses were built close to one another, encouraging the close contact and cooperation that were necessary for survival in a context of general poverty. The closely knit community of families provided a sense of belonging and security, but also greatly restricted individuals within accepted norms and boundaries in all aspects of life. Urbanization had a liberating effect. As people became wage earners, the selfsufficiency of the nuclear family grew at the expense of community interdependence.

Despite changes in its structure, however, the family remained strong in Greek Cypriot society. In the period 1985-89, the country's marriage rate was 9.5 per thousand, the highest in Europe. The period saw a rising trend in the marriage age for men and women, about one year older for both than in earlier years. In 1988 the mean age at marriage was 28.7 for grooms, and 25.2 for brides. Grooms and brides in rural areas still tended to marry younger than their urban counterparts. On the other hand, the divorce rate had almost doubled from 42 per thousand in 1980 to 68 per thousand in 1988. The number of extramarital births remained very low by European standards; in 1988 only seventy-two children were born out of wedlock, a mere 0.7 percent of the total number of births.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress