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Marriage is a relationship that plays a key role in the definition of many families. Precise definitions vary historically and between and within cultures, but it has been an important concept as a socially sanctioned bond between people who (usually) are not close blood relations. Globally, societies that sanction polygyny as a form of marriage are far more common than those that do not. However, monogamy is overwhelmingly most widely practiced, followed by polygyny, with other forms extremely rare. Since the latter decades of the 20th century alternative definitions have come to the fore and many of society's assumptions about the nature and purpose of marriage and family have been challenged.

Marriage has been described as a "socially sanctioned union", implying that any sort of selfless relationship can be called marriage if a given society approves of it. Some others regard this description as part of a campaign of redefining the very concept of marriage. Typically, these are advocates who maintain that marriage can and must be a relationship of one man and one woman. Other advocates maintain that the aspect of social sanction has always been the major determining factor, and that redefinition is accordingly perfectly legitimate (as well as long overdue).

Marriage of some kind is found in most societies, and typically married people form either a nuclear household, which is often subsequently extended biologically, through children, or part of an extended family network. Alternatively the parents may choose to be "childfree". Finally, they may be childless due to infertility, and possibly seek treatment or consider adoption.

There is wide variation in the precise form that marriage takes. Two of the most hotly-debate variants are discussed below: same-sex marriage and polygamy.


Types of marriage

The type and functions of marriage vary from culture to culture. In the United States, Europe, and China in the early 21st century, legally sanctioned marriages are monogamous (although some pockets of society still sanction polygamy socially, if not legally) and divorce is relatively simple and socially sanctioned. In the West, the prevailing view toward marriage today is that it is based on emotional attachment between the partners and entered into voluntarily.

In the Islamic world, marriage is sanctioned between a man and up to four women. In Imperial China, formal marriage was sanctioned only between a man and a woman, although a man could take several concubines and the children from the union were considered legitimate.

Most societies permit Polygyny, in which a man could have multiple wives; even in such societies however, most men have only one. In such societies, having multiple wives is generally considered a sign of wealth and power. The status of multiple wives has varied from one society to another. In Islamic societies, the different wives were considered equal while in Imperial China, one woman was considered the primary wife while the other women were considered concubines. Among the upper classes, the primary wife was an arranged marriage with an elaborate formal ceremony while the concubines were taken on later with minimal ceremony.

There are also many monogamous societies, where a marriage consists of only two people, a very few polyandrous, where a woman could have multiple husbands. Societies which permit group marriage are extremely rare, but have existed in utopian societies such as the Oneida Community.

However, in 21st century Western cultures, while bigamy and sexual relations outside marriage is generally socially or legally frowned-upon, divorce and remarriage has been relatively easy to undertake. This has lead to a practice which some have called serial monogamy. In particular, some have argued that the pattern of the rich divorcing their first wives and then taking on a trophy wife is similar to patterns of polygamy in other societies.

Legally sanctioned marriages are generally conducted between heterosexual couples, although there are countries that recognize same-sex marriage, including The Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, and the American state of Massachusetts. Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Germany, France, and the American state of Vermont allow couples to enter legal partnerships, but these partnerships are not considered marriages even if they bestow many of the same legal benefits upon the couple.


Married couples usually seek social sanction of their society, and most societies require official approval of a religious or civil body. Sociologists thus distinguish between a marriage ceremony conducted under the auspices of a religion and a state-sanctioned civil marriage.

In many jurisdictions the civil marriage ceremony may take place during the religious marriage ceremony, although they are two distinct entities. In most American states the marriage may be officiated by a minister, priest or religious authority, and in such a case the religious authority acts simultaneously as a religious authority and an agent of the state. In some countries such as France and Russia, it is necessary to be married by the state before having a religious ceremony. Some states allow civil marriages which are not allowed by many religions, such as same-sex marriages or civil unions, and marriage may also be created by the operation of the law alone as in common-law marriage, which is a judicial recognition that two people living as domestic partners are entitled to the effects of marriage. Conversely, there are examples of people who have a religious ceremony which is not recognized civilly. Examples include widows who stand to lose a pension if they remarry and so undergo a marriage in the eyes of God, homosexual couples, some breakaway sects of Mormonism which recognize polygamy, retired couples that would lose pension benefits if legally married, Islamic men who wish to engage in polygamy that is condoned in their particular sect of Islam and immigrants who do not wish to alert to the immigration authorities that they are married either to a spouse they are leaving behind or because of the complexity of immigration laws that may make it difficult for their spouse to visit them on a tourist visa.

In Europe it has tradionally been the churches' office to make marriages official by registering it. Hence, it was a significant step towards a clear separation of church and state and also an intended and effective weakening of the Christian churches' role in Germany, when Chancellor Otto von Bismarck introduced the Zivilehe (civil marriage) in the 1890s. This law made the declaration of the marriage before an official clerk of the civil administration (both spouses affirming their will to marry) the procedure to make a marriage legally valid and effective, and reduced the clerical marriage to a mere private ceremony.

Rights and obligations

Typically, it is the institution through which people join together their lives in emotional and economic ways through forming a household. It often confers rights and obligations with respect to raising children, holding property, sexual behaviour, kinship ties, tribal membership, relationship to society, inheritance, emotional intimacy, and love.

Marriage sometimes: establishes the legal father of a woman's child; establishes the legal mother of a man's child; gives the husband or his family control over the wife's sexual services, labor, and/or property; gives the wife or her family control over the husband's sexual services, labor, and/or property; establishes a joint fund of property for the benefit of children; establishes a relationship between the families of the husband and wife. No society does all of these; no one of these is universal (see Edmund Leach's article in "Marriage, Family, and Residence," edited by Paul Bohannan and John Middleton).

Marriage has traditionally been a prerequisite for starting a family, which usually serves as the building block of a community and society. Thus, marriage not only serves the interests of the two individuals, but also the interests of their children and the society of which they are a part.

In the Jewish, Muslim or Christian world, marriage is traditionally a prerequisite for sexual intercourse: unmarried people are not supposed to have sex, which is then called fornication and is socially discouraged or even criminalized. Sex with a person other than one's spouse, called adultery, is even less acceptable and has also often been criminalized, especially in the case of a woman. Finally, in many cultures, it is assumed that in agreeing to marry the wife permanently consents sexually so that there can exist no spousal rape.

Marriage restrictions

Societies have always placed restrictions on marriage to relatives, though the degree of prohibited relationship varies widely. In almost all societies marriage between brothers and sisters is forbidden, with Egyptian royalty being the rare exception. In many societies marriage between some first cousins is preferred, while at the other extreme, the medieval Catholic church prohibited marriage between distant cousins. The present day Catholic Church still maintains a standard of required distance (in both consanguinity and affinity) for marriage. Many societies have also adopted other restrictions on whom one can marry, such as prohibitions on marrying persons with the same surname, or persons with the same sacred animal.

Anthropologists refer to these sort of restrictions as exogamy. One exception to this pattern is in ancient Egypt, where marriage between brothers and sisters was permitted in the royal family; this privilege was denied commoners and may have served to concentrate wealth and power in one family (See also incest). The consequence of the incest-taboo is exogamy, the requirement to marry someone from another group. Anthropologists have thus pointed out that the incest-taboo may serve to promote social solidarity.

Societies have also at times required marriage from within a certain group. Anthropologists refer to these restrictions as endogamy. An example of such a restrictions would be a requirement to marry someone from the same tribe. Racist laws adopted by some societies in the past to prohibit marriage of peoples of different races, or miscegenation, could also be considered examples of endogamy.


Many societies provide for the termination of marriage through divorce. Marriages can also be annulled, which is a legal proceeding that establishes that a marriage was never valid from the beginning.


The ceremony in which a marriage is enacted and announced to the community is called a wedding. A wedding in which a couple marry in the' eyes of the law' is called a civil marriage. Religions also facilitate weddings, in the 'eyes of God.' In many European and some Latin American countries, where someone chooses a religious ceremony, they must also hold that ceremony separate from the civil ceremony. In some countries, notably the United States, the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and Spain both ceremonies can be held together; the officiant at the religious and community ceremony also serves as an agent of the state to enact the civil marriage. That does not mean that the state is recognising religious marriages; the 'civil' ceremony takes place as part but separate from, the religious ceremony. Often this simply involves signing a register during the religious ceremony. If for whatever reason, that civil element of the full ceremony is left out, in the eyes of the law no marriage took place, irrespective of the holding of the religious ceremony.

The way in which a marriage is enacted has changed over time, as has the institution of marriage itself. In Europe during the Middle Ages, marriage was enacted by the couple promising verbally to each other that they would be married to each other. This promise was known as the verbum. As part of the Reformation, the role of recording marriages and setting the rules for marriage passed to the state. By the 1600s many of the Protestant European countries had heavy state involvement in marriage.

Marriage and religion

Main article: Religious aspects of marriage

Many religions have extensive teachings regarding marriage. Most Christian churches give some form of blessing to a marriage; the wedding ceremony typically includes some sort of pledge by the community to support the couple's relationship. In the Eastern Orthodox church, it is one of the Mysteries, and is seen as an ordination and a martyrdom. In marriage, Christians see a picture of the relationship between Jesus Christ and His Church. In Judaism, marriage is so important that remaining unmarried is deemed unnatural. Islam also recommends marriage highly; among other things, it helps in the pursuit of spiritual perfection. Hinduism sees marriage as a sacred duty that entails both religious and social obligations. By contrast, Buddhism does not encourage or discourage marriage, although it does teach how one might live a happily married life.

It is also worth noting that different religions have different beliefs as regards the breakup of marriage. For example, the Roman Catholic Church does not permit divorce, because in its eyes, a marriage is forged by God. The Church states that what God links up, humans can't split. As a result, people who get a civil divorce are still considered married in the eyes of the Catholic Church, which does not allow them to remarry, even if they are allowed a civil marriage. In some special cases, however, Catholics can be permitted an annulment. With a nullity, religions and the state often apply different rules, meaning that a couple, for example, could have their marriage annulled by the Catholic Church but still be married in the eyes of the law, because the state disagrees with the church over whether an annulment could be granted in a particular case. This produces the phenomenon of Catholics getting Church annulments simultaneously with state divorces, allowing the ex-partners to marry other people in the eyes of both the Church and the State.

Marriage and economics

The economics of marriage have changed over time. Historically, in many cultures the family of the bride had to provide a dowry to pay a man for marrying their daughter. In other cultures, the family of the groom had to pay a bride price to the bride's family for the right to marry the daughter. In some cultures, dowries and bride prices are still demanded today. In both cases, the financial transaction takes place between the groom (or his family) and the bride's family; the bride has no part in the transaction and often no choice in whether to participate in the marriage.

In many modern legal systems, two people who marry might have the choice between keeping their property separate or combining their property. In the latter case, called community property, when the marriage ends by divorce each owns half; if one partner dies the surviving partner owns half and for the other half inheritance rules apply.

The respective maintenance obligations, during and eventually after a marriage, are regulated in most jurisdictions; see alimony.

It is possible to analyze the institution of marriage using economic theory; see David Friedman, Price Theory: Chapter 21: The Economics of Love and Marriage.

Criticisms of marriage

Libertarians criticise the government regulation of and the state's involvement in marriage, considering it essentially a religious institution.

Other commentators have argued that marriage has a significant dark side, sometimes condemning individual local practices and sometimes even the entire institution of marriage. A good many of these are feminist critiques, which claim that in many cultures marriage is particularly disadvantageous to women.

In many areas of the world, when a woman was in her early teens her father arranged a marriage for her in return for a brideprice, sometimes to a man twice her age who was a stranger to her. Her older husband then became her guardian and she could be cut off almost completely from her family. The woman had little or no say in the marriage negotiations, which might even have occurred without her knowledge.

Some traditions allowed a woman who failed to bear a son to be given back to her father. This reflected the importance of bearing children and extending the family to succeeding generations.

Often both parties are expected to be virgins before their marriage, but in many cultures women were more strictly held to this standard. One old tradition in Europe, which survived into the twentieth century in rural Greece, was for this to be proven by hanging the bloody bed sheet from the wedding night from the side of the house. Similarly, sexual fidelity is very often expected in marriage, but sometimes the expectations and penalties for women were harsher than those for men.

In some traditions marriage could be a traumatic, unpleasant turn of events for a girl. "The Lot of Women " written in Athens in the mid 5th century BC laments this situation:

Young women, in my opinion, have the sweetest existence known to mortals in their father's homes, for their innocence always keeps children safe and happy. But when we reach puberty and can understand, we are thrust out and sold away from our ancestral gods and from our parents. Some go to strange men's homes, others to foreigner's, some to joyless houses, some to hostile. And all this once the first night has yoked us to our husband we are forced to praise and say that all is well.

On the other hand, marriage has often served to assure the woman of her husband's continued support and enabled her to focus more attention on the raising of her children. This security has typically been greater when and where divorce was more difficult to obtain.

Some older wedding traditions still survive in some form in today's ceremonies. Women may still be symbolically "given away" by their fathers. Some brides still vow to "love and obey" their husbands and some bridegrooms vow to "care for" their wives. A groom might remove his bride's garter, a symbol of her virginity, as a public representation of his claim on her sexuality. Brides toss their bouquets towards a group of single women, who compete to catch the bouquet; the woman who catches the bouquet is believed to have the good fortune to be the next woman to get married.

One very common tradition is that of the groom carrying the bride over the threshold of their house. Investigating the origin of this tradition around 100 AD, Plutarch postulated three different possibilities. The first was that the act of picking up the bride was a symbolic re-enactment of the Rape of the Sabines. Another was that it symbolized the bride's reluctance to surrender her virginity, which she did only under duress. And the last suggested marital faithfulness - having been carried into the house by her husband she would only leave it the same way. This of course was in the context of a patriarchal culture in which it was said that a woman should only leave her house when she was so old that people would not ask whose wife she was, but whose mother.

These traditions, though often attacked by critics and scholars, nevertheless remain a treasured part of many ceremonies, cherished by both bride and groom.

See also

External links

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45