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Marriage is a relationship and bond, most commonly between a man and a woman, 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 in a sexual relationship. Globally, societies that sanction polygamy as a form of marriage are far less common than those that do not and monogamy is overwhelmingly most widely practiced, followed distantly by polygyny, which is found primarily in tribal cultures, and with other forms being extremely rare. Since the latter decades of the 20th century many of society's assumptions about the nature and purpose of marriage and family have been challenged, in particular by homosexual advocacy groups, who demand changing the definition of marriage as a heterosexual union.

In modern times, the term marriage is generally reserved for a state sanctioned union. The phrase legally married can be used to emphasize this point. In the United States there are two methods of receiving state sanction of a marriage: common law marriage and obtaining a marriage license.

Since the 12th century Marriage or Holy Matrimony has been a sacrament in the Catholic Church, as well as other Orthodoxies, where it is defined as a relationship between man and woman (although same sex marriage exists in some countries and states). 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, people may choose to be "childfree". Finally, they may be childless due to infertility, and possibly seek treatment or consider adoption. The term wedlock is a synonym for marriage, and is mainly used in the phrase "out of wedlock " to describe a child born of parents who were not married (see illegitimacy).

There is wide variation in the precise form that marriage takes. Two of the most hotly-debated 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 a woman, however there are verses in chapter 4 of the Qur'an which state that in certain conditions a man is allowed up to four wives. 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.

Some societies permitted polygamy, 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 is illegal and sexual relations outside marriage are generally frowned-upon, divorce and remarriage have been relatively easy to undertake. This has led to a practice called serial monogamy. Serial monogamy occurs when a husband, usually of average to high socioeconomic status, divorces an older wife in order to take on a younger wife. The younger wife is popularly referred to as the "trophy wife" by many who frown upon the practice. The modern practice of serial monogamy is strikingly similar to patterns of polygamy in other societies, and some evolutionary psychologists speculate that this practice is a normal human mating strategy.

Legally sanctioned marriages are generally conducted between heterosexual couples, although there are countries that recognize same-sex marriage, including The Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, 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.

Several Indian villages follow a custom in which young girls are married to dogs as an auspicious rite. The relationship is not consummated and does not affect their later marriagability, though. One should note that this is not a norm found across the entire Indian sub-continent. India is unique in its own way with variety of rituals and customs followed amongst different groups of people (demographed through religion, spoken language or belonging state and so on). Other unusual variations include marriage between a living human and a ghost (Taiwan), two or more dead people (Mormonism), and between a human being and God (Catholic and Orthodox monasticism). Again, these lack the social meaning of ordinary marriage and belong rather to the realm of religion or (in the case of "weddings" of dogs to other dogs, Kermit the Frog to Miss Piggy, and the like) pure spectacle.


Couples usually seek social sanction for their marriages, 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 priest, minister, 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 some situations under 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 spouses to visit on a tourist visa.

In Europe it has traditionally been the churches' office to make marriages official by registering them. 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 1875. 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, marriage 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 spousal rape is a conceptual impossibility.

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 Ancient Egyptian and Hawaiian 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 restrictions would be a requirement to marry someone from the same tribe. Racist laws adopted by some societies in the past, such as Nazi-era Germany, apartheid-era South Africa and most of the southern United States prior to 1967, which prohibited marriage between persons of different races (miscegenation) could also be considered examples of endogamy.

As tolerance of homosexuality has become more widespread in Western cultures, some governments have yielded to demands by homosexual advocacy groups and recognized a right to marriage by people of the same sex. This has in turn created a general backlash, most notably in Great Britain, where the Church of England has officially banned gay marriage, and in the United States, where several states have specifically outlawed gay marriage, often by popular referenda. At the federal level, the Defense of Marriage Act has created a federal definition of marriage as between a man and a woman as well as allowing one state not to recognize a same sex marriage recognized by another state. Some, including President George W. Bush, support amending the Federal Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriages. Currently, same-sex marriages are recognized by France, Belgium, the Netherlands, several Canadian provinces and territories (soon all), as well as the state of Massachusetts. Legal challenges to marriage restrictions may soon expand the recognition of same-sex marriages in Washington, New York, and other states. Nevertheless, while opinion polls indicate support by the general majority of Europe and North America for legal recognition of homosexual partnerships, for the purpose of granting rights and immunities equivalent to those of heterosexual marriages, the same polls indicate wide majorities, as much as two-thirds, disapproving of a change the legal definition of marriage to include homosexual unions.


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 invalid from its 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 just takes place at the same time as the religious ceremony. Often this involves simply 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 and the Church. In Judaism, marriage is viewed as a coming together of two families, therefore prolonging the religion and cultural heritage of the Jewish people. 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's 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 joins together, humans cannot sunder. 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 receive a divorce from the state and not have their marriage annulled by the Catholic Church 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.

Islam does allow divorce; however, there is a verse stated in the Qur'an describing divorce as the least desirable act allowed between people. The general rule is for a man to allow his wife to stay until the end of her menstrual period or for 3 months if she so wishes after the divorce. During this period they would be divorced in that they would simply be living under the same roof but not functioning as man and wife. The Qur'an scholars suggest that the main point is to prevent any decisions by the woman from being affected by hormonal fluctuations as well as to allow any heated arguments or differences to be resolved in a civil manner before the marriage is completely terminated. However, there is no obligation on the woman to stay, if she so wishes she may leave. The man is also obligated to give his wife a gift or monetary sum equivalent to at least half her mahr (gift or monetary sum which is given to the wife at the commencement of the marriage). Specific conditions as to how a divorce is conducted also apply if a woman is pregnant, or has given birth just prior to the divorce.

refer Qur'an 2:228-232, 236, 237, 241 and 65:1-7. See also 4:35.

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 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.

See also

External links

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