Marriage, social institution (usually legally ratified) uniting a man and a woman (or, in certain countries, people of the same sex) in special forms of mutual dependence, often for the purpose of founding and maintaining a family. In view of the necessity for children to undergo a long period of development before attaining maturity, the care of children during their years of relative helplessness appears to have been the chief incentive for the evolution of the family structure. Marriage as a contract between a man and a woman has existed since ancient times. As a social practice, entered into through a public act, it reflects the purposes, character, and customs of the society in which it is found.
Although marriage customs vary greatly from one culture to another, the importance of the institution is universally acknowledged. In some societies, community interest in the children, in the bonds between families, and in the ownership of property established by a marriage are such that special devices and customs are created to protect these values. Infant betrothal or marriage, prevalent in places such as Melanesia, is a result of concern for family, caste, and property alliances. Levirate, the custom by which a man might marry the wife of his deceased brother, was practised chiefly by the ancient Hebrews, and was designed to continue a family connection that had already been established. Sororate, a custom still practised in some parts of the world, permits a man to marry one or more of his wife’s sisters, usually if she has died or cannot have children. Monogamy, the union of two people, is thought to be the prototype of human marriage and its most widely accepted form, predominating also in societies in which other forms of marriage are accepted. All other forms of marriage are generally classed under polygamy, which includes both polygyny, in which one man has several wives, and polyandry, in which one woman has several husbands.
Under Islamic laws, one man may legally have as many as four wives, all of whom are entitled to equal treatment. Polygyny was also practised briefly in the United States during the 19th century by the Mormons in Utah. The incidence of polyandry is rare and is limited to Central Asia, southern India, and Sri Lanka. Frequently polygyny or polyandry involves a man or woman marrying two or more siblings. Polygyny sometimes results in the maintenance of separate households for each wife, although more frequently the shared-household system is employed, as with Muslims and among many Native American tribes before the colonization of North America.
In most societies, marriage is established through a contractual procedure, generally with some sort of religious sanction. In Western societies the contract of marriage is often regarded as a religious sacrament, and it is indissoluble only in the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church. Most marriages are preceded by a betrothal period, during which various rituals, such as exchanges of gifts and visits, lead to the final wedding ceremony and make the claims of the partners public. In societies where arranged marriages still predominate, families may negotiate a dowry, future living arrangements, and other important matters before marriage can be arranged. Most wedding ceremonies involve rituals and symbolism that reflect the desire for fertility, such as the sprinkling of the bridal couple with rice, the bride’s adornment with orange blossom, and the circling of the sacred fire, which is part of the marriage ritual in Hinduism, for example. The ancient Hindu ceremony of Svayamvaram (Sanskrit, “I am wish”), practised especially by royalty, involved the woman choosing her future husband from assembled eligible men by garlanding him.
Hindus, Buddhists, and many other communities consult astrologers before and after marriages are arranged to choose an auspicious date and time. In some societies fear of hostile spirits leads bridal couples to wear disguises at their weddings or sometimes even to send substitutes to the ceremony. In some countries, for instance Ethiopia, it was long customary to place an armed guard by the bridal couple during the wedding ceremony to protect them from demons.
The breaking of family or community ties implicit in most marriages is often expressed through gifts made to the family of the bride, as among many Native American, African, and Melanesian societies. The new bonds between the married couple are frequently represented by an exchange of rings and/or the joining of hands. Finally, the interest of the community is expressed in many ways, through feasting and dancing, the presence of witnesses, and the official sealing of marriage documents. Marriage can be seen as a rite of passage since it usually is accompanied by certain social and religious rituals that underline its importance not just to the couple concerned, but also to their families and wider society.
IV SOCIAL REGULATION
The taboos and restrictions imposed on marriage throughout history have been many and complex. Endogamy, for example, limits marriage to partners who are members of the same society or the same section of a society, to adherents of the same religion, or to members of the same social class. Fear of incest is a universal restriction to the freedom of marriage, although definitions of incest have varied greatly throughout history. In most cases, the prohibition extends to mother and son, father and daughter, and all offspring of the same parents. Among certain groups, however, such as ancient Egyptian royalty, marriages between brothers and sisters were in fact decreed by the prevailing religion.
In many societies, taboos are broadened to include marriages between uncles and nieces, aunts and nephews, first cousins, and, occasionally, second cousins. Exogamy, or marriage outside a specific group, can involve the separation of a society into two groups, within which intermarriage is not allowed. Practised by Native Americans and some other groups, it is believed to be an extension of taboos against incest to include much larger groups of people who may be related to one another.
The traditional importance of marriage can be observed in the customs surrounding widows and widowers, such as waiting times prescribed before remarriage, the wearing of mourning clothes, and the performance of ceremonial duties owed to the dead. The most extreme custom, abolished by law in India in 1829, was that of suttee, in which a widow was expected to sacrifice herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.
V TERMINATION OF CONTRACT
Most societies have allowed for some form of divorce, except those dominated by religions such as Hinduism and Roman Catholicism that regard marriage as indissoluble. The most frequently accepted grounds for divorce have been infertility, infidelity, criminality, and insanity. In some non-industrial societies divorce is uncommon, mainly because it generally requires the repayment of dowries and other monetary and material exchanges dating from the time of the wedding.
VI MODERN MARRIAGE
Because the family unit provides the framework for most human social activity, and since it is the foundation on which social organization is based in most cultures, marriage is closely tied to economics, law, and religion.
The institution of marriage has altered fundamentally in Western societies as a result of social changes brought about by the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, and a growing ideology of individualism. The rise of a strong middle class and the growth of democracy gradually brought about a tolerance for the idea of romantic marriages based on free choice. Arranged marriages, which had been accepted almost everywhere throughout history, eventually ceased to predominate in Western societies, although they persisted as the norm in aristocratic society up to the mid-20th century. One of the most extreme applications of the custom of arranged marriages was in pre-revolutionary China, where it was often the case that a bride and groom met for the first time only on their wedding day. In April 2005 forced marriages were made illegal under Islamic law in Saudi Arabia, a country whose high divorce rate was thought to be in part due to the common practice of forcing women to marry against their will.
Among the social changes that have affected marriage in modern times are: the increase in the incidence of (and tolerance shown towards) premarital sex brought on by the relaxation of sexual taboos, and the gradual rise in the average marriage age; the increase in the number of women pursuing careers outside the home, which has led to the changed economic status of women; and the liberalization of divorce laws, including the legalization of divorce for the first time in Italy in 1970, although in some other countries, such as Ireland, it is still illegal. Also significant have been the legalization of abortion, the improvement and increased accessibility of birth control, the removal of legal and social handicaps for children of unmarried people, and changes in the accepted concepts of male and female roles in society. Common-law marriages usually are those that have acquired legal status through a certain number of years of continuous cohabitation.
A major step towards legalizing same-sex marriages was taken in September 2000 when the Dutch parliament voted to grant such unions full parity of rights, and in April 2001 the first same-sex marriages were granted. In 2003, Belgium became the second country in the world to legalize same-sex marriages. A bill was passed in Canada in 2005 making the North American country the third in the world to allow same-sex unions by law (this followed the legalization of same-sex marriages in three Canadian provinces in 2003-2004). Also in 2005, Spain began allowing gay couples to marry by law, after a bill was passed in June. Civil partnerships for same-sex couples were made legal in the United Kingdom in 2004, and began taking place in December 2005.
Elsewhere, Denmark had recognized gay marriages in 1989 and Norway and Sweden permit registration of gay unions. In the United States, Vermont was the first state to grant homosexual couples equal rights, in 2000. In November 2003 a court in Massachusetts ruled it unconstitutional to forbid same-sex marriages and in May 2004, Massachusetts became the first US state to allow homosexual marriages. This followed months of clashes with the state legislature and opposition from President George Bush, who backs a proposed amendment to the US Constitution that would outlaw such marriages across the United States (from late 2006), although states would still be able to make their own laws regarding civil unions. Same-sex married couples in Massachusetts enjoy equal legal rights with opposite-sex married couples, including the right to make life-or-death medical decisions and inheritance rights. However, same-sex unions in the United States remain unrecognized by the federal government.