From New World Encyclopedia

Family law
Entering into marriage
Common-law marriage
Dissolution of marriage
Issues affecting children
Child support
Foster care
Areas of possible legal concern
Domestic violence
Child abuse

Marriage is a universal human institution which has formed the foundation of the family throughout history. While the traditions surrounding marriage ceremonies, the rights and obligations of marriage, the way of choosing one's marriage partner, and even who one is permitted to marry may differ from culture to culture, the essential necessity of marriage has long been recognized economically, legally, spiritually, and socially as the primary social institution for raising children. It is widely recognized that marriage provides the proper setting for cultivating love between a man and a woman.

Challenges to the institution of marriage in the twentieth century, although significant and with some limited validity, nonetheless failed to provide a viable alternative. Marriage is the prerequisite for building a family, and the family is the fundamental unit of human society. The future of human society appears to depend more on efforts to understand how to build healthy marriages than on promoting alternatives.


Marriage is usually understood as a relationship of mutual emotional support, merged economics, a mutually advantageous division of labor, procreation, and successful rearing of children. As anthropologist James Q. Wilson said, "In virtually every society, the family is defined by marriage; that is, by a publicly announced contract that makes legitimate the sexual union of a man and a woman" (Wilson 1993, 158) For these reasons, marriage is predominantly seen as being between one man and one woman. Most of the world's population lives in societies where marriages are overwhelmingly heterosexual and monogamous.

Religions in general endorse heterosexual and monogamous marriages. In the Christian tradition, a "one man one woman" model for the Christian marriage was advocated by Saint Augustine with his influential letter, "The Good of Marriage." In 534 C.E. Roman Emperor Justinian I criminalized all but monogamous man/woman sex within the confines of marriage. The Justinian Code was the basis of European law for 1,000 years. Christianity has continued to insist on monogamy as essential to marriage.

Globally, most existing societies have embraced heterosexual monogamy as the norm for marriage. However, most societies have at least some history of allowing polygamy, and some still do. Polygamy has usually been limited to polygyny—multiple wives—as opposed to polyandry—multiple husbands. The prevalence of polygyny can probably be explained by the need to ensure many offspring.

The state of matrimony

Rings indicate the couple is married

In modern times, the term "marriage" is generally reserved for a union that is formally recognized by the state. The phrase "legally married" can be used to emphasize this point. In most cases, receiving state recognition of a marriage involves obtaining a marriage license and is subject to certain laws.

In many societies, official approval for marriage may be given by either a religious or civil body. Sociologists thus distinguish between a "marriage ceremony" conducted under the auspices of a religion and a state-authorized "civil marriage."

In Europe the churches were traditionally responsible for making 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 it reduced the clerical marriage to a mere private ceremony.

Civil marriages may be permitted in circumstances which are not allowed by many religions, such as same-sex marriages or civil unions. 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 that is not recognized by the civil authorities. 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 sects of Mormonism which recognize polygamy, retired couples who would lose pension benefits if legally married, Muslim men who wish to engage in polygamy that is condoned in some situations under Islam, and immigrants who do not wish to alert the immigration authorities that they are married either to a spouse they are leaving behind or because the complexity of immigration laws may make it difficult for spouses to visit on a tourist visa.


Couple married in a Shinto ceremony in Takayama, Gifu prefecture, Japan

The ceremony in which a marriage is enacted and announced to the community is called a wedding. A wedding in which a couple marries 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, when someone chooses a religious ceremony, they must hold that ceremony separate from the civil ceremony. Certain countries, like Belgium and the Netherlands even legally demand that the civil marriage has to take place before any religious marriage. In some countries, notably the United States, the United Kingdom, the 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. This does not mean that the state is "recognizing" religious marriages, just that the "civil" ceremony takes place at the same time as the religious ceremony. Often this involves simply signing a register during the religious ceremony. If that civil element of the full ceremony is left out for any reason, in the eyes of the law, no marriage took place, irrespective of the holding of the religious ceremony.

In many jurisdictions, the civil marriage ceremony may take place during the religious marriage ceremony, although they are theoretically distinct. 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 an agent of the state. In some countries, such as France, Germany and Russia, it is necessary to be married by the state before having a religious ceremony.

Some countries, such as Australia, permit marriages to be held in private and at any location. Others, including England, require that the civil ceremony be conducted in a place specially sanctioned by law (i.e. a church or registry office), and be open to the public. An exception can be made in the case of marriage by special emergency license, which is normally granted only when one of the parties is terminally ill. Rules about where and when persons can marry vary from place to place. Some regulations require that one of the parties reside in the locality of the registry office.

The way in which a marriage ceremony 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; the presence of a priest or other witnesses was not required if circumstances prevented it. 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.


Many societies provide for the termination of marriage through divorce. Marriages can also be annulled, or cancelled, which is a legal proceeding that establishes that a marriage was invalid from its beginning.

Rights and obligations

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

Did you know?
Traditionally, marriage has been a prerequisite for starting a family, which then serves as the building block of a community and society

Traditionally, marriage has been a prerequisite for starting a family, which then 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 most of the world's major religions, marriage is traditionally a prerequisite for sexual intercourse. Unmarried people are not supposed to have a sexual relationship, which is then called fornication and is socially discouraged or even criminalized. Sexual relations with a married person other than one's spouse, called adultery, is even less acceptable and has also often been considered a crime. This is especially true in the case of a person who is a representative of the government (such as a president, prime minister, political representative, school teacher, or military officer).

Marriage may also carry the following rights and obligations, although no society has all, and none are universal:

  • establishing the legal father of a woman's child
  • establishing the legal mother of a man's child
  • giving the husband or his family control over the wife's sexual services, labor, and/or property
  • giving 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
  • establishing a relationship between the families of the husband and wife.

Marriage and religion

Religious views of marriage

Many religions have extensive teachings regarding marriage. In the Christian tradition, marriage is to be a union of mutual love and support. God created the institution of marriage when He gave the first woman to the first man. Marriage can only be the union of one man and one woman. The Bible states in Genesis 2:24, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Though the wife is commanded to submit to her husband, the husband is commanded to love his wife even to the point of giving up his life for her. The Apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 5:22-31:

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

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 Roman Catholic Church, "Holy Matrimony" is considered to be one of the seven sacraments and has been so since the twelfth century. The sacrament is one that the spouses bestow upon each other in front of a priest and members of the community as witnesses during a "Nuptial Mass." This is also true of other Orthodoxies, where marriage is defined as a relationship between a man and a woman. 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. The Protestant Reformation reformulated marriage as a life-long covenant that should not be entered into lightly.

Covenant marriage is a legally distinct kind of marriage in three states (Arizona, Arkansas, and Louisiana) of the United States, in which the marrying spouses agree to obtain pre-marital counseling and accept more limited grounds for later seeking divorce (the least strict of which being that the couple lives apart from each other for two years). Louisiana became the first state to pass a covenant marriage law in 1997 (Nichols 1998); shortly afterwards, Arkansas (Arkansas Times 2013), and Arizona (Arizona Administrative Office of the Courts 1998) followed suit.

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. The Bahá'í Faith sees marriage as a foundation of the structure of society, and considers it both a physical and spiritual bond that endures into the afterlife. 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.

The end of marriage

It is also worth noting that different religions have different beliefs regarding 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 put asunder. As a result, people who obtain a civil divorce are still considered married in the eyes of the Catholic Church, which does not allow them to remarry in the Church, even if they participate in a civil marriage. In some special cases, however, Catholics can be permitted an annulment, which declared the marriage to be invalid.

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 three 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.

Marriages are typically entered into with a vow that explicitly limits the duration of the marriage with the statement "till death do you part." However, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) have a distinctive view of marriage called "Celestial marriage," wherein they believe that worthy individuals can enter into a marriage relationship that endures beyond death. The Unification Church of Reverend Sun Myung Moon also asserts that marriage is eternal.

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 or not to participate in the marriage.

In most subsistence societies, children are a financial asset because they can work in the family farm or business. In modern urban industrial life, children have become viewed as an economic liability and as preventing both parents from working. As a result, adults are choosing to have less children causing families to be much smaller, and sometimes just the husband and wife.

In many modern legal systems, two people who marry have the choice between keeping their property separate or combining it. 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.

In some legal systems, the partners in a marriage are "jointly liable" for the debts of the marriage. This has a basis in a traditional legal notion called the "Doctrine of Necessities" whereby a husband was responsible to provide necessary things for his wife. The respective maintenance obligations during and eventually after a marriage, such as alimony, are regulated in most jurisdictions.

Exogamy and endogamy

Societies have always placed restrictions on marriage to close relatives, though the degree of prohibited relationship varies widely. In almost all societies, marriage between brothers and sisters is forbidden and termed incest. Ancient Egyptian, Hawaiian, and Inca royalty are the rare exception, with this privilege being denied commoners. Thus it may be understood as having served to concentrate wealth and power in one family. In many societies, marriage between some first cousins is preferred, while at the other extreme, the medieval Catholic church prohibited marriage even between distant cousins. The present day Catholic Church still maintains a standard of required distance (in both consanguinity and affinity) for marriage. Genetically, these practices have proven to be healthy for society.

In the Indian Hindu community, especially in the Brahmin caste, marrying a person of the same Gothra is prohibited, since persons belonging to the same Gothra are said to have identical patrilineal descension. In ancient India when Gurukul was in existence, the shishyas (the pupils) were advised against marrying any of Guru's children as shishyas were considered Guru's children and it would be considered marriage among siblings.

Many societies have also adopted other restrictions on whom one can marry, such as prohibitions on marrying persons with the same family name (surname), or persons with the same sacred animal. In Uganda, people are exhorted to marry outside of their own clan. In South Korea it is generally considered taboo for a man to marry a woman if they both have the same family name. A large percentage of the total South Korean population has the surname "Kim" (an estimated 20 percent; rendering 20 percent of the Korean population ineligible for marriage to each other).

Anthropologists refer to these sorts of restrictions, limiting whom one may marry, as exogamy. It has been suggested 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 and Utah prior to 1967, which prohibited marriage between persons of different races (miscegenation) could also be considered examples of endogamy.

Love and marriage

Most cultures agree that love in marriage is desirable and important. The question of when and how love enters a marriage is less agreed upon. In the Western romantic tradition, a couple meets, falls in love, and marries on the basis of their love. In many Eastern cultures, the marriage between a man and a woman is arranged by parents, elders, religious leaders, or by consensus. It is expected that if both parties live up to their obligations and practice their religion faithfully enough throughout the marriage, love will grow up between them.

Arranged marriages have been practiced in many parts of the world and continue today in some cultures, for example among Hindus and Orthodox Jews. Those who uphold arranged marriage frequently state that it is traditional, that it upholds social morals, and that it is good for the families involved, as there is widespread acceptance of the marriage and an understanding that the marriage is between two families, not only two individuals. They also have some traditional criticisms of romantic marriage, saying that it is short-term, overly based on sexual lust, or immoral. Questioned about such practices, young people participating in arranged marriages often express trust in their parents, who love them and want the best for them and who will choose a good partner for them. They also point to the high divorce rate in Western romantic marriages.

Defenders of romantic marriage would hold that it is preferable to achieve an emotional bond before entering into a lifelong commitment. They speak of the mysterious quality of love that cannot be defined, contained, forced or manufactured. Compatibility is emphasized, which may be where the idea of "trial marriages"—cohabitation undertaken to test out a couple's compatibility, including sexual compatibility—developed.

In the Americas and Europe, the prevailing view toward marriage today and for many centuries has been that it should be based on emotional attachment between the partners and entered into voluntarily. The idea of marriage being based upon emotional attachment, however, allows for divorce and remarriage to be easily undertaken when emotional attachment has changed or faded. It has led to a prevalence of what is called "serial monogamy." Serial monogamy involves entering into successive marriages over time. Serial monogamy is not looked upon with the same favor as lifelong marriage to one partner; however, it is considered morally preferable to sex outside of marriage, which is generally frowned upon, whether it is adulterous or premarital.

Those who believe in romantic marriage will often criticize arranged marriages, even expressing horror at the idea. They consider it oppressive, inhuman, or immoral. Defenders of arranged marriage disagree, often pointing to cultures where the success rate of arranged marriages is seen to be high, and holding that nearly all couples learn to love and care for each other deeply.

Studies of altruism and empathy indicate that people who have strong altruistic feelings toward others in general enjoy "very happy" marriages (Harms, 2003). Those who cultivate an altruistic, even self-sacrificing, attitude toward their spouses also report "very happy" marriages. The study points out that marital love is both built upon and fosters altruistic love—an idea that is common in many religions. These findings would seem to affirm that if the partners in arranged marriages practice and uphold the tenets of their religion—most of which emphasize altruistic love—they will grow together in love for one another as well.

Marriage preparation

Given that the marriage ceremony is one of the most important rites of passage in most cultures, it is to be expected that a certain amount of preparation is involved. Traditionally, preparation for marriage has involved family, church, and community. Children learn the knowledge and skills to manage a household and support a family from their parents and extended family. When children are raised in communities where their parents and most other adults are married, such practical preparation for marriage occurs naturally.

Spiritual guidance, as well as guidance in relationship development and life skills, may be offered or even required in order to be married in a religious ceremony. The Catholic church, for example, requires couples to attend a marriage preparation workshop, often called a "Pre-Cana," as well as private meetings with the priest to prepare the wedding liturgy and ensure that all the Canon law requirements have been met.

The state also has certain requirements in order to legalize a marriage, which in most countries involves obtaining a marriage license. Requirements vary, although they typically include many or all of the following: proof of identity, age, residency, a waiting period (which may be as short as one day), parental approval if under a particular age (typically sixteen or eighteen years), a blood test for venereal disease, and payment of a fee. In some cases, the fee and waiting period may be reduced or waived if couples complete an approved marriage preparation course.

While some have argued that prior sexual experience prepares one for the conjugal relationship, in reality this has not been shown to be true. The majority of religions, and an increasing number of psychologists and marriage professionals, recognize that the sexual relationship has life changing consequences for those involved. Apart from the potential for pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases including AIDS, sexual activity has an emotional and spiritual impact. Once a sexual relationship has been entered into, there is no return to the previously pure state of relating like brother and sister. For this reason, maintaining one's virginity prior to marriage is considered a key component of successful marriage preparation. Programs such as the Christian "True Love Waits" encourage young people to make sexual abstinence part of their marriage preparation by signing this pledge:

Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate, and my future children to a lifetime of purity including sexual abstinence from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship.

Building healthy marriages

With the erosion of marriage in the twentieth century, support for couples preparing for marriage, and continued support during the marriage, is no longer available naturally through their family and community. Instead, couples wishing to build a healthy marriage may participate in programs sponsored by their local church, or by professional marriage counselors.

Key issues that marriage counselors address include sexual relations, relationships with in-laws particularly between the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, finances, and parenting styles in raising their children. Conflicts also occur when one or both of the spouses have personal problems, such as drug abuse or alcoholism.

Successful marriages take commitment and investment on the part of both spouses. To be successful, marriage partners need to have reached a level of individual maturity, such that they have clarified their own life goals and developed their talents and character sufficiently to be able to pursue them, and to have experienced harmonious relationships with others, such as their parents, extended family members, siblings, and peers. Without this type of foundation, even the most passionate feelings of love are not enough to build a healthy marriage.

Just as sexual purity is considered by many an important part of marriage preparation, fidelity between husband and wife is important in building and maintaining a healthy marriage. Adultery has been condemned by many religions, criminalized by many societies, and has led to the downfall of many great historical figures as well as the breakdown of numerous marriages. Healthy marriages are based on trust and commitment; "cheating" on one's spouse violates this relationship in an unforgettable fashion.

Marriage and family

Main article: Family
Henry Moore, Family Group (1950), bronze, sited at the entrance to Barclay School, Stevenage, Hertfordshire, England.

The purpose of marriage is, ultimately, not just for the sake of the man and woman who participate in the union, it is the road to the next generation, children, and the continuation of one's lineage. The conjugal relationship of husband and wife is the emotional and physical foundation for building a family, in which children, produced through the love of man and woman, are nurtured and protected until they reach maturity, and embark on their own lives, which also involve the continuation of the lineage.

The family, formed through the marriage of man and woman and resulting in children, is a universal institution in human life:

As far back as our knowledge takes us, human beings have lived in families. We know of no period where this was not so. We know of no people who have succeeded for long in dissolving the family or displacing it.... Again and again, in spite of proposals for change and actual experiments, human societies have reaffirmed their dependence on the family as the basic unit of human living—the family of father, mother and children (Mead & Heyman 1965, 77-78).

Civilized society is built upon the family: "the family is the culture-creating institution par excellence" (Berger 1998, 43). Children naturally inherit not only their physical characteristics as well as physical and material wealth, they also receive their social heritage from their biological parents. The family, therefore, is the social structure most effective in passing on traditions, beliefs, and values from one generation to the next.

Beyond the benefit received through these different types of inheritance, children raised in a stable family by their married parents, have been found, on average, to be "physically and mentally healthier, better educated, and later in life, enjoy more career success than children in other family settings" (Waite & Gallagher 2000, 124). On the other hand, children of divorce, single-parent families, and step-families are considerably more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems—they sometimes fail to graduate high school, abuse drugs and alcohol, engage in sexual activity as teenagers, suffer unwanted pregnancies, are involved in violence and crime, avoid marriage and child-bearing, get divorced, and commit suicide at higher rates than those raised by two married parents.

Good marriages and the resulting families have been, and continue to be, essential to the social fabric of human society. Without marriage there is no stability in the family, and without stable families the next generation is at grave risk in all aspects of life.

Challenges to traditional assumptions

In the latter decades of the twentieth century many traditional assumptions about the nature, purpose, and definition of marriage and family were challenged. These challenges ran parallel to dramatic increases in divorce (from 6 percent to over 40 percent of first marriages), cohabitation without marriage, a growing unmarried population, and children born outside of marriage (from 5 percent to over 33 percent of births), as well as an increase in adultery (8 percent to over 40 percent).

Cohabitation as an alternative

Cohabitation is on the rise worldwide. It has been argued that marriage may be an unnecessary legal fiction—the proverbial "piece of paper"—and that living together is just as viable an option for men and women who wish to have a sexual relationship. Studies show, however, that marriage differs considerably from cohabitation. People who live together before they marry are much more likely to divorce later on than people who did not live together before their marriage. In some countries, like Sweden, the divorce rate for women who cohabited before marriage is 80 percent higher than for women who did not cohabit before marriage (Bennett, Blanc, and Bloom 1988). These findings have been repeated in other countries. What is more, cohabitation does not bring the same benefits to children's well-being as marriage does. In England, one study showed that children who lived with cohabiting rather than married parents are twenty times more likely to become victims of child abuse (Whelan 1993). Children of cohabiting couples also experience more poverty and disruption in their future relationships.

The feminist critique

Feminists have argued that marriage was part of patriarchy and designed to oppress and abuse women. Some social scientists agreed, seeing traditional marriages and the families formed under them as dysfunctional almost by definition. Divorce was seen as a step toward liberation.

There is, no doubt, much truth to the criticism that marriage was part of the general oppression of 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 bride price, 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 have 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 have been 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 fifth century B.C.E. 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 has been more difficult to obtain.

Although in some cultures marriage has led to the abuse of women, in fact, modern women and their children are more likely to be abused in a cohabitation situation or by members of a stepfamily they have become part of after a divorce. The data pouring in, even through some former advocates of "no-fault" divorce like Judith Wallerstein, strongly show that children's well-being depends heavily upon the long-term, committed involvement of their biological parents with one another and with them. There is a growing consensus among social scientists that society cannot exist without a substantial mass of intact marriages and families built on the traditional model—that is, mutually monogamous marriage between one man and one woman who then care for and raise their children together.

Alternative forms

Some people have chafed under the constraints of monogamy and advocated "open marriages" or "swinging" as an alternative to traditional marriage. They have agreements with their spouses that permit other intimate relationships or sexual partners without considering this the abrogation of the marriage. However, as psychologist Carl Rogers noted and James Q. Wilson also stressed, dealing with such arrangements without jealousy, emotional pain, and severe misunderstandings is highly problematic for most people.

Gay rights advocacy groups have disagreed with the notion that marriage should be exclusively between a man and a woman. Due to their lobbying efforts, same-sex marriages are now legal in some countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, and Canada. Same-sex unions have been recorded in the history of a number of cultures, but marriages or socially-accepted unions between same-sex partners were rare or nonexistent in other cultures. Same-sex marriage remains infrequent worldwide.

"Civil unions" are recognized in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Germany, France, Portugal, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and certain states in the United States. Also, various localities recognize domestic partnerships, which offer parity of spousal rights, to different degrees, with marriage.

Legal response

These developments have created a political 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 same-sex marriage, often by popular referenda.

At the United States federal level, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) of 1996 created a federal definition of marriage as between a man and a woman, as well as allowing states to refuse to recognize a same-sex marriage recognized by another state.

Benefits of marriage

Sociologist David Courtwright maintains that violence and crime are directly related to men remaining single. He suggests that marriage channels male aggressiveness into positive social roles—such as supporting and rearing a family—and validates masculinity in a way that negates the need for "honor killings" and other violent behavior. Married men have more reason for self-control. They avoid fights, consume less alcohol and drugs, and stay steadily employed. They are stakeholders in a community they want to be stable for their wives and children. Indeed, Courtwright relates the most violent eras and locations in United States history to a prevalence of single males. He cites the examples of the Gold Rush in the wild West, where a dearth of females in the early years meant skyrocketing homicide rates, and the modern urban ghetto where marriage is not a norm and where many single young men behave in dangerous, destructive, and self-destructive ways (Courtwright 1998).

In her seminal book, The Case for Marriage, Linda J. Waite, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, maintains that married people are emotionally, psychologically, and physically healthier than their divorced, bereaved, or single counterparts. When illness of any sort does occur, married people recover more quickly and thoroughly than those without a supportive partner. Married couples in cross-cultural studies are also better off financially than their divorced, bereaved, or single counterparts. Social scientists in the United States have increasingly found that married-to-one-another parents provide for their biological children's well-being in ways that no other social structure has yet to attain.

Marriage has been found to contribute to social stability in other countries as well. Studies in England and Germany have shown that rising divorce rates led young men into increased criminality, drug abuse and general disorder. Crime rates in general have been shown to be directly related to the state of marriage in a community: the more divorced people, single parents and single people in communities, the higher the crime rates.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead once quipped, "The problem in any society is what to do with the men." Socially speaking, the best answer seems to be: marry them.


Although the institution of marriage came under attack in the latter part of the twentieth century, a successful alternative has not been found. In fact, the very reasons given to reject marriage, such as to end the abuse of women and children and to give freedom to achieve personal happiness, seem to have backfired. Married couples have been shown to enjoy greater personal happiness, better health, longer lives, and to suffer less abuse than those in cohabiting or uncommitted relationships. Children raised in families by their biological, married parents show higher levels of achievement in all areas of life and are at less risk for physical, psychological, and social problems than children of divorced or single-parent families.

As Auguste Comte wrote, the family is the most fundamental social unit, the prototype of all other human associations. It is out of marriages that families and communities arise. Marriage is the place to experience sexual love between man and woman, give birth to new life, and establish one's lineage for the future. As energy is invested in the maintenance of marriages, families, and the communities they both require and build, society is propelled forward in civil, nurturing, and benevolent ways.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Arizona Administrative Office of the Courts. 1998. Covenant Marriages In Arizona Arizona Supreme Court. Retrieved April 29, 2023.
  • Arkansas Times Staff. 2013. Covenant v. traditional marriage in Arkansas. Arkansas Times, July 18, 2013. Retrieved April 29, 2023.
  • Bennett, Neil G., Ann Kilmas Blanc, and David E. Bloom. 1988. "Commitment and the Modern Union: Assessing the Link between Premarital Cohabitation and Subsequent Marital Stability." American Sociological Review 53: 127-138.
  • Berger, Brigitte. 1998. "The Social Roots of Prosperity and Liberty." Society March-April 1998: 43.
  • Bohannan, Paul, and John Middleton (eds.). 1968. Marriage, Family, and Residence. Garden City, NY: Natural History Press. ASIN B000NPJBIY
  • Courtwright, David. 1998. Violent Land: Single Men and Social Disorder from the Frontier to the Inner City. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0674278714
  • Harms, William. 2003. NORC survey finds Americans practice what they are preached University of Chicago Chronicle 22(20). Retrieved April 29, 2023.
  • International Educational Foundation. 2002. "Building Healthy Marriages" Volumes 8, 9, and 10 in series Searching for Life's True Purpose: Perspectives on Morality and Ethics.
  • Mead, Margaret, and Kent Heyman. 1965. Family. New York, NY: Macmillan. ISBN 0025836900
  • Nichols, Joel A. 1998. Louisiana's Covenant Marriage Law: A First Step Towards a More Robust Pluralism in Marriage and Divorce Law? Emory Law Journal 47. Retrieved April 29, 2023.
  • Saunders, Alan, and June Saunders. 2004. The Centrality of Marriage and Family in Creating World Peace. Tarrytown, NY: Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace. Retrieved April 29, 2023.
  • Seidel, Dietrich F., and Jennifer P. Tanabe. 2017. Unification Insights into Marriage and Family: The Writings of Dietrich F. Seidel. Raleigh, NC: Lulu Press. ISBN 1365592340
  • Waite, Linda J. and Maggie Gallagher. 2000. The Case for Marriage. New York, NY: Doubleday. ISBN 0767906322
  • Wallerstein, Judith, and Sandra Blakeslee. 1989. Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children a Decade after Divorce. Boston, MA: Ticknor & Fields. ISBN 0899196489
  • Whelan, Robert. 1993. Broken Homes and Battered Children. London: Family Education Trust. ISBN 978-0906229118
  • Wilson, James Q. 1993. The Moral Sense. New York, NY: The Free Press. ISBN 0684833328
  • Wilson, James Q. 2002. The Marriage Problem. New York, NY: HarperCollins. ISBN 006093526X

External links

All links retrieved April 29, 2023.


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