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Marriage is the socially sanctioned union that reproduces the family. It may do this biologically, through children, and/or socially, through forming a household. It is found in all societies, but in widely varying forms. 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). The most common type of marriage is the union of one or more men with one or more women. Marriage is usually heterosexual and entails exclusive rights and duties of sexual performance, but there are instructive exceptions.

In the United States, "marriage" typically refers to a formally declared, officially recognized, and ostensibly permanent relationship existing between a man and a woman. It also refers to the legal, social and religious recognition of such a relationship. The ceremony in which a marriage is contracted and announced to the community is called a wedding.

In most societies, marriage was polygynic, where a man could have multiple wives, but even there, the majority of men had only one. There were also many societies that were monogamous, where a person could be married to only one person at once, and very few polyandrous, where a woman could have multiple husbands. No society is known to permit both polygyny and polyandry. Because of recent expansion of monogamous Europeans, monogamy is much more popular than it was ever before.

Some utopian groups have practiced group marriage in which all adult members are married to each other (see Oneida Community). The practice of marrying one person after another is sometimes called serial polygamy.

A small but growing number of people advocate homosexual marriage (see below), although critics view this as an oxymoron.

Societies have always placed restrictions on marriage to relatives, though the degree of prohibited blood relationship varies widely. At one extreme, in ancient Egypt, marriage between brothers and sisters was permitted in the royal family; while at the other extreme, the mediaeval Catholic church prohibited marriage between distant cousins. Many societies have also adopted other restrictions on who one can marry, such as prohibitions on marrying persons with the same surname (even if they are unrelated), or persons with the same sacred animal. Anthropologists refer to these sort of restrictions as exogamy. (See also incest).

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 miscegnation, 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.

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.

Marriage and Religion

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 Catholic Church, marriage is one of the seven sacraments. 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.

See the entry on Religious_aspects_of_marriage for more details.

History of Marriage

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. Women were sold as wives. It was often to a man twice her age who was a stranger to her. Her older husband then became her guardian and she was cut off almost completely from her family. The woman had little or no say in the marriage negotiations and many times the marriage arrangement occurred without her knowledge. If a woman failed to bear a male child she could be given back to her father. This reflects one traditional purpose of marriage: that of bearing children and extending the family to succeeding generations.

Women were expected to be virgins before their marriage and in Europe, even into the twentieth century in rural Greece, as an indication of this, the bloody bed sheet from the wedding night would often be displayed on the side of the house. Women were expected to be faithful to their husbands, in some countries if any sign of infidelity showed up then a man was obligated to divorce his wife and in other countries the woman could be put to death. On the other hand, men were allowed to have concubines (who, in many cases, were women whose fathers couldn?t afford a dowry so they were given away), mistresses, and even multiple wives. Wives usually lost what little freedom they had as a single woman.

Often marriage was a traumatic, unpleasant turn of events for a girl. "The Lot of Women" written in Athens in the mid 5th century BC laments this fact: "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 wedding traditions are still apparent today in the United States; many women are still 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. Grooms remove 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.

Homosexual Marriage

In recent years there has been a growing movement to extend the right to marry to gay and lesbian couples. Married couples are frequently entitled to a wide range of social security, taxation and other benefits denied to unmarried couples. Prohibiting gay marriage denies gay couples access to these benefits. (Heterosexual couples without other legal impediments, on the other hand, can always marry.) It also makes it more difficult for them to adopt children, and preserves the traditional understanding of the nature of marriage.

This movement has resulted in changes in the law in many local jurisdictions, though the extent of the changes have varied:

  • some jurisdictions have created formal legal recognition for homosexual relations, but which are more limited than marriage, e.g. domestic partnership laws
  • others have created a separate status from marriage, with however equal rights to married couples: e.g. civil unions in Vermont
  • others have allowed homosexual couples to marry, and have identical legal status to heterosexual legal couples. Such an approach has been adopted in the Netherlands and Belgium.

Marriage and Economics

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.

Other topics that could be mentioned on this page (or on pages of their own): criteria for validity of marriage, arranged marriage, differing laws on divorce, arguments for/against gay marriage, 'common law' marriage, annulment in the Catholic tradition, minimum legal age for marriage, polygamy, wedding ceremonies, honeymoon