Marriage is a relationship between individuals which often forms the foundation of a family. Marriage can include legal, social, and religious elements. In Western societies, marriage has traditionally been understood as a contract between a man (husband) and a woman (wife), while in other parts of the world polygamy has been the most common form of marriage. Usually this has taken the form of polygyny (a man having several wives) but some societies have practised polyandry (a woman having several husbands). In some western societies today, civil same-sex marriages or civil partnerships are legally recognized.


Precise definitions vary historically and between and within cultures: modern understanding emphasizes the legitimacy of sexual relations in marriage, yet the universal and unique attribute of marriage is the creation of affinal ties (in-laws). Traditionally, societies encourage one to marry “out” far enough to strengthen the ties, but “close” enough so that the in-laws are “one of us” or “our kind”. One exception to this rule is found in the marriage of royalty, who strengthen their aid through concentration of wealth rather than through affinal ties. Even in this case, the individual was often encouraged to marry “within” close family limits. (Further discussion and reference: Marvin Harris, late Professor of Anthropology, Columbia University)

Marriage remains important as the socially sanctioned bond in a sexual relationship. Marriage is usually understood as a male-female relationship designed to produce children and successfully socialize them. Historically, most societies have allowed some form of polygamy. The West is a major exception. Europe and the United States have defined themselves as monogamous cultures. This was in part a Germanic cultural tradition, a requirement of Christianity (after the sixth century AD), and a mandate of Roman Law. However, Roman Law supported prostitution, concubinage, sex outside of marriage, homosexual sex, and sexual access to slaves. The Christian West formally banned these practices.

Globally, most existing societies no longer allow polygamy as a form of marriage. For example, China shifted from allowing polygamy to supporting only monogamy in the 1953 Marriage act after the Communist revolution. Most African and Islamic societies continue to allow polygamy (around 2.0 billion people). Probably, less than 3% of all Muslim marriages are polygamous. It is increasingly expensive in an Urban setting, but more useful in rural areas where children are a future source of agricultural labor. Most of the world’s population now live in societies where polygamy is less common and marriages are overwhelmingly monogamous.

Since the later decades of the 20th century many traditional assumptions about the nature and purpose of marriage and family have been challenged, in particular by gay rights advocacy groups, who disagree with the notion that marriage should be exclusively heterosexual. Some people also argue that marriage may be an unnecessary legal fiction. This follows from an overall shift in Western ideas and practices of family; since WWII, the West has seen a dramatic increase in divorce (6% to over 40% of first marriages), cohabitation without marriage, a growing unmarried population, children born outside of marriage (5% to over 33% of births), and an increase in adultery (8% to over 40%). A system of somewhat serial monogamy has de facto emerged.

In modern times, the term marriage is generally reserved for a union that is formally recognized by the state (although some people disagree). The phrase legally married can be used to emphasize this point. In the United States there are two methods of receiving state recognition of a marriage: common law marriage and obtaining a marriage license. The majority of US states do not recognize common law marriage. Many localities do support various types of domestic partnerships.

Since the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11), marriage or holy matrimony has been a sacrament, was not officially defined to be between a man and woman. It was only in the 12th century that the Church (the Catholic Church ), as well as other Orthodoxies, formally defined as a relationship between a man and a woman (in Catholicism the Sacrament of Matrimony (Marriage) is between three people: God, the man and the woman). The Protestant Reformation reformulated marriage as a life-long covenant. Marriage of some kind is found in most societies, and typically married people form a nuclear household, which is often subsequently extended biologically, through children. In the West the nuclear family emerged after 1100. Most non-Western societies have a broader definition of family that includes 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.

In some societies, there is a growing debate about the form(s) that marriage should take. Two of the most hotly-debated variants are discussed below: same-sex marriage – legal, by 2005, in some countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Canada (and the US states of Massachusetts and Hawaii) – and polygamy.

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