marriage. (Image by Claude Renault, CC)


International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern WorldInternational Encyclopedia of the Social SciencesDictionary of American History Further reading











The beginning of family formation may be either marriage or parenthood. It should not be concluded from the fact that sexual intercourse is a prerequi-site for pregnancy that all peoples regard marriage or the establishing of a man-woman relationship as the first step in family formation. Indeed, according to Bohannan (1963, p. 73) the matricentric family, consisting of a woman and her children, is “both more nearly universal and more elementary than is the nuclear family,” consisting of a marital couple plus any children they may have. In some societies it is thought proper that marriage should precede pregnancy, while in others the reverse sequence is regarded with favor; in the extreme case marriage is viewed as irrelevant to family formation. However, it seems safe to assert that in most societies the nuclear family is thought to be well launched only when both conditions are met.

Cultures also vary according to whether they emphasize marital solidarity over lineal solidarity or vice versa. Societies with strongly developed extended family systems emphasize lineal solidarity over marital solidarity. In such societies family formation is scarcely a meaningful concept: since the marriage of a man and woman and the coming of their progeny represent the carrying on of a continuous line, these events may signal the establishing of a new household but not the formation of a new family.

In this article the topic of family formation will be treated with reference to the nuclear family. Marriage will therefore be considered as the focus of the process of family formation, and mate selection as one of its most problematic features.


From the functional point of view, the family is the one social system that all societies look to for the replacement of their members. However, from the structural point of view, the word “family” is used to refer not only to the marital couple and their children but also to the larger kin group; accordingly, it will be necessary to draw some structural distinctions. The “extended family” includes a nuclear family plus lineal and collateral kinsmen; to the extent that a society emphasizes rights and obligations among kinsmen who are not in the same nuclear family, it is spoken of as having an “extended family system.” On the other hand, a “nuclear family system” is said to exist in a society in which the rights and obligations among those in the larger kin group are given little emphasis relative to the claims among members of the same nuclear family.

It should be emphasized that the term “family,” whether it applies to a nuclear or an extended family, is not equivalent to the term “household”—the aggregate of persons occupying a common dwelling unit, whether or not those persons are kinsmen. In Western societies the nuclear family is frequently also a household while the parental couples are in their younger and middle years and before their children attain adulthood. However, many other arrangements are possible, and some are institutionalized. For example, in South Africa it has been the practice for decades for the husband-father to be away from his nuclear family for years at a time. A common type of household among Negroes in the Caribbean and in the United States consists of a working woman, her children, and her mother. In traditional China the ideal house-hold included the nuclear family of the head of the household plus his unmarried daughters, his sons with their nuclear families, his sons’ unmarried daughters, his sons’ sons with their nuclear families, and so on through all living generations; in practice, however, not many Chinese families could afford households of such size.

Marriage may be defined as a culturally approved relationship of one man and one woman (monogamy), of one man and two or more women (polygyny), or of one woman and two or more men (polyandry), in which there is cultural endorsement of sexual intercourse between the marital partners of opposite sex and, generally, the expectation that children will be born of the relationship (“polygamy” is the term that subsumes both polygyny and polyandry). “Homogamy” refers to the marriage of persons of similar characteristics, which is also known as “assortative” or “assortive” mating; “heterogamy” is the marriage of persons of different characteristics; and “hyper-gamy” is a marriage in which the husband is of higher social status than the wife. The term “endogamy” refers to marriage between persons belonging to the same social group, whereas in “exogamy” the partners come from different groups.

Marriage and legitimacy

By definition marriage is a relationship within which sexual inter-course is legitimate. In general, a woman who cohabits with a man has a legitimate status in relation to that man only if she is known to be married to him. Common-law marriage (recognized in the United Kingdom and in the United States) and the consensual union (recognized in the Caribbean) are forms of man-woman relation-ship that carry less than full cultural approval and legitimacy. Points of interest to American, as well as to English, courts in establishing whether or not a common-law marriage exists include: mutual agreement of the man and woman to take each other as husband and wife; cohabitation and presentation of themselves as a married couple to friends, neighbors, and the general public; and reputation, that is, the recognition by the community that the two are husband and wife.

The Caribbean pattern of the consensual union differs from the common-law marriage of Anglo-Saxon countries in that the former is not a legally recognized marriage. Various writers have held that except for this lack of legal sanction the con-sensual union carries no social stigma and therefore is quite as acceptable among the people practicing it as is legal marriage. More recent analyses by Blake (1961) and by Goode (1960), however, have concluded that there is general recognition among Caribbean societies that consensual unions are less legitimate and hence less desirable than legal marriages. Goode argues that whereas legal marriage is recognized throughout Caribbean societies as the legitimate form, there is variation among the social strata of these societies in the degree of norm commitment, with the consequence that persons in the lower strata tend to be generally less committed to familial norms than persons in the upper strata. The more frequent occurrence of consensual unions among the lower social strata than among the upper is seen as a reflection of the class-linked variation in the degree of commitment to familial norms.[SeeCaribbean SOCIETY.]

Legitimacy affects the offspring of the marriage as well as the spouses themselves. In asserting what he called the “principle of legitimacy,” Malinowski (1929) stated that in all societies a socially recognized father has been regarded as indispen–sable to the child. A legal marriage, then, gives a woman a socially recognized husband and her children a socially recognized father. According to Zimmerman (1947), the penalties attached to il–legitimacy vary directly with the power of the extended family; thus, the penalties are heavy in societies characterized by the extended-family system and light where the nuclear family prevails. From a sociological point of view, the significance of legitimacy is that it is a necessary condition for the family to carry out its function of position-conferring. In this sense, the critical meaning of bastardy is not that the child has low status but rather that he lacks any position and status in his society.[SeeIllegitimacy.]

Variations in familial organization

Cultural expectations pertaining to marriage are affected by variations in familial organization. In Western civilization it appears that the power of the family and the size of the effective kin group (i.e., of the familial structure) have varied inversely with the complexity of the society of which the effective kin group is a part. Zimmerman (1947), who extensively analyzed the civilizations of ancient Athens and Rome, reports that in the early stages of both of these civilizations (i.e., when both societies were relatively simple) there existed what he calls the “trustee” type of familial organization; whereas in their late (and, to Zimmerman, decadent) stages, Athens and Rome developed much more complex societies and simpler familial structures, which he describes as “atomistic.” The kernel of Zimmer- man’s distinction lies in the locus of power. Where the trustee type of family exists, much power is located in the extended family. The head of the family, as the responsible center of familial authority, influences the behavior of the family members, and the extended family feels responsible for the behavior of its members. Where the atomistic type of family prevails, much power is located outside the kin group in specialized institutions. As the family loses power, its structure shifts from the extended family system to the nuclear family system. In the process of making this shift, according to Zimmerman, the divorce rate goes up and the birth rate goes down. Arguing that there are other lines of development than those of the West noted by Zimmerman, Goode (1963) holds, as we shall see below, that whether the divorce rate goes up as a society becomes more complex depends on the nature of the familial structure at the start of the process.

One way of formulating variation in the family’s power and size is to speak of its functioning as a political unit. Moreover, the family may show variation in other kinds of functioning. In some settings the family is the basic economic unit that creates and distributes goods and services. In many settings it is the principal social unit responsible for socializing and educating the young. And in some settings, especially where ancestor worship is practiced, the family carries out the religious function. In general, as societies become more complex, specialized societal structures develop for the carrying out of these functions, with the result that the family loses some of its functions; indeed such a state of affairs is the meaning of societal complexity.

Taking account of Asian and African as well as Western societies, Goode (1963) agrees that most family systems of the world are moving toward a small-family system based on the nuclear family. Because the traits of non-Western family systems are so varied, however, he believes there will be marked differences in the direction of this change as the predicted convergence takes place. Thus, in African tribal societies where matrilineal systems are strong and divorce is common, Goode reasons that urbanization will be accompanied by a reduction in the conditions that have made divorce easy.

Mate selection

The functional emphasis in modern sociology leads the observer to anticipate that criteria for the choice of a mate will be related to the roles the mate is expected to enact and, perhaps, that the mate will be chosen by the incumbent of that social position most influenced by the quality of the mate’s performance. There is some evidence to support such a set of functional expectations, but of course the empirical world is always less tidy than the social scientist’s model.

The extended family system

In the extended family system it is common for members of the nuclear family to work in teams of kinsmen. Under this condition the mate-selective process is frequently a means of recruiting workers, and hence the members of the extended family have a lively interest in the work-related qualifications of a kinsman’s prospective mate. Thus it is not unusual for responsible senior members of the extended family to select a son’s spouse and to employ such famili-ally relevant criteria as the industry and prospective fecundity of a potential daughter-in-law. For families of higher status, the standing of a girl’s family becomes more important than her manual skills. Irrespective of status, however, the extended family system makes the procuring of a mate a matter of moment to a wide circle of kinsmen. It is consistent with this kind of family organization that mate selection should be a task calling for experienced perception and shrewd bargaining. Moreover, in order that their plans should not be thwarted by the passions of the young, the older people institute devices such as early marriage and efficient chaperonage (Goode 1959).

On the other hand, where the extended family is not highly functional and where the nuclear family system prevails, it is frequently thought to be inappropriate for members of the extended kin group to exhibit lively interest in the marital choices of family members, and even the influence of parents is reduced. Under these conditions the criteria for mate selection are more likely to include attributes having primary appeal to the nubile pair—physical beauty, sexual attractiveness, and congeniality. The response to one or more of these attributes comes to be subsumed under the rubric of love. The diminution of relatives’ influence in mate selection is not, of course, a categorical matter but rather one of degree. By their own religion, ethnicity, and social status, as well as by their own choice of location of residence and of schools, parents continue to influence their youngsters’ choice of spouses.

Traditional China provides an example of mate selection carried on by the family for familial purposes. When a son married, the preferred arrangement was for him to bring his bride into his pa-rental home. The parents expected the bride to perform two important functions: to bear children, preferably sons, and to assist her mother-in-law in the performance of domestic chores. As the boy was growing up, he looked to his parents to provide him with a wife. The parents expected the son to accept whatever bride they chose, and they condemned vigorously any disposition on the son’s part to make his own marital selection, especially if the son tried to do so on the basis of love. It was generally agreed that young people of marriageable age were too inexperienced to have sound judgment in such an important undertaking. Since most of the bride’s time was to be spent assisting her husband’s mother, functional considerations dictated that the latter was the most interested party in the marriage; appropriately, therefore, she was usually the most active person in selecting her son’s wife. Thus, arranged marriages were customary, and it was not unusual for a young man to meet his bride for the first time at the wedding ceremony. Traditional China made extensive use of the “go-between,” or marriage broker. This occupation served two useful functions: marriage brokers made it their business to have extensive and detailed information about marriageable young people; and they made it possible for families to enter into and break off negotiations without loss of face (Hsu 1948; Lang 1946; Levy 1949).

With industrialization came pressure for changes in Chinese family law. This was evident as early as the Boxer Rebellion at the beginning of the twentieth century, and new codes were promulgated in 1930 and 1931 (well before the communist revolution in China) that reflected Western standards—more emphasis on the nuclear family and less on the extended family, a reduction in male authority, and a closer approximation to legal equality of the sexes. However, the law retained a feature of Chinese filial piety: the obligations to one’s parents superseded the obligations to one’s children. In these matters the communist revolution has represented not so much a break with the past as a continuation of trends already under way (Yang 1959). Although reliable information on postrevolutionary China is still scanty, it appears that whereas the communist regime officially deplores both Western and traditional Chinese ways, love marriages are common, and the influence of the extended family is continuing to wane.

The nuclear family system

As specialized social structures spring up, take over functions from the family, and become societally important and individually rewarding, the resulting reduction in the functional importance of the extended family re-moves incentives for maintaining an extended family system. At the same time there are four functions inherent in the nuclear family that come to the fore as being relevant in mate selection. These functions are: providing emotional gratification in the marital and parental relationships; providing identity and a social status in the societal system to individuals who enter the family by birth, adoption, or marriage—a function to be known here as position-conferring; performing such tasks as cleaning, bringing in supplies, and disposing of waste products, which may be subsumed under maintenance of the household; and child rearing, especially with respect to the parental functions of nurturance and control.

Of these four functions emotional gratification is most explicitly recognized in American culture as relevant to mate selection, and apparently this is so, to an increasing degree, in the middle-class subcultures of western Europe. There can be little doubt that convictions are widespread in the United States and western Europe that a couple should be “in love” before considering marriage and that legal codes are obsolete if they fail to provide for divorce on the ground of chronic marital conflict. Love as a mate-selective criterion invites idiosyncratic interpretation in the sense that, for instance, one man may be attracted to a demurely diffident girl whereas another finds the vivaciously extroverted girl irresistible.

As a mate-selective criterion, position-conferring (especially when phrased as status-conferring) evokes ambivalent responses. In many middle-class settings a girl who is thought to have married for money rather than for love risks social condemnation (Indian culture, by contrast, has had the tradition that it is good for a girl to marry into a subcaste of higher standing than her own). If a girl marries for love plus status improvement, however, she is said to have married “well,” and the durability of the Cinderella legend suggests that there is little novelty in this theme. The woman’s social status depends so largely on her husband’s occupational performance that, for her, mate selection is sometimes spoken of as a “mobility bet.” Such evidence as exists on this matter for the United States indicates that most marriages are between persons of roughly equal social status.

Although all four of the functions mentioned above are relevant to mate selection, a young couple considering marriage can usually check the suitability of each other only with respect to emotional gratification. This may have something to do with the emphasis given love as a criterion. In the premarital setting of early adulthood the other three functions can usually be no more than the focuses of guesswork. It is difficult for a young woman to foresee how a particular man will fare in the occupational sweepstakes and in being a model for their sons. Predictions are similarly difficult for the young man with respect to how a woman will manage their house and mother their children.

Where marriages are voluntary rather than ar-ranged, there is need of some means for marriageable young men and women to meet and to select each other. The practice of dating is societally rational in the sense that it affords this opportunity. On the other hand, dating as a prelude to mate selection has been criticized on the ground that the leisure-time activities of dating fail to provide an adequate setting in which to test prospective spouses with respect to maritally relevant criteria, especially with respect to the functions of house-hold maintenance and child rearing.

In sum, a reduction of functions in the extended family is accompanied by a reduction in the rights and obligations among extended kin that constitute the extended family system. This reduction in the significance of blood relationships shifts the emphasis from the extended family to the nuclear family. Marital solidarity replaces cognatic (both lineal and collateral) solidarity, and love becomes a criterion of mate selection.

Principles of preferential mating

Let us designate as “ego” a person of reference, that is, a person from whose point of view we shall consider certain relationships. All societies desig-nate categories of persons whom ego may not marry, and frequently there are additional categories of persons whom it would be regrettable, but not totally forbidden, for ego to marry. Usually there are implicit, if not explicit, categories of persons whom it would be desirable for ego to marry. These negative and positive expectations can be subsumed under the “principle of incest avoidance” and the “principle of ethnocentrism.” We shall speak of the set of persons whom ego is permitted to marry in any given sociocultural setting as ego’s field of eligible spouse candidates or, in shorter form, as ego’s “field of eligibles.” European social scientists use the term “isolate” to refer to the field of eligibles.

The principle of incest avoidance

Every society has a prohibition against incest, that is, against sexual relations between persons who are closely related. Although the precise relationships that are viewed as incestuous vary from one society to another, they regularly include the mother-son, the father-daughter, and the brother-sister relationships, that is, all heterosexual relationships within the nuclear family except, of course, the marital relationship. The principle of incest avoidance refers to the set of prohibitions existing in every culture to prevent ego from marrying someone too close to him in the kinship system.

Just how the principle of incest avoidance works out varies from one setting to another. In traditional China it was prohibited for ego to marry anyone with the same surname, and in that populous land with few surnames this rule proscribed hundreds of thousands of otherwise eligible spouse candidates. In northern India there was a tradition that marriage was not possible with someone re-moved from ego by less than seven degrees on the father’s side or less than five degrees on the mother’s; a more common rule in India prohibits marriage between relatives linked to a common ancestor within five degrees on the father’s side and three on the mother’s (Goode 1963, p. 210). In some societies ego is encouraged to marry a cross-cousin (e.g., mother’s brother’s daughter) but prohibited from marrying a parallel cousin (e.g., mother’s sister’s daughter). Prior to 1793 it was illegal in Connecticut for ego to marry the sister of his deceased wife; but among the ancient Hebrews there was the custom of the levirate, by which a man was enjoined to marry the widow of his deceased brother if the brother had died without a son. The record shows a very few isolated cases where persons of opposite sex from the same nuclear family were permitted to marry. An example is the brother-sister marriage among the Ptolemies of ancient Egypt. Apparently the practice in these few exceptions functioned to keep power within ruling families.[SeeIncest.]

Ethnocentrism and homogamy

Whereas the principle of incest avoidance prevents ego from marrying someone too close to him in the kinship system, the principle of ethnocentrism prevents his marrying someone too different from him with respect to a number of social characteristics. In other words, ethnocentrism is a force tending toward endogamous and homogamous marriages.

Sumner ([1906] 1959, chapter 1) used the term ethnocentrism to refer to the set of attitudes shared by members of a tribe or other social group to the effect that the members of that group and any others like them were seen as the center of the civilized world and had, therefore, the correct and desirable set of social characteristics. Thus, ethnocentric attitudes lead to the condemnation of outsiders to the degree that they are recognized as differing from one’s group. The minimum degree of social distance on the Bogardus scale is indicated by an affirmative response to the query as to whether or not the respondent would be willing to accept a person with a specified characteristic to close kinship by marriage. Traditionally, the castes of India have been endogamous, as have the subaltern categories of subcaste, section, and subsection. According to Kapadia ([1955] 1958, p. 118), these endogamous restrictions limited a Hindu’s field of eligibles to 50 to 300 families. In 1949, however, the Hindu Marriages Validity Act stipulated that no marriage of Hindus could be invali-dated because of caste or sect differences between the parties concerned. Expert opinion is divided as to the likelihood that caste endogamy will break down.

In accordance with the principle of ethnocentrism there is evidence that in American society ego tends to select a spouse similar to himself with respect to race, religio-ethnic identification, socio-economic status, and other social characteristics. In the United States the most conspicuously homogamous dimension of mate selection is race. Inter-racial marriages are still prohibited by law in a number of the Southern states; moreover, even where such laws do not exist, or where they have been repealed, there is little evidence of enthusiasm for such marriages. Various studies have shown the proportion of racially heterogamous marriages to be under one per cent.[SeeAssimilation.]

The second dimension of ethnocentric preference and prohibition is that of religio-ethnic identification, which includes cultural as well as religious elements. Classifying the 1957 population of the United States into the three major religious categories (Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish), the U.S. Bureau of the Census found that approximately 94 per cent of the married persons had spouses in the same religious categories as themselves. If religious endogamy had not been practiced, and if, therefore, matings had been entirely random with respect to religious affiliation, the proportion having spouses in the same religious category as themselves would have been about 56 per cent (Winch [1952] 1963, p. 331). There is evidence that in heterogeneous communities the probability that ego will marry outside his religious category is greater when his category constitutes a small pro-portion of the community rather than a large proportion. If the religious category has a highly distinctive ethnic identity (e.g., Catholics who are Spanish-speaking in an English-speaking community), the probability of ego’s marrying endogamously is increased.

A third dimension of ethnocentric preference is that of socioeconomic status. Commonly used indexes of socioeconomic status are occupation, income, and number of years of schooling. Numerous studies have shown that people tend to select their spouses from their own socioeconomic strata with respect to all three of these indexes (several are cited in Winch [1952] 1963, pp. 336-338). Other characteristics with respect to which people tend to mate homogamously are age, previous marital status, and location of residence. Systematic research supports the common observation that young people tend to select young mates and older people choose older spouses. No doubt it is partially because of this fact that there is a tendency for people to marry others who are like themselves with respect to previous marital status: divorced men tend to marry divorcees; single persons tend to marry those who have not previously been married; and widows and widowers tend to marry each other. Another common-sense observation that has been supported by research concerns residential propinquity: ego is more likely to marry someone living nearby than someone living far away (Winch [1952] 1963, pp. 322-324, 339-345).

Since people are not randomly distributed through communities but rather tend to live near and to work with others of similar social characteristics, one would expect mate selection to be somewhat homogamous, whether or not there are any sanctions enforcing endogamy. Of course there are sanctions of varying degrees of intensity: for example, in American culture sanctions are quite intense with respect to race, less so with respect to religion and socioeconomic status, and virtually nonexistent with respect to residential propinquity.

Homogamy may also be considered on a more psychological level. For example, there is evidence that spouses tend to resemble each other in level of intelligence, in values (e.g., religious and aesthetic), and in attitudes (e.g., toward birth control and toward communism). When spouses are tested by paper-and-pencil methods, they appear to resemble each other somewhat, but not greatly, with respect to traits of temperament and personality. However, data gathered by other methods, such as interviews and projective methods, lead to the contrary conclusion that, at least in such traits as dominance and dependence, spouses tend to be complementary rather than similar. At present this seeming paradox is unresolved, although the answer may be that the homogamy apparent in paperand-pencil tests is an artifact resulting from the effort of people to represent themselves to be as attractive as possible—what is called the “social desirability” effect (Winch 1958; [1952] 1963, chapter 18).

Differentiation of sex roles

The simple fact that only women can bear children causes every society to recognize some differentiation between the behavior of men and of women. Beyond the behavioral differences that are directly attributable to anatomy and physiology, however, cultures vary greatly in the degree to which they view human behavior as being properly sex differentiated.

From a study of 224 societies, Murdock (1937) has found that men tend to engage in such active and mobile tasks as hunting, fishing, trapping, and lumbering, whereas women tend to specialize in more sedentary but equally important tasks, such as gathering fuel and fruits and cooking and pre-serving meat and fish. More generally, it is possible to conceptualize two criteria that distinguish masculine from feminine tasks. Tasks assigned to men usually require physical exertion and strength, or spatial mobility and absence from home for considerable periods of time, or both. By contrast, feminine activities are typically less demanding of great strength, although perhaps requiring a considerable output of energy, and will involve only a few hours at a time away from home.

Analysis of these differences leads to the conclusion that the sharpness with which a culture distinguishes between masculine and feminine sex roles will be related to the importance it attaches to tasks requiring one or both of the two masculine task characteristics. Military activity is one obvious example that involves both of the masculine criteria; thus it is argued that a highly military-oriented culture will be one that draws a sharp distinction between properly masculine activities and those that are properly feminine. The converse inference is that to the degree that a society’s important tasks do not call for either of the criteria distinguishing masculine activities, there will be no basis for developing highly differentiated sex roles. As nonhuman power has taken over most of the heavy tasks in the industrial societies, the pro-portion of the total labor force that is classified as “white collar” has greatly increased. And white-collar occupations, especially those not requiring travel, can be carried on as well by women as by men. Thus, if Western cultures have been “feminized” over the past century or so, as some writers have claimed, the present analysis would interpret such a trend as a consequence of the increased use of nonhuman power.

Sex dominance in the marital dyad

What are the conditions that result in the dominance of one spouse over the other? The opportunity for dominance exists in a dyad when resources desired by one member are controlled by the other, that is, when one is dependent upon the other. Resources may be viewed broadly to include both material goods, such as food, and intangibles, such as a compliment.

Where no organizational feature exists to deter-mine otherwise, it appears that men have usually dominated women. The reasons for this originate in the two criteria differentiating masculine from feminine pursuits and in their anatomical and physiological bases. A woman with small children has greater need of a man to take care of her than the man has need of her. His care may be viewed as a resource, and by granting or withholding that resource, the man can dominate the woman. This is a state of affairs that has been remarked by social scientists from Aristotle through E. A. Ross and Willard Waller and is perhaps best known to con-temporary readers under the rubric of the “principle of least interest”: that is, the person in a relation-ship who has the least to lose through the termination of the relationship is in a position to demand more from others and thus to dominate them in exchange for his continued participation. Aside from this situation of unilateral dependence, other possibilities are mutual interdependence, where the resources are not available to either one unless they cooperate, and mutual independence, where each has control over his own resources.

With respect to organizational features, W. G. Sumner and A. G. Keller have remarked that where the bridal couple lives has bearing on which is the dominant sex and therefore that matrilocal marriage is a condition favorable to the relative standing of women. In traditional China, the favored pattern was patrilocal, and a wife was expected to obey her husband; masculine dominance was miti-gated, however, in the case of adoptive marriage. According to this pattern, a man having no son might seek a young man (who was usually of somewhat lower social rank) to take the older man’s family name, marry the older man’s daughter, and live matrilocally.

Studies of marriage

During the second quarter of the twentieth century there was a good deal of concern about the state of the family in the Western world. There was evidence that divorce rates had risen, that the family had lost functions to other social structures, that the birth rate had fallen, that certain totalitarian regimes were trying to bring about the disintegration of the family, and that broken families were spawning delinquent children. Family disorganization was widely viewed as a social problem; probably for this reason, numerous studies were undertaken to discover the determinants, or at least some correlates, of what was variously called marital “adjustment,” marital “happiness,” and marital “success.”

Although these studies did not undertake to dis- tinguish very sharply among the three terms just noted, it does seem useful to differentiate them as follows. There are two kinds of marital adjustment, one pertaining to the role and the other to the psyche of the performer. An actor is adjusted to a marital or any other kind of role to the degree that he knows the expectations that define the role and, under the appropriate conditions, can produce the behaviors expected. On the other hand, he is adjusted psychically to the degree that the energy he invests in the role performance is commensurate with the gratification derived from it. Marital “happiness” refers to the subjective response of the actor to marriage and thus is related to psychic adjustment; however, one can be psychically adjusted when both output of energy and input of gratification are low, whereas presumably happiness requires at least a moderately high level of gratification. The term marital “success” implies the existence of a goal of marriage, and whatever goals there may be—avoidance of divorce, procreation, personality development of the spouses—seem to be more clearly conceived by those who write about marriage than by the participants whose behavior the writers describe.

Much of the research on marriage has been concerned with marital adjustment—that is, both with the aptitude to carry out the marital role and with the capacity to derive commensurate gratification from the performance. Kirkpatrick has surveyed a large number of studies and has reported the variables he finds that have correlated most consistently with what is here called marital adjustment. He has divided these variables into two sets: those that were clearly operating before the marriage and those that may or may not have been. Presumably the determinants of marital adjustment are more likely to come from the former set. Kirkpatrick ([1955] 1963, p. 389) presents the following premarital factors as having shown the strongest and most consistent association with high marital adjustment: happiness of parents’ marriage; adequate length of acquaintance, courtship, and engagement; adequate sex information in childhood; personal happiness in childhood; approval of the marriage by parents and others; adjustment in engagement and normal motivation toward marriage; ethnic and religious similarity of the spouses; high social and educational status; maturity (marriage in the late twenties rather than in the teens or early twenties); similar chronological age of the spouses; and harmonious affection with parents during childhood.

Factors that may have become operative during marriage, rather than before, and therefore are regarded as part of the complex of marital adjustment rather than among its determinants are early and adequate orgasm capacity, especially of the wife; confidence in the spouse’s affection and satis-faction with degree of affection shown; equalitarian rather than patriarchal marital relations, with special reference to the role of husband; mental and physical health; and harmonious companionship based on common interests and accompanied by a favorable attitude toward the marriage and the spouse (Kirkpatrick [1955] 1963, p. 394).


[See alsoFamily; Nuptiality; and the biographies ofBurgess; Malinowski; Sumner; Waller; Westermarck.]


Blake, Judith 1961 Family Structure in Jamaica: The Social Context of Reproduction. New York: Free Press.

Bohannan, Paul 1963 Social Anthropology. New York: Holt.

Goode, William J. 1959 The Theoretical Importance of Love. American Sociological Review 24:38-47.

Goode, William J. 1960 Illegitimacy in the Caribbean Social Structure. American Sociological Review 25: 21-30.

Goode, William J. 1963 World Revolution and Family Patterns. New York: Free Press.

Hsu, Francis L. K. 1948 Under the Ancestors’ Shadow: Chinese Culture and Personality. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Kapadia, Kanailal M. (1955) 1958 Marriage and Family in India. 2d ed. Bombay: Oxford Univ. Press.

Kirkpatrick, Clifford (1955) 1963 The Family as Process and Institution. 2d ed. New York: Ronald Press.

Lang, Olga 1946 Chinese Family and Society. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Levy, Marion J. 1949 The Family Revolution in Modern China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Malinowski, Bronislaw (1929) 1962 Marriage. Pages 1-35 in Bronislaw Malinowski, Sex, Culture and Myth. New York: Harcourt.

Murdock, George P. 1937 Comparative Data on the Division of Labor by Sex. Social Forces 15:551-553.

Sumner, William Graham (1906) 1959 Folkways: A study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals. New York: Dover. → A paperback edition was published in 1960 by New American Library.

Winch, Robert F. (1952) 1963 The Modern Family. Rev. ed. New York: Holt.

Winch, Robert F. 1958 Mate-selection: A Study of Complementary Needs. New York: Harper.

Yang, Ch’ ING-K’UN 1959 The Chinese Family in the Communist Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press.

Zimmerman, Carle C. 1947 Family and Civilization. New York: Harper.


Every society has rules governing the assumption of the conjugal roles of husband and wife; there are also discernible rights accruing to and obligations incumbent upon the individuals who assume

these roles. Marriage in all societies thus brings about a change in the jural status of the parties to the contract. Where marriage is defined by the state, it is possible to describe most of its jural entailments by reference to one or more legal codes adopted by that state. However, among many of the peoples studied by anthropologists, the jural tenets governing marriage cannot be ascertained by reference to codes laid down by a state and hence must be derived from the study of the recurrent patterns of behavior and of folk models that prescribe ideal behavior.

Marriage entails not only a change in the jural status of the individuals who enter the roles of husband and wife but also a change in the lawful status of specifiable consanguineal kinsmen of the individual partners. In fact, it is the linkage of groups as well as of individuals that is crucial to the formulation of the difference between marriage and its social analogues. Only marriage creates (or maintains) affinal relationships between the kinsmen of individuals who claim the roles of husband and wife (see Fortes 1959, p. 209). Even where it is socially admissible for individuals to presume conjugal status—that is, where they may assume the husband—wife roles without their actions being legitimated according to prevailing jural rules—this presumption of status does not generate lawful relations of affinity between kinsmen of the “spouses” concerned.

The importance of affinity to an understanding of marriage is made clear through a consideration of the nature of kinship. The social relations subsumed under the concept of kinship are of two fundamental types which, though referable to the biological processes of heterosexual mating and procreation, cannot be reduced to biology. Those social relationships based on parenthood and descent or, more precisely, on parenthood and filiation, are generally termed consanguineal relationships. All persons related by socially defined direct or shared descent are consanguineal kinsmen (P. Bohannan 1963, chapter 4). These “blood relatives” are distinguished in all societies from affinal relatives, i.e., those whose kinship status is funda-mentally grounded “in law.” Human mating is everywhere socially regulated, and adult mating for the purpose of procreation is normally preceded by the creation of jurally derived kinship ties between the mating pair and between certain of their respective consanguineal relatives. The continuance of publicly acknowledged affinal kinship depends on adherence to prescriptions and proscriptions delimited by the particular society under consideration. Whereas many societies make no provision for the legal severance of consanguineal kinship bonds, they all provide for the severance—“by law”—of those which are based “in law.”

Societies differ considerably with respect to the rules governing the way in which the roles of hus-band and wife should be assumed, with respect to the specific rights and obligations which accrue to persons in these roles, and with regard to the behavioral and jural attributes of the other affinal roles created by marriage. Nonetheless, most anthropologists have regarded the institution of marriage as a universal in human societies, and many have attempted to provide definitions of marriage sufficiently general to encompass its various manifestations.

The fact that marriage is closely linked to parent-hood has led many scholars, including Westermarck, Malinowski, and Radcliffe-Brown, to pro-pose definitions of marriage which center on what Malinowski termed “the principle of legitimacy.” Thus, Radcliffe-Brown writes: “Marriage is a social arrangement by which a child is given a legitimate position in the society, determined by parenthood in the social sense” (1950, p. 5). The general, though by no means universal, acceptance of this formulation is indicated by the fact that Notes and Queries on Anthropology defines marriage in an essentially similar, but by implication more limited, manner: “Marriage is a union between a man and a woman such that children born to the woman are the recognized legitimate offspring of both partners” (British Association for the Advancement of Science 1951, p. 110).

Edmund R. Leach was among the first to argue that a definition of marriage in terms of legitimacy is too limited. In his opinion, any attempt at a universal definition of marriage is inevitably “vain,” since the “institutions commonly classed as marriage are concerned with the allocation of a number of distinguishable classes of rights” (1961a, p. 107). Leach suggests that in most cases the institution of marriage serves to allocate rights to either or both spouses; in some cases it serves primarily to allocate rights to the husband and his wife’s brothers.

Despite Leach’s arguments against a universal definition of marriage, his formulations stimulated two fresh attempts at universal definitions. Prince Peter of Denmark suggested that in light of Leach’s propositions, marriage should be defined as “the socially recognized assumption by man and woman of the kinship status of husband and wife” (Peter, Prince of Denmark 1956). The task of the anthropologist would then be to ascertain and delineate the particular rights and obligations associated with these kinship roles in the particular societies being studied.

H. Fischer (1956) called this definition tautological, on the grounds that the Oxford and Webster dictionaries defined “husband” and “wife” respectively by phrases such as “a married man” and “a married woman.” In a discussion of Nayar marriage, Gough agrees and reaffirms the heuristic value of a definition of marriage based on “the principle of legitimacy.” In an attempt to overcome the difficulties inherent in any formulation which de-fines marriage as a union of “a man and a woman,” and in an attempt to provide a substantive definition for the concept of legitimacy, Gough suggests that marriage be defined as “a relationship established between a woman and one or more other persons, which provides that a child born to the woman under circumstances not prohibited by the rules of the relationship is accorded full birth-status rights common to normal members of his society or social stratum” (1959, p. 32).

Her effort to refine the older, more general “principle of legitimacy” definition has yielded one which, on close examination, is equally inadequate. Operating with such a definition, no investi-gator could classify as married any particular woman who had assumed the jurally recognized kinship role of wife but who had not borne children. Of course, the conditions under which a child would be accorded “full birth-status rights” could be elicited by the investigator. However, for any given case, the researcher would have to await the birth—or perhaps the conception—of a child be-fore he could ascertain whether conditions entailed in the husband-wife relationship had been violated. Furthermore, Gough’s definition implies that in any society each person having “full birth-status rights” is the child of a relationship which can be termed marriage. Among various peoples of the world, “full birth-status rights” accrue to persons born of relationships which are not recognized as marriage according to prevailing jural rules.

If a universal definition of marriage is to be formulated, it would seem that the one proposed by Prince Peter should serve as a model. Fischer’s criticism of Prince Peter’s definition may be dis-regarded, since dictionary definitions are usually unsatisfactory bases for discussions of roles. The roles of husband and wife must be defined in terms of the essential rights and obligations and the behavioral attributes entailed in them in any particular society. Gough and Fischer are justified in their concern that confronted with different forms of mating, the anthropologist employing Prince Peter’s definition would be unable to decide which institutions should be referred to as “marriage,” as “concubinage,” etc. However, if the statement were modified so as to define marriage as the jurally valid and socially (or publicly) recognized assumption of the kinship roles of husband and wife, there would be few or no problems concerning the distinction between marriage and its socially recognized alternatives. Such a proviso emphasizes that the publicly acknowledged kinship roles created by marriage—as opposed to its alternatives—derive support from the juridico-political domain of the society. Of course, there may be more than one jurally valid way of assuming the roles of husband and wife—as is the case in some present-day African states which recognize marriages contracted according to one or more sets of “customary laws” as well as marriages contracted in accordance with legal codes based on European models.

It would appear that the cross-cultural study of marriage must rest on the premise that all societies recognize kinship roles which are founded “in law” as well as those which are based ultimately on actual, assumed, or presumed genetic relation-ships. Fundamental to the understanding of the concept of “lawfully based” kinship is the fact that human mating is everywhere subject to socially derived regulations. While it is normally expected that marriage will lead to parenthood, the roles of husband and wife need not be defined by reference to children who will come to be regarded as legiti-mate offspring of individuals in these roles. The roles of husband and wife should be defined in terms of the rights and obligations which attach to them, and marriage must be defined as the lawfully or jurally recognized assumption of these roles.

Choice of spouses

In all societies, socially derived limitations are placed on the range of persons from among whom spouses may be chosen. Regulations which prescribe marriage outside a stipulated group are referred to as rules of exogamy. Kin groups such as lineages, or territorial groups such as bands or villages, may constitute exogamous units. Societies possessing corporate unilineal descent groups usually prescribe that a person select as spouse someone from a descent group other than his own. In some cases the selection may be made from among persons within the descent group but outside specified degrees of relationship. Among the Gisu of east Africa, for example, it is the minimal patrilineage, comprising persons who trace their descent from an ancestor three to five generations removed from the oldest living generation, which constitutes the exogamous unit.

Every society prohibits heterosexual mating between certain “close” consanguineal relatives. This

prohibition is referred to as the incest taboo, and ordinarily it proscribes mating between relatives who stand to each other in the relationships of mother and son, father and daughter, and brother and sister. In many societies the incest taboo is extended to various other kinsmen in the parental and filial generations. Among some royal or ruling groups, as in dynastic Egypt and in Polynesia, relatives ordinarily prohibited from mating may be preferred as marriage partners. The mating of close relatives is also permitted in some societies on specified ritual occasions.

A rule of endogamy exists where the field of possible spouses is limited to persons within an individual’s territorial and/or social group. The castes of traditional India are the most often cited example of endogamous groups. Other societies also prescribe marriage among persons of the same social stratum. Among the Swazi of south Africa, where lineage exogamy prevails and where royalty marries royalty, there are frequent subdivisions of the royal lineage so as to make possible otherwise prohibited marriages. A number of studies indicate that in the absence of explicit prescriptions, it is posssible to discover endogamous tendencies within social or territorial groups of various size and scale.

In addition to proscriptions associated with incest and exogamy, societies usually prohibit marriage between certain other categories of persons In some instances slaves cannot marry freemen. Where age sets are a feature of social organization, as among the Nuer, a man may be prohibited from marrying the daughter of another man in his age set.

Societies which prescribe that a spouse be chosen from among one or more designated categories of persons have been said to possess closed marriage systems. Those in which such prescriptions do not exist have been characterized as having open marriage systems. The designation of a marriage system as “closed” is not meant to suggest total absence of choice in the process of mate selection. This point is illustrated by Klass (1966), who shows that in Bengal (and in other parts of India), while caste affiliation delimits the broad category of persons from which a spouse is chosen, a man who must choose husbands for his daughters or “wards” does so from within a relatively narrow selection of eligible males known to certain of his kinsmen.

The most frequently cited closed marriage systems are found among the indigenous societies of Australia. Some of these societies, for example the Kariera, practice what anthropologists term “symmetrical cross-cousin marriage,” wherein pairs of local groups engage in the “simultaneous or nearly simultaneous exchange of women” (Leach 1961a, p. 59). The male members of the two groups concerned exchange their “sisters” for “wives.” Ideally, a male ego marries his mother’s brother’s daughter, who may at the same time be his father’s sister’s daughter and the sister of his own sister’s husband.

Among the Murngin of Australia is found a type of asymmetrical cross-cousin marriage wherein marriage with the mother’s brother’s daughter is preferred and marriage with the father’s sister’s daughter is proscribed. In this society and others practicing matrilateral cross-cousin marriage, a localized descent group gives wives to one or more other such groups and receives wives from a different set of such groups. In Murngin society there are descent groups which are allied through ties of kinship and ritual. Moreover, each pair of such allied groups stands in balanced opposition to another similar pair with which it exchanges women on a nonexclusive basis. Since men do not marry within their own moiety, any male ego and his mother’s brother are in opposite moieties. Ego’s grou receives wives from and gives prestations to his mother’s brother’s group. Ego’s mother’s brother’s group receives wives from and gives prestations to the group with which ego’s group is allied. This latter group is the one containing ego’s mother’s mother’s brother, who, of course, stands in the relationship of mother’s brother to ego’s own mother’s brother. It can be said, therefore, that in Murngin society the “mothers’ brothers” stand in the relation of “wife givers” to their sisters’ sons (see Leach 1961a, pp. 68-72).

Claude Lévi-Strauss, Edmund R. Leach, Louis Dumont, and others have discussed the economic and political implications of this and other forms of “cousin marriage.” Leach (1961a, pp. 54-104) has shown that where matrilateral cross-cousin marriage prevails, there exist permanent status differences between wife-giving and wife-receiving groups and has demonstrated that the marriage system is not insulated from other domains in the society. In fact, he argues that marriage alliance in such situations is but one of “many continuing relationships between paired local descent groups.” Political and economic relationships are reflected in and sustained by the system of matrilateral cross-cousin marriage.

In open marriage systems, the only group of persons unequivocally proscribed as marriage partners are those to whom the incest taboo is extended. There are no normative prescriptions relating to groups from which spouses should be chosen. Nonetheless, many studies indicate that demographic, ecological, and sociological factors enter into the choice of spouse. Age, residential propinquity, class, religion, ethnicity, education, and occupation have been isolated as important determinants in the choice of marital partners. Likewise, parents and peer groups are often instrumental in delimiting for each individual the field from which a spouse will be chosen.

The transfer of rights at marriage

Marriage involves the allocation of rights and obligations among the parties to the agreement. A number of anthropologists have attempted to classify the various rights which are known to be allocated at marriage in different societies.

In discussing the jural element in marital and other kinship relations, Radcliffe-Brown (1950, p. 12) distinguishes personal rights (jus in personam) from possessive rights (jus in rem). A right in personam confers on an individual or a group the power to order the performance of certain duties by another individual or group. Rights in rem constitute claims on an object or person such that any encroachment on the object or person constitutes a violation of the “possessor’s” rights. In most societies husbands and wives have personal rights in each other: either spouse may claim certain duties of the other. It is also common to find that a husband has “possessive” rights in relation to his wife. Her seduction, her abduction, or her murder would constitute a serious infringement of her husband’s rights.

In an important contribution to the literature on marriage, Laura Bohannan (1949) distinguishes two classes of rights in females which may be allocated at marriage. Rights in uxorem (rights in a woman as wife) are distinguished from rights in genetricem (rights in a woman as mother).

In her discussion of Dahomean marriage, Bohannan shows that rights over a woman’s sexual powers and certain of her domestic services were transferred from a woman’s patrilineage to the man or woman who made the appropriate bride-wealth payments. In most of the “types” of Daho-mean marriage, rights to any children a woman might bear during the course of her marriage were also transferred from a woman’s patrilineage to that of her husband. Distinct classes of marriage payments were necessary to the transfer of each of these two classes of rights. However, in certain “types” of marriage, rights in genetricem were retained by the woman’s natal patrilineage; this might occur in cases where a lineage was faced with a shortage of male heirs and one of the daughters of the lineage was given in marriage to a man who agreed to make all the bride-wealth payments except those which would have given him jural authority over children of the marriage. Moreover, the marriage of a woman of the royal lineage never involved the transfer of rights in genetricem to the lineage of her huband (L. Bohannan 1949).

Even though it is usually rights in women which are in the forefront of marital negotiations, Leach has pointed out that marriages also serve to allocate rights in and over men (1961a, pp. 107-108). He suggests that a marriage may serve to do the following:

(1) To establish the legal father of a woman’s children.

(2) To establish the legal mother of a man’s children.

(3) To give the husband a monopoly of the wife’s sexuality.

(4) To give the wife a monopoly of the husband’s sexuality.

(5) To give the husband partial or monopolistic rights to the wife’s domestic and other labor services.

(6) To give the wife partial or monopolistic rights to the husband’s labor services.

(7) To give the husband partial or total rights over property belonging or potentially accruing to the wife.

(8) To give the wife partial or total rights over property belonging or potentially accruing to the husband.

(9) To establish a joint fund of property—a partnership—for the benefit of the children of the marriage.

(10) To establish a socially significant “relationship of affinity” between the husband and his wife’s brothers.

Leach thus focuses attention on rights in and regarding children, sexuality, domestic and economic services, and property. In the last instance, he suggests that marriages may establish between groups of men mutual interdependencies which could entail any of the above rights as well as others of a political nature.

Where there are corporate kin groups, the allocation of rights at marriage is usually effected by and between at least two such groups. In the case of first marriages, it is usual that the groups into which the husband and wife were born are parties in this rearrangement of social relations.

Where recruitment to the corporate kin groups is based on patrilineal descent, normally the rights over a woman’s sexuality and procreative capacities that are held by her natal group are transferred

at marriage to the groom and his natal group.

Thus, whereas prior to marriage any sexual offense against a woman constitutes a violation of rights held by her kin group, after marriage such an offense is an infringement of the groom’s rights. Similarly, whereas children born to a woman out- , side marriage would fall under the jural authority of her natal kin group, those born after marriage are subject to the authority of, and have rights in, the groom’s kin group.

Total rights over the bride’s domestic and economic services are seldom transferred from her natal group to her husband or his kin group. The woman herself, as an adult member of the society, may retain some control over the dispensing of these services. Often her kin group retains the right to call upon these services. Among the Yoruba of Nigeria, for example, rights in the bride’s sexuality, rights over her procreative powers, and partial rights over her domestic services are acquired at marriage by the groom and his patrilineage. However, a woman maintains control over her economic powers and resources, and her natal lineage retains the right to call upon her domestic services in certain circumstances. She is called upon to buy and prepare food at times when deities associated with her lineage must be propitiated, and on the death of a member of her lineage, she is expected to be of service in various ways.

This raises another point: in most societies possessing corporate patrilineages, a married woman does not usually relinquish all her rights in her natal lineage. She may retain some proprietary rights therein, and she usually remains under the religious protection of her lineage ancestors. Moreover, a woman’s lineage may have the right to reclaim control over her sexual and procreative powers should there be a breach of the marital agreement on the part of her husband. While these statements are generally true, there are some patrilineal societies in which a married woman becomes virtually “absorbed” into her husband’s lineage. According to Gluckman (1950), a married woman among the Zulu of south Africa had virtually no rights outside her husband’s lineage; once a woman was married, her natal lineage forfeited virtually all authority over her.

Whatever rights are transferred to the husband or his lineage may be temporarily or permanently reallocated by him or his lineage. The most common example of this is the practice of “wife-lending” found among the Kipsigis and others. The fact that a man may permit another to have access to his wife’s sexuality is proof of his monopoly over her sexual capacities. In some societies, a man who is impotent may choose a sexual partner for his wife in order that she may bear children. Where this is so, the husband is the lawful father of the children, even though he is not the genitor. Where a female is permitted to assume the role of hus-band, she bestows her rights of sexual access to her wife on a man of her own or of her wife’s choice.

In matrilineal societies, rights over the procreative capacities of women are held in perpetuity by their kin groups while partial or total rights in their sexuality are transferred at marriage to their husbands. Customarily, the husbands also attain rights to the domestic services of their wives. Among the Bemba of east central Africa, for example, a husband has monopoly over his wife’s sexuality, but the children of any marriage belong to their mother’s matrilineage and are therefore under the jural authority of the adult males of that group. A wife keeps her husband’s house and con-tributes her labor to his agricultural pursuits.

Marriages and the exchanges of goods and/or services occasioned thereby are sometimes processual events extending over considerable periods of time. The rights and obligations entailed in the marriage may be allocated in serial fashion, the timing of their transfer being dependent on the transfer of the appropriate goods and services. In such cases, the exchange of goods and services may commence during the period of betrothal and continue even after the formal transfer of certain rights has taken place.

Where goods and services are exchanged as part of the marriage procedure, certain of these may be regarded as necessary prestations without whose exchange a transfer of rights will not take place. Others are contingent prestations which, although part of the contract, are not essential to the ex-change of jural authority and the assumption of marital rights and obligations. As Fortes says, they constitute the “means of winning and preserving the goodwill of those with the power to transfer marital rights” (1962, p. 10).

The most general terms used to describe prestations entailed in the marital contract are those of bridewealth (or bride-price) and dowry. The former refers to gifts presented by the groom’s kin group to that of the bride, and the latter describes gifts made by the bride’s kin group to that of the groom. The dowry is the more familiar to Westerners, since for centuries it has been a part of the marriage contract in Europe. However, both bride-wealth and dowry have been reported for various parts of the world.

Throughout history, the transfer of rights at

marriage has been enshrined in ritual and ceremony. This is a correlate of the fact that marriage transactions are always “publicly” acknowledged. The ceremonies which take place in effect call forth “the public” to bear witness to the lawfulness of the transactions. The sanctions which emanate from the jural domain of the society are strengthened by the incorporation of rituals associated with the religious realm of the society.

Concurrent marriages. The transfer of rights at marriage and the rituals associated with this transfer signify the assumption of new roles by the parties involved. In societies which permit polygyny or polyandry—marriages entailing a plurality of wives or of husbands, respectively—one of the partners to a marriage assumes the role of co-wife or co-husband along with the role of husband or wife.

In polygynous marriages, the husband usually acquires the same categories of rights in each of his wives. In patrilineal societies, a man is the legitimate father of all his wives’ children, even though his rights over the wives’ sexuality may be assigned to or “usurped by” other men. The children of polygynous marriages may or may not have equal claims on their father’s property. In any case, each wife considers herself the guardian of her children’s rights within the family created by the polygynous marriage.

Where polyandry is practiced, by definition a man does not have exclusive rights in his wife’s sexuality. He may or may not have claims over the children which she bears him. Among the Sinhalese, rights over the wife’s sexuality are partially vested in the first husband. The sexual rights of the other husbands are exercised with the consent of the first husband and the wife. A husband has claims over those of the wife’s children whom he has fathered, and the children have legitimate claims over the property of their respective fathers. All the children have equal claims to the properties owned by their mother.

Among the Nayar of south India, a ritual marriage ceremony, called the tāli rite, bestowed upon a group of men of appropriate caste the right of access to a woman’s sexuality. The completion of the tali rite marked a girl’s transition to woman-hood. Thereafter, when she attained appropriate age, she could begin to enter into relationships, termed sambandham unions, with a number of men, for whom she might bear children. Rights over a Nayar woman’s procreative powers were retained by her matrilineage, which had jural authority over her children. Nonetheless, in order for a child to have “full birth-status rights” in his mother’s lineage, he had to have an acknowledged father. A man acknowledged the paternity of a child by bearing certain expenses associated with its delivery. This man could be any one of those with whom the mother had entered into a sambandham union. In cases of doubtful paternity, a woman’s current “visiting husband” could be forced by an assembly of persons in the neighbor-hood to make the birth payments. “But if no man of appropriate rank could be cited as potential father, woman and child were expelled from their lineage and caste” (Gough 1959, p. 30).

The levirate and the sororate

In many societies, an individual may assume the role of husband or wife in order to secure rights for a kinsman. Where the “true” levirate prevails, upon the death of a husband, it is the duty of one of his brothers to marry the widow, and any children born to the union are counted as the progeny of the deceased man. Certain of the “ghost marriages” found among the Nuer resemble the levirate. A man could marry a woman “to the name of” a brother who died childless, and the offspring of the union would be designated as children of the deceased. These practices differ from the custom of adelphic widow inheritance, wherein a man marries his deceased brother’s widow and bears children who are counted as his own. Where the “true” sororate prevails, the husband of a barren woman marries her sister, and at least some of the children born to the union are counted as those of the childless wife. The term “sororate” is also used in reference to the custom whereby, upon the death of a wife, her kin supply a sister as wife for the widower. In the latter case, however, any children born to the woman are recognized as her own.

Affinal relationships

The transfer of rights at marriage not only signals the couple’s assumption of new conjugal roles but also serves to establish or perpetuate affinal relationships between consanguineal kinsmen of the spouses. Often associated with affinal roles are behavioral attributes commonly subsumed under the categories of “joking relationships” and “avoidance relationships.” Radcliffe-Brown (1952, pp. 90-116) has argued that the respect implied in avoidance practices and the formalized disrespect demonstrated by joking relationships are expressions of alliance or consociation. The actors in roles characterized by joking or by avoidance have divergent interests which could generate conflict between them and thereby under-mine the bases of their common interests. The institutionalization of avoidance and joking serves to minimize the chance of the development of openly hostile relations between the parties.

The most widespread of the avoidance practices are those which restrict contact between a husband or wife and the mother-in-law and/or father-in-law. Such restrictions on contact may also extend to actual or classificatory brothers or sisters of the father-in-law or mother-in-law. Among the patrilineal Swazi of south Africa, a wife is prohibited from coming into face-to-face contact with her husband’s father and those of his male relatives of the same generation resident in the compound. A man behaves in similar fashion toward his motherin-law, but the likelihood of such contact is minimized by their residence in different compounds and often in different villages.

Joking relationships most commonly exist between a man or woman and affinal relatives of opposite sex in the spouse’s generation. These relationships are characterized by the use of intimate names, the use of language otherwise considered lewd or abusive, and, in some cases, by indulgence in sexual play.

Affinal relatives are often expected to give assistance to one another in times of exigency. In many societies where political functions are vested in roles defined primarily by kinship criteria, affinal relatives serve to minimize open conflict between their respective consanguineal kin groups. They might serve, as among the Tiv of Nigeria, as emissaries of peace in cases of latent or open conflict between two lineages.

The linkage of individuals through marriage leads to the creation of new groups or, in NadeFs terminology, to the creation of new sets of bounded social relationships and thereby constitutes a phase in the developmental cycle of kin groups. As Radcliffe-Brown has pointed out, the eventual result of most marriages is that new sets of individuals are linked through common descendants.

Ultimately, the fission of kin groups can often be traced to relations generated by marriage. This process is evident in many societies where lineages (or, for that matter, ramages) are a feature of social organization. When adult members of a lineage segment occupy a common residence along with their spouses and children, the process of incorporation of additional coresidents through marriage often eventually leads to the founding of households in other locations. In the course of time, the founders of such households and their descendants may come to form new lineage segments.

Postmarital residence

In some societies, spouses are expected to live together throughout the period of their marriage; in others, they may be members of separate domestic groups and only visit each other’s residences.

The “residence rules” outlined by anthropologists refer to situations in which husbands and wives are members of the same domestic unit. Neolocal residence predominates when couples establish in-dependent domestic units after marriage. Residence is characterized as virilocal when most couples in a society join a domestic group in which the husband resided prior to marriage or in which he rather than the wife has proprietary or other claims. Residence is called uxorilocal when couples join the domestic group to which the wife was attached prior to the marriage or in which the wife rather than the husband has claims. The above terms may be compounded with others to describe more precisely the nature of the domestic group joined by the couple. Thus, viripatrilocal residence refers to domicile in a domestic group whose core includes the groom’s father. Uxorimatrilocal residence refers to domicile in a group whose core includes the bride’s mother. The term avunculocal is used to describe residence in a group whose core includes the groom’s mother’s brother.

Data collected by Goodenough (1956) and J. L. Fischer (1958) among the Nakanai of New Britain show that the classification of postmarital residence patterns is not as straightforward as some might assume. Their data also illustrate that there is no simple correlation between particular residence rules and particular rules for recruitment to descent groups. Goodenough shows that in this matrilineal society, a man takes his bride to live in the village in which his father resides. The couple lives there so long as the groom’s father is alive, and they may remain after the father’s death, particularly if the father is without sisters’ sons who would be his jural heirs. More often, however, after the father’s death, the couple moves to the residence of the husband’s matrilineage, in which he has hereditary land rights. A man whose father is deceased takes his bride to live with the group which includes the man who acted as father-surrogate at the time of the marriage. Goodenough shows that even where ideal residence patterns suggest one or more prevailing modes of residence, the actual choices which couples make may depend on economic and other factors.

Fischer, who also worked on the island of Truk and who arrived at a classification of residences significantly different from Goodenough’s, has suggested that residence be elicited for individuals than rather for married couples. He suggests that every person in a household has a “kin sponsor”

and that his relationship to this sponsor most appropriately describes the residence pattern for that individual.

While Fischer’s suggestion has some merit for the classification of residence patterns for entire populations, attention cannot be shifted from the fact that in most societies the major spatial arrangements of individuals are associated with marriage. Moreover, the kinds of rearrangements which do occur have important implications for many kinds of social relations. It has been shown, for example, that the study of the developmental cycle of domestic groups touches on virtually all aspects of social structure and that postmarital residence patterns are crucial to the understanding of the development of domestic groups (Goody 1958).

Alternatives to marriage

Marriage is a process or event signifying the assumption of the roles of husband and wife in accordance with jural tenets prevalent in the society or stratum of society to which the parties belong. In contemporary societies, marriages are contracts which must be formally legitimized by the state. A state may provide that for purposes of inheritance, or for other specified purposes, persons who are not legally married to each other but who share a common domicile and who otherwise demonstrate a claim to conjugal status may be accorded some or all rights associated with legal marriage. Similarly, a state may choose to recognize marriages contracted according to rules formulated prior to its existence by some or all of the groups which constitute it. Such is the case in various parts of the world where formerly autonomous or semiautonomous political entities have come together to form modern nation-states.

Unions other than lawful marriage are known to have existed in stateless societies as well as in states which did not make the legitimization of marriages their official concern. Yet it seems particularly characteristic of modern societies that there are individuals who, for various reasons, assume some or all of the obligations and rights associated with the roles of husband and wife without entering into legal marriage. Reference has already been made to the fact that one of the crucial ways in which such unions differ from marriage is that they do not create lawful kinship ties between consanguineal relatives of the couple.

These “consensual unions” occur in different frequencies in different modern societies. In the United States, in the Caribbean, and in other areas where such unions occur with relatively high frequency among certain socioeconomic classes and/ or ethnic groups, research has centered primarily on family organization, and consensual unions are often regarded as but one aspect of over-all “family instability.” The result is that while many hypotheses have been offered to account for the matrifocal or matricentric family which, in some areas, is one structural correlate of consensual unions, few students have offered hypotheses which explicitly attempt to account for the origin and/or persistence of such unions.

M. G. Smith (1962) has presented a wealth of statistical data in support of his hypothesis that specific mating patterns underlie the various forms of family organization in the Caribbean. He has demonstrated that the pattern of consensual mating underlies the matrifocal family in that area. However, he does not deal with the origin and persistence of the mating patterns themselves. Nevertheless, the data suggest that demographic and economic factors are important determinants of these patterns. For example, where the sex ratio is altered by the necessity that males migrate to find work, women often enter into extramarital unions with single or married men who remain behind. Such alliances may or may not entail co-residence.

Consensual unions may constitute a stage in the development of domestic groups and as such are not so much alternatives as preludes to marriage. In parts of the Caribbean where great prestige is attached to church marriages followed by festivities requiring the outlay of large sums of money, couples often assume the roles of husband and wife by mutual consent until such time as they can afford a religious marriage ceremony. Thus, many couples establish a common domicile and bear children before they enter into matrimony “before the eyes of man and of God.”

This raises an important point. Even though, in most parts of the modern world, marriages may be contracted without religious ceremonies, historically marriage was the concern of religious institutions before it became the official concern of the state, and most religious doctrines still include prescriptions and proscriptions regarding marriage. Where the influence of religious tradition is particularly strong, civil marriages may be regarded as little more than alternatives to or complements of “true marriage.” One of the consequences of this, as evidenced in parts of the Caribbean, is that couples enter into extramarital relationships until such time as they can finance the religious and convivial ceremonies as well as fulfill the legal requirements for marriage.

Marital stability and divorce

The ambiguities entailed in the concept of marital stability have been succinctly stated by David Schneider:

Stability may be defined in terms of the change of rules or expectations over time or in terms of the degree to which the rules or expectations are conformed to. Stable marriage may be defined as stable jural relations irrespective of conjugal relations, as stable conjugal and jural relations, or simply as stable conjugal relations. (1953, p. 56)

Thus, divorce, defined as the lawful dissolution of jural ties established at marriage, may occur relatively infrequently even though separation and other breaches in conjugal relations occur relatively frequently. In traditional Nuer society, the jural bonds established by marriage were stable; divorce, signified by the return of bride wealth, was rare. On the other hand, conjugal separation was relatively frequent. Max Gluckman (1950) was one of the first anthropologists to deal with the factors which contribute to the jural stability of marriage in preindustrial societies. His data on the Lozi and the Zulu led him to the hypothesis that the stability of jural relations established by marriage is correlated with the presence of patrilineages. He argued that where the “principle of father-right” prevailed, as among the Zulu, there was a complete and final transfer of women into their husbands’ lineages (from which their children obtained their legal rights), and he suggested that this fact accounted for the virtual absence of divorce in such societies.

In a reconsideration of the Gluckman hypothesis, Fallers pointed out that not all patrilineal societies provide for the absorption of women into their husbands’ lineages. He suggests that where women retain rights in their natal patrilineages, patriliny contributes to the jural instability of marriage by dividing the loyalties of spouses. Fallers (1957) found among the Busoga a relatively high incidence of divorce, which he attributed in part to the fact that loyalties to natal lineages undermined the bonds established at marriage.

Leach (1961a, pp. 114-123), Cohen (1961), and others have contributed to the discussions of marital stability begun by Gluckman, Schneider, and Fallers. However, there is yet to be undertaken the quantitative and comparative analyses required for a definitive statement on the determinants of stability in the jural aspects of marriage. Whether the aim is to isolate the determinants of differential rates of divorce within a single society or to account for the differences in the divorce rates reported for various societies, care must be taken to insure that the data utilized are in fact representative of the populations discussed. Moreover, more attention must be given than has been in the past to the limits of the utility of numerical data, which, at best, can be considered reliable for relatively short time spans.

The separation of spouses is usually taken as an index of instability in conjugal relations. However, it should be obvious that separation can only be taken as indicative of the disintegration of conjugal bonds when the coresidence of spouses is a societal norm. Even in these cases, separation does not always signal instability in conjugal relations. Among the Yoruba, it is common to find women living and working in one place while their husbands live and work in another. So long as these women are not known to have committed adultery, and so long as they fulfill certain responsibilities to their husbands and their husbands’ lineages, their conjugal relations are not necessarily impaired.

The distinction drawn by Schneider between stability in conjugal relations and stability in the jural aspects of marriage relations is useful in the analysis of marriage in contemporary societies. For example, it would be useful to make such a distinction in discussions of marriage patterns in the Caribbean and in the United States. As has been pointed out, among some of the lower-class populations in these areas, consensual mating is common. Not all the parties to consensual unions are persons who have never been legally married. In fact, where the economics of divorce are a deterrent to the lawful dissolution of marriage, consensual unions are often an alternative to divorce and remarriage. Hence, the jural relations established at marriage are often maintained even though conjugal relations are completely or partially severed.

Most of the societies whose marriage systems are described in the anthropological literature are now incorporated into independent states. The very existence of these states signals changes in the rules regarding the establishment of marital contracts, since all contemporary states reserve the right to define what types of union constitute legal marriage.

There is general agreement that the economic and demographic changes taking place in the “developing areas” are also effecting changes in traditional marriage systems. However, Goode (1963) has pointed out the difficulties involved in isolating cause—effect relationships between changes in a society’s family patterns, including marriage, and

changes in its economic organization. Considerable refinement in research strategies is necessary before it will be possible to state with confidence the extent to which, the precise ways in which, and the specific points at which the spread of industrial technologies and the growth of cities impinge upon or serve to undermine traditional family structures and marriage patterns.

Some of the studies of marriage found in the anthropological literature provide convenient points of departure for investigations of changes in the rules and behavior associated with marriage in different parts of the world. However, it is obvious that analyses of changing patterns of marriage require the collection of a larger body of quantifiable data than is available in most existent anthropological studies of marriage. Whereas most of the marriage systems described in the anthropological literature lent themselves to representation in terms of mechanical models, such models are becoming increasingly inadequate as representations of particular systems and as bases for comparative studies. The rules governing the establishment of marriage contracts, the factors influencing the choice of spouses, the rights and obligations entailed in conjugal roles, and the behavior of persons in these roles are sufficiently variable in any one system to require partial or total representation by means of statistical models. With the construction of such models, we can begin the assessment of the directions and rates of change in marriage systems and the isolation of the specific variables which account for these changes.

Gloria A. Marshall


Bohannan, Laura 1949 Dahomean Marriage: A Revaluation. Africa 19:273-287.

Bohannan, Paul 1963 Social Anthropology. New York: Holt.

British Association FOR THE Advancement of Science 1951 Notes and Queries on Anthropology. 6th ed. London: Routledge. → The first edition was published in 1874. The sixth edition was revised and rewritten by a committee of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.

Christensen, Harold T. (editor) 1964 Handbook of Marriage and the Family. Chicago: Rand McNally.

Clarke, Edith 1957 My Mother Who Fathered Me: A Study of the Family in Three Selected Communities in Jamaica. London: Allen & Unwin.

Cohen, Ronald 1961 Marriage Instability Among the Kanuri of Northern Nigeria. American Anthropologist New Series 63:1231-1249.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1951 Kinship and Marriage Among the Nuer. Oxford Univ. Press.

Fallers, L. A. 1957 Some Determinants of Marriage Stability in Busoga: A Reformulation of Gluckman’s Thesis. Africa 27:106-123,

Fischer, H. T. 1956 For a New Definition of Marriage. Man 56:87 only.

Fischer, John L. 1958 The Classification of Residence in Censuses. American Anthropologist New Series 60: 508-517.

Fortes, Meyer 1959 Descent, Filiation and Affinity: A Rejoinder to Dr. Leach. Man 59:193-197, 206-212.

Fortes, Meyer (editor) 1962 Marriage in Tribal societies. Cambridge Papers in Social Anthropology, No. 3. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Gluckman, Max 1950 Kinship and Marriage Among the Lozi of Northern Rhodesia and the Zulu of Natal. Pages 166-206 in A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and Daryll Forde (editors), African Systems of Kinship and Marriage. Oxford Univ. Press.

Goode, William J. 1963 World Revolution and Family Patterns. New York: Free Press.

Goode, William J. (editor) 1964 Readings on the Family and Society. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Goodenough, Ward H. 1956 Residence Rules. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 12:22-37.

Goody, Jack R. 1956 A Comparative Approach to Incest and Adultery. British Journal of Sociology 7:286-305.

Goody, Jack R. (editor) 1958 The Developmental Cycle in Domestic Groups. Cambridge Papers in Social Anthropology, No. 1. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Gough, E. Kathleen 1959 The Nayars and the Definition of Marriage. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 89:23-34.

Klass, Morton 1966 Marriage Rules in Bengal. American Anthropologist New Series 68:951-970.

Lawrence, William; and Murdock, George P. 1949 Murngin Social Organization. American Anthropologist New Series 51:58-66.

Leach, Edmund R. 1961a Rethinking Anthropology. London School of Economics and Political Science, Monographs on Social Anthropology, No. 22. London: Athlone.

Leach, Edmund R. 1961b Asymmetric Marriage Rules, Status Difference, and Direct Reciprocity: Comments on an Alleged Fallacy. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 17:343-351.

LÉvi-Strauss, Claude 1949 Les structures élémentaires de la parenté. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Lowie, Robert 1933 Marriage. Volume 10, pages 146-154 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

Malinowski, Bronislaw (1929) 1962 Marriage. Pages 1-35 in Bronislaw Malinowski, Sex, Culture and Myth. New York: Harcourt.

Mogey, John (editor) (1962) 1963 Family and Marriage. Leiden (Netherlands): Brill. → First published in Volume 3 of the International Journal of Comparative Sociology.

Peter, Prince of Denmark 1956 For a New Definition of Marriage. Man 56:48 only.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1950 Introduction. Pages 1-85 in A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and Daryll Forde (editors), African Systems of Kinship and Marriage. Oxford Univ. Press.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1951 Murngin Social Organization. American Anthropologist New Series 53:37-55.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. (1952) 1961 Structure and Function in Primitive Society: Essays and Addresses. London: Cohen & West; New York: Free Press.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R.; and Forde, Daryll (editors) 1950 African Systems of Kinship and Marriage. Published for the International African Institute. Ox-ford Univ. Press.

Schneider, David M. 1953 A Note on Bridewealth and the Stability of Marriage. Man 53:55-57. → For the ensuing discussion on this topic, see the articles numbered 122, 223, and 279 in Volume 53 of Man, by E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Max Gluckman, and E. R. Leach, respectively; see also the articles numbered 96, 97, and 153 in Volume 54 of Man, by Max Gluckman, William Watson, and E. R. Leach, respectively.

Schneider, David M. 1965 Some Muddles in the Models: Or, How the System Really Works. Pages 25-85 in Conference on New Approaches in Social Anthropology, 1963, Cambridge, The Relevance of Models for Social Anthropology. Edited by Michael Banton. Association of Social Anthropologists, Monograph No. 1. London: Tavistock.

Smith, M. G. 1953 Secondary Marriage in Northern Nigeria. Africa 23:298-323.

Smith, M. G. 1962 West Indian Family Structure. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press.

Winch, Robert; Mcginnis, Robert; and Barringer, Her-bert (editors) (1953) 1962 Selected Studies in Marriage and the Family. Rev. ed. New York: Holt.


All societies prohibit marriage with certain relatives, but some societies complement this prohibition by prescribing, or preferring, marriage with other relatives. In this way two kinds of cousins are sometimes distinguished, marriage being prohibited between those who are children of siblings of the same sex (“parallel cousins”), while it is prescribed between children of siblings of opposite sex (“cross-cousins”). This disposition is generally accompanied by exogamy. This article attempts to sum up recent developments in the theory of cross-cousin marriage.

Descent and alliance

The expression “marriage alliance,” in which “alliance” refers to the repetition of intermarriage between larger or smaller groups, denotes what amounts to a special theory of kinship, a theory developed to deal with those types of kinship systems that embody positive marriage rules, though it also affords certain general theoretical insights regarding kinship. Two points may be noted at the outset: (1) The combination of the positive marriage rule with exogamy, or at the very least with a prohibition against marriage between parallel cousins, is essential to the type of system under description here; a preference for marriage with the father’s brother’s daughter, as found among some Islamic peoples, is a quite different phenomenon. (2) The approach here presented is essentially common to several writers, though an element of personal interpretation is inevitable.

In the initial stages of kinship studies, the re-construction of fanciful marriage rules (or mating arrangements) as having supposedly existed in the past was widely used in order to explain seemingly strange ways of classifying relatives (kinship terminologies). This practice has brought discredit, in the eyes of some, to the study of both marriage rules and terminologies. In 1871 Lewis Henry Morgan made two assumptions: (1) terminology reflects behavior, and hence, (2) if a terminology cannot be understood from present behavior, it must be because the behavior it reflects belongs to the past. [See the biography of Morgan, Lewis Henry.]

Quite apart from the difficulty of reconstructing past behavior, anthropological thought in this matter is still ethnocentric. The underlying assumption is that all peoples entertain the same ideas about kinship; their classifying of relatives in different ways is, therefore, due to differences in behavior. Fully excusable in Morgan, such an assumption is less so today.

W. H. R. Rivers recognized the link between an actual marriage rule (symmetrical cross-cousin marriage) and a certain type of terminology (often called “bifurcate merging”). For Rivers, the marriage rule was the cause, the terminology the effect, and he saw his task as explaining the marriage rule itself. [See the biography of RIVERS.] Once again, terminology reflects behavior, and again historical speculation is called in, this time to discover the “origin” of one item, which is in fact essentially a normative trait. In our time the different features of a kinship system are, in practice, often considered in isolation or are hierarchized according to what is assumed to be their degree of reality or determinativeness. This tendency, if not found in such crudity as in the past, still exerts considerable pressure even on the best minds, and that it constitutes a major obstacle to the understanding of certain kinship systems can be shown by the example of Australian kinship, a classical subject for kinship theory. In Australian section systems, de-scent is overstressed; the reasons that may elsewhere justify this emphasis are here misplaced, for it prejudices the consideration of other elements in the system.

In writing about Australian kinship systems, authors vie with each other in stressing that in

symmetrical cross-cousin marriage arrangements, double descent is always present or implied. This is unobjectionable in itself, but in the literature it is accompanied by a bias which makes itself obvious by repetition, whether it be in B. Z. Seligman’s at-tempt to reduce the “type of marriage” to “forms of descent” (1928, p. 534), however strange the latter forms may appear, or in Radcliffe-Brown’s overemphasis upon descent, or in Murdock’s out-bidding of Radcliffe-Brown in this respect. Radcliffe-Brown was not content with finding an underlying matrilineal exogamy in his classic Australian patrilineal systems and with seeing in what is now called “double descent” a widespread principle of Australian kinship. He claimed that his second kind of exogamous group actually “existed,” whereas he had only inferred it (1931, pp. 39, 439); the point is insisted upon by Goody (1961, pp. 6 ff). It is perplexing later on to find Murdock opposing Radcliffe-Brown, while praising the same discovery in others; but the crux of the matter is that in Murdock’s opinion Radcliffe-Brown had not gone far enough in stressing descent and descent groups, for Radcliffe-Brown had maintained, at another level, the primacy of individual relation-ships and marriage rules over the arrangement of groups (Murdock 1949, pp. 51 ff.).

Actually, the hypothesis of underlying matrilineal exogamy among the Kariera and Aranda accounts for the allocation of alternate generations to different groups. Among them, the patrilineal group is conceived not as a unity over a continuous series of generations but as a duality made up of two alternate generation-sections, called by different names and following different marriage rules (the grandson falling back, so to speak, into the grandfather’s section). This is the simple, concrete sociological fact, widespread in Australia. If we take this for granted, together with intermarriage between the named sections, we can in each case draw a simple diagram of the whole tribe. In Figure 1 the sign [=] denotes intermarriage in both directions, the letters A, B, etc., represent patrilineal groups, and the numbers 1 and 2 are used for the two alternating generation-sections in each patrilineal group. The system of Ambrym (Balap) is easily represented in the same fashion (Deacon 1927). All three systems represent variations on the same theme, the number of patrilineal groups being respectively two, four, and three, the number of sections four, eight, and six. Each of the three systems may be conceptualized as forming a single whole through a regular chain of intermarriage and patrilineal descent. The differences in the arrangement follow necessarily from the numbers of groups (for details, see Dumont 1966). I do not pretend that a second unilineal principle cannot be said to underlie these systems, but only that the above is a simpler view of them. Let us now turn to the general theory that, like the above analysis, recognizes intermarriage as a basic element in those systems which possess a preferential or prescriptive marriage rule.


We must neglect the scholars who had previously advanced the distinction and description of the types of cross-cousin marriage (e.g. Fortune 1933; Wouden 1935) and start with the general theory of Lévi-Strauss. His monumental book Les structures élémentaires de la parenté (1949) goes far beyond our limits. Josselin de Jong (1952) has provided an able summary of the book, while Leach (1961) and Needham (1960) have sympathetically, but sharply, criticized its detail. Our concern here is only with its leading ideas.

From the present point of view, the work is first of all a comparative study of positive marriage rules, informed by a general theory of kinship. Preferential marriage rules and marriage prohibitions are accounted for within an integrated body of theory. The prohibition of incest is recognized as universal; it is seen as a basic condition of social life. A man cannot take in marriage the women who are his immediate kin; on the contrary, he has to abandon them as wives to others and to receive from others his wife or wives. Levi-Strauss considers this situation as a universal principle which lies beyond sociological explanation—and which implies an opposition between consanguinity and affinity as the cornerstone of kinship systems. He views marriage as predominantly a process of ex-change (between one man and other men or between one domestic group and others), and he sees in positive marriage rules devices through which this exchange is directly regulated, giving rise to what he has called “elementary” structures.

Let us note that a kinship system is viewed here, starting from its basis in the incest prohibition, as an entirety resting on an opposition and not as a mere collection of features in which one feature might, for a priori reasons, be considered to deter-mine the others. Abstractly, a kinship system is taken as combining a number of features (descent, inheritance, residence, affinity), and an effort is made to characterize the whole by the relations that prevail between the different features. Thus, a system is called harmonic if all transmission between generations takes place in one and the same line, dysharmonic if some features are transmitted patrilineally, others matrilineally. The rule of cross-cousin marriage, where it exists, correlates with this. Theoretically three types may be distinguished: bilateral, matrilateral, and patrilateral. In bilateral cross-cousin marriage, the spouse is at the same time mother’s brother’s child and father’s sister’s child. Two intermarrying groups exchange women as wives and thus constitute a self-sufficient unit. Lévi-Strauss has called this form “closed” or “restricted” exchange (echange restreint) and correlated it with dysharmonic transmission. In opposition to this type, he has stressed the quite different properties and implications of matrilateral cross-cousin marriage. This type had been less clearly recognized by previous writers, though he does not consider the Dutch literature on Indonesia in which the type had been characterized (e.g. Fischer 1935; 1936; Wouden 1935). In this type, a man marries his mother’s brother’s daughter; a given line B takes wives from a line A and gives wives to a line C, generation after generation. Intermarriage is thus asymmetrical, and if the society is conceived as a number of discrete groups giving and receiving women in marriage, the simplest system is that of a circle: at the end of the series, Z receives from Y and gives to A (called the “circulating connubium” by the Dutch scholars). This is what Levi-Strauss calls “generalized exchange.” In opposition to the closed type, it requires at least three groups and may accommodate any number of groups. This type correlates with harmonic transmission, which may be either matrilineal or patrilineal. Here the identity of the intermarrying group emerges from the network of relationships, for one group is not closely dependent on any other single group, nor are two successive generations distinguished. Relatives belonging to different generations within the same group of affines are terminologically equated. Since intermarriage is directionally oriented—a group does not receive wives from the group to which it gives its daughters—there is a probability of difference of status between wife-givers and wife-takers. For a discussion of the further consequences, see Leach (1961, chapter 3; cf. Fischer 1935).

The third type, the patrilateral, is only cursorily treated in Levi-Strauss’s treatise; it appears there as a kind of abortive crossbreed between the first two types and is omitted here because it is some-what controversial (Needham 1958b; Lane 1962).

Some of the objections that have been leveled at Levi-Strauss’s theory can be briefly mentioned. One, forestalled by Levi-Strauss, is that he argues exclusively about viripotestal societies; another is that his idea of marriage is naive, although this is beside the point, since he was actually concerned solely with the forms and implications of intergroup marriage. A more radical criticism can be directed at the fundamental character and explanatory value of “exchange” in Lévi-Strauss’s scheme (discussed in Wolfram 1956). To view the prohibition of incest as the basis for the opposition between consanguinity and affinity appears tautological to those who think of consanguinity itself as fundamental and self-explanatory or appears insufficient to those who would like a psychological explanation. Viewing marriage as an exchange may be questioned on two counts. First, it introduces an arbitrary analogy between women and chattels, women being supposed, for instance, to be univer-sally the most prized of “valuables.” Second, “exchange” here tends to be given so wide and indeterminate a meaning as to be practically devoid of content. While this is true of “indirect exchange” and even more so of “reciprocity,” the notion of exchange is certainly useful within limits. In still another critique of Levi-Strauss, Homans and Schneider (1955) argue, in the last analysis, that to look at kinship systems as wholes having explanatory value in relation to their parts is to resort to “final causes.” This critique has itself been carefully refuted by Needham (1962).


Since 1949 the Lévi-Straussian theory has been tested and has undergone partial modifications and developments. To mention only the major themes, we have first the clear-cut distinction, advocated by Needham, between prescription and preference in marriage rules. He claims that prescription alone has “structural entailments” in the total social system, and that Lévi-Strauss has dealt only with prescription or at any rate should have done so (Needham 1962). “Prescription” is here defined more as the characteristic of a system than as simply a marriage rule: it involves the combination of a rule prescribing some relatives and prohibiting others, a corresponding terminological distinction, and a sufficient degree of observation of the rule in practice (Needham 1958a, p. 75; 1958b, p. 212). The advisability of the distinction has been challenged by R. B. Lane (1962, p. 497). At first sight the distinction seems justified, and there is no objection to isolating a clear-cut type of “prescriptive alliance.” That there is a danger of underestimating the importance of other types is apparent from the exacting criteria by which the author excludes the recognition of forms of patrilateral intermarriage as “prescriptive” in his sense (Needham 1958b). These latter forms, like preferential marriage in general, do have “structural entailments” of a kind, as we shall see. Moreover, the two forms are not easily distinguishable; the distinction, so presented, is more one of levels than of systems (for a recent clarification of this question, see Maybury-Lewis 1965).

The main development has probably been a refinement of the concept of alliance and the substitution of a more structural for a more empirical notion. At the start the theory, although anchored in the notion of complementarity, was in large part concerned with the exchange or circulation of women between the major exogamous components of the society. To begin with, three authors have asserted that the units which may be said to ex-change women are, in concrete cases, smaller than the exogamous units. In 1951 Leach sternly insisted—with empirical, if somewhat dogmatic, good sense—that the agents arranging marriages are as a rule the males of the local descent groups, as distinct from the wider exogamous units and from the “descent lines” used in terminological diagrams and often unwittingly reified by the analyst into actual groups (see Leach 1961, p. 56; cf. Needham 1958a). Quite logically, Leach went on to criticize the assumption that a matrilateral marriage rule should necessarily result in the groups intermarrying “in a circle,” an idea which Needham, on the other hand, tried to refine (1958a; 1962). A criticism from Berting and Philipsen may also be noted: to be meaningful, they suggest, the “marriage cycles” must be limited in number, and the people themselves must be aware of them (Needham 1961, p. 98). While such “alliance cycles” (Needham) do meaningfully exist in some cases, their existence does not exhaust the function or meaning of marriage alliance. On this all our authors agree, for Lévi-Strauss (1962, p. 333) himself recently recognized—if my interpretation is correct—that “conscious rules” have emerged from recent research as more important than their results in terms of “exchange.” Leach had pointed out that, in the absence of cycles, the basic relationship is “one of the many possible types of continuing relationship between paired local descent groups” (1961, p. 101). Elsewhere, while marriage alliance does not result in a system of exchange at the level of the group as a whole, it is an integral part of the system of categories and roles as conceived by the people studied (Dumont 1957, pp. 22, 34).

Needham has gone furthest in submitting LéviStraussian structuralism to criticism from the in-side and in referring the “mediating” concepts of exchange and reciprocity back to that of (distinctive) opposition (1960, p. 103). The more fundamental “integration” is not that of groups but rather that of the categories as it occurs within the social mind: the marriage rule is part and parcel of this system of ideas. Like everything else, social relationships are defined by classification. Studying the “symbolic order” of the Purum and others, Needham (1958a) found that asymmetrical inter-marriage, although it could not function with less than three intermarrying or “alliance groups,” can be dualistically conceptualized (wife-givers and wife-takers) in accordance with an over-all dualist scheme. Here are found “structural entailments” different from the group arrangements on which attention had first focused. The expression “marriage alliance” thus covers both the general phenomenon of mental integration and the particular phenomenon of group integration.

In its restricted field this truly structural theory alone transcends the bias inherent in our own culture. Such expressions as “cross-cousin marriage” are technically useful but basically misleading. Real understanding is reached when the marriage rule understood as marriage alliance is seen as giving affinity the diachronic dimension that we tend to associate only with descent and/or consanguinity. By this means we are able to transcend the limitations of thinking based upon our own society and make comparisons in terms of the basic concepts involved (consanguinity and affinity).

Much remains to be done. Certainly the implications of marriage alliance for status, economy, and political organization (i.e., the physiology of the system) should be worked out (Leach 1961, chapter 3). But even regarding the morphology, our analyses are as yet imperfectly structural; we still take too much for granted in the study of terminologies. Before attempting ambitious (re)Constructions, the basis in comparative data must be strengthened and extended, and we must obtain a clearer view of the limits of the logical integration of features, or conversely, of the plasticity and tolerance of systems, which can in some cases go so far as to deny in effect the ideological primacy postulated above in principle.

Louis Dumont


Deacon, A. Bernard 1927 The Regulation of Marriage in Ambrym. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 57:325-342.

Dumont, Louis 1957 Hierarchy and Marriage Alliance in South Indian Kinship. London: Royal Anthropo-logical Institute.

Dumont, Louis 1966 Descent or Intermarriage? A Relational View of Australian Section Systems. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 22:231-250.

Fischer, H. T. 1935 De aanverwantschap bij enige volken van de Nederlands-Indische Archipel. Mensch en maatschappij (Amsterdam) 11:285-297, 365-378.

Fischer, H. T. 1936 Het asymmetrisch cross-cousin-nuwelijk in Nederlandsch Indië. Tijdschrift voor Indische taal-, land- en volkenkunde 76:359-372.

Fortune, R. F. 1933 A Note on Some Forms of Kin-ship Structure. Oceania 4:1-9.

Goody, Jack R. 1961 The Classification of Double Descent Systems. Current Anthropology 2:3-26. → Includes comments by 13 scholars on pages 13-21; see especially R. B. Lane’s comments on page 16.

Homans, George C.; and Schneider, David M. 1955 Marriage, Authority, and Final Causes: A Study of Unilateral Cross-cousin Marriage. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Josselin de Jong, JAN P. B. de 1952 Lévi-Strauss’s Theory on Kinship and Marriage. Mededelingen van het Rijkmuseum voor Volkenkunde, No. 10. Leiden (Netherlands): Brill.

Lane, Robert B. 1962 Patrilateral Cross-cousin Marriage. Ethnology 1:467-499.

Leach, Edmund R. 1961 Rethinking Anthropology. London School of Economics and Political Science, Mono-graphs on Social Anthropology, No. 22. London: Athlone.

LÉvi-Strauss, Claude 1949 Les structures élémentaires de la parenté. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

LÉvi-Strauss, Claude (1962) 1966 The Savage Mind. Univ. of Chicago Press. → First published in French.

Maybury-Lewis, David H. P. 1965 Prescriptive Marriage Systems. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 21:207-230.

Murdocx, George P. 1949 Social Structure. New York: Macmillan. → A paperback edition was published in 1965 by the Free Press.

Needham, Rodney 1958 a A Structural Analysis of

Purum Society. American Anthropologist New Series 60:75-101.

Needham, Rodney 1958 b The Formal Analysis of Prescriptive Patrilateral Cross-cousin Marriage. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 14:199-219.

Needham, Rodney 1960 A Structural Analysis of Aimol Society. Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde (The Hague) 116:81-108. → Text is in Dutch and English.

Needham, Rodney 1961 Notes on the Analysis of Asymmetric Alliance. Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde (The Hague) 117:93-117.

Needham, Rodney 1962 Structure and Sentiment: A Test Case in Social Anthropology. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1931 The Social Organization of Australian Tribes. Oceania 1:34-63, 206-246, 322-341, 426-456.

Seligman, Brenda Z. 1928 Asymmetry in Descent, With Special Reference to Pentecost. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 58:533-558.

Wolfram, E. M. S. 1956 The Explanation of Prohibitions and Preferences of Marriage Between Kin. Ph.D. dissertation, Oxford Univ. → See especially Chapter 8, “The Explanation of Incest and Marriage Regulations.”

Wouden, F. A. E. van 1935 Sociale structuurtypen in de Groote Oost. Leiden (Netherlands): Ginsberg.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Marriage." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 1968. 28 May. 2016 <>.

"Marriage." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 1968. (May 28, 2016).

"Marriage." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 1968. Retrieved May 28, 2016 from



MARRIAGE. Marriage lay at the heart of early modern society. It created the basic social unit, the household: the site of childrearing, economic production, and mutual care and affection. Marriage tied families together in economic and social networks and, at higher social levels, cemented political alliances and even royal dynasties. It was also a major means of transmitting wealth through dowries, the resources that a woman brought to a marriage. Moreover in contemporary eyes marriage had the moral functions of channeling sexuality, creating new Christians, and supporting the divinely ordained patriarchal, or male-dominated, order.

Such a complex institution interested many beyond the individual bride and groom. Parents tried to use children's marriages to improve their family's economic or social situation, sometimes clashing with their children over choices of spouses. The inhabitants of a couple's neighborhood or village also sought to enforce community norms regarding the suitability of a couple. Religious and secular legislation regulated different aspects of marriage, and in the sixteenth century church and state revised marriage laws to gain more control over their subjects. Some historians believe that marriage practices did not change during the early modern period, but many think that during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries legal developments along with economic and cultural shifts contributed to a more explicit valuation of love, a diminution of parental control, and a simplification of weddings.


As a rule a person married someone who came from roughly the same social class. The aristocracy in particular, especially in France and Italy, deplored the misalliance. But people also recognized that marriage was an important means of social mobility, as when a wealthy but common father married his generously dowered daughter to an impoverished but noble groom. Common people tended to take marriage partners from geographically nearby and from within their own or their families' occupations. A servant marrying a servant or an apprentice marrying his master's daughter were typical patterns. Aristocrats had to range farther geographically to find socially appropriate spouses. Both nobles and peasants favored cousin marriages to consolidate property. Catholic canon law placed limitations called "impediments" on marriages between close kin. But people frequently obtained dispensations from these rules, and the Protestant Reformation significantly reduced them.

Age at first marriage depended on economic circumstances and varied according to social status and geographic location. Canon law set the minimum marriage age at twelve for girls and fourteen for boys, although betrothals could be arranged earlier. Aristocratic women were married quite young by modern standards, generally in their midteens to men in their late twenties or thirties, although this difference lessened in the eighteenth century. Commoner spouses tended to be close in age, marrying in their mid- to late twenties after each had worked for several years, the woman for her dowry and the man to obtain the resources and skills necessary to establish himself in an occupation. Urban dwellers, who relied on wage labor, generally married younger than rural inhabitants, who often had to wait for the deaths of their fathers to inherit land. As proto-industrialization in the mid-eighteenth century turned more people into wage laborers, marriage age fell slightly among common people.

While marriage was considered the natural state for adults and most people got married, a noticeable number never married, ranging from 5 percent in some times and places to 25 percent in others. Economic circumstances and family strategies usually kept a person single. Because marriage was an economic partnership, among the common people a woman's lack of a dowry or a man's inability to establish himself in a trade or on a piece of land frequently prevented them from marrying. Some places formalized these controls, like German cities that forbade men to marry until they had become masters in a trade, or towns that barred poor couples from marrying, fearing that such families would become an economic burden. At the same time, however, some institutions and individuals, especially in Italy, gave dowries to poor women to prevent them from becoming prostitutes. Unmarried people usually remained in positions of dependence as servants in the houses of others or as laborers on the farms of their married siblings. Some, however, supported themselves with wage labor in cities, sometimes forming households with other single people.

In the seventeenth century a rapid rise in dowries coupled with a rigid sense of family honor triggered a decline in the numbers of European aristocrats who married because many fathers could not afford noble marriages for all their children. In eighteenth-century Spain dowries could exceed twelve times the bride's family's annual income. In mid-seventeenth-century Milan three-quarters of female aristocrats never married. Especially in Italy and Spain, spinsters frequently entered convents; in Protestant regions they often lived with kin. This trend was less notable in England, where fathers were more willing to marry their daughters with smaller dowries to social inferiors. Unmarried sons often entered the church or the military. Though single, these men might still establish families by having children with concubines.

Peasant and artisan youths had many opportunities to find marriage partners in their daily lives, laboring in the fields, attending festivals, running errands, or working in occupations employing both sexes, like hat making or household service. A young man might court a woman at her house, bringing along a male friend and talking at the door or window. At this social level the amount of parental control over children's marriage choices varied widely. Because young people frequently left home to work in their early teens, some seldom or never saw their parents, leaving them a great deal of freedom of choice. But some parents, even quite poor ones, arranged their children's marriages, sometimes at a young age and occasionally using force or threats, in order to create social alliances or enlarge landholdings. While some historians argue that marriages in this period were expected to be loveless, most scholars agree that early modern people expected that two people who loved each other would want to get married, although they subordinated emotions to practical concerns. In most cases parents and children probably tried to agree on a match balancing love with material concerns.

Aristocratic courtship usually only followed family arrangement of a match. Wealthy and especially aristocratic parents tightly controlled their children's, particularly their daughters', contact with members of the opposite sex and also consistently chose their children's spouses to further family strategies. Many wealthy parents distrusted passionate love, believing it formed an insecure base for such an important union. Some, however, tried to ensure that their children agreed with their choices and even that they felt some affection for their intendeds. A few children sought to evade their parents' control to marry partners of their own choosing.

In the eighteenth century the balance between love and material concerns appears to have shifted. Influenced by the Reformation's and especially the Enlightenment's positive evaluation of love, some members of the upper middle class and aristocracy began to consider love the primary goal of marriage and perhaps also to act on this idea. In the same period the rise of proto-industry, cottage production of goods for the market, and wage labor, freed many people from the constraints that land considerations imposed and allowed love to play a larger role in how they chose their spouses.


The Catholic canon law that governed marriage formation from the twelfth century through the mid-sixteenth century rested on the consensual definition of marriage that held that a valid marriage required only the freely given consent of the bride and groom. If the words used were in the present tense, no further action was needed; if they were in the future tense (a marriage promise), then sexual consummation completed the union. Such minimal legal requirements allowed local marriage practices to vary widely, shaped by a combination of communal norms, local law, and diocesan regulations. Everywhere, however, throughout the sixteenth century and much of the seventeenth century marrying was not a moment but a series of steps that created new property arrangements, changed the couple into man and wife, and made the union publicly known. Because of the length of the process, it was not always clear at what point a marriage became irrevocable.

Marriage negotiations centered on property settlement: the bride's dowry and any money the groom granted the bride, sometimes known as the morning gift. The details were often finalized in a written contract. As the wife's contribution to the new household, a dowry generally consisted of items such as a bed, linens, cooking implements, and clothing but sometimes also trade or farming implements. Elite dowries contained more opulent household and personal items as well as money and sometimes real estate. Local dowry laws and practices varied, but generally a husband managed the dowry and any revenue it produced during a marriage. A wife gained control of it and the morning gift only if her husband died, when she would need it to support herself or to make a new marriage.

Many couples promised to marry each other in private but also celebrated a formal betrothal. In this ritual the men of the two familiesthe bride's father, the groom, and other male kindeclared their agreement to the union before witnesses, shaking hands, usually publicly in a church, the town square, or even a tavern but sometimes in a house or before a notary. If the bride was present, she and the groom would also clasp hands. In most places a meal and the couple's exchange of gifts followed: a small token like a handkerchief from the bride and a more substantial gift like jewelry from the groom. Especially in northern Europe, the parish priest then published the banns, or announced the betrothal, at mass on several consecutive Sundays in order to discover legal impediments to the union. Ecclesiastical and popular opinion considered betrothals strongly binding. Most communities permitted commoners to begin sexual relations even when their betrothal had been arranged in private, which, although discouraged by the church, transformed it into a valid marriage under canon law. Highborn brides were expected to be virgins until after the wedding.

Weddings usually followed several weeks or months after the betrothal. The heart of the ceremony was the couple's words of consent sealed by the ring and kiss. To ensure public knowledge of the union, in northern Europe rowdy village processions accompanied the couple to the church door for the exchange of consent, with music and revelry invoking fertility and highlighting gender roles. Churchmen fearful of remnants of paganism tried to control them. In Italy, where the bride's house was the normal place for the wedding, a procession marked the bride's progress to her new home. In some localities a notary guided the couple through the exchange of vows; in other places the bride's father, a priest, a neighbor, or even the couple themselves played this role. The celebration that followed, as lavish as the couple could afford, ranged from meals at taverns, where the guests paid, to huge feasts with dozens of dishes attended by the whole neighborhood and guests from other cities. Local statutes often limitedwith little successthe number of guests and dishes.


While most people married publicly, the lack of formal requirements meant that a marriage or betrothal contracted without witnesses, or clandestinely, could still be valid though difficult to prove. Churchmen urged couples to obtain their parents' consent and to celebrate publicly, but ecclesiastical courts also enforced unions that violated these injunctions. Because private betrothals were common and popularly held to permit sexual activity, some women were seduced under false promises of marriage and abandoned. Disputes also arose when one party decided to break a private engagement and marry anotherparticularly if the repudiated fiancée was pregnant. Some people exchanged marriage vows in secret, usually to escape parental opposition, like Romeo and Juliet. Rates of clandestine marriage and betrothal are impossible to determine, but it is clear that ecclesiastical courts everywhere in Europe were full of suits in which couples disputed whether or not they were married.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries many peopleespecially fathers and secular authorities but also some churchmenbegan to find clandestinity particularly troubling, arguing that it caused confusion and dispute while undermining authority, especially of fathers. Secular legal penalties against clandestine marriage, notably in northern Europe, became harsher in this period, ranging from heavy fines to the loss of the bride's dowry to disinheritance. Despite some important differences, Catholics and Protestants responded similarly to the problem, reforming marriage laws to try to turn a sometimes indefinite social process into a definite legal moment overseen by authorities.

Placing new importance on marriage, Protestant reformers abolished celibacy of the clergy and legitimated divorce. Rejecting the consensual definition of marriage, most territories also made parental consent and the presence of witnesses and a minister at the wedding conditions for validity, and placed marriage under secular jurisdiction. England, however, retained the old canon law of marriage until 1753. Catholics responded with new decrees on marriage at the Council of Trent in 1563, rejecting the necessity of parental consent and reaffirming marital indissolubility, ecclesiastical jurisdiction, clerical celibacy, and the principle that free consent created a marriage. However, like Protestants, post-Tridentine Catholics had to exchange consent before a priest and witnesses for the marriage to be valid, and parish priests began keeping written records of marriages.

Despite these formal changes, through the seventeenth century popular practice continued to treat marriage as a process, grafting new requirements, like the priest's presence, onto the existing steps. People also continued to find ways to marry in secret. Catholic couples could dash in and exchange words of consent in front of an unwitting priest, as Alessandro Manzoni described in The Betrothed (18251827), though a more common route for both confessions was the secret betrothal, which continued to function essentially as clandestine marriage had because courts continued to enforce betrothals. When increasingly secularized marriage courts ceased doing this in the eighteenth century, betrothal lost its importance. This, combined with a loosening of community ties associated with protoindustrialization, and the growth of reliable recordkeeping that diminished the need for publicizing rituals, contributed to the transformation of marriage from a lengthy process into the moment of the couple's exchange of vows.


In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries everyone agreed that duty defined the relationship of husband and wife. Churchmen of both confessions held the purpose of marriage to be preserving people from sin by channeling sexuality into procreation. Husbands and wives owed each other the "conjugal debt" of regular (though not passionate) sexual relations, and adultery was a serious crime justifying separation or divorce and even meriting death in some lands. Moralists taught that marriage was a hierarchy that upheld the patriarchal social and political order. The husband, by virtue of his superior masculine reason, ruled the family. Law gave him broad powers to control family property and dependents' behavior, including that of his wife, using moderate physical force if necessary; but it also held him to support his wife adequately and especially manage her dowry responsibly. The duty of the wifewho had few legal or financial abilitieswas to help and to obey.

Popular views shaped by daily experience somewhat moderated the rigidity of the learned notions, emphasizing spouses' interrelated fortunes and reciprocal obligations. Husbands and wives were expected to protect each other's person, property, and honor by caring for each other when ill, being frugal and hardworking, treating each other with respect, and refraining from scandalous behavior. Communities used such practices as charivaris to enforce these standards; spouses sometimes went to court seeking separations when they were breached.

Marriage formed an economic unit in which the labor of both spouses was usually essential. Economic interdependence made it difficult for unhappy couples to separate or divorce but probably also brought spouses together with a sense of shared purpose. Commoner spouses performed different but complementary tasks: an artisan wife sold her husband's products; a farmwife oversaw the farmyard and house and at harvest might join her husband in the fields. At higher social levels, tasks were usually less directly cooperative. While merchants' wives might oversee business matters when their husbands traveled, aristocratic spouses more often occupied two distinct spheres. A wife's duties running a large household involved significant responsibilities, but her main economic contribution, her dowry, was completely under her husband's control. Highborn spouses' common disparity in ages probably reinforced this separation. Still, some elite husbands spoke of their wives as companions and in their wills granted widows great responsibilities overseeing children and property.

Evidence exists of deep love between some spouses from all social levels, nurtured by the cooperation in their daily lives and perhaps by raising their children. While desirable, people did not hold love to be an essential aspect of the relationship. Sex was an important part of marriage, recognized even by disapproving churchmen, who tried to limit it to the passionless business of procreation. The practice of birth control (mainly male withdrawal) and abortionthough forbiddenand the existence of infertile couples point to the fact that sex enhanced married life in more ways than simply the production of children.

Historians disagree on the degree and chronology of change, but most believe that in the seventeenth century and especially the eighteenth century many people began to see marriage in a different way, as a companionate relationship emphasizing love rather than duty whose goal was happiness. Many point to the Protestant Reformation's more positive evaluation of marriage and particularly to the Enlightenment's emphasis on freedom of choice, affection, and equality in marriage as causes of this change. The secularization of control of marriage reinforced this by increasing the influence of laymen imbued with Enlightenment values. Others argue, however, that for most people the freedom from traditional constraints brought by proto-industrialization enabled them to focus on affective rather than practical aspects of marriage.


High mortality rates from disease and childbirth meant that a marriage lasted on average less than twenty years. As many as a quarter to a third of marriages were not first marriages but remarriages following the death of a spouse or, much less frequently and only in Protestant regions, divorce. Dissolving a marriage also dissolved an economic unit. A widower almost always remarried quickly, needing someone to run his household, help in his occupation, and raise his children. The advanced age of the groom frequently angered young unmarried men, who banded into groups to harass the prospective spouses in charivaris. Widows, especially those with small children, often had trouble remarrying unless they had property. Without a man's income, widows and their children made up a significant portion of the urban poor.

See also Concubinage ; Daily Life ; Divorce ; Family ; Sexuality and Sexual Behavior ; Women .


Brundage, James A. Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago and London, 1987.

Cressy, David. Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England. Oxford, 1997.

Gaudemet, Jean. Le mariage en occident: Les moeurs et la droit. Paris, 1987.

Gottlieb, Beatrice. The Family in the Western World from the Black Death to the Industrial Age. New York and Oxford, 1993.

Hacke, Daniela Alexandra. Women, Sex, and Marriage in Counter-Reformation Venice. Aldershot, U.K., and Burlington, Vt., forthcoming.

Harrington, Joel F. Reordering Marriage and Society in Reformation Germany. Cambridge, U.K., 1995.

Houlbrooke, Ralph A. The English Family, 14501700. London and New York, 1984.

Hufton, Olwen. The Prospect before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe. Vol. 1: 15001800. New York, 1996.

Kamen, Henry. The Phoenix and the Flame: Catalonia and the Counter Reformation. New Haven and London, 1993. Especially chapter 6.

Ozment, Steven. Magdalena and Balthasar: An Intimate Portrait of Life in Sixteenth-Century Europe Revealed in the Letters of a Nuremberg Husband and Wife. New Haven and London, 1989.

Roper, Lyndal. The Holy Household: Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg. Oxford, 1989.

Watt, Jeffrey R. The Making of Modern Marriage: Matrimonial Control and the Rise of Sentiment in Neuchâtel, 15501800. Ithaca, N.Y., and London, 1992.

Emlyn Eisenach

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

EISENACH, EMLYN. "Marriage." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. 2004. 28 May. 2016 <>.

EISENACH, EMLYN. "Marriage." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. 2004. (May 28, 2016).

EISENACH, EMLYN. "Marriage." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. 2004. Retrieved May 28, 2016 from







Transformations in marriage during the twentieth century have inspired a large body of research. Marriage is both a social and legal institution. Although the criteria for who can be legally married vary cross-culturally, marriage is a conjugal state that generally has been reserved for two individuals of opposite sexes, of consenting age, and of no blood relation. Historically, the reasons for, function of, and frequency of marriage has varied by race or ethnicity, class, gender, and the social and economic structures of society. Regardless of such differences, the institution of marriage is viewed by social scientists as one of the most fundamental elements in the maintenance and reproduction of society itself.

Marriage differs in its relation to church and state, though both infer rights and obligations to members of the marital union. Religions often view marriage as a sacrament that reaffirms religious commitment, whereas wedlock is the legal state of matrimony. Even if a marriage is recognized by the state, it may not be recognized as valid by the church. In practice, church weddings often provide both a legal and religious contract between marriage partners.

Although marriage is defined most often as a union between two opposite-sex individuals, some societies and religious traditions allow for marriage between multiple partners: polygamy. Two forms of polygamy exist. Polygynous unions, in which a man is married to more than one wife, are the most common. Polygyny is currently practiced in some West African countries, particularly among more traditional members of society. When less formal arrangements are included in the definitionsuch as a man simultaneously being legally married to one woman while engaged in formal consort relationships with other women that are also expected to produce childrenthe prevalence of polygyny increases substantially. This latter type of polygyny, for instance, is found among wealthier Chinese in China, Taiwan, and the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia and North America. Polyandrous marriages, in which a woman is married to more than one husband, are relatively uncommon. Polyandry in the form of marriages to fraternal cohusbands has been reported in some areas of India.

Over time, there has been a shifting focus toward the emotional aspect of marriage in European and North American countries. In the United States prior to the twentieth century, marriage was viewed as a legal contract by which individuals joined in a marital union for social and economic reasons. During this time, marriages were more likely to be arranged by persons not party to the union itself. Following World War I, Americans began to place a greater emphasis on the emotional nature of marriage, and the notion of romantic love in marriage became more important. Furthermore, married persons were expected to invest their emotional energy into the spiritual growth of their marriage partners. The concept of marrying for love varies by cultures today. More industrialized societies are more likely to view love as the primary reason for forming a marital union, whereas less industrialized societies sometimes practice arranged marriage.

Marriage has long been associated with various benefits, including increased health and longevity. Married men in particular are less likely to engage in risky behaviors such as alcohol and drug use. Emotional satisfaction and increased economic well-being are also associated with marriage. Married people are less likely to experience anxiety and depression. Some theorists argue that there is something unique about the institution of marriage that bestows these benefits on the married couple. For instance, a spouse may serve as a monitor of their partners health. This is supported by findings that married men are more likely than unmarried men to visit the doctor on a regular basis. Other theorists, however, argue that the benefits of marriage are more a factor of selection biasthat is, people with higher socioeconomic status and better health and emotional well-being are more likely to marry, whereas those lacking these characteristics are more likely to have short-lived marriages that end in divorce, or to forgo marriage altogether.


Over time, demographic trends in legal union formation have included changes in legal age restrictions, an overall retreat from marriage in western societies, and womens increased investment in their own human capital.

Legal age restrictions on who is eligible to marry have varied over time, cultures, and ethnicities. Historically, marriageable age has been closely tied to puberty, and it remains so in many less industrialized countries today. Currently, most North American and European countries have a minimum age of marital consent, usually age eighteen. The U.S. state or jurisdiction allowing for the youngest age at marriage without parental consent is Mississippi at age fifteen for women and age seventeen for men, whereas Puerto Rico requires both genders to be at least twenty-one. However, most states do allow for parental consent, and other statutory requirements may override these minimum age requirements for marriage. For instance, in Massachusetts if parents consent, women can marry as young as age twelve and men as young as age fourteen, whereas other states such as West Virginia, Kentucky, and Louisiana maintain the relatively advanced age of eighteen even with parental consent.

The marriage rate has been in decline in the United States and Europe since the end of World War II. Although the vast majority of people still report a desire to be married (80% of women and 78% of men), and most will eventually do so, there is a continuing trend to delay this step in the adult life course. The median age of first marriage in 1970 was twenty-three for men and twenty-one for women; by 2003 the median age of first marriage had risen to twenty-seven for men and twenty-five for women. (As these figures imply, the age difference between husbands and wives in most developed nationsincluding the United Statesis small.)

A primary factor thought to at least partially account for the decreasing prevalence of marriage in the United States is the increase in womens human capital. Specifically, women have increased their investment in education, participation in the labor force, and relative annual earnings compared to men. Currently, more women (and men) go to college, thus delaying their economic stability and, subsequently, their transition to marriage. In 1970, 13 percent of American women aged twenty-five to twenty-nine had a bachelors degree or higher, compared to 30 percent of women aged twenty-five to thirty-four in 2000.

The decline in marriage in more industrialized countries has accompanied an increase in female labor force participation. For instance, American women aged twenty-five to thirty-four increased their participation in the labor force from approximately 41 percent in 1970 to 70 percent in 2004. Marriage benefits also vary by gender. Despite their hours worked outside the home, women typically perform the majority of household choresabout 70 percent in the United States. Additionally, married men benefit in the job market more than married women do. Men (especially fathers) often have been afforded a family wagethat is, more money to support their familiesbecause of their traditional role as family breadwinners. Women, too, have to deal with social norms, which often view the roles of wife and mother as incompatible with the role of worker. In many Western societies, womens increased participation in nonfamilial roles and investments in their own human capital has begun to close the gap in mens and womens contributions to family income. For instance, in 1987 only 24 percent of all married women earned more than their husbands, but by 2003 32 percent did.


Different explanations exist as to how we select mates to form a unique marital bond. Social-exchange theories focus on the contextual characteristics of the larger marriage market, where individuals compare the assets and liabilities of prospective spouses. Mate selection criteria include income, wealth, home- versus labor-market production, and physical attractiveness. Once the benefits of marriage outweigh the benefits of remaining single for both partners, a legal union is formed. The specialization and trading model adopts a rational-choice perspective that views men and women as attempting to maximize personal gains through marriage. This model asserts that individuals exchange personal assetsbe it income, wealth, home production, child rearing skills, or physical attractivenessfor a partner with the highest overall value on a related set of assets. Historically, men have specialized in and traded on their economic production, whereas women have specialized in and traded on their domestic production.

Career-entry theory is derived from job-search theory, which asserts that potential workers look for employment in the labor market until they find a job that satisfies the minimum qualifications necessary for acceptable employment. From the perspective of the worker, the sorting of individuals into jobs is maximized when the number of jobs available in the market increases. An analogous situation occurs during the process of spousal selection. A person wishing to form a marital union searches for a spouse in the marriage market. As with employment, individuals usually have a predetermined idea of the minimal characteristics necessary before a potential spouse is deemed acceptable. Once in the marriage market, individuals compete with others to find a spouse. High levels of human capital in women decrease the probability of marriage by extending womens marital search process and simultaneously raising their reservation wage for potential husbands. More importantly, from a career-entry perspective, mens economic volatility lowers the probability of marriage by creating long-term financial uncertainty for both men and the women who choose to marry them.

Psychodynamic theories often focus on how childhood experiences and family background influence partner selection. Individuals may model their potential spouses after their opposite-sex parents, or they may create images of the ideal spouse based on childhood experiences. Filter theory posits that we sift through potential mates based on predetermined criteriaoften ascribed characteristics such as race and class. Homogamy filters include finding a potential mate that matches your characteristics such as propinquity, physical attractiveness, race, education, income, and religion. Propinquity is typically the strongest homogamy filter. Heterogamy filters include selecting a mate based on characteristics that are opposite such as gender.

Other researchers point to the historical roots of marriage in the system of patriarchy, which views wives as the property of their husbands. For instance, the tradition of wedding rings historically served to solidify a womans status as the property of her husband. Until recently, legal views of rape and sexual assault within marriage supported the notion that wives were the property of their husbands. In 1736 the English chief justice Sir Matthew Hale stated that the husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract (cited in Russell 1990, p. 17). This statement, which came to be known as the Hale Doctrine, was accepted by the U.S. legal system in 1857 under the Commonwealth v. Fogarty decision. Marital rape is now illegal in the United States and in all countries represented at the United Nationss womens conference of 1995. In the United States, however, current laws continue to treat marital rape as a crime less severe, with more lenient sentencing, than other forms of rape.

Nonwestern traditions also support the notion of women as property. The practice of paying a dowry is one example of how women have been seen as property to be transferred from their parents to their husbands. Under the dowry system, women are an economic liability. To increase a womans attractiveness to a male suitor, the family of the bride produces various gifts of economic value to the potential groom and his family. Although this practice is becoming less common under the global capitalist system, various cultures around the world still adhere to the dowry system.

Anthropologists such as Levi-Strauss also note that marriage has been used as a structural tool to form political or commercial alliances across groups. Referred to as alliance theory, it maintains that the universal incest taboo motivates exogamy in marriage through a series of intimate kinship group exchanges of women as the wives of men who are members of a different group. Through this type of generalized exchange a marriage alliance between the two groups is formed and reciprocity is expected. Alliance theory argues that groups circulation of women through the practice of trading wives links various social groups together to form complex structures of kinship, and ultimately, society itself.


The drop in the marriage rate and the trend in delaying marriage have been accompanied by an increase in alternatives to traditional marriage. Marital dissolution (divorce), cohabitation, nonmarital childbearing, and gay marriage have become increasingly evident in European and North American countries. Marital dissolution in the United States, for instance, increased steadily during the decades following World War II, and began to level off during the 1990s with one in two U.S. marriages ending in divorce.

Cohabitation also has become an increasingly prevalent form of union formation in more-developed counties. Increases in cohabitation rates have spawned public debate regarding social policies that support the traditional marital union of a husband and wife, and have implications for the popularity of marriage as a larger social institution. Although modern forms of cohabitation were relatively unheard of before the 1960s, by 2003 4.6 million U.S. households were comprised of unrelated opposite-sex partners who were not married. Cohabitation types vary from short-term arrangements, to precursors to marriage, to replacements for legal union formation that is condoned by both church and state. In Sweden, for example, approximately 85 percent of partnered adults aged twenty-five to thirty-four were cohabiting as opposed to living as married couples. In other countries such as the United States, cohabitation is often a short-term arrangement followed by marriage or dissolution of the union. For instance, approximately 70 percent of cohabiting American women marry their residential partner within five years of cohabitation. At the other extreme, 49 percent of cohabiting women dissolve their residential union during the first five years of cohabitation (this figure includes cohabiting women who both marry and divorce within the first five years of the original cohabitation).

As cohabitation has increased, some countries have begun to treat marital and cohabitating unions as legally equivalent. Legal rights inferred to cohabiting couples may include inheritance rights, alimony upon dissolution, retirement benefits for spouses, and streamlined adoption processes. Some other countries, including the United States, continue to distinguish marriage from cohabitation in social and legal policies. A bridge between cohabitation and marriage is available in some U.S. states: Certain states recognize common-law marriages. Under explicit (but varying) criteriasuch as the length of time the couple has co-resided, whether they hold joint accounts, assets, and liabilities, and whether the partners refer to each other as spousescohabiting couples may be considered similar to legally married couples. However, allowances and the requirements needed to establish a common-law marriage vary from state to state.

Rates of childbearing outside of marriage also have been increasing, due in part to the more liberal acceptance of sex outside of marriage and increases in cohabitation and divorce. For instance, in Sweden most children are now born outside of marriage, mostly to cohabiting couples. In the United States, 5 percent of children were born to unmarried mothers in 1960 and this percentage increased to just fewer than 37 percent in 2005. Among non-Hispanic blacks nonmarital childbearing represents nearly 70 percent of all births. Social acceptance of premarital sex also has increased significantly since the 1960s. Despite these trends, people still report that marriage is the ideal situation in which to raise a child. In a survey of high school seniors in 1997 to 1998, only 8 percent of high school seniors stated that unmarried childbearing is a worthwhile alternative lifestyle.

Although marriage often is religiously and legally restricted to the union of two opposite-sex individuals, alternative expressions of intimate-adult commitment are increasingly common. One aspect of marriage that has been gaining public exposure during the twenty-first century is gay marriage. Although the United States generally restricts marriage to a union between opposite-sex adults, other countries allow for individuals of the same sex to marry. In 2001 the Netherlands became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage. Belgium and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and British Columbia followed suit in 2003. In 2004 Massachusetts became the first and only state in the United States to grant marriage licenses to two persons of the same sex.

Another legal option available to some same-sex couples is the civil union, which is a marriage-like union available in some European countries and in some U.S. states. One example is Germanys Registered Life Partnership, which grants to same-sex couples legal rights such as sharing a surname, the ability to enter together into contracts regarding property and finances, the right to refuse to testify against your partner, priority in immigration consideration, and health benefits. In 2000 Vermont was the first state in the United States to allow civil unions. Some states (such as California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, and Vermont) allow for domestic partnerships or joint tax returns for same-sex couples. However, many U.S. states have reaffirmed the historical and religious sacrament of marriage between only a man and a woman. Currently, twenty-seven U.S. states have banned same-sex marriage. Eighteen of these have also banned civil unions.

SEE ALSO Childlessness; Children; Cohabitation; Divorce and Separation; Dowry and Bride Price; Family; Feminism; Fertility, Human; Marriage, Interracial; Marriage, Same-Sex; Reproduction; Rituals; Romance


Bramlett, M. D., and W. D. Mosher. 2002. Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the United States. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Statistics 23 (2).

Bumpass, Larry, and Hsien-Hen Lu. 2000. Trends in Cohabitation and Implications for Childrens Family Contexts in the United States. Population Studies 54 (1): 2941.

Fields, Jason. 2003. Americas Families and Living Arrangements: 2003. Current Population Reports, P20-553. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Kiernan, Kathleen. 2004. Unmarried Cohabitation and Parenthood in Britain and Europe. Law and Policy 26: 3355.

Lloyd, Kim M., Marta Tienda, and Anna Zajacova. 2001. Trends in Educational Achievement of Minority Students since Brown v. Board of Education. In Achieving High Educational Standards for All: Conference Summary. Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, National Research Council, eds. Timothy Ready, Christopher Edley Jr., and Catherine E. Snow, 149182. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Russell, Diana E. H. 1990. Rape in Marriage. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Teachman, Jay D., Lucky M. Tedrow, and Kyle Crowder. 2000. The Changing Demography of Americas Families. Journal of Marriage and the Family 62 (4): 12341246.

Thornton, Arland, and Linda Young-DeMarco. 2001. Four Decades of Trends in Attitudes toward Family Issues in the United States: The 1960s through the 1990s. Journal of Marriage and Family 63 (4): 10091037.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. 1970. Characteristics of the Population 1, pt. 1, U.S. Summary sec. 2. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. 2000. A Half-Century of Learning: Historical Statistics on Educational Attainment in the United States, 1940 to 2000. Decennial Census PHC-T-41. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

U.S. Department of Labor Statistics. 2005. Women in the Labor Force: A Databook. Report 985. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Waite, Linda, and Maggie Gallagher. 2000. The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially. New York: Doubleday.

Kim M. Lloyd

Rosemary Yeilding

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Marriage." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 2008. 28 May. 2016 <>.

"Marriage." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 2008. (May 28, 2016).

"Marriage." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 2008. Retrieved May 28, 2016 from



MARRIAGE as an institution in America has changed in a variety of ways over the last three centuries. From early colonial days, the differing marital practices and understandings of Native Americans, of africans, of European peasants, and eventually of all the peoples who brought their marriages to North America mixed with the more settled expectations and understandings that church and governmental authorities thought they were bringing from England. By the late eighteenth century, America was already understood as a society in which parental power was notably weak, a society in which children, including daughters, were genuinely free to choose who, when, and whether to marry. Geographical mobility often meant the movement of children away from parental homes and increased the isolation of married couples from their familial and ethnic communities. Couples forced to depend on each other might grow closer, become more interdependent; but hatred and the terrors of having to depend on an incompatible companion was also a possibility for couples living across America. Mobility and distance also made leaving a marriage—whether in the form of abandonment, separation, divorce, or bigamy—a possibility and a temptation, one that men in particular often found hard to resist. By the early nineteenth century, particular U.S. states were recognized as the easiest places in the world to obtain a divorce; and throughout the twentieth century, demographers and sociologists identified the United States as the world leader in its divorce rate.

American Marriage: Theory and Practice

For early modern Protestant theologians and political theorists, both in England and in the North American colonies, marriage had modeled the state. Within marriage, the relation of husband and wife offered the primordial example of the "law of persons," the dyadic hierarchical relations (parent and child, master and servant, guardian and ward, king and subject were other examples) out of which the "constitution" of a legitimate political realm was formed. The good Christian should know himself or herself as like the "bride of Christ," that is, he or she should submit to the governance of a loving savior. For civic republican theorists, including some, like James Harrington, whose writings framed the ideas of the makers of the American Revolution, the idea of a citizen, of a man capable of participating in the government of the realm was intimately tied to the idea of a husband, one who properly governed his dependents and properties. A man who ruled his household as a good man should became someone capable of participating in the governance (rulership) of the state.

What was the "marriage" that played these roles in early modern thought? It was a contractual relationship, given by God, free in its entry, but fixed in its terms. By entering in to marriage, men and women were transformed, though differentially so. They became wives and husbands, beings of a new order, though men also remained men as well as husbands. The antinomic relationship of wife and husband depended on a series of coercive metaphors and images drawn both from the English common law and from Protestant theology. Husband and his wife became "one flesh," united at least during the duration of their lives. A wife became a "femme" or "feme" "covert," a being covered over by her husband during her life as a wife, during her "coverture." Wife and husband were locked into a non-negotiable relationship of reciprocity, in which a husband's obligation to support a wife was conditioned on her dutiful obedience and sexual availability, and vice versa.

These images had real power in the world, and a good deal of the law of marriage was taken up with elaborations of logical implications drawn from these images. Thus, to take one example, a wife's settlement, the town in which she could receive poor relief if her husband abandoned her (or in other cases of need), was her husband's town, the town of his birth, not the town of her birth. For the duration of her marriage, her home was by definition her husband's, though if he died or if she violated the terms of the marriage relationship by disobeying him or deserting him, once her coverture was at an end, then her settlement of birth became the place from which she could claim poor relief. As a second example, marital rape was something close to an oxymoron. As late as the 1950s, a standard definition of the crime of rape was when a man had "illicit sexual intercourse with a woman not his wife without her consent." And though a husband's sexual coercion might give his wife grounds for separation or divorce, and an order granting her alimony and custody of their children, it would not subject him to criminal punishment.

These images were formalisms, often radically inconsistent with the real lives led by American couples. Yet they were no longer united in fact, and such couples worked out the terms of their lives, often understanding themselves as separate individuals, sometimes holding on to the idea of being married. When men sought gold in California or signed on to shipping expeditions and wives remained behind caring for children and taking care of households, they were still understood as legally united, though separated by a continent or an ocean. How resources were distributed, who held practical power, how relationships evolved over time, and who did what within a relationship were improvisational narratives of particular marriages shaped by changing cultures, extended family networks, economic circumstances, and the individuals themselves.

Marital Law and its Effects

From a legal standpoint, what most shaped marriage as an institution was the peculiar structure of American federalism, which left the governance of marriage to the individual states. Different states had the power to institute their own distinctive marital laws. And by the second third of the nineteenth century, significant differences appeared between various states, particularly in the rules for obtaining a divorce and in the ability of a wife to secure her own property. A few jurisdictions even adopted a version of a European civil law tradition of community property, rejecting the English common law understanding that nearly all property within a marriage would come under the effective ownership of the husband. The continuing experiments of various states with laws that allowed divorce on a variety of grounds and with marital property reforms that authorized married women to hold property produced endless legal complexities and enormous quantities of litigation, as mobile Americans moved from jurisdiction to jurisdiction across the political landscape of American federalism. Did they move because of the diversity of marital regimes? Perhaps the most important reason for the litigation this diversity produced were uncertainties about liability in law suits between husbands (and sometimes wives) and creditors and other "third parties" to the marriage. In addition, we should not exaggerate the variation in the marital laws the different states produced. To be a husband in a community property jurisdiction, for example, still meant that one had full managerial control over all property held by the community. Marriage as an institution remained recognizable in its structure and in the structured relationship it offered and imposed.

Received images of marriage played a part in some national enterprises and controversies. The fact that no North American slave jurisdiction recognized the legitimacy of slave marriages—putting all slave relationships on the wrong side of the bright line between marriage and sin—became for abolitionists a core and politically potent feature of the wrongs of slavery, and for pro-slavery apologists, a continuing embarrassment. From the 1850s through the 1890s, the control of Mormon polygamists over territorial Utah created a long constitutional dilemma in a national political culture that regarded any deviation from monogamy as abusive to women and inconsistent with republican virtue. (To the Republican Party it became in 1860, along with slavery, one of the "twin relics of barbarism.") By the end of the nineteenth century, the triumph over Mormonism had implicated and changed American federalism and the law of church and state, although not the commitment to state control over domestic relations.

Immigration law constituted one area of continuing national responsibility where marriage and marital status was (and has remained) of crucial concern. The 1858 immigration law passed by Congress reversed an earlier understanding, identified with the writings of Joseph Story, which separated citizenship from the institution of marriage. Thereafter, a non-American woman who married an American would become an American. She would take on a political identity derived from her husband, because of the nature of marriage. There were racial exceptions to this conclusion. During the era of Chinese exclusion, from the 1880s to the 1920s, a Chinese woman who married an American was likely to be labeled a prostitute, not a wife. But what of the converse situation: would an American woman who married a non-American lose her political identity? Federal courts went back and forth on the question for the next half century. In 1912 the Supreme Court finally decided the logic of marriage would be sustained: a native-born American woman would become an alien if she married an alien, a conclusion that held until after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, when citizenship was again separated from marriage within legal doctrine and administrative practice.

Changing Perceptions

Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, there were voices that challenged understandings of marriage as a hierarchy and as the responsibility of individual states. Drawing from abolitionism, anti-Calvinist strains of Protestantism, and a universalistic reading of egalitarian texts like the Declaration of Independence, woman's rights activists, the first generation of American feminists, formulated a critique of orthodox marriage as an unjust institution. They sometimes compared it to chattel slavery, and they insisted on an individual Christian woman's direct relationship with God, unmediated by a husband. In novels and in prescriptive texts, middle-class readers found a romantic remaking of marriage, one that denied hierarchy and alternately insisted that marriage be understood as a partnership or as an ecstatic union between apparent equals. "Free lovers" (a term that can only make sense in a culture where marriage was defined as "unfree") created alternative models of sexual relationships, at first in rural utopian communities, later in Bohemian enclaves like Greenwich Village of the early twentieth century. On the other side, conservatives unhappy with the messiness of marital life in America, and in particular with the relative ease of Divorce, would regularly issue calls for national laws that would recreate discipline and national virtue.

Still, the foundational understanding of marriage as a fixed hierarchical relationship governed by the states did not change over nearly two centuries of American history. After the Civil War, when Republican congressional leaders defended the new Fourteenth Amendment against claims that it was destroying the fabric of American life, they assured Democrats and others the egalitarian and transforming provisions of the amendment would not apply to marriage, which would remain a distinctive responsibility of the states and within a protected private sphere of male life. Woman's rights activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who since the 1840s had challenged legislators and theologians by describing orthodox marriage as a radically unjust institution, were outraged. To them the Fourteenth Amendment ought to have been understood as having made a new departure in American constitutionalism, one that required subjected existing institutions, even longstanding ones like marriage, to a standard of substantive equality. It would be a century, however, before their claims would be revived, and a constitutional reconsideration of marriage would occur.

The Late Twentieth Century

In 1968, when David Schneider published American Kin-ship, his now-classic portrayal of the structure of the American family, it was still possible to portray heterosexual marriage as the linchpin of family life and the embodiment of American culture. Perhaps 1968 was the last possible moment when such a portrait could have been presented as descriptive truth. Within two years, California's revision of its divorce law would provide a model for no-fault divorce that would soon sweep across the nation. The increasingly widespread availability of contraception, combined with a cultural sexual revolution, was already making sex outside of marriage "normal," no longer shameful, criminal, and destructive to the respectability of young, unmarried women. By 1972, in Eisenstadt v. Baird, the Supreme Court held that allowing distribution of contraceptives to married, but not to unmarried, people violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. Along the way to that decision, Justice Brennan marked the revolution underway in marital identities, asserting that "the married couple" was "not an independent entity with a mind and heart of its own, but an association of two individuals each with a separate intellectual and emotional makeup." The year before Schneider's study appeared, in Loving v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court had declared unconstitutional state antimiscegenation laws, definitively interposing the antisubordination concerns of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment against the claimed exclusive authority of the states to legislate the terms of marriage within their borders. In later decisions, federal and state courts, influenced by second-wave feminism, applied Fourteenth Amendment equal protection standards to marital identities, making constitutionally problematic the gendered identities once central to marriage. Other decisions, under the heading of sex discrimination law, made illegal many of the traditional understandings that had excluded women from many remunerative occupations, understandings that had long made marriage the plausible and economically acceptable choice for young women. Meanwhile, a trail of state cases, following the California Supreme Court's landmark decision in Marvin v. Marvin (1976), gradually recognized that non-marital cohabitation of a variety of forms could produce economic obligations only barely distinguishable from those imposed by marital union.

By the 1980s, the "fact" that more than 50% of all marriages ended in divorce (a figure that had been reached after more than a century of growth in the divorce rate) had become one of the clichés of public discourse. The divorce rate was then of a piece with, though some thought it an explanation for, the greater diversity of family forms found across late-twentieth-century America, filled as it was with children born outside of marriage, stepparents, joint-custody arrangements, complex open adoptions, and fluidity and renegotiation in what some still assumed were traditional roles and obligations.

Many still married; indeed, many reproduced the marital forms of their parents' and grandparents' marriages. And many voices pressed on those contemplating parenthood that a "two parent" household was a necessity for healthy childrearing. And for gay men and lesbian women, historically excluded from the privileges that marriage retained, single-sex marriage became an aspirational rights claim and a focus for political and legal struggles. But all those who married or aspired to marriage at the end of the twentieth century did so in a culture that had accepted the separation of marriage from sexual expression and (more reluctantly) from childrearing. Marriage had become a private choice, an act of private freedom.


Clark, Elizabeth Battelle. "Matrimonial Bonds: Slavery, Contract and the Law of Divorce in Nineteenth-Century America." Law and History Review, 8:1 (Spring 1990): 25–54.

Cott, Nancy. Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.

DuBois, Ellen. "Outgrowing the Compact of the Fathers: Equal Rights, Woman Suffrage, and the United States Constitution, 1820–1878." Journal of American History, 74 (December 1987): 836–862.

Grossberg, Michael. Governing the Hearth: Law and Family inNineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Hartog, Hendrik. Man and Wife in America, a History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Lystra, Karen. Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and RomanticLove in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Schneider, David M. American Kinship: A Cultural Account. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Stanley, Amy Dru. From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.


See alsoDefense of Marriage Act ; Divorce and Marital Separation ; Family ; Indian Intermarriage ; Kinship ; Loving v. Virginia ; Miscegenation .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Marriage." Dictionary of American History. 2003. 28 May. 2016 <>.

"Marriage." Dictionary of American History. 2003. (May 28, 2016).

"Marriage." Dictionary of American History. 2003. Retrieved May 28, 2016 from



The legal status, condition, or relationship that results from a contract by which one man and one woman, who have the capacity to enter into such an agreement, mutually promise to live together in the relationship ofhusband and wifein law for life, or until the legal termination of the relationship.

Marriage is a legally sanctioned contract between a man and a woman. Entering into a marriage contract changes the legal status of both parties, giving husband and wife new rights and obligations. Public policy is strongly in favor of marriage based on the belief that it preserves the family unit. Traditionally, marriage has been viewed as vital to the preservation of morals and civilization.

The traditional principle upon which the institution of marriage is founded is that a husband has the obligation to support a wife, and that a wife has the duty to serve. In the past, this has meant that the husband has the duty to provide a safe house, to pay for necessities such as food and clothing, and to live in the house. A wife's obligation has traditionally entailed maintaining a home, living in the home, having sexual relations with her husband, and rearing the couple's children. Changes in society have modified these marital roles to a considerable degree as married women have joined the workforce in large numbers, and more married men have become more involved in child rearing.

Individuals who seek to alter marital rights and duties are permitted to do so only within legally prescribed limits. Antenuptial agreements are entered into before marriage, in contemplation of the marriage relationship. Typically these agreements involve property rights and the terms that will be in force if a couple's marriage ends in divorce. Separation agreements are entered into during the marriage prior to the commencement of an action for a separation or divorce. These agreements are concerned with child support, visitation, and temporary maintenance of a spouse. The laws governing these agreements are generally concerned with protecting every marriage for social reasons, whether the parties desire it or not. Experts suggest that couples should try to resolve their own difficulties because that is more efficient and effective than placing their issues before the courts.

In the United States, marriage is regulated by the states. At one time, most states recognized common-law marriage, which is entered into by agreement of the parties to be husband and wife. In such an arrangement, no marriage license is required nor is a wedding ceremony necessary. The parties are legally married when

they agree to marry and subsequently live together, publicly holding themselves out as husband and wife. The public policy behind the recognition of common-law marriage is to protect the parties' expectations, if they are living as husband and wife in every way except that they never participated in a formal ceremony. By upholding a common-law marriage as valid, children are legitimized, surviving spouses are entitled to receive social security benefits, and families are entitled to inherit property in the absence of a will. These public policy reasons have declined in significance. Most states have abolished common-law marriage, in large part because of the legal complications that arose concerning property and inheritance.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that states are permitted to reasonably regulate marriage by prescribing who can marry and the manner in which marriage can be dissolved. States may grant an annulment or divorce on terms that they conclude are proper, because no one has the constitutional right to remain married. There is a right to marry, however, that cannot be casually denied. States are proscribed from absolutely prohibiting marriage in the absence of a valid reason. The U.S. Supreme Court, for example, struck down laws in southern states that prohibited racially mixed marriages. These antimiscegenation statutes were held to be unconstitutional in the 1967 case of Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1, 87 S. Ct. 1817, 18 L. Ed. 2d 1010, because they violated equal protection of the laws.

On the other hand, the Court ruled in 1878 that polygamous marriages (i.e., having more than one spouse simultaneously) are illegal. The requirement that marriage involve one man and one woman was held to be essential to Western civilization and the United States in Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145, 25 L. Ed. 244. Chief Justice morrison r. waite, writing for a unanimous court, concluded that a state (in that case, Utah) may outlaw polygamy for everyone, regardless of whether it is a religious duty, as the Mormons claimed it was.

All states limit people to one living husband or wife at a time and will not issue marriage licenses to anyone who has a living spouse. Once someone is married, the person must be legally released from his or her spouse by death, divorce, or annulment before he or she may legally remarry. Persons who enter into a second marriage without legally dissolving a first marriage may be charged with the crime of bigamy.

The idea that marriage is the union of one male and one female has been thought to be so basic that it is not ordinarily specifically expressed by statute. This traditional principle has been challenged by gays and lesbians who, until recently, have unsuccessfully sought to legalize their relationships. In Baker v. Nelson,, 191 N.W.2d 185 (Minn. 1971), the Minnesota Supreme Court sustained the clerk's denial of a marriage license to a homosexual couple.

The 1993 decision of the Hawaii Supreme Court in Baehr v. Lewin, 852 P.2d 44, 74 Haw. 530, revived the possibility of homosexual marriage. In Baehr, the court held that the state law restricting legal marriage to parties of the opposite sex establishes a sex-based classification, which is subject to strict constitutional scrutiny when challenged on equal protection grounds. Although the court did not recognize a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, it indicated that the state would have a difficult time proving that the gay and lesbian couples were not being denied equal protection of the laws. On remand, the Circuit Court of Hawaii found that the state had not met its burden, and it enjoined the state from denying marriage applications solely because the applicants were of the same sex (Baehr v. Miike, 1996 WL 694235 [Hawaii Cir. Ct., Dec. 3, 1996]). However, this decision was stayed pending another appeal to the Hawaii Supreme Court. In the wake of Baehr, a number of states prepared legislation to ban same-sex marriage and to prohibit recognition of such marriages performed in Hawaii. In 1996, Congress enacted the Defense of Marriage Act, Pub. L. No. 104–199, 110 Sat. 219, which defines marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman and permits states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

Each state has its own individual requirements concerning the people who may marry. Before a state will issue a marriage license, a man and a woman must meet certain criteria. Some states prohibit marriage for those judged to be mentally ill or mentally retarded. In other states, however, a judge may grant permission to mentally retarded persons to marry.

Every state proscribes marriage between close relatives. The prohibited degree of relationship is fixed by state law. Every state forbids marriage to a child or grandchild, parent or grandparent, uncle or aunt, and niece or nephew, including illegitimate relatives and relatives of half blood, such as a half brother who has the same father but a different mother. A number of states also prohibit marriage to a first cousin, and some forbid marriage to a more distant relative, in-law, stepparent, or stepchild.

Age is an additional requirement. Every jurisdiction mandates that a man and a woman must be old enough to wed. In the 1800s, the legal age was as low as 12 years old for females. Modern statutes ordinarily provide that females may marry at age 16 and males at age 18. Sometimes a lower age is permitted with the written consent of the parents. A number of states allow for marriage below the minimum age if the female is pregnant and a judge grants permission.

Every couple who wishes to marry must comply with a state's formal requirements. Many states require a blood test or a blood test and physical examination before marriage, to show whether one party is infected with a venereal disease. In some states, for example, the clerk is forbidden to issue a marriage license until the parties present the results of the blood test.

Most states impose a waiting period between the filing of an application for a license and its issuance. The period is usually three days, but in some states the period may reach five days. Other states mandate a waiting period between the time when the license is issued and the date when the marriage ceremony may take place. Many states provide that the marriage license is valid only for a certain period of time. If the ceremony does not take place during this period, a new license must be obtained.

It has been customary to give notice of an impending marriage to the general public. The old form of notice was called "publication of the banns," and the upcoming marriage was announced in each party's church three Sundays in a row before the marriage. This informed the community of the intended marriage and gave everyone the opportunity to object if any knew of a reason why the two persons could not be married. Today, the names of applicants for marriage licenses are published in local newspapers.

Once a license is issued, the states require that the marriage commence with a wedding ceremony. The ceremony may either be civil or religious because states may not require religious observances. Ceremonial requirements are very simple and basic, in order to accommodate everyone. In some states, nothing more is required than a declaration by each party in the presence of an authorized person and one additional witness that he or she takes the other in marriage.

A minority of states have sought to curb growing divorce rates by enacting legislation designed to encourage couples to remain married. Statutes in states such as Arkansas, Arizona, and Louisiana provide for covenant marriages, where couples agree to impose upon themselves limitations on their ability to divorce one another. Twenty other states have considered, but ultimately rejected, the adoption of similar bills. In covenant marriages, parties mutually agree to reject "no-fault divorce," agree to enroll in premarital or post-wedding counseling, and also agree to divorce only under certain, more limiting conditions, such as domestic violence, abandonment, adultery, imprisonment of a spouse, or lengthy separation. States that pass bills recognizing covenant marriages do not actually require such marriages, but rather formally acknowledge them as legally viable, thus creating legal recourse under the law for breaches of such covenants.

Louisiana passed its covenant-marriage law in 1997. At the time, it was touted as the first substantive effort in two centuries to make divorce more difficult, and lawmakers had hoped that other states would follow suit. Since then, however, fewer than five percent of Louisiana couples have opted to enter into such marriages. Arizona's version of the law is less restrictive in that it permits an additional reason for divorce based on the mutual consent of the parties.

The most common objection to covenant marriages comes from those who view such measures as undue government intrusion into family matters. The counter argument is that states increasingly have viewed divorce as a legitimate matter of public concern because of its extensive costs and the havoc it causes to primary and extended social and economic relationships. In this regard, covenant marriages are no more intrusive than are state laws that permit or deny divorce based on certain articulated grounds.

Another objection is that covenant marriages seemingly infringe upon the separation of church and state because the mandatory premarital counseling contained in the two existing laws is often provided by clergy. Other opponents to the attempted legislative measures in other states have either expressed reservation for laws that seem to limit adult autonomy and choice or have themselves been active in the "divorce industry." This resistance was apparently the case in Texas and Oklahoma, where covenant-marriage bills failed because of opposition by key committee chairmen who were divorce attorneys.

In addition to the failed legislative attempts to pass covenant-marriage bills in other states, different tactics to curb divorce have been tried. For example, Florida enacted the Marriage Preparation and Preservation Act in 1998, but no state has followed Florida in requiring its marriage-education curriculum for public high schools. The Minnesota legislature attempted to pass a law that would have lowered marriage-license fees for couples who sought pre-marital counseling, but Governor Jesse Ventura vetoed it. In Wisconsin, a federal judge struck down a new state law that earmarked welfare money for clergy who encouraged long-married couples to mentor younger couples. According to the judge, the measure unfairly and unconstitutionally favored ministers over lay persons such as judges or justices of the peace. Texas passed law allocating $3 from every marriage-license fee to be used for marriage-education research and reform. Nationwide, a group of activists called Americans for Divorce Reform seeks to educate lawmakers, the media, and the general public on the true negative aspects of divorce, but the group does not advocate any specific reform such as covenant marriages.

further readings

Brummer, Chauncey E. 2003. "The Shackles of Covenant Marriage: Who Holds the Key to Wedlock?" University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review 25 (winter).

Duncan, William C. 2003. "Whither Marriage in the Law?" Regent University Law Review 15 (fall).

Morley, Michael T., et al. 2003. "Developments in Law and Policy: Emerging Issues in Family Law." Yale Law and Policy Review 21 (winter).


Celebration of Marriage; Domestic Violence; Family Law; Gay and Lesbian Rights; Miscegenation; Necessaries; Privileged Communication.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Marriage." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. 2005. 28 May. 2016 <>.

"Marriage." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. 2005. (May 28, 2016).

"Marriage." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. 2005. Retrieved May 28, 2016 from

Marriage and divorce

Marriage and divorce. Marriage is the union between at least two people (in polygamy and polyandry it may be more), in which commitment is made and responsibility undertaken. It is recognized and controlled in society, because of its obvious relation to the procreation and nurture of the next generation. Because of the profound consequences of the institution of marriage (yielding experience including, but going far beyond, the pleasure of sexual satisfaction), marriage is a frequent metaphor in religions for union with God. But it is recognized that not all marriages are realized in relation to the goals, however described. Divorce is regarded in general as at least a matter of regret, more often as a matter of defeat and fault. The facilities for divorce therefore differ between religions.


According to the Hebrew scriptures, marriage is a state instituted by God because ‘it is not good that the man should be alone’ (Genesis 2. 18). Although various biblical figures (such as Jacob, Saul, David, etc.) had more than one wife, monogamy seems to have been the general rule, and the prophets used marriage as an illustration of God's relationship with Israel. Certain marriages, particularly between close relatives, were forbidden, and marriage between Jew and idolater was strongly condemned (see EZRA). Although a continuing marriage was much to be desired, divorce was permitted (Deuteronomy 24. 1–4). The actual marriage ceremony was in two parts, the kiddushin or erusin (betrothal) and the nissuin (marriage proper). In the Middle Ages, the two parts were combined. The ceremony is performed under a huppah. The bridegroom has previously undertaken the obligations of the ketubbah (marriage contract) and is led to the bride. Blessings are recited over wine and the couple drink from the same cup. The bridegroom places a ring on the bride's finger and recites in Hebrew the formula, ‘Behold you are consecrated to me with this ring according to the Law of Moses and Israel’. The ketubbah is read out; seven benedictions over wine are recited; and, in most communities, the bridegroom crushes a glass with his foot.

Although divorce is a matter of great regret, it is possible. According to Jewish law, if both husband and wife agree, a husband may give a get (‘bill of divorce’) to his wife. Both husband and wife can demand a divorce if the spouse has a physical defect, or because of unsatisfactory conduct. It is, however, in a postghetto society notoriously difficult for the community to compel a husband to give a divorce, and if he refuses, the wife is tied; she cannot marry again, and any subsequent children will be mamzerim.

Since the husband is the one who must give the get, he must, necessarily, be found; otherwise, the wife remains agunah (‘tied woman’) and cannot remarry. In Conservative Judaism, a takkanah (1953) allows a clause to be inserted in the ketubbah whereby both parties agree to abide by a decision of the bet din if there is conflict. Reform Judaism has dropped the practice of the get. The law of divorce is covered in B.Gittin.


Marriage, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, ‘is an honourable estate’. The causes of marriage are three (for the procreation of children and their nurture, for a remedy against sin and to avoid fornication, and for the mutual society, help, and comfort that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity). In Roman Catholic understanding, marriage is a sacrament which creates a vinculum, an unbreakable (metaphysical) bond; it can only be brought to an end by a recognition, on various specific grounds, that it never happened in the first place, i.e. by annulment. Among other Christians, there is a more serious wrestling with the vision of Jesus Christ that marriage recreates the lost and disturbed conditions of the Garden of Eden. Uncertainty about the NT texts has led to a divergence of practice among Christians, some allowing remarriage after divorce (with a previous partner still living) in some circumstances, while others do not.


Marriage in Islam does not have to take place in a specifically religious context. It is thus a civil matter (so far as such distinctions can be drawn in Islam). Nevertheless, it is one of the signs (ayā) of God. The word for a pair or a mate is zawj, which is a term used for marriage (al-zawaj), as also is nikāh, the marriage contract. There is debate in the schools of sharīa about whether marriage is a compulsory obligation. In general it is for those who can pay the dowry (mahr), who can support a wife and children, who is healthy, and who fears that otherwise he will commit fornication (zinā); for women it is compulsory for those who have no other means of maintaining themselves and who fear zinā. Marriage is a contract between the two parties, often under the initiative of fathers or guardians. According to 2. 228, men have a degree or rank (darajah) over their wives, and in 4. 38 are ‘standing over them’ (qawwumun, which may mean ‘standing beside in support’). Marriage with non-Muslims, who might be suspected of shirk, is forbidden, but Muslim men are allowed to marry women who belong to ahl al-Kitāb (the people of the Book). The mahr is given by the groom to the bride, and it remains hers even in the event of a divorce (half of it if the marriage is dissolved before consummation). The amount of mahr is not stipulated in sharīa. Polygamy (up to four wives) is allowed in Qurān 4. 3, provided they can be treated equitably (some believe that this condition can never be attained, and that in practice monogamy is required); Muḥammad himself married eleven wives. Divorce (ṭalāq, ‘to set an animal free’) is permitted, but ‘of all things that are permitted, divorce is the most hated by God’. A statement of divorce should be followed by a waiting period (idda) of three menstrual cycles, to ensure that no child has been conceived, and to offer the chance of reconciliation. Talāq ḥasan requires three successive pronouncements of divorce to be made, during three consecutive periods of purity (ṭuhur); it is not permissible to pronounce the three repudiations all at one time. Divorce may be initiated by the wife (khul), but if she does so without identifiable cause, she must abandon the dowry. For the early (and disputed) temporary marriage, see MUTA.


Marriage is an expected norm for all Hindus except those who become renouncers and adopt a community or ascetic life. For a woman, the ritual of marriage (vivāha) is in itself a route to mokṣa. Marriages are generally a matter of arrangement between families, attempting to ensure compatibility of (obviously) caste, but also of such things as education and wealth. The ritual is one of the most important of the saṃskāras (rites of passage), and involves great expense, with gifts passing between the families. The details of the ritual differ from place to place, but some elements are constant. Although celebrations may last for several days, the actual ceremony is simple. It begins with the formal giving away, by the father, of the bride. Songs of blessing are then sung, followed by oblations to the sacred fire, homa, before which the couple are sitting. They then take seven steps (satapadi) round the fire, with the groom leading the bride. If evening has fallen by this time, the couple will go out to see the star Dhruva (the Pole Star), and the bride vows to be as constant as that star. The festivities then continue.

According to classic theory (e.g. Arthaśastra), a marriage brought into being by the proper rituals cannot be dissolved. It follows that a widow should not remarry—and in a case of absolute devotion, a widow should follow her late husband into death (satī). Nevertheless, before death mokṣa (release) is possible on various grounds (the exact grounds are debated). Defects in bride or groom (especially lack of virginity and absence of virility) are usually accepted as sufficient grounds, as may be prolonged absence, or desertion, or cruelty. The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, allows divorce, but for traditional Hindus it is still, in general, unacceptable.


In the long process which leads eventually to enlightenment, the Buddha espoused the wisdom of addressing teaching and practice to the levels attained by different people (upāya-kauśalya). In this perspective, marriage properly undertaken is a legitimate step, even though sexuality will be transcended in due course. In the Sigālovāda Sutta, the Buddha laid out the responsibilities of lay Buddhists which embrace the duties involved in a householder's life. Paramount (and one of the Five Precepts, śīla) is the avoidance of sexual impropriety. If a marriage fails, there may be a contribution of karma to the failure, but in any case the dismantling of the marriage must attempt to avoid hurt to either of those involved.


The 1909 Anand Marriage Act legalized the Sikhs' Anand Karaj ceremony, following pressure from reformers—though many weddings are still influenced by Hindu practice. Although, according to Rahat Maryādā, caste is immaterial, marriages are usually arranged within caste. Astrological considerations should not decide the date. Often betrothal (Pañjābī, maṅgaṇī, kūrmāī) is elaborate, with the bestowal of gifts. Subsequently a chunni (scarf) and other gifts are presented to the bride-to-be. For the marriage ceremony the bridegroom, his family, and friends come to the gurdwārā as guests of the bride's family who make the arrangements. In front of the congregation, the couple sit before the Ādi Granth, the bride to the groom's left. She generally wears red and his turban is often pink. Ardās is said. The officiant (any approved Sikh) explains the ceremony's significance, reminding them to show love and loyalty. Bride and groom bow in assent to the Ādi Granth. A pink scarf (pallā) now links them. Four times the bride follows the groom clockwise around the Ādi Granth. Before each circumambulation, one stanza of the Lāvān is read and the rāgīs sing it as the couple walk around. They are garlanded and given money. The service concludes with six verses of Anand Sāhib, the Ardās, and distribution of kaṛāh praśād. A reception follows.


The married state, one of the five relationships, is essential in this life and after-life for the purposes of uniting families and assuring descendants. Traditionally, marriage is arranged by a matchmaker and based on the eight character horoscopes. While keeping her family's surname, the wife is bodily, spiritually, ritually, and juridically transferred to the husband's family, subordinate first to the husband then to the eldest son, and remains in that family after death. By marriage, a husband assures his place in the ritual continuity of generations by assuming responsibility for his wife.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

JOHN BOWKER. "Marriage and divorce." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. 1997. 28 May. 2016 <>.

JOHN BOWKER. "Marriage and divorce." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. 1997. (May 28, 2016).

JOHN BOWKER. "Marriage and divorce." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. 1997. Retrieved May 28, 2016 from


marriage Since the nineteenth century, complex issues in the study of marriage have involved the productive and reproductive powers of the body. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many scholars, such as Lewis Henry Morgan, Sigmund Freud, and James Frazer, viewed evolution in sexuality and family life as a crucial dynamic in the history of human civilization, asserting an evolutionary development from primitive promiscuity and group marriage to modern constraint, monogamy, and patriarchy. In the 1920s and 1930s, the increased practice of fieldwork — the extended practical observation of everyday life in societies — induced specialists in this ethnographic discipline, such as the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski and his students, to abandon the ‘conjectural histories’ of the evolutionists. Rather, they developed a view of sexual constraint and individual marriage — as opposed to promiscuity and group marriage — as common elements in many different types of societies. This new method, described in its earliest form as functionalism but modified considerably over time, has become a mainstay of the modern social sciences; it stresses the crucial significance of marriage for many aspects of group structure in all societies, including patterns of descent, residence, alliance, and classification of kin.


These perspectives share a concern to define marriage, whether as a means to trace the evolutionary development of its different types or as a prelude to the identification of its distinctive functions in society. Many attempts have been made to identify the essential nature of marriage and to list its purposes, a project often as revealing of the observer's assumptions as of the observed practices. Across cultures, the ceremonial and social phenomena conventionally defined as marriage assume myriad forms and serve varied purposes, yet marriage is usually defined as the formal ideological recognition of a sexual relationship between one man and one woman (monogamy); among one man and two or more women (polygamy: polygyny); or among one woman and two or more men (polygamy: polyandry). Because sexual intercourse is approved in this relationship, the children of a marriage usually possess a status superior to children born beyond its boundaries.

In an argument against such essentialism, the anthropologist Edmund Leach rejected universal definitions and instead approached marriage as a ‘bundle of rights’. Among the classes of rights allocated by institutions ‘commonly classed as marriage’, Leach noted that in different societies ‘marriage’ may serve:(i) to establish the legal father of a woman's children;(ii) to establish the legal mother of a man's children;(iii) to give the husband a monopoly in the wife's sexuality;(iv) to give the wife a monopoly in the husband's sexuality;(v) to give the husband partial or monopolistic rights to the wife's domestic or other labour services;(vi) to give the wife partial or monopolistic rights to the husband's labour services;(vii) to give the husband rights over the property of his wife;(viii) to give the wife rights over the property of her husband;(ix) to establish a joint fund of property, a partnership, for the benefit of the children of the marriage; and(x) to establish a socially significant ‘relationship of affinity’ between the husband and his wife's brothers.

Leach's essay, and the debate it provoked in the late 1950s, had a seminal influence on approaches to marriage as an ethnographic problem, as a culturally specific set of beliefs, practices, and institutions. Because marriage did not establish all of these types of rights in any known society, Leach concluded that the ‘institutions commonly described as marriage do not all have the same legal and social concomitants’ and that the meaning of marriage in any society could emerge only from detailed investigation of its ethnographic context. At the same time, Leach's essay typified an approach that has focused on how marriage may structure relationships between individuals and among groups, and has stressed the interrelationship of principles of descent, rules of residence, and issues of power over property.

Yet such jural approaches have serious ethnographic limitations, as even the basic conditions of sex between spouses and reproduction of legitimate offspring are not invariably present in relations understood as marriage. A form of woman-to-woman marriage among the Nuer in eastern Africa, observed in the 1930s, created conjugal relationships that furnished heirs for barren women but excluded the sexual partner of the child-bearers from the marital relationship. Nuer also practised a form of ‘ghost marriage’ between dead men and living women — marriages undertaken by the male relatives, usually younger brothers, of men who died heirless — in order to preserve the names of the deceased in their lineages. In this context, the jural marriage existed between the living and the dead, not between the sexual partners. Furthermore, in several European states and in the US, weddings are performed for lesbian and homosexual partners and also for heterosexual partners who are incapable of sexual intercourse. The meanings and experience of marriage elude persistent efforts to define the custom in terms of legitimate sexuality, the approved reproduction of children, or other sets of formal ‘rights and duties’.

Recent trends

Two important recent developments in work on marriage have been the feminist critique of jural approaches and the revival of the broad historical and comparative perspective of the late nineteenth century, without its ‘conjectural histories’ and flawed evolutionist designs. A feminist perspective on marriage has suggested that the stress on ‘rights and duties’ too narrowly subsumes women's experiences under juridical issues and obscures the reciprocity between husband and wife and the informal power women wield within marriage. These insights have been useful in the analysis, for instance, of the competition for power among male heads of households and co-wives in polygynous marriage systems.

A second recent development in the study of marriage has revived the project of comparative social science as a complement to the ethnographic discipline of fieldwork. Avoiding what Jack Goody has styled ‘the ghastly warning of what can go wrong’ in the work of the earlier evolutionists, this approach uses ethnographic data, Goody's ‘clusters of interacting variables’, to address ‘problems of comparison and long-term change’ in social institutions. A major focus of comparison has been the correlation of marriage practices, patterns of inheritance, and other aspects of social systems, such as divisions of labour and forms of economic production, in the societies of Africa, Asia, and Europe. This comparative method has resulted in appropriately qualified correlations among (i) monogamy, dowry, status endogamy (like marrying like in class terms), and forms of plough agriculture in many Eurasian societies, producing more stratified social systems; and (ii) polygyny, bridewealth, exogamy, and horticulture in African societies, resulting in more open and interrelated social systems. Furthermore, a distinctive European pattern of marriage and inheritance has been identified, developing after the fourth century ce and marked by ‘extensive prohibitions’ of close or cousin marriage; abolition of the levirate and sororate (customary unions with the wife of a dead brother or the sister of a dead wife) and an increase in widows who did not remarry; the limitation of adoption; and the proscription of concubinage. More controversially, it has been suggested that this pattern resulted from the Christian Church's use of its power over laws of marriage and family to secure property for its temporal purposes.

Dan Beaver


Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1951). Kinship and marriage among the Nuer. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
Goody, J. (1983). The development of the family and marriage in Europe. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Rosaldo, M. and Lamphere, L. (ed.) (1974). Woman, culture, and society. Stanford University Press, Stanford.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

COLIN BLAKEMORE and SHELIA JENNETT. "marriage." The Oxford Companion to the Body. 2001. 28 May. 2016 <>.

COLIN BLAKEMORE and SHELIA JENNETT. "marriage." The Oxford Companion to the Body. 2001. (May 28, 2016).

COLIN BLAKEMORE and SHELIA JENNETT. "marriage." The Oxford Companion to the Body. 2001. Retrieved May 28, 2016 from


marriage Marriage is traditionally conceived to be a legally recognized relationship, between an adult male and female, that carries certain rights and obligations. However, in contemporary societies, marriage is sometimes interpreted more liberally and the phrase ‘living as married’ indicates that for many purposes it makes no sense to exclude cohabitation. It should be noted, however, that even this more liberal definition usually excludes homosexual couples. Although cohabitation is increasingly accepted, and is now the normal prelude to marriage, people continue to make a distinction between living together and a ‘proper’ wedding and marriage.

Much recent sociological research, both in Britain and America, has been concerned with the growing fears that marriage as an institution is in decline. These fears stem from two roots, the first being concern for increasing marital breakdown and subsequent divorce, and the second the fact that marriage is going out of fashion, with more people cohabiting and even rearing children outside matrimony. Certainly, divorce is on the increase, and if current divorce-rates in Britain continue then one in three marriages is likely to end in divorce. In recent years, the median age at first marriage has increased and teenage marriages have declined significantly, with a growing proportion, albeit still a small minority, never getting married. At the same time, rates of cohabitation are increasing, with it now being virtually the norm to cohabit before marrying. Moreover, an increasing number of children are conceived and born outside marriage. Looking at these statistics, one might reasonably conclude that the future of marriage looks bleak, but marriage still remains the preferred way of life for the vast majority of the adult population. Even among those whose first marriage fails, a majority are sufficiently optimistic to marry a second time.

Why do people marry? In Western societies, the emotional aspects of marriage are stressed, and what Lawrence Stone calls affective individualism prevails (see The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500–1800, 1977
). Choice of a mate is influenced primarily by the desire for a relationship offering affection and love–although, as Peter Berger observes, the ‘lightning shaft of Cupid seems to be guided rather strongly within very definite channels of class, income, education, racial and religious background’ (see Invitation to Sociology, 1963
). The tendency for people of similar backgrounds to marry (marital homogamy) is strong, but there is no clear understanding of why it occurs, or whether the degree of rigidity in mate selection differs among different social groups. Surprisingly, some recent American research suggests that the higher the class position, the less the homogamy ( M. Whyte , Dating, Mating, and Marriage, 1990
). The same study also indicates that homogamy is a poor predictor of marital success.

Concern with marital success and marital adjustment has played an increasingly prominent part in recent research. As David Morgan (The Family, 1985) suggests, marriage has become ‘medicalized’, with therapists and marriage-guidance counsellors at the ready to tackle marital problems and enhance marital quality. This raises the question of how marital success should be measured. Clearly, stability is not a sufficient indicator, as some couples stay together even though they are totally miserable, whereas others divorce, despite having a relationship that some would envy. A variety of marital quality inventories have been developed and recently it has been recognized that marital quality and marital problems are in fact independent. For example, conflict and arguments may be signs of caring and engagement in some marriages.

Marriages clearly face different problems at different times of the life-cycle, and raising a family, especially for parents of younger children, is associated with high marital strain. Remarriages appear to be at greater risk of breaking up than first marriages, especially when step-children are involved. This may be in part because remarriage is an incomplete institution, in the sense that societal expectations and norms still reflect the traditional expectation that marriages will last a lifetime. As Anthony Giddens has pointed out, terms like ‘broken marriages’ and ‘broken homes’ embody the traditional ideal and have unfortunate negative connotations, especially regarding children whose parents are separated or divorced.

Increasingly, research is focusing on the interrelationship of employment and family life, including marriage. The primary focus has been on how women's employment has affected the marital relationship. Using longitudinal surveys, American researchers have found that women who contribute a higher share of the household income are more likely to divorce than women who contribute a lower share, or housewives. It may be that wives who become less dependent upon their husbands financially are no longer willing to tolerate a subservient position–and have the resources that enable them to leave. Another important question is whether the employment of women has led to greater egalitarianism within marriage. Some family researchers have painted a rosy picture of how families are becoming more symmetrical, whereas others continue to exercise scepticism, asserting that the traditional division of labour within the home persists, even when women also hold full-time employment.

Jessie Bernard (The Future of Marriage, 1972) has claimed that there is not one marriage but two–the wife's marriage and that of the husband. Studies have consistently shown that marriage tends to be more beneficial for men than for women, with married men being in better psychological health, and showing fewer symptoms of stress than married women. Some feminists who see marriage as an oppressive institution have urged women not to marry. The inequalities of marriage, however, are reflections of the inequalities of the sexes in society. As Chris Harris states, ‘it is to be expected that however great the formal equality between the spouses, wives’ sense of inequality in marriage will persist as long as they cannot, for whatever reason, participate on equal terms with men in the labour-market' (Family and Industrial Society, 1983). Bernard goes further, suggesting that the metamorphosis of housewife to bread-winner sends tremors through every relationship. Dual-earning marriages are sowing the seeds of change. However, despite the dire statistics, marriage seems to be a rather resilient institution; perhaps, very gradually, the benefits for both husband and wife will become more balanced. See also ROLE, CONJUGAL; DOMESTIC DIVISION OF LABOUR; DUAL-CAREER MARRIAGE; FAMILY, SYMMETRICAL; HOUSEHOLD ALLOCATIVE SYSTEM.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

GORDON MARSHALL. "marriage." A Dictionary of Sociology. 1998. 28 May. 2016 <>.

GORDON MARSHALL. "marriage." A Dictionary of Sociology. 1998. (May 28, 2016).

GORDON MARSHALL. "marriage." A Dictionary of Sociology. 1998. Retrieved May 28, 2016 from


marriage, the act of marrying and the ceremony by which persons are made husband and wife, establishes links between the families of the bride and groom and guarantees the legitimacy of any children born in wedlock. Traditionally, two major values underpinned marriage: moral commitment of the partners to each other; and contractual commitment in relation to rights of property and succession.

The institution of marriage was an integral part of both church and state, with the state accepting the jurisdiction of the church in the licensing of marriage and in regulating the conditions in which it could take place. Although it was not a sacrament, in the mid-12th cent. Pope Alexander III ruled that for all Christendom the vows partners made to each other should be in the presence of witnesses, preferably, but not essentially, at the parish church door. Within the protestant churches of Great Britain this pre-Reformation tradition remained the legal requirement for marriage until Hardwicke's Marriage Act (1753), which compelled all marriage ceremonies to take place before a minister within the parish church building. Since the Council of Trent (1545 to 1563) had declared marriage one of the sacraments of the Roman church, catholics received this from their priest. The Marriage Act (1836) formalized many of the customs of previous eras. A superintendent registrar of births, marriages, and deaths had the duty of registering all marriages. The superintendent registrar was also empowered to license religious premises, other than Anglican churches, for the conduct of marriages, so that nonconformists and catholics could marry in their own places of worship. Additionally, register offices were set up in all cities and towns, for the marriages of those not wishing to have a religious ceremony. The Marriage Act of 1995 extended the range of places which could be licensed for the conduct of marriage to any location which was appropriately seemly and dignified. A number of bizarre places soon followed.

Until recently, when the importance of romantic love and individual choice became a higher priority, the selection of a marriage partner was usually the prerogative of the family of the bride or groom. At all levels of society marriage partners were usually chosen from within the same social and religious group. Amongst the nobility dynastic considerations, particularly the potential succession to title and property, guided the selection of a suitable spouse. In addition, male relatives had the responsibility of finding suitable marriage partners for their female dependents, with its attendant dangers of the choice being made to benefit the guardian rather than the woman. There was also the problem of forced marriage, recognized by Magna Carta (1215), which included protection for wards and widows. In the Middle Ages there was no minimum age for entering into marriage, so that betrothal promises, which also had legal force, and marriage vows were sometimes exchanged by immature children. Such arrangements were recorded amongst aristocratic families, where their purpose was to secure dynastic alliances with a likely succession to title and property. The validity of such marriages was challengeable in the courts, where the marriage contract could be annulled if it could be established that the marriage had not been consummated. The testimony of witnesses present at the bedding of the married pair could be taken as evidence of consummation.

The establishment of a minimum age for legal sexual relations was relevant to the determination of who might enter into marriage. During the 19th cent. the ages of consent were fixed at 14 years for males and 16 for females and the ages were later raised to 16 years for both sexes, although marriage at such ages was very infrequent. In contrast, the age of majority for entry into all other legal contracts was 21 years, reduced to 18 years in 1968. It continues to be the case that all minors must seek parental permission to marry, and, for those without parents, permission must be obtained from a guardian, magistrate, or a person of standing.

The registration of marriages and the issuing of ‘marriage lines’ to be held by one of the spouses, usually the wife, were important procedures for establishing status and the legitimacy of children. Children born out of wedlock suffered discrimination, in that they could not inherit property or status as of right. In contrast to the rest of Britain, Scottish common law marriages, that is marriages which had not taken place in church, could be registered in the Sheriff Court office and subsequently had the standing of licensed marriages. Such documentation of the existence of a marriage became of greater importance for more and more people during the 19th cent. as growing numbers held property and as geographical and social mobility increased. In the 20th cent. such documentation was important for establishing the right to concessions on personal taxation. The promise to marry continued to have legal force and breach of promise cases could be brought by a fiancée whose reputation was deemed to have been tarnished by a broken engagement. Legal proceedings were costly and that, together with growing equality in the commitment to marriage in the 20th cent., meant that breach of promise cases were very infrequent.

Until the later 19th cent. husbands had virtually complete control over their wives and their property. The marriage contract was not an equal one. On marriage wives brought to their husbands total rights to their property and earnings, unless the wife's family had entered into a marriage settlement which limited what a husband might do with the wife's dowry. However, only far-sighted families with the money to pay for legal services made such arrangements. Wives' rights over their own property, earnings, and children began to be recognized by the Married Women's Property Acts of the later 19th cent. The rights of a wife to manage her own financial affairs and to be wholly responsible for them were achieved in 1988 with legislation to assess husbands and wives as separate individuals, rather than as a married pair for taxation purposes.

In spite of access to divorce and the removal of the social stigma of living together out of wedlock, marriage and remarriage after divorce remain highly valued, to the extent that marriage, often associated with expensive wedding ceremonies, continues to be part of the experience of the great majority of the population.

Ian John Ernest Keil


Brooke, C. N. L. , The Medieval Idea of Marriage (Oxford, 1989);
Gillis, J. , For Better, for Worse: British Marriages, 1600 to the Present (New York, 1985);
Stone, L. , The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500–1800 (1977);
Uncertain Unions: Marriage in England, 1660–1753 (Oxford, 1992).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

JOHN CANNON. "marriage." The Oxford Companion to British History. 2002. 28 May. 2016 <>.

JOHN CANNON. "marriage." The Oxford Companion to British History. 2002. (May 28, 2016).

JOHN CANNON. "marriage." The Oxford Companion to British History. 2002. Retrieved May 28, 2016 from


marriage, socially sanctioned union that reproduces the family. In all societies the choice of partners is generally guided by rules of exogamy (the obligation to marry outside a group); some societies also have rules of endogamy (the obligation to marry within a group). These rules may be prescriptive or, as in the case of the incest taboo, proscriptive; they generally apply to kinship groups such as clan or lineage; residential groups; and social groups such as the ethnic group, caste, or class.

Historically marriage was typically heterosexual and entailed exclusive rights and duties of sexual performance, but there are instructive exceptions. For example, Nayar women of India would ritually marry men of a superior caste, have numerous lovers, and bear legitimate children. Among the Dahomey of West Africa, one woman could marry another; the first woman would be the legal "father" of the children (by other men) of the second. These examples highlight the functions of marriage to reproduce both a domestic division of labor and social relationships between different groups. Such functions are served even by the more common type of marriage, the union of one or more men with one or more women.

In most societies men and women have been valued for their different roles in the household economy. Marriage therefore often has occasioned other economic exchanges. If a woman's labor is highly valued, a man may be required to offer valuable goods (bride-price) or his own labor (bride-service) to his wife's family. If a man's labor is more highly valued, the bride's family may offer goods (dowry) to the husband or his family.

Marriage as a Societal Bond

In many societies marriage links not just nuclear families but larger social formations as well. Some endogamous societies are divided into different exogamous groups (such as clans or lineages): Men form alliances through the exchange of women, and the social organization regulates these alliances through marriage rules. In some cases, two men from different groups exchange sisters for brides. Other instances involve an adult man marrying the young or infant daughter of another man; sexual relations would be deferred for many years, but the two men will have formed a strong bond. Marriages are often arranged by the families through the services of a matchmaker or go-between, and commence with a ritual celebration, or wedding. Some cultures practice trial marriage; the couple lives together before deciding whether they should marry. Societies have generally prescribed where newlywed couples should live: In patrilocal cultures, they live with or near the husband's family; in matrilocal ones, with or near the wife's family. Under neolocal residence, the couple establishes their own household.

Although marriage tends to be regarded in many places as a permanent tie, divorce is allowed in most modern societies. The causes of divorce vary, but adultery, desertion, infertility, failure to provide the necessities of life, mistreatment, and incompatibility are the most common. Civil unions are now permitted in Western countries, but for nearly a thousand years marriage in the Western world was a religious contract. The Christian church undertook its supervision in the 9th cent., when newlywed couples instituted the practice of coming to the church door to have their union blessed by the priest. Eventually the church regulated marriage through canon law.

In contemporary Europe marriage has lost some of importance, especially as social legislation in some nations has emphasized assuring equal financial benefits and legal standing to children born to unwed parents. Some European nations also grant legal recognition to couples in less restrictive unions; such partnerships typically have some but not all of the legal rights extended to married couples, but the partnership usually can be more easily dissolved.

For the legal aspects of marriage, see husband and wife; consanguinity; divorce.

Forms of Marriage

Monogamy (the union of one wife to one husband) is the prevalent form almost everywhere. Polygyny (or polygamy; having several wives at one time), however, has been a prerogative in many societies (see harem). It is commonly found where the value of women's labor is high and may be practiced as a way of acquiring allies: A man may cement his bonds with several other men by marrying their sisters or daughters. Polyandry (having several husbands at one time) is rare, having occurred infrequently in Tibetan society, among the Marquesas of Polynesia, and among certain hill tribes in India. People who enjoy only a marginal subsistence may practice polyandry as a way of limiting births. It is also practiced where brothers must work together to sustain one household; they share one wife. The custom of marrying a widow to her late husband's brother is known as levirate marriage and was common among the ancient Hebrews. In sororate marriages a widower marries his deceased (or barren) wife's sister. The levirate and the sororate occur in societies where marriage is seen to create an alliance between groups; the deceased spouse's group has a duty to provide a new spouse to the widow or widower, thereby preserving the alliance. Beginning in the late 20th cent., gay-rights groups in a growing number of nations have sought official recognition of same-sex couples through marriage or civil union (see gay-rights movement).


See C. Levi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1969); E. A. Westermark, The History of Human Marriage (3 vol., 5th ed. 1921; repr. 1971); J. M. Henslin, Marriage and Family in a Changing Society (2d ed. 1985); J. F. Collier, Marriage and Inequality in Classless Societies (1988); A. J. Cherlin, The Marriage-Go-Round (2010).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"marriage." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. 28 May. 2016 <>.

"marriage." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. (May 28, 2016).

"marriage." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. Retrieved May 28, 2016 from


431. Marriage

  1. American linden symbol of marriage. [Plant Symbolism: Flora Symbolica, 182]
  2. Aphrodite Genetrix patron of marriage and procreation. [Gk. Myth.: Espy, 16]
  3. As You Like It its denouement has the marriages of four couples. [Br. Lit.: Shakespeare As You Like It ]
  4. Benedick nickname for groom; derived from Shakespeares Benedick. [Br. Lit.: Much Ado About Nothing ]
  5. Blondie and Dagwood typify relationship between dominant wife and her inadequate mate. [Comics: Berger, 108]
  6. Bridal Chorus traditional wedding song; from Wagners Lohengrin. [Music : Scholes, 1113]
  7. Cana wedding feast where Christ made water into wine. [N.T.: John 2:111]
  8. Dolls House, A after eight years of marriage, in which Torvald Helmer has treated Nora more like a doll than a human being, she declares her independence. [Nor. Drama: Ibsen A Dolls House ]
  9. epithalamium poem in honor of bride and groom. [Western Lit.: LLEI, 1: 283]
  10. Erato Muse of bridal songs. [Gk. Myth.: Kravitz, 90]
  11. Frome, Ethan his loveless and unhappy marriage to Zeena remains hopeless when his love affair with Mattie comes to a pitiful end. [Am. Lit.: Ethan Frome in Benét, 324]
  12. Gretna Green place in Scotland, just across the English border, where elopers could be married without formalities. [Br. Hist.: Brewer Dictionary, 418]
  13. Hulda goddess of marriage and fecundity. [Ger. Myth.: Benét, 484]
  14. huppah bridal canopy in Jewish weddings. [Judaism: Wigoder, 274]
  15. Marriage à la Mode engravings in which Hogarth satirically depicts the daily lives of a countess and an earl. [Br. Art: EB (1963) XI, 625]
  16. Modern Love dramatizes the feelings of a couple whose marriage is dying. [Br. Lit.: George Meredith Modern Love in Magill IV, 899]
  17. orange blossoms traditional decoration for brides. [Br. and Fr. Tradition: Brewer Dictionary, 784]
  18. Prothalamion Spensers poem celebrating the double marriage of the two daughters of the Earl of Worcester. [Br. Poetry: Haydn & Fuller, 615]
  19. quince in portraits, traditionally held by woman in wedding. [Art: Hall, 257]
  20. rice newly married couples pelted with rice for connubial good luck. [Western Folklore: Leach, 938]
  21. St. Agness Eve when marriageable girls foresee their future husbands. [Br. Lit.: The Eve of St. Agnes in Norton, 686693]
  22. These Twain difficult marital adjustments of Edwin Clayhanger and Hilda Lessways. [Br. Lit.: Bennett These Twain in Magill I, 148]
  23. tin cans put on car of newlyweds leaving ceremony. [Am. Cult.: Misc.]
  24. Way of the World, The profound analysis of the marriage relation in which Mirabell and Millamant negotiate a marriage agreement. [Br. Drama: Benét, 1077]
  25. Wedding March popular bridal music from Mendelssohns march in Midsummer Nights Dream. [Music: Scholes, 1113]
  26. Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? marriage of George and Martha is a travesty, full of arguments, frustration, and hatred. [Am. Drama: Edward Albee Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf ? in Magill IV, 1282]
  27. Wife of Bath many marriages form theme of her tale. [Br. Lit.: Canterbury Tales, Wife of Baths Tale]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Marriage." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. 1986. 28 May. 2016 <>.

"Marriage." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. 1986. (May 28, 2016).

"Marriage." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. 1986. Retrieved May 28, 2016 from


258. Marriage

See also 348. RELATIONSHIP ;418. WIFE

the form of marriage in which brothers have a common wife or wives. adelphogamic , adj.
the state or practice of being married to more than one wife or one husband at a time. bigamist , n. bigamous , adj.
the state of being single or unmarried, especially in the case of one bound by vows not to marry. celibate , n., adj.
an advocate of celibacy.
the practice of a married woman having an escort or cavalier, called a cicisbeo, in attendance.
digamism. deuterogamist , n. deuterogamous , adj.
digamism, digamy
a second legal marriage after the termination of a first marriage by death or divorce. Also called deuterogamy. digamist , n. digamous , adj.
the custom of marrying only within ones tribe or similar social unit. endogamic, endogamous , adj.
epithalamium, epithalamy
a song or poem composed and performed in honor of a bride or groom.
the practice of marrying only outside ones tribe or similar social unit. exogamic, exogamous , adj.
1. Obsolete, a form of mania characterized by strange and extravagant proposals of marriage.
2. an excessive longing for the married state.
an abnormal fear of marriage.
the killing of a husband. mariticidal , adj.
the act or state of marriage; married life. matrimonial , adj.
a hatred of marriage. misogamist , n. misogamic , adj.
the custom of marriage to only one man at a time. monandrous , adj.
the custom of marriage to one wife or one husband at a time. monogamous , adj.
designating or pertaining to a marriage between a man of high social standing and a woman of lower station in which the marriage contract stipulates that neither she nor their offspring will have claim to his rank or property.
a person recently married; a newlywed.
the condition of being marriageable, especially in reference to a womans age or physical development. nubile , adj.
a form of marriage in which every woman in a community is married to every man and every man is married to every woman. pantagamic , adj.
the best man or maid of honor at a wedding.
the practice of having two or more husbands at a time. polyandrous , adj.
the practice or state of being married to more than one person at a time. polygamous , adj.
the practice of having two or more wives at a time. polygynous, polygynious , adj.
prothalamion, prothalamium
a nuptial or wedding song or verse.
the condition of having three spouses, especially in the criminal sense of having them simultaneously. trigamous , adj.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Marriage." -Ologies and -Isms. 1986. 28 May. 2016 <>.

"Marriage." -Ologies and -Isms. 1986. (May 28, 2016).

"Marriage." -Ologies and -Isms. 1986. Retrieved May 28, 2016 from


mar·riage / ˈmarij/ • n. 1. the formal union of a man and a woman, typically recognized by law, by which they become husband and wife. ∎  a similar long-term relationship between partners of the same sex. ∎  a relationship between married people or the period for which it lasts: a happy marriage the children from his first marriage. ∎ fig. a combination or mixture of two or more elements: a marriage of jazz, pop, blues, and gospel. 2. (in pinochle and other card games) a combination of a king and queen of the same suit. PHRASES: by marriage as a result of a marriage: a distant cousin by marriage. in marriage as husband or wife: he asked my father for my hand in marriage. marriage of convenience a marriage concluded to achieve a practical purpose.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"marriage." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. 2009. 28 May. 2016 <>.

"marriage." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. 2009. (May 28, 2016).

"marriage." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. 2009. Retrieved May 28, 2016 from


marriage marriage is a lottery proverbial saying, mid 17th century, referring either to one's choice of partner, or more generally to the element of chance involved in how a marriage will turn out.
Marriage of the Adriatic a ceremony formerly held on Ascension Day in Venice to symbolize the city's sea power, during which the doge dropped a ring into the water from his official barge.
marriages are made in heaven proverbial saying, mid 16th century, often used ironically in relation to an unhappy union.
there goes more to marriage than four bare legs in a bed physical compatibility is not enough for a successful marriage; proverbial saying, mid 16th century.

See also dream of a funeral and you hear of a marriage, marry.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

ELIZABETH KNOWLES. "marriage." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 2006. 28 May. 2016 <>.

ELIZABETH KNOWLES. "marriage." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 2006. (May 28, 2016).

ELIZABETH KNOWLES. "marriage." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 2006. Retrieved May 28, 2016 from


marriage In the modern Western sense, the legal status of a man and a woman joined by ceremony as husband and wife. This is known as monogamy, but some societies practise polyandry (having more than one husband) and polygamy.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"marriage." World Encyclopedia. 2005. 28 May. 2016 <>.

"marriage." World Encyclopedia. 2005. (May 28, 2016).

"marriage." World Encyclopedia. 2005. Retrieved May 28, 2016 from


marriagecarriage, disparage, Harwich, intermarriage, marriage, miscarriage •undercarriage •cartridge, partridge •Selfridge • Cambridge • Bainbridge •Knightsbridge • umpirage •borage, forage, Norwich, porridge •Oxbridge • storage • drawbridge •Trowbridge • tollbridge • footbridge •courage, demurrage, encourage •umbrage • suffrage •peerage, steerage •sewerage • moorage •harbourage (US harborage) •pasturage • pilferage • anchorage •acreage • vicarage • brokerage •cellarage • Coleridge •haemorrhage (US hemorrhage) •amperage • factorage • hectarage •litreage (US literage), metreage (US meterage) • fosterage •porterage, quarterage •tutorage • average •beverage, Beveridge •leverage • overage • coverage

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"marriage." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. 2007. 28 May. 2016 <>.

"marriage." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. 2007. (May 28, 2016).

"marriage." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. 2007. Retrieved May 28, 2016 from

Facts and information from other sites