Marriage, Definition of

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Marriage, Definition of

The institution of marriage is found in all societies. In the United States, marriage means stabilized patterns of norms and roles associated with the mutual relationship between husband and wife. It joins together a man (or men) and a woman (or women) in a special kind of social and legal arrangement that serves several purposes for a society. While this definition fits what is meant by marriage in the United States and other Western nations, it is not broad enough to encompass the essential features of marriage across all cultures. However, because marriage as an institution may differ in structure, function, dynamics, and meaning from one culture to another, no all-encompassing definition of marriage is possible (Kottak 1991). In almost all societies, it entails a legal contract (written or verbal), and this contract varies in the degree to which it can be broken.

Why People Get Married

In most societies, marriages are formed to produce children. From the perspective of evolutionary biology and sociobiology, all individual human beings, as with other species, are driven to reproduce and invest in their offspring to ensure that their genes are passed on to future generations. For at least two million years and perhaps longer, marriage or some arrangement like it has been the social relationship that has proven most effective for this purpose. It is also in the interest of all social groups to maintain and reproduce themselves so that the group will continue. Through the marital union, a stable living unit is established (a family). In this unit, children are socialized into the society's norms and values. In some societies, the connection between marriage and reproduction is so strong that if conception does not occur a divorce is permissible, and often is automatic. In others, a marriage does not take place until after pregnancy occurs and fertility is proven (Miller 1987). For a society, the institution of marriage ensures the regulation of sexual activity for adults and the socialization and protection of children born as a result of that sexual activity. However, individuals living within a society need not comply with behavior that serves the needs of society. Why do they?

In the United States, the most often stated reason for marrying is for love—that is, a man and a woman perceive a mutual emotional and/or physical attraction that is satisfying enough to both that they decide to contract a lifelong relationship. Marriage is a socially sanctioned relationship from which children are born; thus, many people marry to have children. Some persons are premaritally pregnant, and they choose marriage to provide two parents for their child or to escape the negative sanctions or stigma they feel they may experience as an unwed parent. Other persons report that their motivation for entering into a marriage is for economic security, to escape the living situation they are in, or because the relationship has lasted so long that marriage is viewed simply as the "next logical step" (Knox and Schacht 1991).

The feelings called romantic love are nearly universal culturally. In some 85 percent of cultures, at least some people report feeling "in love" with another at some time in their lives ( Jankowiak 1994). Love has not always been the basis for marriage in the United States, and it is not the basis for marriage in some societies around the world today. In the early Colonial period in the United States, marriages were arranged, based on the economic needs and the prospects of two families. Even when mutual attraction was the basis for a couple's desire to marry, social boundaries were rarely crossed among financially well-off families who sought to maintain their positions of status and power through appropriate marriages of their children. Marriages of individuals in other social classes varied according to the family's economic circumstances, whether it was a son or a daughter who wanted to marry, and the number of children in the family who needed a dowry or deed of land for marriage to occur. In the Colonial agrarian economy, fathers deeded land to sons to set up new households. Where sons were located in the sibling group (oldest, middle, youngest) and whether their labor was still needed at home to farm the family's land were strong considerations that determined whether a father would grant permission to marry. However, although marriages were based on economic rather than romantic considerations, this did not mean that romantic love was wholly absent from Colonial society. It was present but not linked directly or consistently to courtship or marriage. It did not become the basis for marriage until the late 1700s (Baca-Zinn and Eitzen 1990).

Rules and Regulations

In the United States, marriage is a legal contract, with the state regulating the economic and sexual exchanges between two heterosexual adults (McIntyre 1994). The fifty states vary somewhat in the regulations or criteria that must be satisfied before a couple can contract to marry. Most states specify that people must get a license to marry; must be a specific age before they can marry; must marry only people of the opposite sex; must not be married to someone else; cannot marry persons with whom they hold certain kin relationships (e.g., mother, father, sibling, in-laws [in some states]); and must be married by a legally empowered representative of the state with two witnesses present. In some states, the couple must have blood tests made to ensure that neither partner has a sexually transmittable disease in the communicable stage. Some states demand a waiting period between the time of purchasing a marriage license and the marriage ceremony (Knox and Schacht 1991). The nature of the legal contract is such that the couple cannot dissolve their marriage on their own; the state must sanction the dissolution of marriage, just as it sanctions the contracting of it.

In some other parts of the world, marriages are arranged and love is hoped for after the marriage occurs. Arranged marriages are the norm in many parts of the world. One cross-cultural survey indicates that marriages are arranged for girls in 44 percent of cultures and for boys in 17 percent (Broude 1994). Arranged marriages occur through the involvement of two sets of parents or through negotiations by professional marriage brokers with prospective families. However, even in most societies where marriage is arranged, the prospective bride and groom are consulted and have some veto power if they feel the proposed partner is absolutely unacceptable. Even in cultures where marriages are preferably arranged and the wishes of the parents and kin of the prospective couple are important, marriages based on love do occur. They typically take place through elopement followed by the grudging acceptance of the parents and kin. The motivation for arranged marriage is to assure the continuity of the family's political and economic well-being and growth. The desire is to provide the best possible match for the children, so educational level, personal skills, and family resources are all important considerations. Because many family resources may be exchanged through marriage, the reputation, resources, and knowledge of the marriage brokers are important (Saxton 1993).

Types of Marriage

To this point, the institution of marriage has been discussed as if all marriages were the same—a living arrangement legally contracted by or for two people of the opposite sex. However, this description has been limited insofar as it describes monogamous marriage. There are other types of marriage, which include more than one husband or wife at the same time (plural marriage or polygamy), several husbands and wives (group marriage), or ones that are not contracted on the basis of the state's rules and regulations specified earlier (common-law marriage).

Monogamy is the only legal type of marriage permitted in the United States. It is illegal to have more than one spouse at a time (bigamy), and most citizens comply with this rule. There are a few exceptions, however. In some western states, members of some fundamentalist Mormon groups practiced polygamy until the late nineteenth century (Hardy 1992). While those who practice group marriage and those in homosexual unions may wish to call themselves married and hold rites or ceremonies to make a public statement that they are married, the states do not recognize such unions. In Vermont, however, homosexual couples can apply for a "civil union," through which they receive nearly all of the legal benefits and protections given to married heterosexual couples.

While having more than one spouse is illegal in the United States, polygyny (one husband with two or more wives at the same time) is the preferred form of marriage throughout most of the world. Seventy-five percent of the world's societies prefer this type of marriage (Saxton 1993). Preference, however, does not necessarily translate into practice, because the number of men and women of marriageable age in most cultures is about the same, meaning that there are rarely more than a few extra women available as second or third wives. Thus, even when polygyny is preferred, there are only a few men, mostly wealthy ones, who have more than one wife at a time (Broude 1994).

Very few societies have polyandrous marriages. Polyandry refers to one wife having several husbands at the same time. Such marriages occur only in a few cultures—probably no more than a dozen—and often take the form of fraternal polyandry, that is, when the husbands are brothers. The cause of such an arrangement is unclear but may be related to the need to keep scarce resources such as small parcels of land inherited by the brothers under the control of a single household.

Group marriage (when men and women living together consider themselves married to each other) is illegal, but there are examples of it throughout the history of the United States and in other societies as well. However, in no society is this type of marriage the primary form of marriage. It was practiced by members of the Oneida Company in the mid-1800s in Vermont and then in New York when the group was forced to move because of community disapproval. A study of more than 100 group marriages in the early 1970s showed that such arrangements do not last long: only 7 percent of the "multilateral marriages" studied lasted longer than five years (Constantine and Constantine 1973). Most of these groups consisted of two couples who lived together, sharing economic resources, services, and child care as well as sexual access. Communication and personality conflicts were the primary reasons for dissolving the group, and bonds between same-sex members of the group were the primary factor responsible for success.

In the United States, common-law marriage is recognized in fifteen states and the District of Columbia. These states are Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah. If a heterosexual couple who are of legal age and legally competent to marry (e.g., they are not already married) make an agreement to live together as husband and wife and actually do cohabit, they are legally married. A ceremony is not necessary, nor is compliance with the other formal requirements governing marriage in their state (Knox and Schacht 1991). This practice stems from the tradition that marriage contracted between two adults was their own or their family's business. Historically in continental Europe and England (societies that are the source of much of U.S. law and custom), marriage needed neither civil nor religious sanction. However, the Catholic Church became more powerful during the Middle Ages and assumed control over marriage (Goody 1988). Even though private arrangements continued, these marriages were not recognized as valid by the church (Saxton 1993). In the United States, marriage became regulated by civil laws in the nineteenth century, but some "states took the position that private marriages were valid so long as they were not expressly forbidden by statute. Such unions were called common law" (Saxton 1993, p. 198). In all societies, a marriage is generally not recognized as such unless the couple is deemed married by the community. However, once a marriage is recognized by one state, it must be recognized by all other states (e.g., a common-law marriage officially recognized by Texas must be recognized in Oregon even though Oregon does not officially sanction common-law marriages).

Finally, some social groups have attempted to organize themselves and function without marriage. These include communes, religious orders, and special social or occupational categories such as warrior castes. In the United States, the best known of such groups are the Shakers, a religious community among whose central rules are celibacy and communal living without marriage. Although the group has lasted since the late 1700s, its numbers have now dwindled from a high of about 4,000 in some sixty communities in the mid-1800s to fewer than a dozen members in one community in 1991 (Foster 1991). Similarly, many communes founded in the 1960s either folded or instituted monogamous marriage. The two types of social groups that have survived without marriage are religious orders and caste or castelike groups such as the Hijras in India. However, all of these groups are institutionalized within a larger society and are able to attract new members from that society.


Marriage represents a multi-level commitment, one that involves person-to-person, family-to-family, and couple-to-state commitments. In all societies, marriage is viewed as a relatively permanent bond, so much so that in some societies it is virtually irrevocable. The stability provided by a life-long promise of remaining together makes marriage the institution most suited to rearing and socializing the next generation of members, a necessary task if the society's norms, values, and goals are to be maintained and if the society itself is to be perpetuated.

See also:Cohabitation; Family Law; Family Rituals; Intentional Communities; Love; Marriage Ceremonies; Mate Selection


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Marriage, Definition of

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