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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.]


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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


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

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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.


views updated May 08 2018


This article is arranged according to the following outline:

the concept
    In the Bible
    In Sectarian Teaching
    In Rabbinic Literature
    In Medieval and Modern Times
marriage ceremony
    In the Bible
    In the Talmud
    Post-Talmudic Period
        the marriage benedictions
        the ring
        various customs
legal aspects
    Modes of Effecting Kiddushin
    The Nissu'in
    Legal Consequences
    Manner of Celebrating Kiddushin and Nissu'in
    Legal Capacity of the Parties
    Kiddushin Conducted by Deception, Fraud, or in jest
    Doubtful Kiddushin
    In the State of Israel
contemporary innovations

the concept

In Jewish teaching, marriage is the ideal human state and is considered a basic social institution established by God at the time of creation.

In the Bible

The purposes of marriage in the Bible are companionship and procreation: "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help-mate for him … Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh" (Gen. 2:18, 24); and "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth …" (Gen. 1:28). The biblical conception of marriage is essentially monogamous (Gen. 2:24), and although in biblical times polygamy was common among the upper classes (Judg. 8:30; ii Sam. 5:13; i Kings 11:1–8), the many references to marriage in the *Wisdom literature seem to take it for granted that a man had only one wife (Ps. 128; Prov. 12:4; 18:22; 19:14; 31:10–31; Ecclus. 25:1; 26). The prophets using marriage as a metaphor for God's attachment to Israel (Isa. 61:10; 62:5; Ezek. 16; Hos. 2:21–22; also Song of Songs, if interpreted metaphorically) clearly have monogamous marriage in mind, since God did not enter into such a special relationship with any other people.

Marriages were usually arranged by parents (Gen. 21:21; 24; 28:2), but the bride's consent was asked on occasion (Gen. 24:5, 58), and romantic unions were not uncommon (Gen. 29:20; Judg. 14; i Sam. 18:20; ii Sam. 11:2–4; i Kings 2:17; ii Chron. 11:21). It was usual to marry within the clan (Gen. 24:4; 28:2; 29:19), and in a leviratic situation (*levirate marriage) this was obligatory (Gen. 38:9; Deut. 25:5; Ruth 3:12–13). Certain marriages, involving close relatives (Lev. 18; 20; Deut. 23:1–8; 27:20–23), priests, widows, and divorced women (Lev. 21:7; Deut. 24:4), are forbidden. While marriages outside the clan occurred, they were strongly opposed both as a measure against idolatry (Ex. 34:15–16; Deut. 7:3–4; 28:4), and to preserve Jewish distinctiveness (Ezra 9:12; 10:17; Neh. 10:31; 13:23–28). Fruitfulness in marriage is a great blessing and childlessness a tragedy and disgrace (Gen. 8:17; 9:1, 7; 13:16; 17–18; 22:17; 30:1–23; Ps. 127:3–5; 128). Marriage is the means to true companionship: "Whoso findeth a wife findeth a great good" (Prov. 18:22; cf. 12:4; 14:1; 19:14; 31:10–31); "live joyfully with thy wife whom thou lovest" (Eccles. 9:9). But where marital harmony no longer prevails (particularly in the case of the wife's *adultery), the marriage can be dissolved by *divorce (Deut. 24:1–4), though Malachi (2:14–16) warns that God deplores the resort to divorce.

In Sectarian Teaching

The Essenes in general rejected worldly pleasures, including marriage, and practiced continence (Jos., Wars, 2:120). The Covenanters of Qumran did not appear to have been strictly celibate as once was thought. It is clear that some members married and had children (Zadokite Document, 20:7–8; 13:20; Damascus Document, 4:7). The Order of the Community ruled that a young man should not have intercourse before 20 years of age (1:4–11). Archaeologists have found the remains of a few women and children at Qumran but it is not clear to what extent this indicates marriage. The New Testament has a negative attitude to the sexual impulse and regards celibacy as a higher ideal than marriage (Matt. 19:10; i Cor. 7). Marriage is a concession to human weakness (i Cor. 7), but once entered into, it is a sacrament dissolved only by death (Matt. 19:16; Mark 10:9); though some hold that Jesus allowed divorce in cases of adultery (Matt. 5:31–32; 19:9; Mark 10:12; Luke 16:18).

In Rabbinic Literature

In contrast, rabbinic teaching sees celibacy as unnatural. It is not he who marries who sins; the sinner is the unmarried man who "spends all his days in sinful thoughts" (Kid. 29b). Marriage is not only for companionship and procreation; it also fulfills one as a person: "He who has no wife is not a proper man" (Yev. 63a); he lives "without joy, blessing, goodness … Torah, protection … and peace" (Yev. 62b); he may not officiate as high priest on the Day of Atonement (Yoma 1:1), and probably not as *sheli'aḥ ẓibbur on the High Holy Days (Isserles to Sh. Ar., oh 581:1, based on Yoma 1:1 and Yev. 37b). Sexual desire is not evil or shameful. When regulated and controlled in marriage, it serves beneficial ends: "Were it not for the yeẓer ha-ra ("evil inclination" here sexual urge), no man would build a house, marry a wife, or beget children" (Gen. R. 9:7). He who, by denying his legitimate instincts, fails to produce children "is as if he shed blood, diminished the Image of God, and made the Shekhinah depart from Israel" (Sh. Ar., eh 1:1, based on Yev. 63b–64a), and he will have to account for his actions in the world to come (Shab. 31a). Marriage is so important that a man may sell a Torah scroll in order to marry (Meg. 27a) and a woman will tolerate an unhappy marriage rather than remain alone (Yev. 113a; Kid 7a). One should never approach marriage lightly. To make a successful match is as hard as the parting of the Red Sea (Sot. 2a, et al.), and it requires the infinite wisdom of God himself (Gen. R. 68:3). Hence, although in one view a person's marriage is predestined (Sot. 2a), the individual must choose wisely: "Hasten to buy land; deliberate before taking a wife" (Yev. 63a). Marriage should not be for money (Kid. 70a), but a man should seek a wife who is mild-tempered, tactful, modest, and industrious (Sot. 3b), and who meets other criteria: respectability of family (Ta'an. 4:8; bb 109b), similarity of social background (Kid. 49a) and of age (Yev. 44a; Sanh. 76a–b), beauty (Ber. 57b; Yoma 74b), and a scholarly father (Pes. 49b). A man should not betroth a woman until he has seen her (Kid. 41a). Early marriage is preferred: "18 for marriage" (Avot 5:21). If one is not married by 20, God curses him (Kid. 29b–30a). Only a person intensively occupied in Torah study, e.g., *Ben Azzai, may postpone marriage (Yev. 63b; cf. Ket. 63a; Sot. 4b); though in Babylon it was suggested that one should first marry and then study (Kid. 29b). A practical order of procedure, derived from Deuteronomy (20:5–7), states; "First build a house, then plant a vineyard, and after that marry" (Sot. 44a). As far as a girl is concerned, if her father does not find her a husband while she is young (from the age of 12), she may become unchaste and he will have transgressed the commandment in Leviticus 19:29: "Profane not thy daughter to make her a harlot" (Sanh. 76a).

Polygamy, while theoretically still possible, was discouraged, and was almost unknown among talmudic rabbis. Marriage was not a sacrament in the Christian sense, since its dissolution through divorce, though regrettable, was possible. It is *kiddushin, a sacred relationship (analogous to *hekdesh), whereby the wife is consecrated to her husband and forbidden to all others during the duration of the marriage (Kid. 2a–b). At the same time, it is not a mere legal contract devoid of spiritual content. Thus, while the husband acquires rights over his wife's ishut ("wifehood"), though not over her person, and he undertakes duties toward her, e.g., supplying her with food and clothing, and adhering to the conjugal rights (Ex. 21:10), both parties must seek to raise their marriage to the highest level by means of mutual consideration and respect. The husband must deny himself in order to provide for his wife and children (Ḥul. 84b). He must not cause his wife to weep (bm 59a). If he loves her as himself and honors her more than himself, he will merit the blessing in Job (5:24) "And thou shalt know that thy tent is in peace" (Yev. 62b). If husband and wife are worthy, God will dwell with them; otherwise, there will be a consuming fire between them (Sot. 17a; pdre 12). The rabbis, like the prophets, use marriage to symbolize other perfect relationships: e.g., God and Israel, Israel and the Torah, and Israel and the Sabbath.

In Medieval and Modern Times

The positive attitude of the rabbis to marriage was maintained in post-talmudic literature and Jewish practice. Asceticism and celibacy continued to be rare. Polygamy was finally prohibited among Ashkenazi Jews by a ban attributed to R. *Gershom b. Judah (see *Bigamy; *Monogamy). Early marriage became general practice. Divorce, though relatively easy to obtain, was not common, partly due to the social pressures of the closed Jewish society since the family was firmly established as the basis of Jewish life (see I. Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (19322), 99ff.). With the cultural changes which followed the emancipation, the Jewish marriage rate tended to be lower than the non-Jewish one, divorce and mixed marriage increased, early marriage was uncommon, and the urban Jewish birth rate fell (see A. Ruppin, The Jews in the Modern World (1934), 277f., 316ff.; J. Freid (ed.), Jews and Divorce (1968)). These trends intensified after World War ii as environmental attitudes were increasingly being reflected among Western Jewry. Marital stability has been relatively less and traditional moral codes have been questioned. To counteract these tendencies, Jewish communities are promoting marriage education and guidance, largely through rabbis and social welfare agencies.

[Raymond Apple]

marriage ceremony

In the Bible

There is hardly any data about the marriage ceremony in the Bible. The act of marriage is called simply "taking" ("when a man taketh a wife," Deut. 24:1; "and there went a man of the house of Levi, and he took a daughter of Levi," Ex. 2:1). However, from the story of Jacob and Leah it is obvious that some sort of celebration took place: "And Laban gathered all the people of the place and made a feast" (Gen. 29:22) and later, when Jacob complained that he had been cheated and demanded Rachel, the daughter for whom he had worked, he was told: "Wait until the bridal week of this one is over and we will give you that one too" (Gen. 29:27). No details are recorded as to the nature of the feast or the bridal week. The same is true in the case of Samson (Judg. 14:12) except that there it is said that the groom posed a riddle to his companions and gave them the seven days of the feast to solve it. It appears that processions for both the bride and groom were a central part of the celebrations and were accompanied by music (Ps. 78:63; i Macc. 9:39) and there is ample reference to special marriage attire and adornment. From Deuteronomy 22:15 it seems that the exhibition of evidence of the bride's virginity (the blood-stained sheet) was part of the ceremony. It is reasonable to presume that even in the earliest times the act of marriage must have been accompanied by some ceremony; the biblical authors, however, give no direct description of it and usually refer to it only in passing or as a figure in their imagery.

In the Talmud

In the talmudic period – and presumably for a considerable time before then – the marriage ceremony was in two parts. The first, called kiddushin or erusin (betrothal; but see below, Legal Aspects, for the difference between this concept and what is commonly called betrothal), was effected by the bridegroom handing over in the presence of two witnesses any object of value (more than a perutah) to the bride and reciting the marriage formula, "Behold, you are consecrated unto me with this ring according to the law of Moses and Israel." On this occasion two benedictions were recited, one over wine and the other for the actual act. The second reads: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has hallowed us by Thy commandments, and hast given us command concerning forbidden marriages; who hast disallowed unto us those that are betrothed (to us – variant in some rites), but hast sanctioned unto us such as are wedded to us by the rite of the nuptial canopy and the sacred covenant of wedlock. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who hallowest Thy people Israel by the rite of the nuptial canopy and the sacred covenant of wedlock" (Hertz, Prayer, 1011). This benediction is already recorded in the Talmud (Ket. 7b), and since cohabitation of the bride and groom was forbidden until the second ceremony, the nissu'in (see below, and Legal Aspects), which in the case of a virgin usually took place a year later, it appears that the benediction was in fact a warning to the betrothed couple not to cohabit until that ceremony.

The second part of the ceremony took place at a later date and was called nissu'in (marriage proper). It was also called ḥuppah (see below) after either the groom's house to which the bride was led or the canopy, symbolic of that house, under which the ceremony took place. Originally nissu'in was effected by the bride entering the groom's house and cohabiting with him. On the occasion of the nissu'in a series of benedictions was recited (see below). After this stage the couple were completely married and liable to all the responsibilities and privileges of that state (see also below, Legal Aspects).

There is ample evidence in the Talmud that the wedding ceremony was accompanied by great rejoicing and some times even hilarity. The question of how one should dance before the bride was discussed and even occasioned a difference of opinion between the schools of Hillel and Shammai (Ket. 16b–17a). Although Rashi interprets the phrase "keiẓad merakdim" used there as meaning "what does one say" in order to fit the continuation of the text, the phrase must be understood in its literal sense "how does one dance." Judah b. Ilai is recorded as having danced before the bride with a myrtle branch and Samuel b. Rav Isaac was rebuked by his colleagues for having performed what seems to have been a juggling dance. The Talmud, however, justified his behavior entirely. Rav Aḥa went so far as to dance with the bride on his shoulders, something which astonished the other rabbis (Ket. 17a). Indeed the custom of shattering a glass at the marriage ceremony (see below) stems, according to the medieval commentators, from Mar berei de-Ravina and Rav Ashi who deliberately smashed expensive glassware at their sons' weddings in order to reduce the unseemly hilarity of the rabbis who were present (Ber. 31a). Until the destruction of the Temple both the bride and groom wore distinctive headdresses, sometimes of gold (Sot. 9:14, 49a; Git. 7a; for details see *Crowns, Decorative Headdresses, and Wreaths). For the marriage of a virgin (as opposed to a widow or divorcee) special rites took place. She went out in a hinnumah (variously interpreted as a bridal veil or a special bridal litter used in the marriage procession); dried corn was distributed to the children (Ket. 2:1); games were played before the bride; a goblet of tithe wine was passed before her; according to some, a sealed (opened for a widow or divorcee) barrel of wine was used instead (Ket. 16b). The performance of all these ceremonies was sufficient evidence that the bride had been a virgin and was thus entitled to the larger ketubbah (see *Virgin). The bridal procession took precedence over a funeral procession and King Agrippa was praised by the rabbis for giving right of way to a bridal procession although his, being the royal procession, had precedence. At Tur Malka the disturbances which destroyed the town were started, according to talmudic legend, when Roman legionnaires took the hen and rooster which led a marriage procession as a fertility symbol (Git. 57a). Participation at the marriage ceremony and celebrations was considered a mitzvah and he who entertained the bride and groom was compared to one who had sacrificed a thanksgiving offering (Ber. 6b). The groom was required to devote at least three days to the preparation of the wedding feast and even if a parent of the bride or groom died on the set day of the marriage its consummation took place and the funeral was held afterward (Ket. 3a). The wedding of a virgin originally took place on a Wednesday (Ket. 1:1). This is explained in the Babylonian Talmud by the fact that the court sat on Thursdays and thus if the groom claimed that the bride had not been a virgin he could immediately complain to the court. However, it does appear that superstition was involved and that Wednesday was considered an auspicious day (cf. tj, Ket. 1:1). A widow was married on Thursday so that her husband should devote at least three days to her without going back to his work. However, even in talmudic times the requirement that weddings be held on specific days fell into disuse for which a variety of reasons is given. It seems that in talmudic times the exhibition of the stained bridal sheet was discouraged. Originally the shushbinim ("friends," i.e., groomsmen) were appointed to ensure that no trickery was employed by either side (Tosef., Ket. 1:4 and Ket. 12a). For a virgin seven festive days were celebrated which, for the bride and groom, had something of the status of a religious holiday. The marriage benedictions were recited at meals (for details see below) and neither bride nor groom was allowed to mourn.

Post-Talmudic Period

The most important development in the marriage ceremony was the joining of the two parts, erusin and nissu'in, into one ceremony performed at one time. This took place during the Middle Ages and was presumably because of the uncertain and perilous conditions in which the Jews lived. It was also exceedingly inconvenient to have an interval between the two ceremonies since on the one hand the parties were prohibited from cohabiting while on the other all the stringencies of the married status applied to them. Thus from the beginning of the 12th century it became customary to perform both ceremonies together, a practice which has been universally followed except for a few Oriental communities (see Freimann, bibl., 29ff.). Other developments are the addition of various prayers to the ceremony, the inclusion of a sermon by the officiating rabbi and, in some present-day communities, the invocation of a blessing on the bridal couple.

The ceremony may be performed anywhere. In many communities – particularly Sephardi and Oriental – it is performed inside the synagogue although there are halakhic opinions against it. In some places it is performed in the hall where the subsequent festivities are held and among some circles (ultra-Orthodox Jews and Ḥasidim and generally among Ashkenazim in Israel) it is invariably performed in the open. This latter custom is perhaps due to the fact that ideally the ceremony takes place after nightfall and the stars above are associated with God's assurance to Abraham that He would "make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven" (Gen. 22:17; see Isserles to Sh. Ar., eh 61:1). In the western hemisphere Sunday is a popular day for weddings because of the convenience to the guests, while Tuesday is favored in Orthodox circles because of the repetition of the sentence "And God saw that this was good" in the biblical account of the creation on that day (Gen. 1:10, 12). However, any day of the week is valid except Sabbath; also festivals, the three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av, and the sefirah period between Passover and Shavuot (there are exceptional days in the last-mentioned period, notably Lag ba-Omer: see *Omer). According to the general Sephardi custom marriages are not performed on Lag ba-Omer but are performed from the following day onward. Usually a person in mourning for a parent does not marry until the year of mourning is out although in certain circumstances it is permitted to marry earlier (Sh. Ar., yd 392). There are no specific requirements for the way in which the bride and bridegroom dress. It is customary for the bride to wear white and for her to have a headdress and a veil. The bridegroom in some Orthodox circles wears a *kitel either as an evocation of death or since his wedding day is compared to the Day of Atonement when the kitel is worn. In some communities the bridegroom wears a tallit, as does, in some, the officiating rabbi. In many Oriental communities brides wear elaborate costumes richly embroidered and ornamented which were loaned from bride to bride; the Yemenite bridal costume is an outstanding example (see also *Dress).

The ceremony is presently performed as follows. Before being led to the ḥuppah (wedding canopy; see below) the bridegroom, in the presence of witnesses, undertakes, by an act of kinyan (see *Acquisition) the obligations of the ketubbah. This is done by the groom taking a piece of cloth, handkerchief, or some other object from the officiating rabbi, lifting it, and returning it. The witnesses then sign the document and in many communities (including the State of Israel) the groom also signs. The groom is then escorted to the place where the bride is waiting (many modern synagogues have a special bride's room) and lets down her veil over her face, at which time the rabbi or cantor pronounces the blessing invoked on Rebekah "O sister! May you grow into thousands of myriads" (Gen. 24:60). This ceremony is known in Yiddish as "bedeken di kale" (lit. "covering the bride") and is not practiced by Sephardi Jews. The groom is then led to the ḥuppah by his and the bride's father (or two other male relatives or friends if he or the bride has been orphaned) and stands facing Ereẓ Israel, in Israel itself facing Jerusalem, and in Jerusalem facing the Temple site. The bride is then led to the ḥuppah by her mother and the groom's mother, usually to the accompaniment of a blessing of welcome chanted by the rabbi or cantor, the text of which is: "He Who is supremely mighty; He Who is supremely praised; He Who is supremely great; May He bless this bridegroom and bride." It is customary among Ashkenazim for the bride to be led in seven circuits around the groom which is presumably to be associated with the magic circle to ward off evil spirits. The bride then stands at the right hand of the groom, and, where customary, the rabbi delivers the sermon; the ceremony proper then begins. The rabbi recites the blessing over a goblet of wine and the marriage blessing (see text above) after which the father of the bridegroom gives the goblet to the bridegroom and he drinks, and then the mother of the bride gives the bride the goblet, from which she drinks. In many communities the officiant gives the goblet to the bride and groom. The groom then places the ring (see below) on the forefinger of the bride's right hand and recites the marriage formula (see above). In some communities the glass is crushed by the groom at this stage. The ketubbah is then read out loud by the rabbi or some other man whom the bridal couple wish to honor. In many communities it is read in the original Aramaic and followed by a précis in the vernacular; in Israel a Hebrew précis is often substituted. The purpose of the reading of the ketubbah is to divide between the two parts of the ceremony. The celebrant (rabbi, cantor, or some other person) then recites the seven marriage benedictions (see below) over a goblet of wine. In many places it is customary to have different men recite the different benedictions. The father of the bride then gives the groom to drink from the goblet and the mother of the groom does likewise to the bride. In most rites the groom crushes a glass under his right foot and where customary the rabbi invokes the *priestly blessing. The couple are then escorted to a room where they remain alone for some time, usually breaking their fast together (see below, Legal Aspects, for reasons). The breaking of the glass by the groom is explained by some authorities as a token of the seriousness desirable in even the most happy moments (see above, In the Talmud); however, the act has become understood over the ages as a sign of mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem. In some communities the bridegroom threw the glass against a special wall instead of treading on it. It has been suggested that originally the glass was broken to frighten away evil spirits. In some rites the memorial prayer, El Maleh Raḥamim, is recited for departed parents if either member of the couple is an orphan.

the marriage benedictions

These benedictions, commonly known as the Sheva Berakhot (Heb. "seven benedictions" – when recited with the benediction over wine) are recorded in the Talmud (Ket. 7b–8a) where they are called Birkat Ḥatanim ("the bridegroom's benediction"). When recited under the ḥuppah the benediction for wine precedes the other six which are:

1) "Blessed art Thou … who hast created all things to Thy glory.

2) … Creator of man.

3) … who hast made man in Thine image, after Thy likeness, and hast prepared unto him, out of his very self, a perpetual fabric. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, Creator of man.

4) May she who was barren (Zion) be exceedingly glad and exult, when her children are gathered within her in joy. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who makest Zion joyful through her children.

5) O make these loved companions greatly to rejoice, even as of old Thou didst gladden Thy creature in the garden of Eden. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who makest bridegroom and bride to rejoice.

6) Blessed art Thou … who hast created joy and gladness, bridegroom and bride, mirth and exultation, pleasure and delight, love, brotherhood, peace, and fellowship. Soon O Lord, our God, may there be heard in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem, the voice of joy and gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the jubilant voice of bridegrooms from their canopies, and of youths from their feasts of song. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who makest the bridegroom to rejoice with the bride" (Hertz, Prayer, 1013).

This series of benedictions raises some problems from the point of view of their formulation since normally only the first should begin with the formula "Blessed art thou …." Rashi (to Ket. 7b–8a) gives the following explanation. The first benediction is not for the bridal couple but in honor of the assembled congregation; the second is a benediction in honor of the creation of Adam and the next three are for the couple being married, while the last is an invocation for all Israel including the couple. The series begins with the blessing over wine because of its festive nature. The blessings are recited at the marriage ceremony and at every meal during the next seven days at which there is "a new face," i.e., somebody who was not present at any previous recitation for that couple. This rule applies to all the seven days except the Sabbath, which is itself considered to be a "new face." At the meals the series is recited immediately following the Grace after Meals, which itself is introduced by a special invocation. The series then ends with the benediction over the wine and both the bride and groom and the person who led the Grace drink from the wine. A minyan (ten males) is required for the recitation of the marriage benedictions both at the ḥuppah and after the grace; if no minyan is present the last of the marriage benedictions may be recited as long as there are three males (Sh. Ar., eh 62 and see also: *Grace after Meals). In talmudic times special formulas were added to the grace after meals for some considerable period before the actual wedding and after it. The present-day custom is limited to the recital of the benedictions for the seven-day period immediately following the wedding, except in the case of a marriage between a widower and widow when it is recited on the first day only.


(heb. חֻפָּה). The term originally referred to the bridal canopy or the bridal chamber (Gen. R. 4:4) and sometimes to the wedding itself (Avot 5:21). In ancient times the ḥuppah was the tent or room of the groom into which, at the end of the betrothal period, the bride was brought in festive procession for the marital union (cf. Ps. 19:6; Yad, Ishut 10:1). In talmudic times it was customary for the father of the bridegroom to erect the ḥuppah (Gen. R. 28:6; Ber. 25b; Sanh. 108a). In *Bethar (near Jerusalem) the custom was to make the staves or beams of the ḥuppah from a cedar and pine tree which were planted for this purpose at the birth of male and female children respectively (Git. 57a). The ḥuppah was sometimes made of precious scarlet and gold cloth (Sot. 49b; tj, Sot. 9:16, 246). The Talmud tells that God made ten ḥuppot for Adam and Eve and that He will build such ḥuppot for the pious in the world to come (bb 75a). In the early Middle Ages, the ḥuppah was not usually used at weddings; this is obvious from the phrasing of Isserles (Sh. Ar.) who regarded it as a novelty (Isserles to Sh. Ar., yd, 391; ibid., eh 55:1). In France the groom covered the bride's head with his tallit as a symbol of his sheltering her. This custom was based upon the words of Ruth to Boaz: "Spread … thy cloak over thy handmaid; for thou art a near kinsman" (Ruth 3:9). This ceremony was also called ḥuppah and was the custom among the Jews of North Africa. Since in talmudic times the ḥuppah was the place of marital union and therefore required privacy, medieval responsa dealt with the question whether the act of entering the ḥuppah was sufficient to constitute marriage or whether it was only to be regarded as a symbol which would still require the couple to retire in privacy (cf. Tos. to Suk. 25b and see below, Legal Aspects). In the late Middle Ages the ḥuppah, consisting of a cloth spread on four staves, was placed inside the synagogue (Isserles to Sh. Ar., yd 391:3), but later it was moved to the courtyard of the synagogue, either because it was deemed improper to have the ḥuppah, as a symbol of the marriage tent, erected inside the synagogue or because of the need to accommodate the wedding party (and see above). In modern Israel, for the weddings of soldiers on active duty, the ḥuppah often consists of a *tallit which is supported by four rifles held by friends of the bride and groom.

the ring

Although the act of marriage can be effected in different ways (see below, Legal Aspects) it has become the universal Jewish practice to use a ring, except in a very few Oriental communities where a coin is used. The ring, which must belong to the bridegroom, should be free of any precious stones but can be of any material (usually it is of gold or some other precious metal) as long as its value is more than a perutah, the smallest denomination of currency in Talmud times. In the ceremony the groom gives the ring to the bride as an act of acquisition and the bride, by accepting it, becomes his wife. Generally the groom places the ring on the forefinger of the bride's right hand; there are, however, many varied customs as to which finger the ring is placed on. In some Reform and Conservative congregations in the U.S. the "double ring" ceremony is practiced in which the bride also gives a ring to the groom and recites a marriage formula. Since, according to the halakhah, it is the groom who is acquiring the bride, this innovation raises serious halakhic doubts which, according to some authorities, even affect the validity of the marriage.

[Raphael Posner]

various customs

The marriage ceremony marks a crucial period in man's life cycle and it is only natural that it became surrounded by a multitude of different customs which generally had one of two purposes: to protect the couple from malignant spirits and to invoke God's blessing of fertility on the marriage. Many of the customs were adopted by the Jews from their non-Jewish environment and thus some are of almost a universal character. Many customs, however, are merely manifestations of the goodwill and joy felt at the happy occasion. Among Ashkenazi Jews the most widely practiced customs, besides breaking the glass which has been interpreted as a defense against evil spirits (but see above) are that the women leading the bride to the ḥuppah carry lighted candles as do other members of the marriage party and that the bride makes seven circuits around the groom under the canopy. It is customary for the bride and groom to refrain from seeing each other for a time preceding the wedding. The actual duration of this period varies in the different communities from about one week to one day, i.e., that of the wedding itself until the ceremony. The bridegroom has precedence over all others to be called to the Torah reading on the Sabbath before the wedding (a ceremony known as oyfrufn in Yiddish) and in some Ashkenazi communities the bride, if she is an orphan, visits the cemetery some time before the wedding. The bride and groom usually fast on the day of the wedding itself until after the ceremony unless it takes place on a day when fasting is forbidden, such as a new moon. A peculiar custom, common in Eastern Europe as well as in Oriental communities, was for the bride and groom to attempt to tread on the other's foot at the end of the ceremony, the one who succeeded thus being assured of dominance in their life together. In many places among both Ashkenazim and Sephardim it was and is customary to throw rice, wheat, nuts, and candies at the groom on various occasions during the marriage cycle: at the wedding itself, and particularly when the groom was called to the Torah reading on the Sabbath prior to the wedding. The bride's entry into her future home was marked by many ceremonies. In Libya and Djerba the groom would drop an earthenware pitcher of water from the roof and the bride would enter the house by walking through the water and broken pottery. In Jerusalem the Sephardim used to break a specially baked cake, called ruskah, above the heads of the bride and groom, while in Baghdad a loaf was cut above the head of the groom. In Afghanistan a fowl was slaughtered to mark the occasion. In Djerba the bride broke open eggs on the doorposts of the house and in Daghestan and Gruzia (Russian Georgia) the doorposts were smeared with butter and honey. In Salonika the groom would stand at the head of the stairs when the bride first entered the house and scatter sweetmeats, rice, and coins at her feet as she came in. In Georgia the groom would set a white fowl free from the roof of the house on that occasion and drop rice, wheat, and raisins on the bride's head. In Libya the groom broke the glass at the wedding ceremony when it was almost full of wine which would spill on the floor as a sign of plenty; whereas the groom in Georgia would put the wedding ring into the glass of wine after he had drunk from it, give it the bride to drink, extract the ring, and formally present it to her with the declaration. In Kurdistan the bride would hold a male infant as the assembled guests called out "May your first be a boy too." In Morocco fish was always served at the wedding meal and the subsequent festivities as a fertility symbol and in Salonika the groom would buy live fish and put them in water in a brass bowl; on the eighth day after the wedding the bride jumped three times over this bowl to the blessings of the guests "May you be as fertile as the fish." In Persia the groom would plant three sticks in the courtyard of his house and uproot them on the sixth day after the wedding and throw them behind him to ward off evil spirits. In most Oriental communities the ḥinnah is celebrated the night before the wedding. In this ceremony the women of both families and female friends (men are entirely excluded) gather at the home of the bride and there her hands are painted with red henna. This ceremony is to ward off the evil eye and is sometimes accompanied by a ceremonial compounding of the dye by the bride's mother and feeding the bride seven times during the evening. Among the mountain Jews of Libya nearly all weddings take place two days before Sukkot. On the second day of the festival all the grooms participate in foot races symbolic of "And he is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run his course" (Ps. 19:6). Afterward celebrations are held at their homes. In all communities the groom is honored on the Sabbath after his wedding at the synagogue, where he is given precedence to be called to the reading of the Torah. In some communities special piyyutim are recited on this occasion and in many the groom is seated in a place of honor with a ceremonial canopy spread above him (Kurdistan). In Libya a second Torah scroll is taken out and an additional section (Gen. 24:1–4) is read. This is also the custom in Tunisia where the section is translated into Arabic. In Tunisia the groom is invited to the bride's home on the Sabbath preceding the wedding and has to find a roast chicken which has been especially hidden. On the fifth day after the wedding a competition between bride and groom is arranged in which they each have to dissect a large cooked fish for serving. The groom is always at a disadvantage in that he is given a blunt knife. In some communities (Afghanistan and, in a modified form, Yemen) it was sometimes customary to arrange a private wedding ceremony the night before the announced day. On the morrow the announced ceremony would also be held. This was in order to outwit evil spirits or malicious persons who had cast spells on the couple. At the ceremony it was also common for a relative of the couple to hold a pair of scissors and cut paper or cloth for its duration. In Kurdistan the officiating rabbi would publicly warn the assembled guests not to cast spells. The custom of examining the bride's linen after the first night for spots of blood as a proof of her virginity was very widespread and is still practiced in some Oriental communities. The mother of the bride would preserve the sheet or underclothing to uphold the family honor if later required.

[Reuben Kashani and

Raphael Posner]

legal aspects

In Jewish law, marriage consists of two separate acts, called kiddushin and nissu'in respectively. The kiddushin (also called erusin) is an act performed by a man and a woman which leads to a change in their personal status, i.e., from bachelorhood to a personal status which remains unchanged until the death of either party or their *divorce from one another. However, the kiddushin alone does not bring about all the legal consequences of this change of status, as all those will follow only from a further act between the parties, namely the nissu'in. The common usage of the term erusin, which refers merely to shiddukhin, i.e., engagement (see *Betrothal), is therefore not identical with its legal meaning.

Modes of Effecting Kiddushin

There are three ways of effecting a kiddushin, namely by way of kesef ("money"), shetar ("deed"), or bi'ah ("cohabitation").


The bridegroom, in the presence of two competent witnesses, transfers (see *Acquisition) to his bride money or its equivalent – today normally an unadorned ring – to the value of at least one perutah, for the purposes of kiddushin. It is customary for the bridegroom – after the officiating rabbi has recited the Birkat ha-Erusin – to place the ring on the bride's right-hand forefinger while addressing her with the words: Harei at mekuddeshet li be-tabba'at zo ke-dat Moshe ve-Yisrael ("Behold, you are consecrated unto me by this ring, according to the law of Moses and of Israel"; Kid. 2a; 5b; Rema Sh. Ar., eh 27:1); i.e., by transferring the ring to the bride the groom signifies his intent to reserve her exclusively to himself and by accepting it she signifies her consent. Hence it is necessary that the ring belong to the bridegroom and not to the bride, since a person cannot alienate something that is not his own, nor can a person acquire something that already belongs to him (Kid. 5b; 6b; 47a; Sh. Ar., eh 27:1, 7; 31:2).


In the presence of two competent witnesses, the bridegroom hands over to the bride a deed in which is written, besides the names of the parties and the other particulars required for the purposes of a kiddushin by shetar, the words, "Behold you are consecrated unto me with this deed according to the law of Moses and of Israel" and the bride accepts the deed with the intention of thereby becoming consecrated to the bridegroom (Kid. 9a; Sh. Ar., eh 32:1, 4). Delivery of the deed is therefore not merely evidence that the kiddushin has taken place before, but is the means whereby the tie is created, and in this respect it differs from the *ketubbah deed which the bridegroom has to give to the bride after completion of the kiddushin (see also *Civil Marriage).


If a man in the presence of two competent witnesses, addresses to a woman the words, "Behold you are consecrated to me with this cohabitation according to the law of Moses and of Israel," and in their presence he takes her into a private place for the purpose of kiddushin, she will, upon their cohabitation, be reserved to him (Kid. 9b; Sh. Ar., eh 33:1). Although valid this mode of kiddushin was regarded by the scholars as tantamount to prostitution, and they decreed that any person employing it was punishable by *flogging (Kid. 12b; Yad, Ishut 3:21; Sh. Ar., eh 26:4; 33:1). On the other hand, this mode of kiddushin has served as the basis for the halakhic presumption that a man does not cohabit with a woman for the sake of prostitution (Git. 81b; Remaeh 33:1), and for the various rules founded on that presumption see *Husband and Wife; *Divorce.

In practice, in present times, only kiddushei kesef is observed since the other two modes of kiddushin have long become obsolete. The version "Behold you are reserved … according to the law of Moses and of Israel" (which does not appear in the tb and is only found in the Tosefta (Ket. 4:9) and in the tj, where the version is "according to the law of Moses and of the Jews" (Yehudai; Ket. 4:8)), means that the bridegroom reserves the bride unto himself "according to the law of Moses" – i.e., the law of the Torah – "and of Israel" – i.e., in accordance with the rules of the halakhic scholars as applied in Israel, so that the kiddushin shall be valid or void in accordance with the regulations laid down by the scholars (Yev. 90b; Ket. 3a; Git. 33a; Rashi and Tos. ad loc.; see also Rashbam and Tos. to bb 48b). The version thus formulated provided the basis for the halakhah which empowered and authorized the scholars, in certain circumstances, to invalidate a kiddushin retroactively in such a manner that even if it was not defective in principle it was deemed to be void ab initio. The question whether this power to make regulations for the annulment of the kiddushin is conferred also on the rabbis of the times after the redaction of the Talmud has remained in dispute. One opinion is that a kiddushin which is valid according to talmudic law, even though it is celebrated contrary to a takkanah which expressly prohibits the celebration of a kiddushin in any manner except as therein provided (e.g., in the presence of a rabbi and a quorum of ten), will not be declared void ab initio and the woman will not be free to marry another man unless she first obtains a divorce (out of precautionary stringency; Resp. Ribash no. 399; see also Resp. Rashba, vol. 1, nos. 1185 and 1206 where no absolute decision is arrived at; Resp. Ḥatam Sofer, eh 1:108; et, 2 (1949), 137–40; Elon (1988), 2:686–712; Elon (1994), 2:846–79; see also *Agunah, *Takkanot).

The Nissu'in

The act of nissu'in requires that the bride, after completion of the kiddushin, be brought to the bridegroom under the ḥuppah before two competent witnesses, for purposes of the marriage proper, i.e., the nissu'in "according to the law of Moses and of Israel." There are different opinions concerning the import of the term ḥuppah. One view is that the bride must be brought to the home of the groom for the nissu'in (Ran to Ket. 2a; Beit Shemu'el 55, no. 4), an interpretation forming the basis of the present custom of bringing the bride to a place symbolizing the domain (reshut) of the bridegroom, i.e., to the place where a canopy is spread across four poles and where the bridegroom is already waiting. According to another opinion ḥuppah embraces a private meeting (יִחוּד) between bridegroom and bride, at a place set aside for the purpose, as an indication of their marriage proper (Ket. 54b; 56a; Rosh 5:6; Yad, Ishut 10:1, 2; Isserles eh 55:1; 61:1; Sh. Ar., eh 55:2). In order to dispel doubt, custom requires that, in addition to ḥuppah, the couple also have the said private meeting.

Legal Consequences

As already indicated, the legal consequences of the act of kiddushin differ from those of the act of nissu'in. The kiddushin creates a legal-personal tie between the parties which can only be dissolved upon divorce or the death of either party, and the arusah ("affianced bride") is regarded as a married woman (eshet ish) for all purposes under the de-oraita law, which thus renders invalid a kiddushin between herself and any other man (Kid. 5; Yad, Ishut 1:3; Sh. Ar., eh 26:3). The arus too is prohibited, as is a married man proper, from taking an additional wife, and although in his case the prohibition stems not from the de-oraita law but from the herem de-Rabbenu Gershom (see *Bigamy), the prohibition for the arus is as stringent as it is for a married man proper (Remaeh 1:10; Oẓar ha-Posekimeh 1, n. 65; other scholars differ, see Tazeh 1, n. 15). Kiddushin alone, however, does not serve to call into being the mutual rights and duties existing between husband and wife (see *Husband and Wife), and, in particular, cohabitation between them is prohibited (Rashi, Ket. 7b; Sh. Ar., eh 55:1, 6). This prohibition is also contained in the Consecration Blessing in the words, "and has prohibited us the arus but has permitted us those who are married to us by ḥuppah and kiddushin" (see Ket. 7b and Sh. Ar., eh 34:1). The arus is also not liable for the maintenance of his bride except after the lapse of 12 months from the time of the kiddushin, or any lesser period of time agreed upon between them, and then only if he has failed to marry her notwithstanding her demand and readiness to be married to him (Ket. 2; 57a; Sh. Ar., eh 55:4; 56:1, 3 and commentaries). The arusah also has no ketubbah, unless the bridegroom executed such a deed in her favor at the kiddushin stage (Ket. 54b; Sh. Ar., eh 55:6). The absolute change in their personal status, with all the rights and duties it entails, is created by the nissu'in.

Manner of Celebrating Kiddushin and Nissu'in

In order to avoid irregularities which might possibly bring about complications, custom decrees that the kiddushin be solemnized by a rabbi who supervises that everything is done according to law. It is also the generally accepted custom that there shall be present at least a minyan (ten men). Custom further decrees that the bridegroom shall always recite the above-mentioned formulation in the precise words, "Behold, you are consecrated … etc."; although post-factum the kiddushin will not be invalidated if any like version with a similar content is used, any change in the recognized version should be avoided at the outset (Yad, Ishut 10:6; Resp. Rosh 37:1; Sh. Ar., eh 55:3 and Remaeh 61). The presence of two competent witnesses at both stages of the marriage ceremony is mandatory; as they do not merely serve as eyewitnesses but their presence is an essential part of the legal act, their absence will invalidate both the kiddushin and the nissu'in. Hence if a man and a woman acknowledge that there were not two witnesses present at their marriage, their acknowledgement (hoda'ah) that they are married will not serve as a basis for determining that this is the case (Kid. 65a; Yad, Ishut 4:6; Sh. Ar., eh 42:2). Conversely, if two competent witnesses testify to the celebration of a marriage between a particular couple, they will be regarded as duly married notwithstanding their own denial of the fact (Warhaftig, 132, 139). For a full description see above. Theoretically, kiddushin being an act of legal effect, it may also be performed between the parties through an agent; i.e., the bridegroom may appoint an agent to enter, on his behalf, into a kiddushin with a particular woman and the woman may do likewise for the purpose of accepting kiddushin. However, it is a mitzvah for each personally to take and be taken in marriage (Yad, Ishut 3:19; Sh. Ar., eh 35; 36). Similarly, in principle, the couple may celebrate a conditional kiddushin in such a manner that, provided all the rules applicable to conditions are observed (Sh. Ar., eh 38:2) and the condition itself fulfilled, the kiddushin will be valid from the start, or from the time of fulfillment of the condition, in accordance with the stipulation of the parties, but will be invalid if the condition is not fulfilled (Sh. Ar., eh 38). However, on account of the possible complications arising therefrom, and the stringency of the laws concerning a married woman, no conditions are permitted in kiddushin or nissu'in.

Legal Capacity of the Parties

Since marriage is an act of legal effect, it can be celebrated only by parties who have legal capacity. Hence if one of the parties to a marriage is a minor, acting independently, it will be invalid. In Jewish law a male is a minor (katan) until the age of 13 years; from the age of 13 years and one day he is a major (called gadol) and only then may he contract a valid marriage (Kid. 50b; Yad, Ishut 2:10; 4:7; Sh. Ar., eh 43:1). A female is a minor (ketannah) until the age of 12 years; from the age of 12 years and one day until the age of 12½ years she is called a na'arah (Yad, Ishut 2:1). Although as a na'arah she is considered a major (gedolah; Yad, Ishut 2:6), her marriage (when she is acting independently) will only be valid if she is orphaned of her father, but if he is alive, since a na'arah remains under her father's tutelage (reshut), her marriage, when she is acting independently will be valid only after the tutelage ceases to exist, namely when she becomes a bogeret, i.e., when she reaches the age of 12½ years and one day (Kid. 43b; 44b; Yad, Ishut 2:2; 3:11–13; 4:8; and Gerushin, 11:6; Sh. Ar., eh 37:11; 155:20, 21; see also *Legal Capacity). As regards the validity of a marriage entered into by a minor represented by his parents, see *Child Marriage.

For the same reason, i.e., lack of legal capacity, a marriage to which an idiot (shoteh) is party will be invalid when it is clear that such a party is a complete idiot (Yev. 69b; 96b; Sh. Ar., eh 44:2; 67:7). However, if such person be of sound, although weak, mind his marriage will be valid (Tur and Beit Yosef, eh 44; the statement attributed to Isserles, in Sh. Ar., eh 44:2 is apparently a printing error; see Beit Shemu'el, ad loc., n. 4; Ḥelkat Meḥokek, ad loc. n. 2). In case of doubt as to the soundness of a person's mind, as when he has lucid intervals, his kiddushin will, out of apprehension, be regarded as a doubtful kiddushin and the parties will not be permitted to marry anyone else except after their divorce (out of precautionary restriction גט מחומרא (Sh. Ar., loc. cit.). A *deaf-mute (ḥeresh, Yad, Ishut 2:26) is precluded, by Pentateuchal law, from entering into a kiddushin since his/her legal capacity is the same as that of the minor or the idiot. However, the scholars regulated that a kiddushin entered into by a deaf-mute shall be valid (Yev. 112b; Yad, Ishut 4:9; Sh. Ar., eh 44:1), but they did so without creating any obligations between parties to such a marriage. Hence if one of the parties is a deaf-mute, none of the legal obligations flowing from marriage will devolve on them – neither the obligation of ketubbah (i.e., in places where no ketubbah deed is written), nor of a ketubbah condition, nor of maintenance (Sh. Ar., eh 67:8–10), except possibly where a deaf-mute expressly undertakes these pecuniary obligations in the ketubbah deed (pdr 8:65, 69–71, 74–77). The ḥerem de-Rabbenu Gershom does not apply to a husband who was a deaf-mute at the time of his marriage, nor does a deaf-mute's express undertaking not to take an additional wife or not to divorce his wife against her free will have any binding force, since he is incapable of undertaking obligations – at any rate as regards matters of a non-pecuniary nature (pdr loc. cit.).

[Ben-Zion (Benno) Schereschewsky]

Kiddushin Conducted by Deception, Fraud, or in Jest

The tannaitic literature (Kid. 3:1; 58b) states that if a person sent an agent to betroth a wife for him, and the agent went and betrothed her for himself, the betrothal is valid, except if "he [the agent] treated him (the principal) deceptively." The talmudic commentators explain that this statement emphasizes that although the act was fraudulent, it does not invalidate the kiddushin, which are valid by Pentateuchal law, nor do the rabbis invalidate the kiddushin because of the agent's fraudulent act against the principal prior to the kiddushin (Tos. ad loc; Nov, Rashba Kid. 58b). Fraudulent kiddushin include frauds against the woman, e.g., where a man betroths a woman in jest or coercively, or by giving her a ring in the presence of two witnesses, but against her will or understanding. Although the woman's consent is absent in these cases of kiddushin, the rabbis require the woman to accept a get (bill of divorce), in view of the doubt that perhaps these kiddushin are valid (see *Agunah). This requirement of a get led to problems of iggun when the husband refused to give a get (see *Agunah). As a result, to prevent fraudulent kiddushin, many Jewish communities enacted regulations regarding marriage ceremonies and how they should be conducted, such as conducting the kiddushin in the presence of ten persons, in the presence of a rabbi, etc. Such regulations appear as early as the geonic period (S. Assaf, Teshuvot ha-Geonim, para. 113, p. 101), and later in Ashkenaz (the Franco-German center) and in North Africa. The regulations enacted in the geonic period annulled all kiddushin conducted contrary to these rules. At later periods, sanctions were imposed on the offenders, but halakhic authorities were hesitant and questioned their authority to annul such kiddushin. A responsum by the sages of 12th-century Ashkenaz (Resp. Raban, eh, vol. 3 no. 47:2) reflects the differences of opinion between the sages of Worms and Speyer, and those of Mainz. The former argued that since the one who fraudulently betrothed the woman acted "improperly," the act of kiddushin should be invalidated and annulled. In contrast, the sages of Mainz reasoned that after the completion of the Talmud, rabbis are no longer empowered to annul kiddushin, and thus such a step could not be taken (see *Agunah; *Takkanot). When a similar case was brought before the Rosh (Resp. Rosh 35:2), he ruled that the sages are not empowered to annul the kiddushin, but since the kiddushin were fraudulent, similar to other instances in which the geonim ruled that the husband may be forced to give his wife a bill of divorce, the husband may be compelled to divorce his wife, and this would not be a coerced get (get me'useh; see *Divorce). In another responsum, he rules that when kiddushin is performed contrary to a regulation enacted by the community stating explicitly that kiddushin performed in opposition to the regulation would be annulled, these fraudulent kiddushin may be annulled (ibid. 35:1). Rashba took a similar view, and stated that in places where such a regulation had not been enacted, the rabbinical court should impose fines and even corporal punishment in order to deter fraudulent kiddushin (Resp. Rashba, vol. 1, no. 551).

Doubtful Kiddushin

The legal status of certain kiddushin is sometimes doubtful. Tannaitic literature provides two categories of cases of factual doubt which create doubtful kiddushin. In the first case the doubt relates to whether the kiddushin was conducted properly, for example whether or not the object given for kiddushin was in fact worth a perutah (Tos. Yev. 5:3). In the second case the doubt is created by a dispute in the public perception of the act that was performed, for example, the suspicion that the object used for the betrothal, while not worth a perutah in that particular location, may be worth a perutah somewhere else. The result would be that while the woman would not be regarded as betrothed in one location, she would be regarded as betrothed in another location, and hence the kiddushin is considered doubtful (Kid. 12a). Doubtful kiddushin may also ensue from a legal doubt, when it is not known, or there was no decision, whether a certain act of kiddushin was valid or not; such a case is treated stringently, and the woman is doubtfully betrothed. For example in a situation where a man gave the money for kiddushin, but the woman (instead of the man) recited the sentence to be said after the giving of the money (see above; Kid. 5b).

In some instances in the post-talmudic literature, a majority of posekim rule that even when the kiddushin do not take effect, for instance, kiddushin in the presence of only one witness (Rema eh 42:2), stringency is appropriate (Yad, Ishut 4:6; Semag, Hilkhot Kiddushin), and we should consider such cases as doubtful kiddushin. Accordingly, it was ruled that due to the severity of relations with a married woman: "in these generations they imposed all the stringencies of the posekim in divorce and marriage" (Resp. Radbaz, vol. 4, no. 129; Resp. Maharashdam, eh 13), except for in cases where the kiddushin was additionally flawed, or would cause the woman to become an agunah, in which case stringency is not applied (Resp. Maharashdam, ibid.).

Determining kiddushin as doubtful results in stringencies in two directions. On the one hand, in order to be married to another man, the woman requires a get and on the other hand, if another man betroths her, he too is considered doubtfully betrothed to her. In practice, under certain circumstances, if the parties wish to marry, they are required to conduct a second kiddushin; and if they do not desire to continue a shared life, the husband might be compelled to give her a get. Incidental to divorce, the woman might be prohibited to marry a Cohen (see *Marriage, Prohibited), which has led many authorities to criticize the proclivity to stringency in determining doubtful kiddushin and ordering divorce as a precautionary measure (get le-ḥumra – גט לחומרא; Resp. Maharshal, no. 21; Resp. Radbaz, no. 382).

A national rabbinical conference held in Jerusalem in 1950 instituted the "ḥerem de-Yerushalayim," which, inter alia, enacted that "no Jewish man and woman may engage in kiddushin and erusin [= kiddushin] other than by a proper wedding ceremony, with a quorum of ten men, which is then recorded in the offices of the rabbinate in every location. This prohibition carries with it a severe ḥerem (= ban) by which any man who betrothed a woman, other than in a proper wedding ceremony, must divorce his betrothed with a bill of divorce in accordance with Jewish law." The ḥerem de-Yerushalayim is recognized by Israeli law as part of the binding Jewish law for marriage (hc 130/66, Segev v. Rabbinical Court of Appeals, 21 (2) pd, p. 505, 525, per President Agranat). Today, most marriages are conducted under the supervision of a rabbi authorized by the Chief Rabbinate, and therefore the question of doubtful kiddushin can generally arise only in one of the following instances:

1. Civil marriage. For civil marriage and its validity as doubtful kiddushin, see *Civil Marriage.

2. Cohabitation without marriage (yedu'im ba-ẓibbur). See *Concubine.

3. Private marriage. The ḥerem de-Yerushalayim does not state that privately conducted kiddushin would be declared null and void. The Israeli Supreme Court has often addressed questions concerning the status and validity of private marriages. These marriages may be performed for any of a variety of reasons; for example, when because of various prohibitions (see *Marriage, Prohibited), the parties cannot be married by the Israeli rabbinate, and the parties circumvent this by conducting a full but private marriage ceremony. Another example is when parties who are able to be married by the rabbinate prefer not to have a rabbinically approved ceremony. These cases are a focus of friction between the rabbinical courts (that have exclusive jurisdiction in marital law) and the civil courts. The rabbinical court refuses to recognize such marriages, on the grounds of not "aiding transgressors." In contrast, the civil court system recognizes marriages of parties forbidden by Jewish law to be valid. In this context the civil court distinguishes between the "religious" component, which prohibits the conducting of the marriage, and the legal component, which despite the religious prohibition, gives legal validity to such unions. This distinction is derived from the rabbinical court's perception that such marriages are, minimally, "doubtful marriages," which, as a precautionary measure, require divorce. However, the recognition afforded by the civil court only affects the legal civil status of the couple (such as the registration of the marriage), and not the enforcement of the parties' mutual obligations from such a marriage. In the event of a private marriage, when the parties were eligible for a rabbinical marriage, but chose otherwise, the Supreme Court refused to validate such marriages and declare that the parties could register as married. The Supreme Court was guided by its perception of public policy stating that: "This judicial policy of invalidating private marriages is founded on the principle of maintaining the public good, proper administration, and basic social order, which are especially significant in determining the validity of the status of the marriage and the consequences ensuing from this status, for both the relationship between the parties and their relationship with the public as a whole" (ca 32/81, Zonen v. Shtal, 37(2) pd, p. 766; Justice Menachem Elon).

[Menachem Elon (2nd ed.)]

In the State of Israel

Matters of marriage in the State of Israel are governed by Jewish law, in accordance with the provisions of sections 1 and 2 of the Rabbinical Courts Jurisdiction (Marriage and Divorce) Law, 5713/1953. As regards the customs relating to the celebration of kiddushin and nissu'in, takkanot were issued at an Israeli rabbinical conference in 1950, imposing a strict ban on anyone solemnizing kiddushin and nissu'in contrary to the accepted customs.

By virtue of the Marriage Age Law 1950 (as amended in 1960) a woman may not be married before the age of 17 years. This law further renders it a punishable offense for any person to marry a woman under the age of 17 years (it is no offense for the bride), or to solemnize or assist in any capacity in the celebration of the marriage of such a woman, or for a father or guardian to give her away in marriage, unless prior permission of the competent district court has been obtained – the latter being empowered to give this on the grounds specified in the law (see *Child Marriage). No minimal age is specified for the bridegroom. This offense, although punishable, has no effect on the personal status of the parties; i.e., if the marriage is valid according to Jewish law, the fact that the offense has been committed will in no way affect the validity of the marriage, whether the question arises in relation to a matter of Jewish or of civil law, in the rabbinical or in the civil courts. However, in the event of a marriage with a woman below the said minimum age, the law provides that application may be made to the rabbinical court – by the persons and in the circumstances specified in the law – in order to oblige the husband to grant his wife a divorce. It must be emphasized that this provision does not create grounds for action for divorce under Jewish law, so that in fact it is a dead letter, for in matters of divorce the rabbinical courts apply Jewish law only.

[Ben-Zion (Benno) Schereschewsky]

The Marriage Age Law was amended in 1988, and the Law currently has the same age requirement for both males and females.

contemporary innovations

Several opposing tendencies have brought significant changes to Jewish wedding practices during the last quarter of the 20th century, particularly in North America. One trend is characterized by the recovery and reinstatement of certain traditional nuptial rituals, often as part of a rejection of a growing conformity of Jewish marriage customs to Protestant models during the 1950s–70s. Thus, in the early 21st century, it is not uncommon for both bride and groom to immerse in the *mikveh during the week prior to the wedding. The badeken ceremony is frequently performed following a tisch for the groom, and there may be a tena'im ceremony where the mothers of the bride and groom break a plate.

At the ceremony itself Wagner's Lohengrin Wedding March has generally been replaced by Jewish music and brides, and often grooms, now walk to the ḥuppah with both parents, rather than the bride on the arm of her father. The use of some form of ketubbah has been reinstated in the Reform movement, alongside several of the traditional sheva berakhot (wedding benedictions). Brides and grooms from all movements often prepare wedding booklets explaining aspects of the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony so that their Jewish and non-Jewish guests will be able to follow the proceedings.

On the other hand, there has also been an effort to make the traditionally unilateral wedding ceremony as egalitarian as possible. With the exception of the Ashkenazi custom of circling the groom seven or three times, sipping wine twice, and putting out a hand for the ring to be slipped on her finger, the Jewish bride is passive during a traditional Jewish wedding ritual and in the preparatory ceremonies that precede it, as when the ketubbah is signed and witnessed. The most common egalitarian innovations include replacing the traditional language of the ketubbah with reciprocal wording concerning the obligations of bride and groom to each other (this innovative ketubbah may be in Aramaic, Hebrew, or English, or a combination of two or more of these languages); both bride and groom participate in kinyan and sign the ketubbah prior to the ḥuppah; the groom circles the bride after the bride circles the groom; a double ring ceremony with both bride and groom speaking and placing a ring on the other's finger (usually the groom says the traditional formula and the bride says some variation of it or recites a verse from the Song of Songs); and the inclusion of women among those eligible to officiate, read the ketubbah, and say one of the sheva berakhot.

Since 1990, more radical departures from halakhah have also become frequent. Within the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Humanist movements, these may include the use of specially written ketubbot at interfaith weddings and at gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies and marriages, where the couple often stands under a ḥuppah and breaks a glass. Some of the interfaith ceremonies are syncretistic, which has elicited protests from the liberal and progressive denominations, as well as the more traditional movements.

[Rela M. Geffen (2nd ed.)]


general: de Vaux, Anc. Isr, 24–38; P. Elman (ed.), Jewish Marriage (1967); L.M. Epstein, Sex Laws and Customs in Judaism (1948); D.R. Mace, Hebrew Marriage; A Sociological Study (1953); R. Patai, Sex and Family in the Bible and the Middle East (1959); P. and H. Goodman, The Jewish Marriage Anthology (1965; incl. bibl.). the ceremony: I. Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (1932), 179–228; I. Jakobovits, Order of the Jewish Marriage Service (1959); J.L. Lauterbach, in: huca, 2 (1925), 351–80; E. Brauer, Yehudei Kurdistan; Meḥkar Antologi (1948); Yahadut Luv (1960), 393–5; J. Yehoshu'a, Yaldut bi-Yrushalayim ha-Yeshanah; Ha-Bayit ve-ha-Reḥov bi-Yrushalayim ha-Yeshanah (1966), 59–78; M. Many, Ḥevron ve-Gibboreiha (1963), 88–100; M. Attias, in: Saloniki, Ir va-Em be-Yisrael (1967), 185–7; J. Saphir, Even Sappir, 1 (1866), 81af.; 2 (1874), 74a–86a; D.S. Sassoon, Massa Bavel (1955), 200–3; H. Mizrahi, Yehudei Paras (1959); Z. Kasdai, Mi-Malkhut Ararat (1912), 59–62; Ben-Jacob (ed.), Yalkut Minhagim mi-Minhagei Shivtei Yisrael (1967); Y. Ratzaby, Bo'i Teiman (1967), 328–30; M. Zadoc, Yehudei Teiman (1967), 208–12; J. Kafih, Halikhot Teiman (1961), 110–56. legal aspects: M. Mielziner, The Jewish Law of Marriage and Divorce … (1901); J. Neubauer, Beitraege zur Geschichte des biblisch-talmudischen Eheschliessungsrechts (1920); Gulak, Yesodei, 3 (1922), 19–22; Gulak, Oẓar, 17–58; idem, in: Tarbiz, 5 (1933/34), 384f.; L.M. Epstein, Marriage Laws in the Bible and the Talmud (1942); E. Neufeld, Ancient Hebrew Marriage Laws … (1944); A. Freimann, Seder Kiddushin ve-Nissu'in Aḥarei Ḥatimat ha-Talmud ve-ad Yameinu (1945); et, 1 (19513), 257–61; 2 (1949), 137–40, 182–6; 4 (1952), 420–7, 631–51; 5 (1953), 138–52, 168–79; 6 (1954), 710–2; 7 (1956), 43–46; 12 (1967), 154–8; M. Vogelmann, in: Sinai, 43 (1958), 49–55; N. Sachs, in: No'am, 1 (1958), 52–68; O. Joseph, in: Sinai, 48 (1960/61), 186–93; Ḥ. Albeck, ibid., 145–51; M. Silberg, Ha-Ma'amad ha-Ishi be-Yisrael (19654); K. Kahana, The Theory of Marriage in Jewish Law (1966); E. Berkowitz, Tenai ba-Nissu'in u-va-Get (1966); Z.W. Falk, Jewish Matrimonial Law in the Middle Ages (1966); B. Schereschewsky, Dinei Mishpaḥah (19672), 32–51; Elon, Mafte'aḥ, 246–51. add. bibliography: M. Elon, Ha-Mishpat ha-Ivri (1988), 1:526, 539f., 578, 592, 648, 661, 687f., 708; 3:1474, 1488–99; idem, Jewish Law (1994), 2:656f., 641, 712, 732, 802, 817, 846f., 874; 4:1740, 1754, 1770–84; idem, Ma'amad ha-Ishah (2005), 194–254, 297–383; M. Elon and B. Lifshitz, Mafte'aḥ ha-She'elot ve-ha-Teshuvot shel Ḥakhmei Sefarad u-Ẓefon Afrikah (legal digest), 2 (1986), 385–97; B. Lifshitz and E. Shochetman, Mafte'aḥ ha-She'elot ve-ha-Teshuvot shel Ḥakhmei Ashkenaz, Ẓarefatve-Italyah (legal digest) (1997), 286–91; B. Schereschewsky, Dinei Mishpaḥah (4th ed., 1993), 25–44; J. Neubauer, Toledot Dinei ha-Nisu'in ba-Mikra u-ba-Talmud (1994); P. Shifman, Safek Kiddushin be-Mishpat ha-Yisraeli (1975); Z. Falk, Dinei Nisu'in (1983); R. Biale, Women and Jewish Law (1995); D. Gordis, "Marriage – Judaism's Other Covenantal Relationship," in: R.M. Geffen (ed.), Celebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism (1993); I.G. Marcus, The Jewish Life Cycle (2004).


views updated Jun 11 2018


Marriage is an unusually pervasive social institution that confers social status by joining social actors together in sexual and procreative partnerships. It often serves as a rite of passage to adulthood and a means of enfranchising young people in society. Marriage standardizes, normalizes, and legitimates some sexual partnerships and family formations while marginalizing others as abnormal. As an institution that contributes to social stability through the legitimating of offspring and the conferral of rights of inheritance, marriage canalizes sexual urges into formations regarded as legitimate and worthy of social sanction.

Marriage may be, as some social conservatives aver, the bedrock of civilization in its contribution to social stability. But there is no denying that marriage has taken vastly different forms in different societies. Polygyny (meaning multiple wives joined to one husband), polyandry (multiple husbands joined to one wife), complex marriage (polyamorous or multiple-partner arrangements), and temporary marriage all have a place in the history of marriage and in the history of religions. What constitutes marriage, even within a single marital form such as monogamy, has fluctuated so immensely over the centuries that the term traditional marriage simply has no meaning.

In ancient Rome, for example, marriage vows were spoken by the groom and the bride's father, as was appropriate in a society that deemed many categories of women unable to make legal decisions for themselves. Major religious traditions recognize a wide variety of marital forms as ideal, and have diverse views on the question of whether marriage is an absolute social good for all persons. Historically, marriage as an institution that contributes to social stability has sometimes been welcomed and legitimated by religious authorities and has sometimes been deemed contrary to the religious goals that religious leaders hold dear. Precisely because it contributes to social stability, because it perpetuates a social world deemed problematic, marriage did not win the approval of many early Christian and early Buddhist authorities, for example. As these religions became more established and less countercultural, both had to reckon with and find a place for marriage and family life. But many early Christians, as with early Buddhists, tended to devalue mainstream society to the extent that they were either indifferent to marriage or regarded celibacy as the proper path of religious practice.

Marriage exists as both a civil affair, in which civic authorities (such as a justice of the peace) preside over a secular ceremony of marriage, and as a religious affair, in which clergy preside. Some religions, like Buddhism, leave marriage largely in the hands of civil authorities and have no set liturgy for marriage. Other religions have canonical forms, but these are not always rooted in scripture.


Gender relations in marriage are often built out of assumptions about essential differences between women and men, girls and boys. The study of marriage is instructive as a window onto diverse historical interpretations of gender differences. It can help one see that whereas many marital formations crystallize unequal relations between women and men, endowing husbands with more rights (and sometimes with more responsibilities, it should be said) than wives, there are other modalities of marriage that challenge familiar assumptions about the fixity of gender and the differences between male and female gender roles. Some marital formations seem to grant women more agency, or allow for more autonomy in some spheres of life, than do other marital forms.

Given the wide variety of marital forms and the differing expectations of the spouses within these forms, it is interesting to consider what marital form might be best for women. Which marital form best ensures that a woman's legal and human rights will be protected? Within a given marital form, what are the conditions for divorce, and do both women and men have the right to ask for divorce? Which marital form gives women the broadest scope for agency in terms of their education and the vocations they can pursue? Are women's rights better protected in monogamous arrangements, where a woman is paired with a single spouse, than in polygynous arrangements, where a woman potentially competes with co-wives for affection, attention, and enfranchisement? These questions are asked for heuristic purposes here as a prompt for future research. But one might take up the last question as an example of what can be learned by investigating marital forms in a comparative manner.


Monogamy would seem to put women on equal footing with men by taking the element of competition between women out of the picture. But much depends on whether a double standard prevails in a monogamy-dominant culture or subculture. Prescriptive literature on monogamous marriage in the major religions often construe marriage as a set of norms that both spouses must follow to win social sanction and religious merit. However, these normative rules are often more assiduously applied to wives than to husbands. There are a number of reasons why this is often the case. Men's inability to conceive children certainly makes male extramarital sexual activities less conspicuous and thus less subject to detection, stigmatization, and punishment.

Dominant religions supported by the state tend to reinforce social hierarchies, and when those hierarchies favor men over women and children, enfranchising men as autonomous social actors while disenfranchising women and children as dependents, one is more likely to see that men's sexual affairs are considered to be their own business. In patriarchal societies where women are sexually and economically subordinated to men and only gain access to material resources and power through their ties to men, men are likely to be held to less rigorous standards of behavior in terms of sexual ethics, as was the case with the elite men of classical Athenian society. Wives are more likely, across vast spans of history and cultural terrain, to be rewarded for sexual loyalty to their husbands and socially stigmatized (if not physically punished) for conducting extramarital affairs, whereas husbands have enjoyed relatively more freedom in this regard.

This double standard in marital ethics must be taken into account, for the latitude that is often implicitly permitted to husbands can make the social labor of monogamous marriage unequal and unfair to wives. When double standards permit monogamously wedded males to go outside the marriage for sex, romance, and companionship, the monogamously wedded wife may be doubly disadvantaged. To secure her husband's affections the licit wife may need to compete with illicit partners whose social influence, level of education, wealth, and power the wife may or may not be in a position to discern. The wife's relative lack of knowledge inevitably disempowers her in this competition. Compared with the position of a woman in a polygynous arrangement who is given some role in the process whereby licit co-wives are formally brought into the family, the monogamous woman may lag behind her polygynous counterpart in terms of agency. Only if the husband of the monogamously wedded wife chooses to be faithful to her (thus eliminating the element of suspense and competition) can it be said that she enjoys more agency than her polygynous counterpart.


Polygyny seems on the face of it problematic for women. Once again, the specter of competition between wives rears its ugly head. But in societies where polygyny is allowed, it is often the practice of the wealthiest and most powerful men, and not universally practiced by all. The wives of wealthy and powerful men have their own social burdens, as will be seen below, but in general polygynous families are endowed with more material resources than monogamous families in the same society.

In addition to the relative wealth that a polygynous wife might have at her disposal, there is the argument that in cases where women select their own husbands, a woman can select as a mate a man who has already proved himself by the manner in which he cares for his other wives. Some Mormon women who practiced polygyny in the nineteenth-century American West expressed preference for a system in which a woman could select for herself a proven breadwinner by consenting to marry only a man who had done well for himself. Not all Mormon women's accounts are propolygyny, by any means. Some women saw it as a burden to be accepted because it was divinely ordained and laid down as a holy precedent by the patriarchs of the Bible, such Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But as Mormon women tended to be pragmatic in their marital choices and there is little discussion of love and romance in accounts of their lives, the opportunity to secure a proven mate may have been appreciated by many Mormon women, who are raised to make practical and not romantic choices in marriage.

Another feminist argument for polygyny is the possibility that women can share the burden of child care with co-wives. Because household arrangements in polygynous societies differ considerably, with some grouping co-wives together in separate apartments under one roof and some spreading co-wives out under separate roofs, sometimes in distant compounds, the degree to which child care could be pursued collectively depends on the context. But the potential for a set of helping hands to share the labor of child care can free women up for other tasks. Again, there is the testimonial of some Mormon women on the American frontier to suggest that collective mothering and the organized division of labor among co-wives could be a positive arrangement for those women who were blessed with a set of cooperative co-wives. Those Mormon women temperamentally suited to tasks other than childrearing had more opportunities than their non-Mormon counterparts (especially middle-class urban American wives) to pursue other forms of work. The nineteenth-century Mormon Church encouraged women to set up commercial enterprises outside the home and to be entrepreneurs, unlike the wider Victorian bourgeois society that discouraged financial and vocational independence in women. The accounts of some of the polygynous Mormon women of the American West show considerable self-sufficiency.


Institutions such as marriage and the ownership of private property do a great deal of social labor and can be regarded as twin pillars upholding a civilized society. In societies around the world, marriage and private property regulations are often the twin foundations of social stability, two primary means of contributing to the perpetuation of a social structure that is perceived as divinely mandated. (Indeed, careful regulation of property exchange and marriage have historically gone hand in hand, with exchanges of property being negotiated by families in establishing the marriage or betrothal contract.)

For those who hold utopian social visions and see the dominant social structure as antithetical to divine purposes or humanistic ideals, attention to property and sexual partnerships are equally important. Experiments with nonmonogamous marriage often go hand in hand with the abolition of private property in utopian communities. For example, the Perfectionist community founded by John Humphrey Noyes (1811–1886) in nineteenth-century America practiced a form of polyamorous marriage in which each woman was in theory married to all the men of the community and free to invite any man she pleased to her bed. Practicing a form of biblical communism based on New Testament admonishments to believers to pool their resources, the Perfectionists came to believe that the Kingdom of God had been established on Earth with the Second Coming of Jesus (6 bce–30 ce)—an event that they located in the first century of the Common Era.

Monogamy was part of the old order of things that had passed away with the Second Coming. The Second Coming, according to Noyes, reversed the fall of humanity described in the Hebrew Bible Book of Genesis. The Perfectionists believed that the nexus of sinfulness associated with the fall (alienation from God, exile from the utopian state experienced in the Garden of Eden, monogamous marriage, private property, painful and repeated childbirth, labor geared toward private property acquisition, and the condition of death or human mortality) was ontologically broken by the Second Coming. Noyes wrote that this tenacious nexus could be laid to rest by overcoming the breach with God; the rest of the sinful nexus would then be destroyed: "The sin-system, the marriage-system, the work-system, and the death-system, all are one, and must be abolished together" (Muncy 1973, p. 171).

Another utopian community practicing a version of biblical communism was established by Rev. Jim Jones (1931–1978) in Jonestown, Guyana. As with the Perfectionists, the Jonestown community held property in common and believed that exclusive romantic relationships were a sign that the community members who engaged in such relationships had departed from the ideal of biblical communism. Such utopian links between the communal sharing of property and the communitarian approach to marriage suggest that whether one wishes to perfect society through utopian labor or maintain a society that God or some enduring sacred principle has mandated, one must couple properly and be deliberate in how one handles property.

To appreciate the couple's heavy burden of perpetuating or changing dominant social structures, the immense social labor that is performed by marriage, one only has to look at the procreative emphasis found in many religious traditions' vision of proper marriage. The demand that sex be dedicated to procreative ends indicates that marriage is often geared toward redirecting the couple's energies toward larger social goods. This makes the marriage bed a place of sexual self-control as much as a place of sexual indulgence. For early Christian thinkers who looked forward to the imminent return of their crucified savior Jesus and his establishment of an ideal millennial reign of perfection, marriage was not assumed to be a godly institution. As Peter Brown (1988) shows in The Body and Society, many early Christian thinkers were openly opposed to marriage as a perpetuator of a dominant social order that they believed to be on the verge of disappearance to be replaced by a heaven on Earth. Some of these early Christian thinkers drew on ascetic practices for the proper channeling of amorous impulses, practices that Romans bequeathed to both Christians and Hellenistic Jews.

The regulation of the minutia of sexual coupling is often the moral equivalent to religious piety of the virtuoso. This identification of the marriage bed as the arena of moral action is a crucial rhetorical step. It makes possible those religions (Theravada, Buddhism, and Roman Catholic Christianity, for example) that hold up sexually active married couples and celibate virtuosi as equally laudable exemplars of the morally proper life. Monogamy in such traditions is itself a moral exercise, a disciplining of the amorous impulses that makes it the lay counterpart to the monastic call to total self-discipline. It is no wonder, then, that many religions that scholars might characterize as pro-sex and pro-marriage raise the majority of their young to couple monogamously, a discipline that requires eschewing extramarital sex (and sometimes temporary sexual abstinence for the sake of ritual purity) while encouraging the path to complete sexual abstinence for the committed religious or monastic.

This vision of the marriage bed as a site of sexual self-control makes marriage a positive social good where lust is channeled productively. This vision of the goal of marriage can lead to the implication that all other forms of coupling are by definition sites of sexual excess and lack of control. Ruth Vanita (2005) suggests that heterosexual coupling out of wedlock and same-sex coupling are often positioned as the sexually permissive others by which marriage is constructed as a social good. (These forms of coupling are the exemplum malum, the negative examples out of which ideal marriages are constructed by opposition.) By placing marriage above mere lust, other arrangements are deemed intrinsically libidinous. Heterosexual coupling out of wedlock and same-sex coupling are thus constructed as antithetical to the larger social good in that they are defined a priori as antisocial and morally suspect.


Marriage plays an extremely important role in many societies as the primary means of creating alliances between different kinship or descent groups. Marriage is not the wedding together of mere individuals; marriage is the wedding of one family to another in an alliance deemed mutually beneficial to the continued fortunes and power of each. As a method of forging alliances between families, the stakes of marriage are often considered to be too high to allow children to select their own mates. As the star-crossed lovers of William Shakespeare's (1564–1616) Romeo and Juliet portray in their ill-fated adventure in mate self-selection, the children of elite families tend to be actively discouraged from becoming romantically involved with inappropriate partners (such as the children of rival families, in the case of Juliet and Romeo). Parents and extended families will utilize their contacts in the community (and sometimes the services of professional go-betweens and marriage brokers) to secure a suitable mate for their children.

Socioeconomic and religious compatibility are considered more important criteria for matchmaking than love between the bride and the groom. Among Hindus, once the matchmaking efforts of the extended family and go-betweens has determined a plausible match, astrologers may then be consulted to assess the suitability of the match based on the horoscopes of the bride and the groom. Although it is often expected that the bride and groom will develop affection for another as time goes on, the romantic feelings and sexual impulses of the children are felt to be less reliable than the judgments of elders and religious specialists about the proposed couple's compatibility.

This is not to say that romance and premarital sexual activity have no place in societies that practice arranged marriages. Children can circumvent the judgments of their elders by eloping with one another. If the relationship proves stable, marriages that began in elopement will often later be recognized as legitimate. Likewise, many families within societies that are said to practice arranged marriages actually favor something more like semiarranged marriages that take the romantic feelings of the young people into consideration. A semiarranged marriage would be one where elders serve as something akin to a dating service, introducing the children to suitable candidates but allowing the children to select their own spouses within an array of socioreligiously acceptable choices. If one explores the Internet-based dating services that cater to Asian Americans looking for religiously compatible mates, one will see that mate self-selection can work together with attention to the criteria of socioreligious compatibility such as caste identity, mutually agreeable horoscopes, and other factors important to the parents and larger community.

Thus, it is probably not helpful to draw a firm line between societies that practice marriages based on mutual affection and those that practice arranged marriages. Much depends on whether one is looking at elite or working-class individuals in a particular society, as well as whether one is interested in the marriages of rural or urban populations. In allowing for a gradation of possibilities falling between the poles of marriages based on romantic love and arranged marriages, due consideration is also given to the bulk of historical practice among the elite of Europe. The ideal of romantic love made its first appearance among the elite with the songs of the troubadours of southwest France, who sang in praise of adulterous love. Scholars dispute when the ideal of companionate marriage based on romantic love emerged in culturally legitimated forms. Suffice it to say, for much of premodern European history, companionate marriage was not practiced by the elite in significant numbers. Matrimony was the primary means by which the elite family's wealth or patrimony was passed down to its legitimate heirs. For the premodern European elite with considerable assets and power to consider, companionate marriage was not considered the social good that it is in the early twenty-first century.


Elite women have historically done some of the heaviest lifting in terms of the social labor that their marriages have been expected to perform. The higher the social class or position of authority within the society, the more likely it is that her sexual activities have consequence not just for her, but also for others. The purity of descent lines that elite women's legitimate offspring support only matter if there is an inherited authority or wealth that depends on there being no illegitimate children to sully those pure lines of descent. Where their landed gentry cohorts in medieval Europe might have endured preadolescent betrothals and marriages, locked chastity belts, and constant surveillance by nannies and servants, non-elite girls and women of premodern Christianized European cultures often selected their own mates. Many were encouraged to follow their feelings and, having made their selection, would be betrothed to a mate in a simple ceremony such as handfasting. Sexual activity was permitted after the betrothal as long as the couple presented themselves at the altar for marriage before any offspring were born.

Whereas many women throughout history have been asked to dedicate more resources to the private sphere of home and family than have men, elite men nevertheless have done their share of heavy lifting in terms of sacrificing personal desires for the collective good of the family. Societies that practiced primogeniture—as was common in premodern Christianized Europe—singled out the oldest legitimate male offspring to inherit the family estate. Because the entire patrimony went to the eldest son, the matrimonial destiny of this sole heir was far too crucial to leave up to him. In the arranged or semi-arranged marriages common among the premodern elite of Europe, mates were selected for the most aristocratic males when the boys were as young as six or seven. The social labor that the younger sons' marriages were expected to perform was much lighter. Thus, younger brothers were generally free to select their own mates (they were also free to seek their own fortunes, not being eligible to inherit the family wealth).


Whether same-sex partnerships should be recognized by the state and accorded the same benefits as heterosexual marriage is a hotly debated social issue being adjudicated in courts and in legislative chambers around the world in the early twenty-first century. The social reality of increasingly visible same-sex partnerships and future prospects of expanded legal protections for those partnerships have generated a great deal of controversy since the late 1990s. Within the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer (GLBTQ) community as well as within straight circles, there is as much disagreement as consensus. In North America, there has not been so much contention over the question of who is married and who is not since the nineteenth-century debates over polygamy in the Utah territory and the mid-twentieth-century social upheavals over interracial marriage. On February 24, 2004, U.S. President George W. Bush (b. 1946) declared his support for a constitutional amendment that would permanently bar gays and lesbians from enjoying the 1,049 rights and responsibilities of marriage that are currently recognized by the federal government (this enumeration comes from a 1997 U.S. General Accounting Office report). Bush's show of support for a ban on GLBTQ marriage came in the wake of a decision by the Supreme Judicial Court for Massachusetts in the case of Goodridge v. Department of Public Health (2003) that held that GLBTQ couples should be granted the benefits and protections of marriage for the good of the families that they form and the protection of the children whom they raise.

What has emerged in many nations is a collection of legal categories ranging from same-sex marriages to same-sex civil unions to same-sex domestic partnerships. The Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Spain, and South Africa are the only nations that, by the early twenty-first century, granted civil marriage to same-sex couples. This is the most extensive legal category in that civil marriage for GLBTQ people offers portability to the married couple; they can expect to receive the same benefits and legal protections should they move to another location within the nation that married them. Much of Europe (including Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, France, Germany, Portugal, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia) now acknowledges the existence of same-sex partnerships for such purposes as inheritance law, property law, and the conferral of social benefits. The extent to which nations that do not marry same-sex couples will recognize the marriages of those who do is a fascinating arena of legal speculation and adjudication that may take decades to sort out. "How this trend will play out in countries that have not yet recognized same-sex relationships is still up in the air," observes Paula Ettelbrick, "Will the United States, for instance, accommodate a major corporation's desire to have one of its top executives from Canada move here with her legal spouse?" (2006, p. 21).

Same-sex marriage has virtually displaced several other contentious social issues, such as abortion, in America's early twenty-first-century culture wars between social conservatives and social progressives. Social conservatives often argue against same-sex marriage by asserting that marriage is already ailing as an institution. Social progressives who support same-sex marriage challenge social conservatives who hold these views to show how recognizing the vows of same-sex partners committed to lifelong partnership will harm the institution of marriage. If anything is to blame for the failure of marriages and families in contemporary society, social progressives argue, it would be the choices made by the heterosexuals who currently have the right to marry. If late twentieth-century statistical trends continue, approximately every other person who enters into marriage in America today will later seek divorce (Schoen and Weinick 1993).

Social conservatives often say that research shows that children only thrive in families headed by a father and a mother. It may well be true that two parents are better than one, social progressives argue, but there are many reasons why this would be the case—reasons other than the inherent rightness of having a mother and a father in the home. Given the feminization of poverty in America and given the fact that many single-parented homes are headed by women who on average earn less than men, many social progressives would consider a household's marital status less significant than financial difficulties that single-parented households face in raising children. The Massachusetts judges who ruled that the state must allow same-sex marriages argued that denying GLBTQ people the right to partner and parent only reinforces the problem of single-parent poverty by denying same-sex parents access to the legal mechanisms to care for their partner's children. (In Ohio and other states, for example, the surviving lesbian partner is not assured of custody of the children if the birth mother dies; inheritance law also presents much ambiguity for same-sex couples.)

Major religious traditions are as divided as the general public about the issue of solemnizing same-sex partners as married couples. Some Christian denominations, already strained over the issue of ordaining GLBTQ people as clerics, have come to verge of schism over the issue. Religious people in their community forums are shaping the future of marriage just as decisively as civil authorities are (with the conferral of various benefits, legal rights, and social status as families to GLBTQ people) in that religious leaders will play a gatekeeping role in sanctioning some partnerships and denying the legitimacy of others. Many religious leaders acknowledge that their congregations are in the midst of debates about issues of sexuality and sexual orientation that are not yet resolved and predict that it will be some time before religious congregations speak with one mind on the issue of marriage for same-sex couples.

Some religious leaders and scholars of religion insist that decisions about who should marry must be made on the basis of appeals to civil rights and not appeals to religious authority, scripture, or moral codes. On this civil basis, for example, Peter Gomes (2004), an American Baptist minister and Harvard University professor of Christian morals, argues for same-sex unions as a social good, regardless of how the New Testament is read or what American Baptist authorities might say about the moral status of homosexual partnerships. In this, Gomes exemplifies the approach of many progressive ecclesiastical leaders who feel that same-sex unions ought to be granted to GLBTQ couples as a matter of civil rights and social justice. Marriage as a civil affair presided over by civil and not religious officials, Gomes argues, is in fact very much in conformity with the historical tradition established by the first Puritans in New England. The Puritans rejected the English practice of clerical marriage as without scriptural precedent. For some seventy years the only marriages that the Puritans recognized were civil affairs (based on the Dutch custom of civil marriage) and not church affairs. Gomes sees continuity between the decision of the judges in Massachusetts affirming same-sex marriage on civil grounds and the historical practices of the early Puritan colonists.

Other scholars of religion and religious leaders are more interested in basing their arguments for same-sex marriage on appeals to the authority of scripture. For example, Eugene Rogers (2006) seeks to defend marriage for same-sex couples on the basis of nuptial metaphors in the Bible (for example, the community of the Bible is God's spouse, joined to God through mutual, nuptial obligations). He takes issue with those scholars who feel the New Testament's critique of existing social structures obviates the possibility for marriage as a social good and argues that the Bible has resources for establishing the sanctity of same-sex unions.

Just as the scholarly community is divided about what marriage might have meant in antiquity, what their religious traditions say about historical forms of marriage, and what marriage norms should prevail in the light of the demand that same-sex partnerships be recognized as marriages, so too, do GLBTQ people present a spectrum of opinions on what marriage has been and could be and whether they want to be part of the institution at all. Some same-sex couples and defenders of same-sex coupling are not interested in achieving the right to marry because they regard marriage as hopelessly sexist, patriarchal, and bourgeois.

In this, they join the ranks of progressive feminist critics of marriage who work to counter idealized portraits of marriage, such as those critics of federal campaigns of marriage promotion who argue that, whereas marriage has provided some women the cushion of emotional and economic security, it has also locked many women in unsatisfying, exploitative, abusive and even violent relationships. Progressive commentators such as Lisa Duggan (2004) regard federal marriage promotion campaigns as indicative of a decreased willingness to provide a social safety net for those citizens without resources. If the family unit is held up, through such federal initiatives, as the primary source of caretaking, Duggan asks, does this signal the ideological demise of the domestic programs advocated by proponents of the great society? Does federal support for marriage imply the privatization of welfare?

Whereas some GLBTQ people worry about such ideological consequences of marriage promotion, other GLBTQ people want to be able to marry and see the potential of same-sex marriage as a force for social good that will not only improve the lives of GLBTQ people but also benefit the rest of society as well. Jonathan Rauch (2004) and Andrew Sullivan (1996) argue for same-sex marriage on moral grounds, suggesting that the legally marginalized status of queer couples discourages fidelity and that same-sex marriage will reward faithful couples and limit promiscuity in the queer community. Michael Warner (1999) objects to this line of reasoning that privileges same-sex marriage as a public good analogous to a deindividuated form of coming out of the closet. Warner suggests in his critique of same-sex marriage advocates, such as Sullivan, that these defenders of marriage have contributed to the making of a new sexual McCarthyism in their attempt to win mainstream approval by stigmatizing those GLBTQ people who choose not to live monogamously partnered lives as well as those heterosexuals who choose not to marry.

It will be interesting to see whether progressive critics of marriage who object to the primacy granted to marriage will find common ground with those GLBTQ-rights advocates who stress the need for access to marriage as a core privilege of citizenship. The former have accused the latter of painting a more idealized portrait of marriage than even the most unquestioning of social conservatives and in the process marginalizing unmarried people and neglecting the social value of other committed partnerships, such as elderly siblings who form domestic partnerships to care for each other financially and emotionally. The debates over same-sex marriage clearly generate much discussion about what social formations people value as cultures and why they value them. As of the early twenty-first century, it remains to be seen what modalities marriage will take. In the meantime marriage will go on as people deliberate about how to couple properly and handle property.

see also Adultery.


Brown, Peter, and Robert Lamont. 1988. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press.

Brundage, James. 1987. Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Chidester, David. 1991. Salvation and Suicide: An Interpretation of Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Clark, Elizabeth A., ed. 1996. St. Augustine on Marriage and Sexuality. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press.

Cohen, David. 1991. Law, Sexuality, and Society: The Enforcement of Morals in Classical Athens. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Cole, Alan. 2006. "Buddhism." In Sex, Marriage, and Family in World. New York: Columbia University Press.

Coontz, Stephanie. 2005. Marriage, a History: from Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Viking.

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

Duggan, Lisa. March 15, 2004. "Holy Matrimony." Nation.

Dunn, James D. G. 1996. "The Household Rules in the New Testament." In The Family in Theological Perspective, ed. Stephen C. Barton. Edinburgh, UK: T & T Clark.

Ettelbrick, Paula L. December 4, 2006. "A Global License to Marry; Same-sex Unions Are Being Recognized by Governments from Canada to South Africa." Los Angeles Times.

Foster, Lawrence. 1981. Religion and Sexuality: the Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community, Three American Communal Experiments of the Nineteenth Century. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gomes, Peter J. February 8, 2004. "For Massachusetts, a Chance and a Choice." Boston Globe.

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Johnson, Luke, and Mark Jordan. 2006. "Christianity." In Sex, Marriage, and Family in World, ed. Don S. Browning, M. Christian Green, and John Witte, Jr. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kilbride, Philip Leroy. 1994. Plural Marriage for Our Times: A Reinvented Option? Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

Lerner, Gerda. 1986. The Creation of Patriarchy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Martin, Dale B. 1997. "Paul without Passion: On Paul's Rejection of Desire in Sex and Marriage." In Constructing Early Christian Families: Families as Social Reality and Metaphor, ed. Halvor Moxnes. London: Routledge.

Monger, George P. 2004. Marriage Customs of the World: From Henna to Honeymoons. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Muncy, Raymond Lee. 1973. "Complex Marriage at Oneida." In Sex and Marriage in Utopian Communities: Nineteenthth-Century America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Noyes, John Humphrey. 1853. "Biblical Argument Defining the Relations of the Sexes in the Kingdom of Heaven." In Bible Communism: A Compilation of the Annual Reports and Other Publications of the Oneida Association and Its Branches; Presenting, in Connection with Their History, a Summary View of Their Religious and Social Theories. Brooklyn, NY: Office of the Circular.

Rauch, Jonathan. 2004. Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America. New York: Times Books.

Rogers, Eugene F. 2006. "Trinity, Marriage, and Homosexuality." In Authorizing Marriage? Canon, Tradition, and Critique in the Blessing of Same-Sex Unions, ed. Mark Jordan, Meghan Sweeney, and David Mellott. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Schoen, Robert, and Robin Weinick. 1993. "The Slowing Metabolism of Marriage: Figures from 1988 U.S. Marital Status Life Tables." Demography 30 (4): 737-746.

Sullivan, Andrew. 1996. Virtually Normal: An Argument about Homosexuality. New York: Vintage.

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Vanita, Ruth. 2005 Love's Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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Yalom, Marilyn. 2001. A History of the Wife. New York: HarperCollins.

"The Same-sex Marriage Debate." News. Available from

                                               Liz Wilson


views updated May 17 2018






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


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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.

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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.

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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


views updated May 14 2018


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


views updated May 11 2018


The current low rates of marriage and remarriage and the high incidence of divorce in the United States are the bases of deep concern about the future of marriage and the family. Some have used these data to argue the demise of the family in American Society (Popenoe 1993). Others see such changes as normal shifts and adjustments to societal changes (Barich and Bielby 1996). Whatever the forecast, there is no question that the institution of marriage is currently less stable than it has been in previous generations. This article explores the nature of modern marriage and considers some of the reasons for its vulnerability.

Marriage can be conceptualized in three ways: as an institution (a set of patterned, repeated, expected behaviors and relationships that are organized and endure over time); as rite or ritual (whereby the married status is achieved); and as a process (a phenomenon marked by gradual changes that lead to ultimate dissolution through separation, divorce, or death). In the discussion that follows we examine each of these conceptualizations of marriage, giving the greatest attention to marriage as a process.


From a societal level of analysis the institution of marriage represents all the behaviors, norms, roles, expectations, and values that are associated with the legal union of a man and woman. It is the institution in society in which a man and woman are joined in a special kind of social and legal dependence to found and maintain a family. For most people, getting married and having children are the principal life events that mark the passage into mature adulthood. Marriage is considered to represent a lifelong commitment by two people to each other and is signified by a contract sanctioned by the state (and for many people, by God). It thus involves legal rights, responsibilities, and duties that are enforced by both secular and sacred laws. As a legal contract ratified by the state, marriage can be dissolved only with state permission.

Marriage is at the center of the kinship system. New spouses are tied inextricably to members of the kin network. The nature of these ties or obligations differs in different cultures. In many societies almost all social relationships are based on or mediated by kin, who may also serve as allies in times of danger, may be responsible for the transference of property, or may be turned to in times of economic hardship (Lee 1982). In the United States, kin responsibilities rarely extend beyond the nuclear family (parents and children). There is the possible exception of caring for elderly parents, where norms seem to be developing (Eggebeen and Davey 1998). There are no normative obligations an individual is expected to fulfill for sisters or brothers, not to mention uncles, aunts, and cousins. Associated with few obligations and responsibilities is greater autonomy and independence from one's kin.

In most societies the distribution of power in marriage is given through tradition and law to the male—that is, patriarchy is the rule as well as the practice. For many contemporary Americans the ideal is to develop an egalitarian power structure, but a number of underlying conditions discourage attaining this goal. These deterrents include the tendency for males to have greater income; higher-status jobs; and, until recently, higher educational levels than women. In addition, the tradition that women have primary responsibility for child rearing tends to increase their dependency on males.

Historically, the institution of marriage has fulfilled several unique functions for the larger society. It has served as an economic alliance between two families, as the means for legitimizing sexual relations, and as the basis for legitimizing parenthood and offspring. In present-day America the primary functions of marriage appear to be limited to the legitimization of parenthood (Davis 1949; Reiss and Lee 1988) and the nurturance of family members (Lasch 1977). Recently, standards have changed and sexual relationships outside marriage have become increasingly accepted for unmarried people. Most services that were once performed by members of a family for other members can now be purchased in the marketplace, and other social institutions have taken over roles that once were assigned primarily to the family. Even illegitimacy is not as negatively sanctioned as in the past. The fact that marriage no longer serves all the unique functions it once did is one reason some scholars have questioned the vitality of the institution.


Not a great deal of sociological attention has been given to the study of marriage as a rite or ritual that transfers status. Philip Slater, in a seminal piece published in 1963, discussed the significance of the marriage ceremony as a social mechanism that underscores the dependency of the married couple and links the new spouses to the larger social group. Slater claims that various elements associated with the wedding (e.g., bridal shower, bachelor party) help create the impression that the couple is indebted to their peers and family members who organize these events. He writes,

[F]amily and friends [are] vying with one another in claiming responsibility for having "brought them together" in the first place. This impression of societal initiative is augmented by the fact that the bride's father "gives the bride away." The retention of this ancient custom in modern times serves explicitly to deny the possibility that the couple might unite quite on their own. In other words, the marriage ritual is designed to make it appear as if somehow the idea of the dyadic union sprang from the community, and not from the dyad itself. (p. 355)

Slater describes the ways in which rite and ceremony focus attention on loyalties and obligations owed others: "The ceremony has the effect of concentrating the attention of both individuals on every OTHER affectional tie either one has ever contracted" (Slater 1963, p. 354). The intrusion of the community into the couple's relationship at the moment of unity serves to inhibit husband and wife from withdrawing completely into an intimate unit isolated from (and hence not contributing to) the larger social group.

Martin Whyte (1990) noted the lack of information on marriage rituals and conducted a study to help fill this gap. He found that, since 1925, wedding rituals (bridal shower, bachelor party, honeymoon, wedding reception, church wedding) have not only persisted but also increased in terms of the number of people who incorporate them into their wedding plans. Weddings also are larger in scale in terms of cost, number of guests, whether a reception is held, and so on. Like Slater, Whyte links marriage rituals to the larger social fabric and argues that an elaborate wedding serves several functions. It

serves notice that the couple is entering into a new set of roles and obligations associated with marriage, it mobilizes community support behind their new status, it enables the families involved to display their status to the surrounding community, and it makes it easier for newly marrying couples to establish an independent household. (p. 63)


Of the three ways in which marriage is conceptualized—institution, rite or ritual, and process—most scholarly attention has focused on process. Here the emphasis is on the interpersonal relationship. Changes in this relationship over the course of a marriage have attracted the interest of most investigators. Key issues studied by researchers include the establishment of communication, affection, power, and decision-making patterns; development of a marital division of labor; and learning spousal roles. The conditions under which these develop and change (e.g., social class level, age at marriage, presence of children) and the outcomes of being married that derive from them (e.g., degree of satisfaction with the relationship) are also studied. For illustrative purposes, the remainder of this article will highlight one of these components, marital communication, and one outcome variable, marital quality. We also address different experiences of marriage based on sex of spouse: "his" and "her" marriage.

The Process of Communication. The perception of a "failure to communicate" is a problem that prompts many spouses to seek marital counseling. The ability to share feelings, thoughts, and information is a measure of the degree of intimacy between two people, and frustration follows from an inability or an unwillingness to talk and listen (Okun 1991). However, when the quality of communication is high, marital satisfaction and happiness also are high (Holman and Brock 1986; Burleson and Denton 1997; Gottman 1994).

The role of communication in fostering a satisfactory marital relationship is more important now than in earlier times, because the expectation and demands of marriage have changed. As noted above, marriage in America is less dependent on and affected by an extended kin network than on the spousal relationship. One of the principal functions of contemporary marriage is the nurturance of family members. Perhaps because this function and the therapeutic and leisure roles that help fulfill it in marriage are preeminent, "greater demands are placed on each spouse's ability to communicate" (Fitzpatrick 1988, p. 2). The communication of positive affect and its converse, emotional withdrawal, may well be the essence and the antithesis, respectively, of nurturance. Bloom and colleagues (1985) suggest that one important characteristic of marital dissatisfaction is the expectation that marriage is a "source of interpersonal nurturance and individual gratification and growth" (p. 371), an expectation that is very hard to fulfill.

In the 1990s many studies focused on the relationship between communication and marital satisfaction (Burleson and Denton 1997). The findings from this body of research suggest that there are clear communication differences between spouses in happy and in unhappy marriages. Patricia Noller and Mary Anne Fitzpatrick (1990) reviewed this literature, and their findings can be summarized as follows: Couples in distressed marriages report less satisfaction with the social-emotional aspects of marriage, develop more destructive communication patterns (i.e., a greater expression of negative feelings, including anger, contempt, sadness, fear, and disgust), and seek to avoid conflict more often than nondistressed couples. Nevertheless, couples in distressed marriages report more frequent conflict and spend more time in conflict. In addition, gender differences in communication are intensified in distressed marriages. For example, husbands have a more difficult time interpreting wives' messages. Wives in general express both negative and positive feelings more directly, and are more critical. Spouses in unhappy marriages appear to be unaware that they misunderstand one another. Generally, happily married couples are more likely to engage in positive communication behaviors (agreement, approval, assent, and the use of humor and laughter), while unhappy couples command, disagree, criticize, put down, and excuse more. Recently, Burleson and Denton (1997) explored the complexity of the communication–marital satisfaction relationship and found a variety of moderating factors: skills in communicating (realizing the communication goal, producing and receiving messages, social perception), the context or setting in which communication takes place, and the cognitive complexity of each spouse. They suggest that communication problems are best viewed as a symptom of marital difficulties and should not be seen merely as a diagnostic tool for distressed relationships.

Communication patterns may be class linked. It has long been found that working-class wives in particular complain that their husbands are emotionally withdrawn and inexpressive (Komarovsky 1962; Rubin 1976). Olsen and his colleagues (1979) assign communication a strategic role in marital and family adaptability. In their conceptualization of marital and family functioning, communication is the process that moves couples along the dimensions of cohesion and adaptability. In another study the absence of good communication skills is associated with conjugal violence (Infante 1989).

Differences between the sexes have been reported in most studies that examine marital communication. The general emphasis of these findings is that males appear less able to communicate verbally and to discuss emotional issues. However, communication is not the only aspect of marriage for which sex differences have been reported. Other components of marriage also are experienced differently, depending on the sex of spouse. The following paragraphs report some of these.

Sex Differences. In her now classic book, The Future of Marriage (1972), Jessie Bernard pointed out that marriage does not hold the same meanings for wives as for husbands, nor do wives hold the same expectations for marriage as do husbands. These sex differences (originally noted but not fully developed by Emile Durkheim in 1897 in Le Suicide) have been observed and examined by many others since Bernard's publication (Larson 1988; Thompson and Walker 1989; Kitson 1992). For example, researchers have reported differences between husbands and wives in perceptions of marital problems, reasons for divorce, and differences in perceived marital quality; wives consistently experience and perceive lower marital quality than do husbands.

Sex differences in marriage are socially defined and prescribed (Lee 1982; Blaisure and Allen 1995). One consequence of these social definitions is that sex differences get built into marital roles and the division of labor within marriage. For example, it has been observed that wives do more housework and child care than husbands (Thompson and Walker 1989; Presser 1994). Even wives who work in the paid labor force spend twice as many hours per week in family work as husbands (Benin and Agostinelli 1988; Coltran and Ishii-Kuntz 1992; Demo and Acock 1993). Wives are assigned or tend to assume the role of family kin keeper and caregiver (Montgomery 1992). To the extent that husbands and wives experience different marriages, wives are thought to be disadvantaged by their greater dependence, their secondary status, and the uneven distribution of family responsibilities between spouses (Baca Zinn and Eitzen 1990).

All these factors are assumed to affect the quality of marriage—one of the most studied aspects of marriage (Adams 1988; Berardo 1990). It will be the subject of our final discussion.

Marital Quality. Marital quality may be the "weather vane" by which spouses gauge the success of their relationship. The reader should be sure to differentiate the concept of marital quality from two other closely related concepts: family quality and the quality of life in general, called "global life satisfaction" in the literature. Studies show that people clearly differentiate among these three dimensions of well-being (Ishii-Kuntz and Ihinger-Tallman 1991).

Marriage begins with a commitment, a promise to maintain an intimate relationship over a lifetime. Few couples clearly understand the difficulties involved in adhering to this commitment or the problems they may encounter over the course of their lives together. More people seek psychological help for marital difficulties than for any other type of problem (Veroff et al. 1981). For a large number of spouses, the problems become so severe that they renege on their commitment and dissolve the marriage.

A review of the determinants of divorce lists the following problems as major factors that lead to the dissolution of marriage: "alcoholism and drug abuse, infidelity, incompatibility, physical and emotional abuse, disagreements about gender roles, sexual incompatibility, and financial problems" (White 1990, p. 908). Underlying these behaviors appears to be the general problem of communication. In their study of divorce, Gay Kitson and Marvin Sussman (1982) report lack of communication or understanding to be the most common reason given by both husbands and wives concerning why their marriage broke up. The types of problems responsible for divorce have not changed much over time. Earlier studies also list nonsupport, financial problems, adultery, cruelty, drinking, physical and verbal abuse, neglect, lack of love, in-laws, and sexual incompatibility as reasons for divorce (Goode 1956; Levinger 1966).

Not all unhappy marriages end in divorce. Many factors bar couples from dissolving their marriages, even under conditions of extreme dissatisfaction. Some factors that act as barriers to marital dissolution are strong religious beliefs, pressure from family or friends to remain together, irretrievable investments, and the lack of perceived attractive alternatives to the marriage (Johnson et al. 1999).

One empirical finding that continues to be reaffirmed in studies of marital quality is that the quality of marriage declines over time, beginning with the birth of the first child (Glenn and McLanahan 1982; Glenn 1991; White et al. 1986). Consequently the transition to parenthood and its effect on the marital relationship has generated a great deal of research attention (Cowen and Cowen 1989; McLanahan and Adams 1989). The general finding is that marital quality decreases after the birth of a child, and this change is more pronounced for mothers than for fathers. Two reasons generally proposed to account for this decline are that the amount of time couples have to spend together decreases after the birth of a child, and that sex role patterns become more traditional (McHale and Huston 1985).

In an attempt to disentangle the duration of marriage and parenthood dimensions, White and Booth (1985) compared couples who became new parents with nonparent couples over a period of several years and found a decline in marital quality regardless of whether the couple had a child. A longitudinal study conducted by Belsky and Rovine (1990) confirmed the significant declines in marital quality over time reported in so many other studies. They also found the reported gender differences. However, their analysis also focused on change scores for individual couples. They reported that while marital quality declined for some couples, this was not true for all couples: It improved or remained unchanged for others. Thus, rather than assume that quality decline is an inevitable consequence of marriage, there is a need to examine why and how some couples successfully avoid this deterioration process. The authors called for the investigation of individual differences among couples rather than continuing to examine the generally well-established finding that marital quality declines after children enter the family and remains low during the child-rearing stages of the family life cycle.

Finally, the overall level of marital satisfaction is related to the frequency with which couples have sex (Call et al. 1995). The argument states that happy couples have sex more frequently, leading to more satisfying marriage, and that satisfaction in marriage leads to a greater desire for sex and the creation of more opportunities for sex.

Many students of the family have found it useful to consider marital development over the years as analogous to a career that progresses through stages of the family life cycle (Duvall and Hill 1948; Aldous 1996). This allows for consideration of changes in the marital relationship that occur because of spouses' aging, the duration of marriage, and the aging of children. In addition to changes in marital quality, other factors have been examined, such as differences in the course of a marriage, when age at first marriage varies (e.g., marriage entered into at age 19 as opposed to in the mid-30s), varied duration of childbearing (few versus many years), varied number of children (small family versus large), and the ways in which consumer decisions change over the course of marriage (Aldous 1990).


If the vitality of marriage is measured by the extent to which men and women enter marriage, then some pessimism about its future is warranted. Marriage rates are currently lower than during the early depression year 1931 (Statistical Abstracts 1998, 1938)—which was the lowest in our nation's recent history (Sweet and Bumpass 1987). One conclusion that might be drawn from reading the accumulated literature on marriage, especially the writings that discuss the inequities of men and women within marriage, the increasing incidence of marital dissolution, cohabitation as a substitute for marriage, and the postponement of marriage, is that the institution is in serious trouble. These changes have been interpreted as occurring as part of a larger societal shift in values and orientations (Glick 1989) that leans toward valuing adults over children and individualism over familism (Glenn 1987; White 1987; see also the entire December 1987 issue of Journal of Family Issues, which is devoted to the state of the American family). Supporting this perspective are the data on increased marital happiness among childless couples and lower birth rates among married couples.

Yet every era has had those who wrote of the vulnerability of marriage and the family. For example, earlier in this century Edward Alsworth Ross wrote, "we find the family now less stable than it has been at any time since the beginning of the Christian era" (1920, p. 586). Is every era judged to be worse than previous ones when social institutions are scrutinized? More optimistic scholars look at the declining first-marriage rate and interpret it as a "deferral syndrome" rather than an outright rejection of the institution (Glick 1989). This is because, in spite of declines in the overall rate, the historical 8 percent to 10 percent of never-married people in the population has remained constant: Almost 90 percent of all women in the United States eventually marry at least once in their lifetimes. Also, projections that about twothirds of all first marriages in the United States will end in divorce (Martin and Bumpass 1989) do not deter people from marrying. In spite of the high divorce rate, an increased tolerance for singleness as a way of life, and a growing acceptance of cohabitation, the majority of Americans continue to marry. Marriage is still seen as a source of personal happiness (Kilbourne et al. 1990).

More fundamentally, marriage rates and the dynamics of marital relationships tend to reflect conditions in the larger society. What appears clear, at least for Americans, is that they turn to marriage as a source of sustenance and support in a society where, collectively, citizens seem to have abrogated responsibility for the care and nurturance of each other. Perhaps it is not surprising that divorce rates are high, given the demands and expectations placed on modern marriages.

(see also: Alternative Life-Styles; Courtship; Family Roles; Heterosexual Behavior Patterns; Intermarriage; Marital Adjustment; Remarriage; Sexual Behavior and Marriage)


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——1982 The Future of Marriage. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

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Marilyn Ihinger-Tallman


views updated Jun 08 2018


The marriage contract occupied the minds and hearts of writers and readers in the nineteenth century. It signaled the newly conceived possibilities of the Republic and of the political alliances to be formed among families and factions. As Nancy Cott has argued in Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation, marriage represented religious, civil, and political investments in sexual and gender identities and in the social control of the new populace. Marriage became a way to define the population—both citizens and aliens—in terms of monogamy and voluntary union or consent, with "marriage and the form of government mirroring each other" (p. 10). Moreover, the doctrine of coverture governed the legal relation between men and women, wherein women would surrender their legal status to husbands, who were full citizens. Women could exercise influence in marriage but had no legal power, could not vote, and in many states could not own property. (Married Women's Property Acts were in place by the 1860s.)


Women's resistance to coverture, and indeed to the stifling influences of patriarchal control, helped to shape much of the literature of this period. Such poems as "The Dying Wife" (1834), "The Bride" (1837), and Fanny Gage's "The Maniac Wife" (1866) describe in stark terms the miserable conditions for women under the control of willful husbands in what one critic describes as "voluntary incarceration" (Bennett, pp. 122–123). Emily Dickinson (1830–1866) compares marriage to submission:

I'm "wife"—I've finished that—
That other state—
I'm czar—I'm "Woman" now—
It's safer so.

Marriage is ostensibly "safer" because it affords women some measure of protection. One of the cleverest indictments of marriage is in a coded letter, "Atkinson's Casket," in an 1832 magazine, which reveals the author's real views of marriage if one reads every other line of the letter:

I tell you my dear
husband is one of the most amiable of men,
I have been married seven weeks, and
have never found the least reason to
repent the day that joined us, my husband is
in person and manners far from resembling
ugly, crass, old, disagreeable, and jealous
monsters, who think by confining to secure

(Lanser, pp. 679–680)

Such reading between the lines represents the overt censoring and covert repression of women's critical voices.

Rebecca Rush's (1779–c. 1850) 1812 novel Kelroy gives readers a glimpse into the expectations for white women's marriages. Rush's plot characterizes marriages in the early Republic insofar as her characters are pitted against each other in terms of political alliances. The widowed mother of two girls, Mrs. Hammond wants to marry them off into wealthy families, thereby securing her future and, incidentally, theirs. Mrs. Hammond and her accomplice Mr. Marney believe in filial obedience (influenced by Federalist policy) and want to arrange the daughters' marriages based on calculated self-interest. The first daughter, Lucy, marries into British aristocracy, but it is a loveless union, and Lucy is a coldhearted mother. The sentimentalists, represented in the novel by the second daughter Emily and her lover, the impoverished poet Kelroy, assert the Jeffersonian value of sincerity and affiliation through love, not rational self-advancement. The mother foils the marriage but not without breaking her daughter's heart and ruining her own reputation. Thus, in Rush's world, the Federalist version of marriage and obedience cannot coexist with the newer generation's Jeffersonian model of consent and individual self-control. Thus, the seduction plot, which heretofore fueled myriad novels—most famously, Hannah Webster Foster's (1759–1840) The Coquette (1797) and Susanna Rowson's (1762–1824) Charlotte Temple (1794)—disappeared, while the new conflict between political models of affiliation informed courtship and marriage plots.

New, more sentimental models of marriage began to appear in novels and plays, but even these were no less politicized as a form of union. Catharine Maria Sedgwick's (1789–1867) Hope Leslie (1827) features intermarriage between a white woman taken captive as a child and an Indian man, as does Lydia Maria Child's (1802–1880) Hobomok (1824). Both Sedgwick and Child, as well as James Fenimore Cooper, used marriage as a way to test cultural politics of citizenship: Could whites intermarry with Native Americans and preserve a sense of cultural superiority? Did cultural superiority matter in a potentially hybrid culture?

Walt Whitman (1819–1992) later represented just such a marriage in "Song of Myself": "I saw the marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west, the bride was a red girl" (1881 edition, l. 185). As a preoccupation among the middle and upper classes, marriage signifies not just class standing but also racial superiority, as the legal rights of marriage were restricted solely to whites until African Americans were granted, after emancipation, the right to wed. As Ann duCille writes, African Americans desired the "coupling convention" that had been denied to enslaved blacks. Indeed, marriage in African American culture was politicized from the very beginning. Slaveholders' failure to recognize marriages between slaves tested the Christian notion of marriage, although the assumed sexual licentiousness of the slaves was seen as much as a threat to the nation as were Mormonism and divorces.

Even before the debate about slavery ended, bondage was an important way of representing marriage. In "The Great Lawsuit" (1843), later expanded into Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), Margaret Fuller (1810–1850) indicates the rhetorical connection between chattel slavery and marital enslavement:

It is not surprising that it should be the AntiSlavery party that pleads for woman, when we consider merely that she does not hold property on equal terms with men; so that, if a husband dies without a will, the wife, instead of stepping at once into his place as head of the family, inherits only a part of his fortune, as if she were a child, or ward only, not an equal partner. (P. 1627)

Instead of the "ravishing harmony" that Fuller desires between married men and women, women are denied equity.

Perhaps no novelist put the situation as well as did Fanny Fern (Sara Payson Willis Parton, 1822–1891) in Ruth Hall (1855), a best-seller that dramatizes the plight of a mother left destitute when her childlike husband dies and leaves her to the mercy of his parents and her own unsympathetic brother. Ruth Hall saves herself by writing columns filled with common sense and humor about the plight of womanhood. In 1871 Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844–1911) focused on the same theme—the impossibility of being a "silent partner" in a marriage—insofar as both of her heroines refuse marriage proposals (middle-class and working-class versions) in favor of embracing benevolent practices. Fern and Phelps, among many others, raise the question of whether marriage was a companionate or an economic union, whether it is more fully realized on spiritual, psychological, and social terms, or whether its true implications result from an economic or commercial union. One of Phelps's later novels, The Story of Avis (1877), chronicles how a demanding marriage and husband doom a woman's ambition as an artist. Like her mother, a novelist of the same name, in "The Angel over the Right Shoulder" (1852), the daughter pits women's duties against her desires. By the end of the century, marriage advice and manual writers would proclaim with not a little irony that marriage was to be endured, not celebrated. In 1886 one such manual—How to Be Happy Though Married, Being a Handbook to Marriage, written by "A Graduate in the University of Matrimony"—addresses itself "to those brave men and women who have ventured, or who intend to venture, into that state which is a blessing to a few, a curse to many, and a great uncertainty to all" and is dedicated to "their courage" (acknowledgment page) in attempting such unions. The age of innocence—blessed unions and political marriages—was indeed over.


Perhaps the most famous novel in nineteenth-century American literature is the story of a marriage gone wrong and the disastrous consequences, Nathaniel Hawthorne's (1804–1864) The Scarlet Letter (1850). Its focus on adultery puts it in company with Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. These novels take as their defining position that the way marriages fail reveals not only the deepest psychological implications of characters but also the dominant cultural anxieties of their milieux. The Scarlet Letter is so well known that it may be summarized briefly. A man uses his position as doctor to marry a younger, vulnerable woman, but when she has grounds to presume that he is dead, she turns to her minister for sexual comfort. Leslie Fiedler argues that the wilderness scene in which Hester Prynne enjoins the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale's sympathy actually replicates an earlier scene that the reader never gets to see: her original seduction of the cleric. Whether the novel is considered a marriage novel or not, it displays one side of Hawthorne's vision of marriage as an institution. The novel could not have the potency it has had for generations unless it also expressed a deeply held American sense of marriage as a profoundly viable civic institution, one that can give stature to even the furthest outcasts from American society.

In The House of the Seven Gables (1851), Hawthorne explores several dimensions by which American history is shaped by the pursuit of happy marriages. When Matthew Maule sees Alice Pyncheon and assumes that the class differences that keep her from him can never be surmounted, he joins her intolerant father in a shared policy of domestic devastation. His curse on the Pyncheons is the resentment of a marriage that cannot be, whereas the novel closes with a vision of a happier union once the class barriers have been rendered insubstantial. The Blithedale Romance (1852), on the other hand, treats marriage as secondary to the cultivation of intimacy and by doing so helps to secure the life of intense personal relations as the American social value that will ultimately surpass marriage as a defining cultural good. Miles Coverdale's contorted tale of his own bachelorhood is a prototype for the bachelor fictions that predominated in the 1850s: his desperate protest of love for Priscilla, hollow as many readers have found it, testifies both to his incomprehension of the proceedings and to his equally helpless vision of romantic, heterosexual love as the adequate counterbalance to the social ills the novel has chronicled.

Hawthorne's short stories also play out the duality of marriage, not to mention Hawthorne's ambivalences, which the novels portray. On the one hand, Hawthorne creates a series of bachelor protagonists who find marriage suffocating. Such characters might be typified in "Wakefield" (1835), in which the protagonist abandons his wife for twenty years, living around the corner from her and observing her during his absence. In large part, this story functions as Hawthorne's critique of encroaching urbanism and the soulless anonymity of city life. That dominant reading, however, ought not overshadow the implicit critique of marriage as the primary source of consolation in an increasingly alienated culture. On the other hand, Hawthorne creates another series of protagonists for whom the prospect of marriage is potentially redemptive. One such character is Owen Warland in "The Artist of the Beautiful" (1844), who pits his craft in service of this ideal. Beyond such artist figures, however, are the better-known malevolent villains like Aylmer of "The Birth-mark" (1843), who in the name of searching for the perfect wife systematically goes about destroying the very human woman who loves him. Perhaps Hawthorne's best-known short story, "Young Goodman Brown" (1835), circulates these anxieties about marriage in the protagonist's vision of his wife's imagined infidelity with the devil and his attendant loss of his aptly named wife, Faith.

Nina Baym's famous formulation of "melodramas of beset manhood" best captures the sense of fear and anxiety nineteenth-century male characters (and some writers) felt about the stifling dynamics of middle-class marriage. Herman Melville's (1819–1891) famous diptych of 1855, "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids," gave the lie to the number of sentimental portrayals of national monogamy, for his bachelors prefer their own company and his maids are servants to their millwork. Melville's bachelors call wives and children "twinges of their consciences" likely to give men "anxious thoughts" (p. 2361). Then again, there's Pierre (1852), Melville's novel about a man engaged to one woman but passionate about his half sister, one of the many nineteenth-century plots verging on incest, such as E. D. E. N. Southworth's 1869 novel, The Fatal Marriage.


Hawthorne's and Melville's writings notwithstanding, marriage was promoted as a civic ideal, serving as a social glue: Marmee in Louisa May Alcott's (1832–1888) Little Women (1868–1869) professes marriage as the highest ideal and noblest goal for women: after Mr. March leaves for the war, Marmee declares that she "gave my best to the country I love, and kept my tears till he was gone. Why should I complain, when we both have merely done our duty, and will surely be the happier for it in the end?" (p. 103). Such "maternal pedagogy," as Elizabeth Freeman calls it, was to prepare her girls for submission to the greater power of "national manhood" and provide a buffer against capitalist and commercial interests (p. 41). Conduct literature and advice books were popular, providing young men and women with codes for proper married living. The debate about marriage rested on the assumptions about companionate affiliation versus economic partnership.

By the 1850s, "free-love" communities were on the rise, and the argument for sexual emancipation took many forms. "Complex marriages" occurred at Oneida, Putney, and Wallingford because they secured the notion that every member would be married to everyone else (Freeman, p. 107). In fact, the founder of the Oneida Community, John Humphrey Noyes (1811–1886), argued that sexual activity could be distinct from reproduction. The Shakers prevented marriage altogether since they found it to encourage privatization (Freeman, p. 129). One of the most out-spoken voices against sexual repression was Angela Fiducia Tilton Heywood (1840–1935), who spoke out for her imprisoned husband, Ezra Hervey Heywood (1829–1893), in their newspaper, the Word. Angela Heywood argued for free expression between husband and wife: "Animals rise on the back, mount from behind; the arrival of human intelligence appears in face to face meeting, coition front-wise. . . . In creative sex-power resides the central matter-of-fact of social endeavor. It is insipid falsehood for woman to pretend to man that the sex-fact is not as much to her, as it is to him." The Heywoods advanced provocative arguments for women's equal sex expression in marriage.

Nevertheless, many women writers argued for the protective benefits for women in sentimental affiliation, whereas others lamented women's lack of power in marital relations. Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811–1896) Pink and White Tyranny (1871) satirized women's sex power in marriage. The novel details the disastrous marriage of John Seymour, a country businessman, to a frothy young woman, Lillie Ellis, whose career as a belle started when she was eight and who "used to sell her kisses through the slats of the fence for papers of candy, and thus early acquired the idea that her charms were a capital to be employed in trading for the good things of life" (p. 46). Thoroughly steeped in American materialism, Lillie rejects her husband's benevolence and idealism for fashionable life. Throughout the novel, she employs her sex power—flirting and kissing and crying—to undermine his plans of moral uplift for her. Such fashionable training in womanhood, Stowe argues, destroys the sacredness of married life. Stowe comments on the situation of marriage in America: "We have heard much talk, of late, concerning the husband's ownership of the wife. But, dear ladies, is that any more pronounced a fact than every wife's ownership of her husband?—an ownership so intense and pervading that it may be said to be the controlling nerve of womanhood" (p. 66). Lillie Ellis, like Louisa May Alcott's Jean Muir from Behind a Mask (1866) and later Edith Wharton's Lily Bart from The House of Mirth (1905), uses sex power to arrange for an advantageous marriage.

The challenges marriage faced came not only in the domestic sphere but also in what were seen as threats to national stability. The crisis of Mormonism was focused on polygamy, which was criminalized in 1862, before slavery was outlawed. For instance, Maria Ward's 1855 best-seller, Female Life among the Mormons, detailed the "Sacrifices, Sorrows, and Sufferings" of a woman forced to go to Salt Lake City with her Mormon husband. Such sensational literature focused attention on anti-republicanism and on women's legal dependence in marriage (Merish, p. 165). In 1843 the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith (1805–1844) declared "Celestial marriage" a divine revelation and duty for Mormon men. Although its existence in the Mormon community was kept quiet until the 1850s, plural marriage provoked great debate, and approximately sixty anti-Mormon novels were published in the nineteenth century, denouncing the lust and sensuality of the Mormon "harem," a dangerous relation to the Eastern sheik and his collection of women. Mormonism galvanized many discussions about marriage and monogamy's legitimate relation to the nation, since plural marriage challenged the sanctity and order of the Christian home. Other novels, such as Metta Victoria Fuller Victor's Mormon Wives (1856), used sentimental rhetorical strategies to attack the defilers of Christian monogamy.

It was feared that both widespread miscegenation and Mormonism would produce an adverse effect on national morality. As DuCille argues in The Coupling Convention, the marriage plot and the novel structure were useful tools for African American writers to explore race, sexuality, and female subjectivity (p. 4). Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) and Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig (1859) both make impassioned arguments for black women's "freedom to desire" and freedom from white patriarchal power. Marriage was also a test of black people's fitness for citizenship. Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) expresses the ideal relationship between George Harris, an escaped slave, and his family; Harris claims that his identity—as a free man—is predicated on his relationship (often in terms of purchasing) his wife and child. (No such marital ownership occurs in Jacobs's or Wilson's stories.) As he explains to his wife Eliza, "Don't you know a slave can't be married? There is no law in this country for that; I can't hold you for my wife, if [the slaveholder] chooses to part us" (p. 82). After the Civil War, all men would be owners of their households, a wife and child theirs by right.

These debates occasioned a concomitant rise in divorces; more women than men sought an end to marriage. In turn, advocates marshaled for stricter control on marriage, including raising the age of consent and instituting eugenic requirements, all in an effort to promote "formal monogamy," as Cott puts it, and later to control reproduction of immigrants (p. 110). Fears of Catholicism and Jewish marriages also dominated reform movements because it was believed that these foreign alliances did not promote egalitarian marriages but tribalism and foreign allegiances. Adah Isaacs Menken (c. 1835–1868), the popular stage actress and author of Jewish poems and essays, for example, married six times. This gave opponents of immigrant marriage a case to pursue.

Marriage in the nineteenth century was the social barometer for the transition from bondage and cover-ture to contract relations. These contract negotiations had both domestic and national meanings: in the home, contract regulated the division of labor, whereas in the nation the contract between husband and wife was the moral register of American exceptionalism, progress, and privacy.

See alsoBachelors and Spinsters; Courtship; Free Love; Ruth Hall;Sex Education


Primary Works

Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. 1868–1869. New York: Modern Library, 1983.

Dickinson, Emily. "I'm 'wife'—I've finished that." In NortonAnthology of American Literature, 6th ed., pp. 2503–2539. New York: Norton, 2003.

Fern, Fanny [Sarah Payson Willis Parton]. Ruth Hall. 1855. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

Fuller, Margaret. "The Great Lawsuit." 1843. In NortonAnthology of American Literature, 6th ed., pp. 1620–1654. New York: Norton, 2003.

A Graduate in the University of Matrimony. How to BeHappy Though Married, Being a Handbook to Marriage. New York: Scribners, 1886.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Blithedale Romance. 1852. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The House of the Seven Gables. 1851. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850. New York: Penguin Classics, 1986.

Heywood, Angela Fiducia Tilton. "Sex Service—Ethics of Trust." Word, October 1889.

Melville, Herman. "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids." 1855. In Norton Anthology of American Literature, 6th ed., pp. 2355–2371. New York: Norton, 2003.

Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart. The Silent Partner. 1871. New York: Feminist Press, 1983.

Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart. The Story of Avis. 1877. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988.

Rush, Rebecca. Kelroy. 1812. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Pink and White Tyranny: A Society Novel. 1871. New York: New American Library, 1988.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin. 1852. New York: Penguin Books, 1981.

Whitman, Walt. "Song of Myself." In Norton Anthology ofAmerican Literature, 6th ed., pp. 2147–2189. New York: Norton, 2003.

Secondary Works

Baym, Nina. "Melodramas of Beset Manhood." In Feminism and American Literary History: Essays. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Bennett, Paula Bernat. Poets in the Public Sphere: TheEmancipatory Project of American Women's Poetry, 1800–1900. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003.

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

DuCille, Ann. The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text, andTradition in Black Women's Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Freeman, Elizabeth. The Wedding Complex: Forms ofBelonging in Modern American Culture. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002.

Lanser, Susan S. "Toward a Feminist Narratology." In Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism, edited by Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl, pp. 674–693. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991.

Merish, Lori. Sentimental Materialism: Gender, CommodityCulture, and Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.

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

Dale M. Bauer


views updated May 23 2018




Islamic Marriage . Scholars who study the evolution of Muslim marriage practices between 622 and 1500 are still debating if the rise of Islam signaled new practices in the institution of marriage; to what extent the message brought by the Prophet Muhammad introduced new ideas that shaped Muslim marital life over the following centuries; and whether Islamic marriage gave women more rights and power than they had in the pre-Islamic period. The Qur’an, which records the word of God as revealed to Muhammad, praises the institution of marriage as natural and desirable for all Muslims, saying that God “created for you mates from yourselves that you might find rest in them, and ordained between you love and mercy” (30: 21). Men are enjoined to treat their wives with kindness and to provide them with support and protection. In return, women are expected to obey their husbands. Although these Qur’anic verses call for marriage to be a loving and supportive relationship, it is a relationship of complementarity rather than complete equality between husband and wife. The husband also has more leeway than his wife when it comes to divorce. He can divorce his wife at will, although the Qur’an does expect him to fulfill certain obligations to her and his children.

Pre-Islamic Marriage . Scholars have taken three distinct positions on whether the stipulations made in the Qur’an represent a departure from pre-Islamic practice and whether the Muslim marriage described by the Qur’an was more or less favorable to women than unions in pre-Islamic Arab society. First, some scholars argue that pre-Islamic marriage in the Arabian peninsula accorded women considerable power. They point to evidence that some women freely chose their marriage partners and brought their husbands to live with them and their families (a matrilocal marriage arrangement). In addition, the offspring of these women were considered part of the woman’s family or clan, not her husband’s, and the line of descent was reckoned through the mother, or matrilineally. Finally, a woman could divorce her husband at will, simply by turning her tent around so that the entrance was no longer where her husband expected it to be when he returned home. According to this view the patrilocal and patrilineal Muslim marriage represented a real reversal for women. Other scholars, however, assert that Islam ushered in a set of positive changes and even revolutionary progress for women in marriage. They stress that in pre-Islamic Arabia, divorce was easy and casual for men as well. They could enter and leave a marriage at will without incurring any obligations. In this view the Qur’an—by outlining the obligations of the husband for the support of his wife and children and by detailing the responsibilities of the husband to his wife in the wake of divorce— introduced regulation of the marital relationship in ways that brought new security to women. Furthermore, although the Qur’an accepted the practice of polygyny, the right of a man to be married to more than one woman at a time, it was strictly regulated. The Qur’an limited the number of legal wives to four and exhorted a man to marry only one if he could not treat multiple wives with fairness (4: 2-3). Thus, in this second view, Islam brought order and security to an institution that had been plagued by arbitrary practices. A third view tends to focus on the extent to which Islamic marriage exhibits continuity with prior practices in the Middle East. These scholars point out that Islamic marriage as discussed in the Qur’an represents a blend of pre-existing social practices. The diverse marriage practices of the pre-Islamic nomadic peoples of the Arabian peninsula, which included the possibility of polygamy for both men and women as well as several forms of marriage and divorce, was one set of traditions that contributed to the Islamic tradition. But the settled pre-existing urban cultures of the region (such as the Sasanians and the Byzantines), which tended to subordinate the wife to the husband and severely restricted her ability to choose her own husband or leave a marriage, also contributed to the cultural mix. The Qur’an drew on both traditions and tempered the blend with a stress on ethical and compassionate behavior.

The Prophet’s Marriages . The Qur’an was not the only source of guidance on marriage for early Muslims. They also looked to the example set by the Prophet Muhammad, whose life was studied carefully and deemed worthy of emulation. Muhammad married several women during his lifetime, but two of his marriages have received the most attention. His first marriage, to Khadijah, on which he entered when he was still a young man, proved central to his spiritual mission. Khadijah was a wealthy widow and businesswoman who had considerable trading interests. Fifteen years Muhammad’s senior, she had first hired him to work for her and later proposed marriage to him. By all accounts, their relationship was close and supportive. Her wealth allowed him to pursue his spiritual path, and she not only provided material support but was the first to believe in the authenticity of the revelations he received from God. Therefore, she was the first convert to Islam. As long as she lived, Muhammad took no other wife, and after her death he mourned and revered her throughout the rest of his life. Once Khadijah was gone, however, Muhammad married several women. The most prominent and beloved of these wives was ‘A’isha. The daughter of Abu Bakr, one of Muhammad’s closest supporters, ‘A’isha was married to the Prophet when she was nine years old and was his companion and confidante until he died nine years later. Islamic texts highlight the level of intimacy between them: Muhammad washed from the same vessel as ‘Aisha; he

prayed and received revelations in her presence; and when he realized he was mortally ill, he chose to die in her arms. Her close relationship with Muhammad made her a special source of information on his life. She had witnessed his actions and heard his opinions on many topics, and thus she became an authoritative voice in the transmission of hadiths, the accounts of what the Prophet said and did during his lifetime that came to serve as guides for the actions and beliefs of later communities of Muslims. It is thanks to ‘A’isha, for example, that Muslims know the Prophet helped with the housework and even shared a toothbrush with her. These accounts of Muhammad as a loving husband with a gift for intimacy do not seem to accord well with the historical fact that Muhammad married several different women and, after the death of Khadijah, routinely practiced polygyny. Admittedly, many of his marriages were made to cement political alliances and in some cases to provide support and protection for widows. Furthermore, he always stressed the need to treat all wives equally and with fairness, and—later commentators added— not all his marital practices were necessarily meant to be followed by Muslims in general. That is, the Prophet and his wives were special people whose example was not to be followed exactly in every matter.

Islamic Marriage Law . The task of melding Qur’anic material and the example of the Prophet to develop and interpret Islamic rules applicable to all Muslim marriages took place largely in a legal context. Medieval Muslim jurists, who came from the ranks of the ulama’, spent considerable time and energy on the project of defining Islamic marriage as they elaborated the shari’ah (the corpus of Islamic law). Working with the Qur’an and the hadiths, they shaped the laws regulating Islamic marriage. Distinct legal schools, with differing rules for marriages and divorce, emerged in the ninth and tenth centuries and then continued to undergo a process of development and refinement. All these schools viewed Islamic marriage as a contract between the bride and groom entailing specific rights and obligations that differed for the man and the woman. Both parties had to agree to the contract, and the groom paid the bride a specified dower (mahr), which became her personal property. Once the marriage was consummated, the husband was responsible for the material support of his wife, and in return she was expected to give him her obedience. He could restrict her freedom of movement by forbidding her to leave his house, for example, but he was expected to treat her fairly and kindly. A husband did not have any rights to the control of his wife’s property, however. Everything she brought to the marriage and any property she earned or was given were hers to enjoy and dispose of as she wished. While Islamic law permitted a man to have as many as four wives (as well as an unlimited number of slave concubines), women were required to practice monogamy.

Divorce Law . A man could divorce his wife without citing grounds, although he did incur a number of legal obligations in the wake of divorce: he was required to pay any balance of the dower and any other debts he owed his wife; he was required to support her during a “waiting period” of three months or, should she be pregnant, until she delivered the child; and he was completely responsible for the material support of all children born of the marriage. The ulama’ ruled that a wife, however, could obtain a divorce from an Islamic judge only if she could demonstrate that the marriage was defective in some way. The legal schools differed in what they considered valid reasons for a woman to demand a divorce, but they were generally quite restrictive, ranging from a husband’s impotence or fatal communicable disease to his desertion or nonsupport. If she could not prove such a defect in the marriage, a woman could try to obtain a khul’ divorce, a female-initiated action in which the woman obtained a divorce from her husband in return for forgoing the balance of her dower, giving up her rights to support during her waiting period, and perhaps taking on responsibility for child support as well.


Though a man was permitted to divorce a wife without bringing the case before a judge, divorced couples sometimes appeared in court to make a formal declaration of the end of their marriage and the fulfillment of all related obligations. The following declaration was made in a Jerusalem court in 1304:

In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. She acknowledged—Fatima daughter of ‘Abd-Allah son of Muhammad, the Hebronite, who is present in Jerusalem—in conformity with the shari’a, while she was in a sound body and mind and legally capable of conducting her affairs, that she has no claim on her divorcer, the Shakyh, the Imam, the Unique and Perfect Scholar, Burhan al-Din Ibrahim son of the late Zayn al-Din Allah, al-Nasiri, one of the Sufis of the khanqah of al-Salahiyya in Jerusalem, may God the Most High strengthen him; [she claims] no right or any remainder of a right, nor a bride price or any remainder of a bride price, no [expense of] clothing or maintenance, and no alimony, and absolutely nothing from the matrimonial rights in the past and up to its [the document’s] date. [She acknowledged] that she received from him her fixed share allotted to her child by him for a period of three months and a half, in conformity with the legal payment. In regard to this she was born witness to, on the fourth of Shawwal al-Mubarak of the year seven hundred and eighty two. Praise be to God, Lord of the two worlds.…

Source: Huda Lutft, “A Study of Six Fourteenth Century Iqrars from al-Quds Relating to Muslim Women,” Journal of the Social and Economic History of the Orient, 26 (October 1983): 259.

Interpretation and Practice . The legal rules for marriage evolved as a process of juristic interpretation of Islamic texts in connection with actual legal practice. Islamic courts were established at a local level, and individuals brought their claims and questions about marriage to the Islamic judge for rulings. Islamic jurists with reputations for great learning and wisdom became muftis, people who were qual ified to give legal opinions outside the court to anyone who asked. Although there are few surviving Islamic court records from before the sixteenth century, there are many extant collections of legal opinions issued by prominent muftis. These opinions reveal the extent to which individual Muslims participated in the process of fashioning the law by bringing their questions about marriage to the attention of jurists. For example, the basic concept that a husband owes his wife material support during their marriage called for clarification and elaboration. Over the years, in response to questions brought to the muftis and the courts, the jurists came to define such support in great detail: a man must support his wife in the manner to which she is accustomed and in keeping with the lifestyle of her social class in her specific environment. That is, a woman from a comfortable family could insist on a house servant or perhaps daily servings of meat. It was laymen and -women, seeking detailed guidance, who pressed the jurists to continue elaborating and interpreting the law in the context of changing societies. Yet, because of the lack of extensive records for the medieval period, it is difficult to ascertain to what extent the legal rules for marriage were actually observed. Still, there are some indications that the laws on marriage were taken seriously. In fourteenth-century Jerusalem, for example, a husband and wife might come to court after a divorce to register their divorce settlement. The former wife would testify that she had received her rights: the balance of her dower, the costs of her waiting period, any debts her husband owed her, and child support. The registration of such a settlement (not required under law) suggests that the couple, and in particular the former husband, were trying to avoid future legal action over divorce obligations and were establishing an official record to prove that all such obligations had been discharged. Clearly they expected the Islamic rules of divorce to be enforced in their community. Although there are no statistics on overall divorce rates during this period, the ease of divorce—and the absence of any discernable stigma attached to the practice—probably resulted in a perception of marriage as an impermanent institution and high rates of divorce. Women as well as men were likely to have serial marriages: women of the Mamluk elite in thirteenth-, fourteenth-, and fifteenth-century Egypt often made several marriages over their lifetimes. For example, Khadijah, the daughter of the Mamluk prince Hajji ibn al-Baisari, married six different men in the course of her marital career.

Courtly Marriages . Islamic religious texts and the laws derived from them were not the only forces that shaped the institution of marriage in the medieval period. Particularly in elite circles, other cultural influences came into play. Historians have noted that the respect enjoyed by the wives of Muhammad and his contemporaries in the early Islamic period seem to have persisted into the days of the Umayyad dynasty (661–750). ‘Attika, the wife of the Umayyad ruler ‘Abd al-Malik (ruled 685–705), was well known for her wealth and beneficence, and many sought her intercession with her husband. Umm al-Banin, the wife of al-Walid I (ruled 705–715), was known to summon and scold officials on her own.

Concubines . By the time of the late Umayyad and early Abbasid periods, however, it had become common practice for rulers to keep large harems of secluded women, in which legal wives of free origin were vastly outnumbered by slave concubines. Slave concubinage predated Islam and came to be regulated by Islamic law. According to the law, men were permitted to have sexual access to any female slave they owned. As the Arab empire expanded under the Umayyads and early Abbasids, newly conquered territories were the source of large numbers of slaves, many of whom became the personal property of the ruler and his top officials. After the initial conquest of a region, the conquerors continued to procure slaves through trade with neighboring lands. Slave women, many of whom were educated and trained in various social graces, became a standard feature of elite harems, where they often displaced legal wives. As concubines, they did not enjoy the legal privileges of free wives. They could be bought and sold at will, and they had no rights to marital support. Only in the event that a concubine bore a child to her master did she acquire some limited rights: she could not be sold; she would be freed on the death of her master (according to some, she became free on the birth of the child); and her child was the free and legitimate heir of his father. A few concubines were able to function more or less as legal wives if they gained their master’s support and affection. Khayzuran, the concubine of the Abbasid ruler al-Mahdi (ruled 775–785), managed to become his legal wife and the mother of two of his successors as khalifah, playing an active role in the making of state policy. In general, the rise of slave concubinage as a common practice tended to depress the status of wives. All the women of the elite came to be confined to the quarters of the harem, and the boundaries between free wife and concubine were blurred.

Powerful Women . With the arrival and eventual takeover of power by Turks and Mongols in the thirteenth century, the marriage practices of the elite underwent some modification. The power and influence of wives in the states established by Turks and Mongols suggest that the nomadic cultural traditions of these groups accorded women considerable power within a marriage. In the Ilkhanid state, established by the Mongols after the capture of Baghdad and downfall of the Abbasids in 1258, royal wives participated in the highest Mongol council, the Kuriltay, and were thus part of the power structure. In the Ayyubid dynasty in Egypt, the power and involvement of the wife of the ruler came to a climax in the reign of al-Malik al-Salih, Najm al-Din, who died in 1249 while fighting against the Crusaders. His wife, Shajarat al-Durr, concealed his death for three months and then had herself proclaimed sultana and ruled first in the name of a child-prince and then in consort with the leader of the Mamluk soldiers, who founded a new dynasty. In the context of these elites, marriage was a political project, one of the most important bonds that undergirded elite loyalties and power struggles. Although historians know quite a bit about elite

marriage thanks to the availability of chronicles and biographies of the period, they know far less about marriage for ordinary people. Elaborate harem quarters housing multiple wives and slave concubines were far too expensive for most of the population.

Common Folk . No doubt the majority of the urban poor and the peasantry in the countryside could not afford to imitate the marriage practices of the wealthy and powerful. Scholars lack the historical materials, however, to ascertain the extent to which the bulk of the population adhered to Islamic regulations on marriage and divorce. An occasional glimpse of life at the more mundane level may be found in fragmentary records from Islamic courts. In fourteenth-century Jerusalem, for example, a widow of average means acknowledged to the court that she had received her due from her late husband’s estate. The debts the estate owed her included the remainder of her bridal gift and a sum of money for her clothing, as well as her share as one of the heirs in his estate. Even the presence of such a document suggests that the local community took these marital claims seriously. In the wake of a husband’s death, his widow’s rights to her dower and other marital debts took precedence over all other claims on the estate.

Love in Marriage . Emotional ties are difficult to document. Even among the literate intellectual Muslim elite, there was a certain reticence when it came to displaying feelings about one’s wife or husband. One striking exception was Sultan Sulayman (born 1494), who ruled the Ottoman Empire in 1520–1566 and who wrote passionate love poetry to his concubine turned wife, Hurrem Sultan. An example of a middle-class merchant’s devotion to his wife is revealed in an anecdote from tenth-century Baghdad recorded by al-Hamadhani in his Maqamat. The passage also describes the common practice of cousin marriage:

While I was in Baghdad a merchant invited me to partake of madirah [a meat dish] and he clung to me with the clinging of a pressing creditor … till I accepted his invitation to it, so we started. Now the whole way he was praising his wife and ready to sacrifice his heart’s blood for her, eulogizing her cleverness in her art, and her excellent taste in cooking, saying, “Sir, if you were to see her with the apron tied round her waist, going about the rooms, from the oven to the cooking pots, and from the cooking pots to the oven, blowing the fire with her mouth, pounding the spices with her hands; and if you were to see the smoke discoloring that beautiful face and affecting that smooth cheek, thou wouldst behold a spectacle at which eyes would be dazed. I love her because she loves me, and it is a mark of a man’s good fortune that he should be given a lawful helpmeet and that he should be aided by his spouse, and especially when she is of his own clay. In near relationship she is my paternal uncle’s daughter, her clay is my clay, her town is my town, her paternal uncles are my paternal uncles and her origin is my origin. But in disposition she is more generous than I am, and in form more beautiful.”

Ibn Khaldun, the great fourteenth-century historian whose theories on the rise and decline of civilization still seem relevant, experienced the loss of his wife and daughters in a shipwreck as they were en route to join him in Cairo. Observers noted that this tragedy transformed him, and he was irascible and distant to the end of his days some twenty-two years later. The meaning and practice of marriage varied greatly across class and community. Although it is possible to discern an Islamic vision of marriage, it was a vision with variations, and it had the flexibility to accommodate practices ranging from vast royal harems to monogamous relationships with precisely defined rights and obligations.


Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).

Maulana Muhammad Ali, trans., A Manual of Hadith (Guilford, U.K.: Curzon Press, 1983).

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Ghazalis Book of Council for Kings, translated by F. R. C. Bagley (London &, New York: Oxford University Press, 1964).

Husain Haddawy, trans., The Arabian Nights, edited by Muhsin Mahdi (New York & London: Norton, 1990).

Ahmad Badi al-Zaman al-Hamadhani, The Maqamat of Badi al-Zaman al-Hamadhani, translated by W. J. Prendergast (London: Curzon Press, 1973).

Gavin Hambly, ed., Women in the Medieval Muslim World (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998).

Nikki R. Keddie and Beth Baron, eds., Women in Middle Eastern History: Shifting Boundaries in Sex and Gender (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991).

’Ali ibn Abi Bakr al-Marghinini, The Hedaya, translated Charles Hamilton (London: W. H. Allen, 1870).

Guity Nashat and Judith Tucker, Women in the Middle East and North Africa: Restoring Women to History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998).

Leslie Peirce, The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

Ruth Roded, Women in Islamic Biographical Collections: From Ibn Sa’d to Who’s Who (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1994).

Roded, ed., Women in Islam and the Middle East, A Reader (London: Tau-ris, 1999).

Denise Spellburg, Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of A’isha bint Abi Bakr (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

Barbara Stowasser, Women in the Quran, Traditions, and Interpretations (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).


views updated Jun 27 2018


MARRIAGE . Every culture of the world recognizes some form of the institution of marriage. In most cultures and religions neither man nor woman is considered complete, after reaching maturity, without a spouse. Many religions consider marriage as a sacred act that originates from a god or as the union of souls or spirits with the sacred realm.

Jewish beliefs trace the origin of marriage to Adam and Eve and view their union as a part of the fabric of creation. The nuptial blessings emphasize marriage in the scheme of creation and speak of the state of marriage as paradise regained. As a blessing from God, Jewish marriage should not only perpetuate humankind but should also enhance and complete the partners' personal growth.

Christian marriage is also identified with the sacred union of Adam and Eve and is regarded as a vocation. The ceremony joins the bride and groom into one spirit in union with Christ and God. In Christianity, marriage is also a metaphor for the marriage of the church to Christ. In this sense the bride and groom become the "bride" of Christ and are heirs together of the grace of life through the spirit of Christ.

For the Hindu, marriage is also a sacred institution whereby man and woman become one in spirit. Hindu marriage is also a social duty, and in the Vedic period it was a moral and religious obligation as well. Marriage and the siring of male children was the only possible way in which a man could repay his debt to his ancestors.

Marriage among the Zinacantecos, a Maya Indian group in central Mexico, is a mixture of native Indian religion and sixteenth-century Catholicism, as it is in most Latin American cultures. In these societies the celebration of a Christian marriage was urged on the native Indians by the Spanish conquerors as the only means to attain heaven at death. Marriage here takes place on two levels. It is not simply the relationship between two individuals and their families, but it is also a bond between the souls of the bride and groom.

Among the Hopi Indians of the American Southwest, a woman initiates a marriage and brings a husband to her father's house. The marriage is necessary for the girl's life after death. The wedding clothes that are provided by her husband's male relatives will become her shroud upon her death and will transport her spirit into the afterworld. And so, without entering into marriage, one cannot truly die.

Purpose of Marriage

The purpose of marriage and the beliefs that surround this institution must be viewed differently for every culture. Marriage in industrialized societies is very different from that in societies where kinship relations and the alliances created through those relations will be the most important part of an individual's life. Here, the marriage arrangements may not take individual choice into account. There are three major categories of belief about the purposes of marriage: Marriage may be viewed as existing primarily for the continuation of the family and society through procreation; it may be considered most importantly as an alliance, that is, the means to bring about the integration of society by setting up kinship ties and kinship terminology; and finally, the union of bride and groom may be perceived as a complex system of exchanges between groups and/or individuals. These categories will be validated through the religious beliefs of the society.

Continuation of society

The institution of marriage perpetuates society by socially recognizing the union of man and woman and incorporating their offspring into the fabric of social life. There are variants of marriage forms that exist in many cultures to allow for the continuation of the family and of society in the event that one of the marriage partners dies. The two best known forms are the levirate and the sororate. In the levirate, when the husband of a marriage dies, an approved male relative of his may live with the widow and the children. This replacement husband will conceive more children for the deceased as if he were the deceased. In the sororate, the place of a deceased wife is taken by her sister.

The Nuer and Zulu societies of Africa practice another variant of the more traditional marriage in order that the family of the deceased may continue. There are two types of this "ghost marriage." If a man is engaged and dies before the marriage, his fiancée should marry one of his kinsmen and conceive children for the dead man, in much the same way as in the levirate. A man may also "waken" a dead relative who was never married by marrying a wife to his name and conceiving children for him. Also among these two groups, women may "become" men to carry on the male line. A rich, important woman, or the eldest daughter in a family with no sons, can marry another woman and become the father of her wife's children who are conceived by some male relative of the female husband. The importance of all these forms of marriage is that they allow for the perpetuation of the family line, and indirectly the entire society, through the existing structure of social relations.

While these forms of marriage perpetuate society through those who have died, many societies ensure their continuation into the future by marrying off those individuals not yet born. Among the Tiwi of Australia, a young girl is contracted for her future marriage before her birth, at her mother's wedding ceremony. When the girl enters puberty her wedding ceremony is held. This ceremony is attended by the girl, her father, and her husband, as well as her future sons-in-law. For in the same way that she has been married since her mother's wedding, here at her wedding she also marries her daughters to their future husbands.


The importance placed upon marriage in many societies is in its role in integrating society. Marriage is the starting point for the kinship ties that run across and between different and independent kinship or descent groups. A marriage will be used to create an alliance between two lines of descent with very little focus upon the relationship between the bride and groom. In many cases these will be arranged marriages, often making use of go-betweens to reach an agreement between the two families. Love is not a requirement here, but the affection that exists after many years of successful marriage is a product of the marriage. Among Georgian Jews, when dowry is unavailable, a love marriage may be effected by elopement, the legitimacy of which is later recognized if the match appears to be suc-cessful.

System of exchange

In the final category of marriage beliefs, marriage represents the gift or exchange of women between two descent groups. The position of giving or receiving wives sets up a constantly changing mechanism by which status is expressed and validated between the two kinship groups. The ideal exchange is for both descent groups to exchange sisters, thereby maintaining the status of each group as equal. Marrying a woman in compensation for the death of a man is also an exchange recognized as equivalent in many cultures for the settlement of quarrels.

When women are not exchanged equally, then the balance between the two groups remains unequal and must be achieved through other means. This balancing may take the form of payments made on behalf of the husband to the man or the family who has given up the wife. These payments are viewed as equivalent to the reproductive powers of the woman who is being given to another group as well as a return on the labor and usefulness the bride's family will lose upon her marriage. These payments are known as "bride-price" or "bride-wealth."

Postmarital residence or marriage service may be used in a similar way as bride-price or may even be combined with bride-wealth payments. To repay the bride's family for the loss of a daughter, the groom will serve his in-laws for an agreed-upon time. In the Hebrew scriptures, for example, this type of service is described in Genesis 29, which tells of Jacob's serving his father-in-law for seven years for each of his wives, Leah and Rachel.

Dowry is not the opposite of bride-price; rather, it is an endowment of property upon the bride from her own family and is generally viewed as her share of the family inheritance. In some instances, however, dowry may closely resemble the practice of paying bride-price, as in marriages between castes in India and Sri Lanka. Most Hindu marriages are traditionally made between members of the same caste, and no dowry will be given. However, when a girl marries into a higher caste she will be accompanied by a substantial dowry in symbolic payment for her movement to a higher status. This practice is known as hypergamy.

Exchange relationships at marriage may be expressed primarily through the flow of gifts between families, and frequently these expenses will be about equal on both sides. The power of the gift is not only in the object as gift but in the relationships that lie behind the gifts. It is the exchange itself that is essential to the completion and success of the marriage. This exchange of gifts is often an important part of the religious ceremony of marriage.

Forms of Marriage

There are two basic forms of marriage: monogamy, the union of one man with one woman, and polygamy, the union of a man or a woman with multiple marriage partners. Polygamy can also be divided into two types: polyandry, in which a woman has more than one husband, and, conversely, polygyny, in which a man has more than one wife. Polygyny is the most common form of multiple marriage, and the plurality of wives is mainly the privilege of older men and their wealth. Polygyny augments the power of a man by increasing his alliances and following. But it may cause conflict among co-wives, as among the Ndembu of Zambia. Conflict between wives is very common in Islamic lands. The Tiv of Nigeria manage the problem differently: the first wife becomes the "husband" of the "little wives," and grows very attached to them.

The classic case of polyandry is in Tibet, where a group of brothers may jointly marry a wife. The wedding takes place when the eldest brother has reached the appropriate age, and on formal occasions it is he who will perform the role of father, although all brothers are viewed as the father to the children of the marriage. One effect of polyandry is to keep down the population, an important goal where arable land is a scarce resource. There is, however, an alternative to polyandrous marriage open to younger brothers: they may become monks and commit themselves to a life of celibacy. Such a "marriage" to religion or to God is an avenue available to both sexes in most societies.

Societies regulate not only how many spouses one can have but from what general categories these individuals should be selected. Exogamy, marriage outside a defined kin ship group, is primarily concerned with incest prohibitions. Brother-sister and parent-child unions are forbidden in nearly every culture; cousin marriage is forbidden in the third degree of the collateral line among Roman Catholics, while it is recommended among many peoples of Africa. Endogamy is marriage within a defined group as required by custom or law. This group may be defined by culturally recognized kinship ties or by a religious tradition. Pious Roman Catholics and Jews obey the rule of endogamy and take a spouse from within their own religion. Good Hindus will keep marriage within their own caste, except when practicing hypergamy.

Marriage as a Rite of Passage

A rite of passage is a vehicle for moving an individual or a group of individuals from one way of being to another through a series of culturally recognized stages. A marriage ceremony moves the bride and groom from being unmarried to being husband and wife. Just as the definition of what marriage is will vary cross-culturally, so will the manner in which the union of marriage is created and recognized. The rite of passage may extend over a long period of time and include great finery and complex symbolism, or there may be no traditional ceremony at all, simply an action conducted in public view.

Marriage Ritual

The ceremonials of marriage may be entirely of a religious nature, include both religious and secular elements, or be entirely within the secular and legal realm. Two elements are used to mark a marriage, whether there is a ceremony or not: the sharing of food between the bride and groom (or some passage of food or other substance between them) and the necessity of a public statement or the requirement of witnesses to the marriage event, which may even include proof of virginity and consummation, as among Arabs.

Among the Mundurucú of South America, a marriage is marked only when the man brings the day's kill to his bride instead of to one of his close female relatives. The Ndembu of Africa, like the Tiwi of Australia, combine the puberty rites for a young girl with her marriage ceremony. Here the emphasis is upon fertility. The rites take place where the groom has planted his arrow by the "milk tree," a tree that represents the matrilineage. Among Trobriand Islanders, a man and a woman may have been sleeping together for a long while, but their marriage is not acknowledged until they eat yams together in public. The Burmese wedding ceremony does not create marriage but is, rather, the public statement that a couple intend to live together as husband and wife. The symbol of marriage here is the sharing of food from the same bowl by the bride and groom after the ceremony.

The Jewish marriage ceremony must have witnesses for the signing of the marriage contract and for the symbolic consummation, the yiud, or time of privacy. It is during this time of privacy that the couple break their fast and eat together for the first time. When they emerge from their seclusion, they are husband and wife and will then share a meal with their guests.

The wedding ceremony in Burma is not attended by Buddhist monks. This ceremony is a secular affair contained within religious rites. The Buddhist monks are fed a special meal in the bride's home the morning before the wedding. This feast acquires merit for the couple to be married and for the parents of the bride. A religious ceremony is held the evening after the wedding at the village shrine and offerings are made by the bride, her mother, and the mother of the groom to the guardian spirits of the village and to the spirits of the ancestors. During the secular wedding ceremony the couple are instructed to worship their parents and the Buddha. Their hands are held together and immersed in a bowl of water so that "their union should be as indivisible as water."

Christian marriage may be regarded as a sacrament, one of the outward signs of inward grace, and may include the Eucharist within the ceremony, the sacred sharing of the mystical body of Christ that unites all participants with God. In most Christian churches this is an optional rite, but a wedding will usually be followed by a sharing of food and drink with guests. This part of the ceremony is not sacred. One can also be a Christian and include few if any religious elements in the marriage ceremonywhich may be performed entirely within the secular domain by various officers of law. Or a couple may become married simply by living together for a set period of years, thus forming a marriage in "common law." These options to the traditional marriage ceremony are available in other religions as well.

The necessity for consummation to occur in order for a marriage to be legally binding is not universal but is culturally and religiously specific. Although the Virgin Mary bore Christ without intercourse with her husband, any Christian marriage can be annulled or canceled if the couple do not consummate the marriage. In Hinduism, however, the most important rite for validation of a marriage is the ceremony called Saptapadi, the "taking of seven steps" by the couple before the sacred nuptial fire. Legally the marriage is complete with the seventh step, for according to the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 consummation is not necessary to make marriage complete and binding.

The marriage ceremony of Java is a syncretism of Hinduism, Islam, and folk religion from the villages. The evening before the ceremony, a feast called the Slametan is held. Then the bride must sit by herself for five hours until midnight. At midnight an angel enters her and will remain in her until five days after the wedding. The actual wedding begins the next day when the groom makes a trip to the office of the government religious official to register and legalize the marriage. For Javanese Muslims, this is the important part of the marriage ceremony, for it is here that the marriage is made official in the eyes of God and the government. However, according to the folk religion the couple is not married until they exchange their kembang majang ("blossoming flowers"), which stand for their virginity. And then they must eat from one another's dish but they must not finish their food. Consummation of the marriage is believed to have occurred when this food begins to smell in five days, or when the angel has left the bride.

Creation Myths and the Institution of Marriage

Many origin myths that explain the creation of the world and of humankind also explain marriage. In Samoa the marriage of the creator god Tangaloa with a woman he has created begins the world and, through their union, all of mankind. The Makasar of Indonesia believe that the son of the sky deity was sent to earth on a rainbow to prepare the world for humans. This god married six female deities and their offspring became the peoples of the world. The union of the Japanese gods Izanagi and Izanami consolidates and fertilizes the moving earth. Through their union, they produced the islands of Japan. The marriage of Osiris, one of the greatest of ancient Egyptian deities, with his sister Isis accounts for the continuation of the pharaohs and their practice of marrying their sisters. And, for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, the marriage of Adam and Eve, two beings created by God, generates all of humankind.

See Also

Hieros Gamos; Mystical Union; Rites of Passage; Sacrament, article on Christian Sacraments.


One of the first scholars to concern himself with marriage practices was Lewis Henry Morgan in Ancient Society (New York, 1877). Following this evolutionary approach, Edward A. Westermarck compiled his classic The History of Human Marriage (1891), 3 vols., 5th ed. (1921; reprint, New York, 1971). This three-volume set treats everything believed to be related to marriage in that time, including marriage rites, customs, and kinship organizations. One of the classic studies of the constitution of social groups and their unity was written by W. Robertson Smith following the precedents set by Morgan and Westermarck. Smith's Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia, edited by Stanley A. Cook (1903; Oosterhuit, 1966), goes beyond these first works and is particularly concerned with the laws of marriage and how this institution functioned within the tribal organization in Arabia at the time of Muhammad. The theories of primitive promiscuity and group marriage as the earliest forms of marriage in human history that are put forth by all of these books have never been substantiated, but these works provide valuable insights into human society.

For a contemporary view of love and marriage in the Jewish religion and its place in society, see Maurice Lamm's The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage (San Francisco, 1980). This book also includes a thorough description of a contemporary Jewish wedding ceremony. The best review of marriage and kinship beliefs for cultures of Africa is African Systems of Kinship and Marriage, edited by A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and Daryll Forde (Oxford, 1962). This book considers marriage in relation to other aspects of culture including economic, political, and religious beliefs. Melford E. Spiro's Kinship and Marriage in Burma: A Cultural and Psychodynamic Analysis (Berkeley, 1977) is an excellent presentation of kinship beliefs in Burma and includes a full account of Burmese Buddhist views on marriage. Clifford Geertz's seminal work The Religion of Java (Glencoe, Ill., 1960) describes the syncretism of Hindu, Islamic, and folk beliefs that comprise Javanese religion. This book focuses on the five major occupations of the population and their religious beliefs that shape the moral organization of the culture of Java. The mixture of Catholic and Maya Indian beliefs is explored in Evon Z. Vogt's Zinacantan: A Maya Community in the Highlands of Chiapas (Cambridge, Mass., 1969). An extensive study of the Tzotzil-speaking Indians of Guatemala, it includes a full account of their religious beliefs and marriage practices, especially the relationships created between families and compadres, or ritual godparents. For an excellent view of marriage as a life process, begun before the birth of the bride and occurring in gradual stages as she matures, see Jane C. Goodale's Tiwi Wives: A Study of the Women of Melville Island, North Australia (Seattle, 1971).

Edith Turner (1987)

Pamela R. Frese (1987)


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Finding a Spouse. Marriages among the upper-class Romans tended to be arranged by the woman’s father and the young man or his father. Sometimes the betrothal took place years before the actual marriage. The bride-to-be may have had little say in the matter, but a mother clearly expected to be consulted, expressed her opinion, and even made marriage arrangements in her husband’s absence. An anecdote in Plutarch’s Life of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus recounts that one day Appius Claudius Pulcher hurried into his home and announced to his wife that he had arranged a marriage for their daughter. His wife, somewhat annoyed and surprised, asked why he was in such a hurry, unless the young man was Tiberius Gracchus. Pulcher was pleased because Gracchus was indeed just the man he had chosen. These marriages tended to have political or economic purposes, as well as to satisfy the desire to continue the husband’s family line. Less is known about marriage among the lower economic classes, but arranged marriages took place among them as well, perhaps more for economic than political reasons. Tombstones indicate that men and women who worked together as slaves and developed an affection for each other married upon gaining their freedom. Slaves could declare that they were husband and wife and often masters would respect the bond and not separate the family, especially in the case of slaves living in the household. If a husband or wife received freedom, often he or she worked to secure the freedom of his or her spouse and children.

Personal Choices. This is not to say that upper-class marriages never evolved from mutual affection, but opportunities for such acquaintance were unlikely considering the difference in ages between women (twelve to sixteen) and men (twenty to thirty) for a woman’s first marriage. Subsequent unions were more likely to be personal choices. Finding a husband was not always easy. When Cicero began looking for Tullia’s third husband in 51 B.C.E, he asked the help of various friends in finding suitable candidates, in part because he was out of the country serving as the governor of Cilicia. Only a few men were available who met Cicero’s political needs, personal inclination, and his daughter’s approval. Publius Cornelius Dolabella, although not Cicero’s first choice, was the favorite of Tullia and her mother Terentia. In Cicero’s absence they were able to take the lead and arrange the engagement. Even though he had his doubts, Cicero gave his approval.

The Right to Marry. Only men and women who had conubium, the legitimate right to marry, were able to enter into a union that could produce legitimate children. Slaves did not possess conubium; so, although they entered into unions that they valued, their marriages did not have to be recognized by their owners, until the Emperor Constantine issued an edict at the beginning of the third century C.E. that prohibited owners from separating slave families and required those who had to reunite them as quickly as possible. All Roman citizens possessed conubium and could, therefore, marry each other without question about the legitimacy of their children. Roman citizens could marry Latins (residents of the Italian peninsula who had been given special rights by the Roman government), who had been awarded conubium along with their other privileges. Foreigners as well might be awarded conubium and could, therefore, marry Roman citizens. Among Roman citizens there were concerns about and even bans against marriage between certain classes at different times in Rome’s history. According to the historical tradition, there was a time in the early Republic when a law prevented patricians (families who were descended from the first patres, or senators) and plebeians from intermarrying. In 445 B.C.E., however, the lex Canuleia allowed patricians and plebeians to marry, but practice may have kept the two groups separate. During the reign of Augustus, the emperor promoted a law that forbade senators and their children and grandchildren to marry freedwomen or the children of freedmen and women who had been actors or actresses. Augustus also prohibited soldiers from marrying while they served in the army. The Emperor Septimius Severus ended this practice in 197 C.E. By that point Romans had permanent military outposts scattered around the Empire. A Roman man serving as an administrator in a province could not marry a woman from that province during his term of office. Prostitutes also did not have conubium. Finally, the parties also had to be of an appropriate age to marry: the bride had to be at least twelve; the groom, although often in his twenties, had to be at least fourteen. For those who did not have the right to marry but who chose to live together as husband and wife nonetheless, their relationship was called contubernium (literally, “the state of being tent-mates”). A freeborn man or a freedman might live as husband and wife with a slave woman. Likewise, a male slave might have a freedwoman as a wife. The state offered limited recognition to these relationships, even if they could not produce legitimate children.

Betrothal and the Dowry. Two agreements might precede a marriage, especially among the upper classes: an arrangement of sponsalia, or betrothal, and an agreement about the amount of the dowry (and the means for its return should the marriage end in divorce). The betrothal might be as simple as a verbal agreement between the girl’s father and the young man that a marriage would occur at a certain time, or it might be as elaborate as a large family party at which the young man would present the bride-to-be with a ring. The betrothal was sealed with a kiss and the joining of right hands by the couple. There was no specific amount of time between the betrothal and the marriage, until Augustus passed legislation limiting the length of a betrothal to two years. The most important event before a marriage, however, was the arrangement concerning the dowry (an amount given a woman by her father at her marriage). Although the dowry may have been a part of early Roman marriage, the first mention of the dowry in legal texts comes in 230 B.C.E. In this year a procedure was established for returning the dowry upon the divorce of the couple. The passage of this law may indicate that divorce was becoming frequent enough to need legislation, rather than provide any indication about the history of the dowry. Although the dowry belonged to the woman, her husband was allowed to treat the property as his in order to increase the value and use the revenue. Before the marriage the woman’s father and the prospective groom decided on the amount and how it would be paid. For instance, when Cicero agreed to the marriage between Tullia and Dolabella, he arranged to pay her dowry in three equal payments over three years. In theory, revenue from the dowry helped the husband provide for his wife, but evidence, again from the marriage of Tullia, suggests that was not always the case: at one point Tullia was reportedly in such financial difficulty that Cicero (who was out of the country because of the civil war between Caesar and Pompey) had to apply to his friend Atticus to take care of Tullia’s needs; apparently Terentia had mishandled the family finances or refused to help her daughter. When Cicero began divorce proceedings on Tullia’s behalf, Dolabella had to return the dowry in the same manner as he had received it. A husband could keep part of the dowry only if he proved his wife had committed adultery.

The Wedding. When a woman married, she did not alter her name. She did, however, change where she lived, what she wore, and possibly whom she looked to as a guardian. In most instances, however, a marriage occurred by the declaration that a man and woman were going to live together as husband and wife. The event was celebrated with a party for friends and family that began at the bride’s house. One ritual that the bride performed was the dedication of her childhood toys to the household gods, so signifying that she was no longer a child, but an adult. The bridal outfit consisted of a white dress with saffron-colored veil and shoes. Not all families could afford such expensive preparations, so the girl may merely have exchanged her child’s garment for the stola (“gown”) of the Roman matron. Once the celebration was over, a procession of friends and family carrying torches would accompany the new bride to the house of her husband, who was most likely still living with his parents. In addition, three young boys whose parents were still living accompanied the bride, two holding each of her hands and one carrying a special torch, the spina alba (“white wood”). The celebrants made jokes, said suggestive things, and threw nuts—all to encourage fertility for the couple. The groom left the party before the bride in order to meet her at the door of his house. When the bride arrived, she decorated the doorway with oil and wool. Some believe that the bride may have expressed her devotion to her husband by uttering the phrase “ubi tu Gaius, ego Gaia” (“Where you are Gaius, I am Gaia”) to mark her arrival to his house. The bride’s attendants (including the pronuba, or matron of honor) carried the bride across the threshold so that she would not trip and therefore bring a bad omen to the beginning of the marriage. The bridegroom then offered her a torch and water, symbolizing his willingness to provide for her well-being. A small ritual marriage-bed might be set up in the atrium of the house, and there she would place an image of her genius, in essence, her soul. The day after the wedding, the new couple was expected to provide a dinner party for the wedding guests. In their presence the new wife made her first offering to her husband’s household gods. In the days following the wedding, the couple was expected to attend other parties together. This public demonstration, like the procession on the wedding day, made it known to all that they were married.

Marriage and Manus. There were three different types of ceremonies associated with marriage that determined the degree to which a woman and her dowry came under her husband’s authority. Although a woman could own property and could buy and sell that property, she did so with the approval of her tutor, or guardian, unless she had been declared independent (sui iuris). For a married woman, her guardian was either her father or her husband. For a divorced, widowed, or orphaned woman, another man, usually a relative from her gens, served as her guardian. His job was more to protect the family’s resources than to hinder a woman from buying and selling property.

Confarreatio. The confarreatio (literally, “a sharing of far,” a sort of grain made into bread) was the most elaborate and most rare of the three ceremonies associated with marriage and was practiced only by patricians and likely substituted for the basic wedding ceremony described above. If a man wanted to serve as the Flamen Dialis, the high priest of Jupiter, the Flamen Quirinalis, the high priest of Quirinus, the Flamen Martialis, the high priest of Mars, or the rex sacrorum (the king of sacred matters), both he and his parents had to have been married through

confarreatio. In this ceremony, the husband received manus, or authority over his wife, from her father. In the ceremony itself, the bride and groom sacrificed a loaf of bread made from far to Juppiter Farreus. They performed rituals and repeated a given set of vows in front of ten witnesses, including the Pontifex Maximus and the Flamen Dialis. One account states that a sheep was sacrificed and skinned and that the couple sat on the sheepskin with their heads covered. A couple married by confarreatio could not divorce. If one of the spouses should die, the other had to step down from his or her priesthood.

Usus. The second way to establish manus was called usus. In this instance, after a man and woman announced that they were husband and wife, a husband gained manus only if his wife was never away from his home for more than three consecutive nights each year. If she did not stay away from her husband’s house, he received manus over her and her dowry. Manus became less common as the Republic came to a close but still existed enough in the early empire that a procedure (emancipatio) existed to free a woman from her husband’s control. Usus faded out as a means of marriage by the end of the second century C.E.

Coemptio. The third procedure affecting a marriage, was coemptio, a sort of ritual sale that placed a woman and her property in a man’s control in the presence of a minimum of five adult Roman male citizens as witnesses. That man could become her husband, but coemptio in and of itself did not constitute a marriage; it only conveyed manus. A man and woman who i had previously married might at some point, therefore, perform coemptio to establish the husband’s manus. A woman could, in fact, make a coemptio with a man who was not her husband in order to make that man her tutor, or guardian. Understanding coemptio is difficult because its focus is more on control of property than on establishing a marital relationship between a man and a woman. For that reason, a woman’s guardian or guardians had to approve any coemptio, but their approval was not necessary for marriage.

Purpose of Marriage. The explicit purpose of marriage was for the procreation of legitimate children. A husband could, therefore, divorce his wife if the marriage produced no children (the assumption was always that a lack of children resulted from a defect in the woman’s ability to conceive). Although some men divorced their wives for being barren, other men, such as the husband of Turia, refused to divorce their wives just because of a lack of children. The writer Pliny the Younger had a young wife who, although she became pregnant once but miscarried, never bore him any children.

Alliances. Marriage could create political and economic alliances, as well. After Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus formed the first triumvirate, Pompey married Julia, Caesar’s daughter, to add a personal dimension to their political arrangement. Likewise, Antony married Octavia, the sister of Octavius, one of his partners in the second triumvirate. Since he had produced no male heir, the Emperor Augustus used marriage to try to establish a successor to his rule. When all the other choices had died, he forced his stepson, Tiberius, to divorce the wife he loved and to marry Julia, Augustus’s only daughter. This marriage made Tiberius both his son-in-law and stepson and, therefore, his closest male relative. It also made him miserable.

Marriage Legislation. Like other governmental officials before him, Augustus became concerned because fewer people were marrying and having children. He therefore passed laws in 18 B.C.E. and 9 C.E. that favored men and women who had legitimate children and that urged men and women to marry. For Roman citizens, Augustus required men to be married by the age of twenty-five and women by the age of twenty. If a woman’s husband died or divorced her, the legislation required that she remarry within two years or a year and a half, respectively. These lengths of time allowed for the appropriate period of mourning and ensured that any children the woman might bear were recognized as her husband’s. Men, on the other hand, were expected to remarry quickly, although those whose wives had died most likely would have observed a year of mourning. Augustus required that men be married, up to the age of sixty, and women, up to the age of fifty-five, under the assumption that those were the outer limits of childbearing age.

Special Consideration. Augustus also expected the couple to have children and to raise them. Therefore, he gave special consideration and privileges to men and women who had three or more children. The children had to reach a certain age (puberty for boys and marriageable age for girls) to count. Children who were killed in war counted, regardless of their age. The more children men had, the more privileges they received: when two men were elected consul, the one with more children became the senior consul. Before Augustus’s reign, seniority was determined by age. In Rome, a man with three children no longer had to serve as a woman’s guardian. (A man who lived outside Rome had to have four or five children, depending on whether he lived in Italy or in the provinces.) Women who had three children no longer had to have a guardian. For freedwomen, four children released them from the guardianship of their former owner, or three children if they had already transferred their guardianship to someone else. Freedmen no longer owed work to their former owners once they had two children. Slave women could gain their freedom by producing four children, but because any children born while the woman was a slave were automatically also slaves and stayed in the master’s household, even if she left, the idea of consigning children to servitude for their own benefit may have prevented many slave omen from pursuing the matter.

Divorce. In the early Republic, when most (if not all) marriages conveyed manus, only husbands could initiate a divorce, and only with a just cause such as adultery, poisoning children, or compromising the security of the familia. If he divorced his wife for any other reason, his property was confiscated and half was given to his wife, half deposited in the temple of Ceres. In the earliest recorded divorce, in 307 B.C.E., Lucius Annius was removed from the Senate by the censors because he did not properly consult his friends before divorcing his wife. (The loss of his property would also have ended his eligibility for the Senate.) The expectation that Lucius should have consulted others about a private matter suggests that a husband needed some external support for his decision. A divorce in 230 B.C.E. reveals a new development: Carvilius Ruga divorced his wife because she had failed to have a child. Since the stated purpose of marriage was to produce legitimate children, the perceived sterility of a wife was deemed as just cause for a divorce. In this instance, the wife was able to reclaim her dowry and Carvilius suffered no other penalty. As marriage with manus became less common, women’s fathers or even the women themselves, if they were sui iuris (independent), were able to initiate divorce with full recovery of the dowry. In general, a father could not initiate a divorce against his daughter’s or son’s will. The exception was the emperor. Augustus acted rather freely, ordering divorces and arranging marriages to further his dynastic aims and satisfy his personal needs. He forced Agrippa, and then Tiberius, to divorce their wives to marry his daughter Julia. He commandeered Livia from her husband while she was pregnant with her second child.

Social Class. Social class also affected one’s ability to divorce: a freedwoman could not divorce her patron without his consent. Only upon a formal agreement of divorce or upon the patron’s second marriage did a freedwoman gain the right to remarry.

Divorce Procedure. The divorce procedure appears to have been rather informal—an announcement that the marriage was over and the other person should have his or her property—tuas res tibi habeto. In the late Republic, a more-formal declaration involved one party sending a freedman—someone who could testify in court, if need be—to deliver the message of divorce to the other party. Although in the late Republic and early empire one party had to inform the other of the intention to divorce, in 294 C.E. the Emperors Diocletian and Maximian ruled that formal notice did not have to be given for a divorce to be valid. It was not until 449 C.E., during the reign of Theodosius and Valentinian, that divorce again required a formal notification, this time in the form of a repudium —a statement of rejection—by one spouse or the other.


Suzanne Dixon, The Roman Family (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).

Dixon, The Roman Mother (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988).

Jane Gardner, Women in Roman Law and Society (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986).

Judith P. Hallett, Fathers and Daughters in Roman Society: Women and the Elite Family (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

Susan Treggiari, Roman Marriage: lusti Coniuges From the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian (Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

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