What Is Marriage?

Marriage is a socially or religiously recognized union or legal contract between spouses that establishes certain rights and obligations.

Although the specific definition of marriage can vary based on culture, it is essentially an institution in which interpersonal relationships are officially acknowledged. Marriage can be recognized by a government, an organization, a religious authority, a tribal group, or a local community. Civil marriage (which is nonexistent in some countries) is marriage in a secular, non-religious context carried out by the government in accordance with the laws of that jurisdiction. Marriages can be performed in a secular civil ceremony or in a religious wedding ceremony. Entering into a marriage generally creates legal obligations between the spouses and between the spouses and their children.

Marriage can be entered into for many different reasons, including legal, social, emotional, financial, spiritual, and religious purposes. In some areas of the world, arranged marriages, polygamy and forced marriage are practiced as part of cultural tradition. Unfortunately, in many cultures throughout history married women had few rights and were deemed, along with the family’s children, the property of the husband. This meant they could not own or inherit property or legally represent themselves

Modernly, many countries have embraced equal marital rights for men and women and have recognized interfaith and same-sex marriages. These trends have been part of a larger movement towards equality and human rights. For example, beginning in the late 1800s, many developed countries began amending their laws to legally re-define marriage in order to improve the rights of the female spouse, including granting wives legal identities of their own, criminalizing physical discipline of a wife by a husband, granting wives property rights, and requiring a wife’s consent prior to sexual relations.

As of the late Twentieth Century, many people in Western countries have chosen not to marry and instead co-habit. For example, the number of marriages in Europe decreased by 30% between 1975 and 2005. From a social standpoint, cohabitation may be appealing as a form of resistance to and protest of traditional marriage. However, in some jurisdictions cohabitation may qualify as common-law marriage, an unregistered partnership, or provide the unmarried partners various rights and responsibilities. 

The factors considered when selecting a spouse can vary greatly according to cultural and social rules. For example, social status can play a large role when searching for a partner. That is, a person may want to marry someone of a higher social standing or who is a member of a well-regarded family in order to advance their own social position. Conversely, there are some social taboos that can eliminate a potential spouse, including marriage to a family member (incest). Another social taboo which has eroded over time is the negative attitude toward interracial marriage. Until 1967, there were some states in the U.S. which still had laws banning interracial marriage. However, in the case Loving v. Virginia the Supreme Court overturned all laws banning marriage on the basis of race. More recently in the 2015 case Obergefell v. Hodges the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage throughout the U.S. However, there are still some social taboos that many countries have chosen not to embrace, such as polygamy, which is currently illegal in all 50 states. Nonetheless, polygamy is still practiced in some Muslim and African countries. 

Based on the wide variety of definitions, it seems that marriage as an institution, and the rights and obligations involved, will continue to change and evolve over time.