Marriage and the Family


The English words “marriage” (from Latin maritus: husband) and “matrimony” (from Latin mater: mother) do not give us any clue as to the origin and meaning of the phenomenon we are trying to discuss here. The same is, of course, also true for similar terms with Latin roots in other European languages. More enlightening is the Germanic word “wedlock” (from Old English wedlac: pledge) which suggests that some sort of promise or contract, i.e., a special relationship between people is involved. Indeed, the best characterization of this relationship is perhaps provided by the German word Ehe (from Old High German êwa: law).

At any rate, when we compare marriages in different societies and different historical periods, we soon discover that marital partners everywhere have very definite duties toward each other. These duties may not always be spelled out in detail, but they are well understood and readily enforced in each case. Therefore, if we had to look for a common denominator in all the various forms of marriage known to mankind, we might very well find it in the element of mutual obligation. Naturally, this obligation itself can appear in many different forms. It may spring from an informal silent agreement, or it may be loudly proclaimed in a popular celebration. It may extend well beyond the couple to their offspring, to the families on both sides, and even to the entire community. It may be considered permanent, or it may end by mutual agreement or unilateral action. None of this matters here: Some officially recognized mutual obligation exists as long as the partners are married. Where men and women make love and have children without it we do not speak of a marriage, but of an affair, a dalliance, a romance, or a state of cohabitation.

As we can see, marriage is a very special phenomenon which involves more than housekeeping, sexual intercourse, and procreation. These “natural” human activities do not, by themselves, make a marriage. Its real meaning derives instead from social sanctions and expectations. Indeed, as such expectations change from one society to another, marriage is bound to change with them. Therefore, it is not very helpful to talk about marriage in generalities. It seems much more promising to list and describe the possible forms and functions of marriage, and for our present limited purpose it is perhaps best if we begin with a simple classification.

Traditionally, scholars have distinguished between four basic types of marriage:

1. Monogamy (i.e. one man and one woman, or two men or two women),
2. (Polygamy) Polygyny (i.e. one man and several women)
3. (Polygamie) Polyandrie (i.e. one woman and several men)
4. Group marriage (i.e. several men and several women).

Monogamy is the prevalent form of marriage today. Polygyny and polyandry (collectively called polygamy) were once practiced in various parts of the world, but now seem to be on the decline. Group marriage has always been rare.

The Four Basic Types of Marriage: 1. Monogamy (i.e. one man and one woman, or two men or two women), 2. (Polygamy) Polygyny (i.e. one man and several women) 3. (Polygamie) Polyandrie (i.e. one woman and several men) 4. Group marriage (i.e. several men and several women).

In Victorian times it was often believed that the four basic types of marriage were representative of different stages of human evolution. Thus, the earliest human beings had supposedly lived in a state of indiscriminate promiscuity until they established some form of group marriage. On the next stage of civilization they then entered a matriarchal phase characterized by polyandry. This, in turn, was followed by the patriarchal phase in which polygyny became dominant, and finally monogamy emerged as the crowning achievement of human progress. So far, this beguiling theory has not been confirmed, however. On the contrary, we have learned in the meantime that all four types of marriage have existed since earliest times and under all sorts of technological and economic conditions. Some very “primitive” peoples have always practiced monogamy, while some “civilized” peoples have been and still are polygamous. Moreover, we now understand that each of the four basic types of marriage can appear in several variations. For example, there is quite a difference between monogamy as a lifelong sacramental union and monogamy as a temporary civil contract. Polygyny can mean very different things under different circumstances, such as when a man takes a concubine, or when he marries his brother’s widow, or when all his wives are sisters and live under his roof, or when they come from different families and maintain their own separate households. Polyandry can mean that a woman marries several brothers, of whom only the oldest is the official father of her children, or it can mean that she marries several unrelated men who all enjoy equal rights. Group marriage can be the accidental outgrowth of polygamous practices or a conscious “scientific” experiment.

Still, today there is little doubt that monogamy in one variation or another has always been the most common type of marriage. Both group marriage and polyandry have been found only in very few cultures, and polygyny, although permitted in many societies, has almost always been restricted to the wealthier classes. After all, it has never been cheap to purchase and then support more than one wife. Sometimes, of course, wives earned more than their keep as laborers, but even in that case their husband had to be powerful and influential, or he could not have created such an advantage for himself. The other men would have insisted on the same privilege, and this could not have been granted, because “naturally” there is only about one woman for every man. The biological balance between males and females is nearly even, and therefore polygamy can flourish only under exceptional conditions. Such conditions may result from a custom of female infanticide, from frequent wars, in which many men are killed, or from political and religious beliefs that accord a few persons some special prestige. However, where conditions are “normal”, and where people are given a fairly equal chance, they tend to favor monogamy.

In view of this fact, one might perhaps call monogamy the “natural” form of marriage, although one should not conclude that everyone will always be happy with it, or that it is practical in every situation. Indeed, even in societies which insist on the strictest monogamy there is often an unofficial toleration of premarital and extramarital intercourse, such as in prostitution, adultery, and homosexual contact. Other societies are still more tolerant and establish monogamy as a flexible or “open” institution from the very start. In addition, they may also permit ready divorces in case of marital failure. At any rate, experience seems to show that one cannot impose a single form of monogamy, or even a single type of marriage on all men and women everywhere. One can, of course, proclaim an ideal, but in real life one has to allow for some improvisation and experimentation.

Nevertheless, even where husbands and wives are given the greatest sexual latitude, marriage is always considered important and is clearly distinguished from nonmarital unions. That is to say, generally speaking, it hardly matters how people arrange, maintain, or modify their marriages, as long as they get married at all. The details may differ from one culture to another, but the principle is nowhere in doubt: Marriage as such is good and must be supported. It also must be proclaimed and made visible to outsiders. For instance, in certain societies married persons are permitted or obliged to dress in a more “dignified” manner than spinsters and bachelors. By the same token, the marital state often carries particular privileges and is celebrated with splendid wedding ceremonies or sumptuous nuptials. These celebrations themselves usually follow some preordained pattern and require their own kind of clothing. In short, there seems to be something special about marriage which makes it different from any other human relationship, and which calls for some public acknowledgment. All of this indicates that marriage serves more than private personal needs, and that it does not exist for the benefit of the spouses alone. Instead, an obvious social interest is involved. It is further obvious that this interest affects not only the form, but also the meaning of marriage, and that the latter can therefore be understood only if one considers both its individual and social aspects.

Of course, in everyday life we normally talk about marriage without worrying much about its precise definition or all of its possible implications. Even professionals are often deliberately vague as they try to illuminate different facets of the phenomenon. Thus, depending on the context, we can find marriage described in very different terms from very different points of view. In American law, for example, marriage may be variously defined as an institution, a status, or a contract. Accordingly, in this country today politicians praise “the institution of marriage”, bureaucrats ask other people to declare their “marital status”, and lawyers draw up formal “marriage contracts” for their cautious clients, spelling out certain marital rights and duties in advance.

Actually, marriage contracts are neither new nor typically American. Many societies all over the world have known written marriage agreements, if not between bride and bridegroom, then between their respective families. Indeed, in feudal times a marriage contract could seal an alliance between whole tribes or nations. At present, such motives are still formalized on a more modest scale by our own upper classes. Thus, marriage contracts are customary where the possible loss or consolidation of huge family fortunes is involved. After all, in these cases the marriage could well determine the fate not only of two, but perhaps dozens or hundreds of individuals. Still, as a rule, these contracts cover only externals, such as dowry, allowances, financial settlements, inheritance, etc. They rarely say anything about marital conduct in the proper sense and do not concern themselves with questions of intimacy. Therefore, they are in fact mere safeguards or security measures. They accompany and protect, but do not constitute marriage.

This elementary difference has not always been clearly perceived. On the contrary, the fact that marital unions may be protected or guided by contracts and even contain some contractive elements, has led some modern observers to believe that marriage itself is a contract and nothing more. This view also seems to be supported by certain customs and regulations in other cultures. For example, Islamic law explicitly defines marriage (nikah) as “a contract for the legalization of sexual intercourse and the procreation of children”. As such, it is strictly a private matter, requires no religious ceremony, and can be terminated under certain conditions. However, this definition was never meant to be exhaustive and should not be read dogmatically. After all, the custom of mut’ah marriages indicates that the procreation of children need not be essential to the contract. (For details see “Marriage in Islamic Countries.”) Furthermore, since it has been possible in Islamic countries for fathers to contract compulsory marriages for their unwilling daughters, it cannot be assumed that the contracting parties are always bridegroom and bride. Similarly, in early medieval Europe, where marriage was a transfer of lordship over a woman from her father to her husband, the bride was not herself party to the contract, but rather its object. Her lot improved only under the influence of the Church, which gave marriage a religious meaning and elevated it to the status of a sacrament.

Needless to say, once marriage had been endowed with a sacramental character, it could no longer be called a contract in any sense of the word. First of all, it was now a vehicle of grace, and thus its essence lay not in any formal stipulations, but in the mutual decision of both partners which made them “one flesh” (Mark 10:8). This reduced both the influence of parents and the importance of economic considerations. As a result, for a while even secret marriages were permitted. Secondly, since the marital relationship mirrored that of Christ with his church, it could not be dissolved: “What God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Mark 10:9). However, this latter change eventually came to be resented, and therefore the Protestant Reformation returned to the concept of marriage as a civil contract, making it once again possible for Christians to obtain a divorce. In Puritan England, John Milton called marriage a “covenant” which need not bind the parties forever.

The secularization of marriage was, of course, especially welcomed by the emerging bourgeoisie. The bourgeois lived in an increasingly sober world of commodities which were subject to sale, disposal, contract, and regulation, and thus he had less and less sympathy for mythical or supernatural notions. Finally, in the 18th century the German bourgeois philosopher Immanuel Kant felt enlightened enough to put the matter in its baldest terms when he defined marriage as “an association of two persons of different sex for the life-long mutual possession of their sexual qualities” (Rechtslehre, § 24}. Much could be said about this definition, but here we can simply point out that it is obviously not universal. The references to “two” persons and a “lifelong” mutual possession indicate that only a special form of Western marriage is being considered. Moreover, it should be noted that there is no mention of any contract. After all, irrevocable personal contracts are out of harmony with the modern demands for individual freedom. The lifelong possession of one human being by another is now alien to our whole system of justice. People can no longer legally sell themselves as slaves or buy someone else as a servant for life. Much less are such contracts acceptable in the case of marriage. Indeed, even in ancient Rome marital vows never to separate were invalid before the law. Therefore, the “association” mentioned by Kant must be more than just a legal agreement.

However, it should be apparent that even our contemporary, soluble marriage can never be fully described as a contract. The unique personal relationship that exists between spouses cannot be created, shaped, and maintained by written provisions, clauses, or codicils, or by signatures on some dotted line. This relationship is so intimate that no comprehensive and binding contract could possibly be devised for it, and it goes without saying that nonbinding contracts are worthless. Even simple common sense tells bridegroom and bride not to approach each other in a legalistic spirit, so as not to doom their marriage from the start. On the other hand, they also know that, once a marriage has foundered, it cannot be saved by the law.

These few observations may be sufficient to show that the subject of marriage is too complex for easy generalizations. The precise nature of the marital union itself is elusive, and its role in society varies with changing conditions, Thus, no single definition can capture all conceivable meanings of marriage or fit all of its forms. Still, we may obtain at least some limited insight, if we put the issue in some historical and cross-cultural perspective. The following pages, therefore, briefly sketch the past development and present state of marriage in Western and a few non-Western societies. A concluding section offers some speculations about the future.


Many people today are dissatisfied with the institution of marriage as they find it and therefore wonder how they might give it a “new”, more agreeable form. Thus, we can now read numerous books and articles which discuss the “crisis of marriage” and which try to offer solutions. For example, some writers propose a “contractual marriage” (i.e., marriage based on an easily terminated private contract), a “permissive marriage” (i.e., marriage permitting extramarital relationships), a “communal marriage” (i.e., group marriage in a commune), or a “quaternary marriage” (i.e., two married couples and their children living together). These and similar arrangements are often felt to be more realistic and durable than our traditional marriage, which is assumed to have “broken down”.

However, radical as some of these proposals may seem to some people, they do not really contain anything new. In fact, virtually all “future” forms of marriage that are being advocated today have already existed somewhere at some time in the past. Yet, they have not prevailed. A relatively exclusive monogamy has either long since replaced them or seems in the process of doing so. This means that our present form of marriage is probably based on more solid ground than simple unquestioned tradition. There seems to be something uniquely attractive and appropriate in just two spouses building a life together and, if they are fertile, caring for their own children. Moreover, this seems to be the only marital arrangement in which the partners can be truly equal.

It must be granted, of course, that for thousands of years monogamy has existed without equality, and that women have long been oppressed even where they had only one husband. Nevertheless, as women became more emancipated they have not demanded a return to polygyny. Nor are many emancipated men likely to clamor for polyandry. Group marriage, on the other hand, demands so much discipline that it has never been widely popular. In short, if the future should finally bring full sexual equality, it will also further strengthen the foundations of monogamous marriage.

This is not to say that changes cannot be made. Indeed, our present official ideal of marriage is perhaps justly perceived as too rigid and restrictive. After all, in practice it has never provided complete fulfillment for everyone. Some unofficial “safety valve”, “side door”, or “escape hatch” always had to be left open. In short, there has always been a need for some marital flexibility. In this respect, the future could bring much progress. Marriage and divorce laws could be made more practical and equitable. Laws against nonmarital sexual relationships could be repealed. The discrimination against unmarried persons could end. Marital status and marital arrangements could become strictly private affairs. There could be more room for individual choices. Some of the possibilities are briefly described below.

Flexible Monogamy

It is easy to imagine a more flexible form of monogamy than that which officially prevails today. Indeed, unofficially there are already many marriages in our society that do not fit the traditional pattern. The following examples may indicate possible future developments.

Open Marriage

The term “open marriage” is now often used for a nonexclusive monogamous relationship. In such a marriage both partners love and cherish each other and do want to live together, but they also permit each other to have other sexual encounters. In fact, they may occasionally even admit a third and fourth partner to their marital bed. This latter practice is today also popularly described as “swinging”. Such arrangements are nothing new, of course. They have existed throughout history among many peoples. For example, among certain American Indians and Eskimos it was customary for husbands to offer their wives to their male guests. Many Polynesian men also followed this practice and, in addition, granted their own brothers the same privilege. They themselves, in turn, had sexual access to their sisters-in-law. (In Hawaii such a relationship was known as punalua.) But even apart from these socially approved forms of “open marriage”, extramarital sex has been silently condoned in many other societies, especially for males. Females were usually more restricted, although in 18th-century Europe upper-class husbands often allowed their wives an “official lover”. In one form or another these old customs may well survive into the future.

Temporary Marriage

As mentioned earlier, temporary marriages have, at times, existed in Islamic countries (mut’ah  marriages). We also know that in old Japan it was possible to contract a marriage for five years or less. In the early 19th century, the great German writer Goethe also entertained a proposal for five-year marriages in his novel Elective Affinities (Part 1, Chapter 10). The voluntary continuation of such a marriage could and would follow, if both partners proved compatible. Actually, as divorces have become easier to obtain in most Western countries, marriage has, in fact if not in law, turned into a temporary arrangement for many couples. Today it is no longer unusual for either men or women to marry and divorce two, three, or more partners within a few years. In view of these developments, it has been suggested that the law should officially set a predetermined date for the end of each marriage. At this date the marriage could, of course, be renewed for another agreed-upon period, but without such a renewal, it would automatically be dissolved. Thus, divorce would become unnecessary. However, critics of this proposal point out that fixed time limits of any kind can cast a disturbing pall over a marriage, and that more reasonable “no-fault” divorce laws would serve the same purpose better.

Trial Marriage

Throughout most of European history, farmers have allowed their children premarital sexual experiences in order to insure a compatible match and to test the fecundity of any prospective bride. Thus, well into modern times they practiced a custom variously called bundling, tarrying, sitting up (England), nightrunning (Norway), questing (Holland), and night-courting, trial nights, Kiltgang, fensterln, etc. (Germany). According to this custom, a girl could receive a young man in her bed at night, if her parents regarded him as a serious prospect. At first, these nightly visits might not involve any physical intimacy, but if they became more frequent, sexual intercourse was permitted. (Many such relationships lasted for a long time.) However, marriage was always the ultimate goal, especially if the girl became pregnant, and both partners remained well aware of their mutual obligations. Indeed, in some areas the practice became even more formalized as “handfasting”, i.e., a regular probationary marriage preceding the “official” marriage by months or even years. All of these customs served the rural populace well for many centuries, until they died out under the influx of strangers who took advantage of them while disregarding their true implications. Still, in our century sexual reformers have repeatedly demanded the reintroduction of similar customs for all citizens. Thus, they proposed a “companionate marriage” (United States), “Ehe auf Zeit” (Germany), or “Probeehe” (Austria). All of these proposals, while differing in details, aimed at avoiding the complications of divorce by replacing it with a simple separation by mutual agreement.

As will be noticed, a trial marriage is very similar to the temporary marriage discussed above. They differ only in that the latter is meant to be transitory, while the former implies a couple’s hope for a subsequent permanent union. However, it would seem that none of these reforms are really necessary if our divorce laws are simplified. At any rate, today many young couples already practice some form of trial marriage by simply living together for some time before they get married. Such private, informal agreements are likely to continue and may also become more frequent in the future.

Marriage in Two Steps

A unique variation of the trial marriage has been proposed by the American anthropologist Margaret Mead. According to this proposal, there would be two kinds of marriage: one without and the other with children. Or, to put it another way, marriage would be contracted in two steps, although the second step need never be taken. The first step would bring a young couple together for a so-called “individual marriage”. In this marriage the partners would be committed to each other for as long as they wish, but they would not have the right to have children. The next step toward a “parental marriage” could be taken only after both husband and wife have demonstrated their ability to raise and support children. This second-stage marriage would therefore require a special license and ceremony.

Such a reform does not seem practical, because “individual marriages” would always be in danger of producing “illegitimate” children in spite of the ban, and thus the whole two-tiered marriage system would constantly be undermined. Nevertheless, on a theoretical level, Mead’s proposal has the great merit of impressing upon young people the responsibilities of parenthood.

Non-Monogamous Marriage

While monogamy in one form or another seems likely to remain predominant in the future, it is not impossible that there may also be a revival of non-monogarnous marriages. However, if indeed they should reappear at all, they would now have to be based on complete sexual equality. The following examples may serve as an illustration.


Polygamy in both of its variations (polygyny and polyandry) has, of course, a long and venerable history. Polygyny is condoned in both the Old Testament and the Koran. However, under the influence of Christianity and as a result of growing demands for sexual equality, this form of marriage has long since disappeared in Western civilization and is under attack in other parts of the world. In 19th-century America, the Mormons reintroduced it, but were soon forced to abandon it, at least officially. Nevertheless, polygamy has retained its appeal for some people, it has also repeatedly been pointed out that many Westerners now have begun to practice something like “serial” polygamy by marrying and divorcing several partners in the course of their lives. Thus, it is not inconceivable that in the future some men would again take several wives and some wives would take several husbands if they were legally entitled to do so. Even today a number of people are convicted of bigamy every year, and others, who escape prosecution, live in a so-called ménage à trois with one official and one unofficial spouse. Some day such arrangements might well be officially recognized. Needless to say, every partner in such a marriage would have to be given the same legal rights.

Group Marriage

In a group marriage several husbands are married to several wives or, in other words, all men are married to all women in the group. Such marriages have never been common anywhere, although a few examples have been found among some “primitive” peoples. Still, a famous and rather successful experiment in group marriage was made in 19th-century America by John Humphrey Noyes and his Oneida community. In this community every woman was theoretically married to every man in a system called “complex marriage”. Sexual intercourse could take place freely, but procreation was avoided except in special “scientifically” determined couplings. This form of deliberate breeding (a separate issue from the form of marriage} was known as “stirpiculture”. After the retirement and death of its charismatic leader, the experiment came to an end. However, in recent years some such experiments have been repeated on a less ambitious scale. In certain contemporary “communes” group marriage has existed and still exists, although in many cases the emotional strain on the partners proved too great and more traditional marriage patterns reasserted themselves. Nevertheless, in the future some attempts at group marriage may continue, and occasionally they may even succeed. Whether they will or should be legally recognized is another question.

Same-Sex Marriage

One formerly unmentionable issue which has recently provoked some serious discussion is same-sex marriage. It has, of course, always been possible for two homosexuals to marry each other, if one of them was male and the other female. Indeed, we know that, in the past, some such marriages have turned out rather well. A famous example is the marriage between the British diplomat Harold Nicolson and the novelist Victoria Sackville-West, Both of them sought their sexual fulfillment outside the marital bed, but a deep love and mutual respect kept them together nevertheless.

However, until now our Western civilization has never permitted marriage between partners of the same sex. (The only well-known exceptions were certain escapades of ancient Roman emperors. Whether there also were some “regular” same-sex marriges in ancient times, is a matter of dispute.) A few other civilizations have been more broadminded. Thus, in some American Indian tribes it was possible for a man to assume the role of a woman and to marry another man. Among the Siwans in Northern Africa many men married male adolescents and even paid a higher “bride price” for them than for girls. Still, generally speaking, such customs have always been rare, because marriage was usually associated with procreation. Therefore, even where homosexual relationships were encouraged, they remained pre- or extramarital.

The traditional meanings of marriage have begun to change only recently in some industrial societies. Because of new, reliable contraceptives, procreation has become a matter of choice, and today many men and women marry even though they do not want (or cannot have) any children. Instead, they seek other values in marriage, such as love, companionship, financial security, or professional cooperation, and, as we all know, the law has no objection, but readily obliges. Thus, it has always been possible for post-menopausal women to marry. Indeed, society has often actively encouraged such marriages. However, it is quite obvious that the reasons given for these – obviously by defintion infertile –  marriage could also be cited by couples of the same sex. Therefore, if infertile heterosexual couples can get married, it seems unfair to deny this right to homosexual couples.

Many homosexuals, of course, have no desire to be married, but there are also many others who live in stable, sometimes even lifelong relationships, and who suffer disadvantages because these relationships cannot be legalized as marriages. Tax, inheritance, and immigration laws (to name but a few) discriminate against them, and thus they do not find themselves rewarded for their responsible behavior. Indeed, one may say that today our society is still conspiring to keep homosexuals unstable and promiscuous. (For details see “The Sexually Oppressed—Homosexuals.”)

However, there are now several Christian churches (especially the Metropolitan Community Church) which perform wedding (or “holy union”) ceremonies for homosexual couples. Such a ceremony does not constitute a legal marriage, but at least it gives some recognition to couples who want to make a firm commitment to each other. However, in the meantime some important changes have taken place in many countries. Several European and non-European countries have officially recognized same-sex marriages with all privileges and duties of traditional heterosexual mariages: The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Portugal (in Portugal, the adoption of children by the same-sex couple remains prohibited). Outside of Europe, same-sex marriages are being recognized in Canada, Argentina, South Africa and several states of the USA (New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and the District of Columbia). In general, the situation is changeable and, in fact, changing, since other countries are discussing or preparing the legal recognition of same-sex marriages as well.

Some countries like Germany, have adopted some marriage-like half-measure – an officially registered “life partnership”. In France, this applies to heterosexual couples as well.  However, since these partnerships imply only the duties and not all of the privileges of traditional marriages, the same-sex couples in question have been turning to the European Court for an end of this kind of discrimination. So far, the Court has indeed ruled in their favor.