The practice of marriage is one of the universal aspects of the human experience. It is an ancient practice, bound by tradition, customs and laws. Throughmarriage, new families begin and established ones continue into a new generation.

In the United States today, marriage is changing. An increased divorce rate and more single-parent families are altering young people's attitudes toward marriage. The increasing acceptability of living together as an alternative isa factor in the decline of the number of couples getting married. In addition, homosexuals are seeking the recognition of their long-term partnerships astrue marriages. And yet for all this change, some aspects of marriage remainremarkably the same.

Types of marriage

Although a familiar institution, marriage has many forms. In most western nations, marriage can be defined as the coming together of a man and a woman under the auspices of the laws of the country in which they live and the religion or religions they practice. They vow to "keep themselves unto each other"--that is, remain emotionally and sexually faithful to one another. This form of marriage is called monogamy, which means "one marriage." It is the most common form of marriage.

Monogamy is not the only form marriage can take. In other societies, marriagecan also be defined as one man and several wives (polygyny), or one woman and several husbands (polyandry). Both of these practices can be called polygamy. Another form of polygamy is called group marriage, in which two or more men are married to two or more women; the men in a group marriage are often brothers.

Studies of 565 of the world's societies have shown that polygyny is the preferred type of marriage in 75 percent of the world's societies. However, it israrely practiced because of the considerable expense involved in supporting several wives and their children, usually in their own quarters. It has been practiced through most of the world's societies, including such diverse cultures as China and the Blackfoot Indians of North America, and in societies which sanctioned it through religion, such as Mormonism. However, polygyny is dying out, partly due to the spread of Christianity, which sanctions only monogamy.

Polyandry, the practice of a woman having more than one husband, is the preferred form of marriage in less than one percent of the world's cultures. Its practice is limited to certain areas of the Himalayas, among the Nayar of Southern India, and among some North American Indian and Eskimo societies. Polyandry is generally practiced in societies in which there is a scarcity of womenor in which there is difficulty supporting a family. Often, brothers will share one wife, with the oldest brother being the head of the household. The husbands and wife were able to keep family lands intact in this way and pass them on to the children.

Other marriage arrangements exist also, although they are not common. Among the Dahomey of West Africa, a woman can marry another woman. Such a union is not based on homosexual love, but rather on economic interests; a woman wouldpay a bride-price for another woman, who became the social father of any children that resulted from sexual unions between her wife and certain men. Interestingly, the woman who paid the bride-price may already have been married toa man!

A leading question today in Western societies concerns homosexual marriage. Today in most states in the United States, homosexuals are not allowed to marry, and some religions, such as the United Methodist Church, punish clergy whoofficiate at such ceremonies. Gay and lesbian rights activists argue, however, that long-term relationships between gay and lesbian partners are just asmuch marriages as heterosexual unions. By being allowed to be married legally, gays and lesbian partners could share in the benefits accorded husbands andwives, such as health insurance. The rights of a surviving partner would bethe same as those of widow or widower, and allow the partner to collect pensions or death benefits.

The basic functions of marriage

Although it may sound dull to the ear of a Westerner, who has grown up with the idea that a romantic attachment between persons is essential to marriage,marriage was primarily established to provide status and protection to the offspring of that marriage. By marrying, a man assured his children of a legalmother, and a woman assured her children of a legal father. Although the significance of such status may be difficult to comprehend, it protected the children's futures insofar as it protected any inheritances, etc., which they would legally be due.

Marriage is an ancient practice, although its meaning in the past is different from what we expect from marriage today. For example, marriage in ancient Rome did not generally involve love; instead, it was more like a business arrangement. Divorces were common. (Get more on this).

Throughout much of human history, marriage was not a bringing together of twoindividuals, but rather of two families. During the Middle Ages, bride and groom often did not know each other at all--it was their parents who arrangedthe engagement, or betrothal. The bride could have been as young as twelve; boys did not usually marry until they were seventeen.

Part of the custom of marriage involved the exchange of goods or money. In Medieval Europe, for example, each bride came with a dowry, which was given tothe groom's family. A dowry's components could include such simple items as household linens to such important items as land deeds. In other cultures, itwas the groom's family who compensated the bride's family by paying a bride-price. The bride-price was to compensate the family for the loss of the bride's work, and in return to bride's family gave up their rights to her labor andher children. The bride-price (sometimes called the progeny-price), is morecommon in societies in which the children become part of the father's family(for example, take his last name), than in matrilineal societies. However, ifthe marriage produced no children, the contract was off and the bride returned to her family, and the bride-price returned.

Marriage underwent a gradual transition from a custom to a legal state. In 1215, the Catholic Church declared that a private promise was an unbreakable convenant, and that the two partners would be considered married. (This covenant could not be broken by any action of man, and the church still holds that marriage can be undone only by death or annulment.) However, this private promise led to problems; imagine two young people whispering a promise to each other, although they knew it would be against their family's wishes, or words spoken in the heat of passion that the speaker found him or herself held to inthe light of day. The rules were changed in 1563 to require the presence ofa priest and two reliable witnesses.

In England in 1753, Parliament passed a law regulating marriage. Marriages had to be licensed and ceremonies had to be held during the day and in public.

Today, most wedding ceremonies involve a religious service, which contains many traditional aspects that are significant culturally. The Christian service, for example, contains wording that has been unchanged since the 1600s. Jewish marriage rights occur under a huppah, a canopy that signifies the home, and the groom breaks a glass in recognition of the destruction of the Temple inJerusalem. In Hindu ceremonies, the bride and groom walk seven steps together, and the bride places her foot on a stone to symbolize her steadfast devotion. In other societies and religious traditions, rice may be thrown as a symbol of fertility, the hands of the bride and groom are bound with a silken cloth to symbolize their union, and the couple may share a drink of wine. NativeAmericans crafted special "wedding vases," pots with two necks, and the groom drank from one and the bride from the other.

The United States developed a unique form of marriage during the 1800s, the "common-law" marriage. In a common-law marriage, a man and women are not united by any religious ceremony or legal document. Instead, they merely live as husband and wife, and present themselves as married to the world. The Americancourts held that because frontier life required people to be so mobile and live so far from one another, a promise between two parties was tantamount toa marriage contract. Common-law marriage is still with us today.

Marriage and love

"First comes love, then comes marriage ... " That old schoolyard rhyme wouldhave been mystifying to many married people in the past. Marriage was an economic arrangement for most of its history, and love had very little to do withanything. For centuries, women had to accept the mates their parents selected for them, no matter how unattracted they were to the men. During the 1800s,that began to change, as women won the right to at least turn down suitors (if not find the man of their dreams). In 19th century America, a movement began that has changed the face of marriage dramatically. A group of people maintained that people's hearts, not the law, made marriages, not any laws, clergy or witnesses. Called "free-lovers," they had many radical ideas that shocked their fellow Victorians, including the suggestion of abolishing marriage altogether. However, their suggestions that people should be able to terminatetheir marriages if they no longer love one another, that men and women shouldbe equals in marriage and that love and affection, not business deals or family partnerships, should be the driving force behind marriage, are with us still.

Marriage trends in the United States

A 1999 study showed the marriage in the United States is weakening.

The study, by the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, found thatthe marriage rate among Americans is at its lowest point ever. Over the last40 years, the rate has fallen 43 percent. In addition, fewer people are reporting themselves as being "very happy" in their marriages.

Behind the declining numbers is a change in the age at which Americans are getting married.

The United States Census Bureau stated in 1996 that American women were entering their first marriages at the average age of 24.5 years, while American men marrying for the first time were, on average, 26.7 years old.

During the more than 100 years since the records have been kept, Americans married youngest during 1956, when first-time brides had an average age of just20.1 years and grooms, 22.5 years.

What accounts for the wait? More young people are delaying marriage until they finish college and begin their careers, the Census Bureau noted. In addition, researchers from the National Marriage Project cited alternatives now available to couples in lieu of marriage, such as living together, or cohabitation. While free of the legal obligations the marriage entails, living togetherdoes not give a couple many of the legal rights that marriage does--for instance, making decisions about a partner's health care if the partner becomes injured or incapacitated. Legally, the power to make those decisions lies withthe partner's family.

The bureau also recorded an increase in the number of people age 18 and up who have never married. In 1970, the number was 21.4 million; in 1994, it was 44.2 million.

What are the odds of getting married past a certain age? A number of years ago, a statement was made that a 35-year-old woman had a better chance of beingstruck by lightning than of getting married--a statement met with a great outcry from women. There is still debate about the veracity of that statement.

However, researchers have found that men who are over 40 and have never beenmarried are highly unlikely to get married at all. The study, conducted by psychologist Charles A. Waehler of the University of Akron, found that the mentended to avoid emotional intimacy and were often unable to have warm, tenderfeelings for others at all. Waehler estimated that only five percent of these men would ever marry.

Although marriage isn't dead yet, people--especially teens--seem to have lesshope that it will happen to them. Today's teens are more likely to be livingwith just one parent than teenagers were in the 1970s, their parent's generation. In 1994, 27 percent of children lived with one parent (88 percent of them with their mother), as opposed to just 12 percent in a single-parent household in 1970. Only 69 percent of children in 1994 lived in two-parent households (either with their biological parents, step-parents, or adoptive parents), compared to 85 percent in 1970, the Census Bureau found.

Because they've grown up with divorce, many young people --especially girls--are skeptical about their chances of finding a mate and remaining married tothat one person for the rest of their lives. Asked in 1980 if they would remain married to one man, 68 percent of teenage girls said yes; in 1995, that figure had fallen to 64 percent. National Marriage Project codirector David Popenoe told the Boston Globe, "These girls are being realistic. Some of them have never seen a good marriage, so they naturally plan for the day when theirscomes to what they see as its inevitable end." Thirty-six percent of the girls surveyed in 1995 said they believed their marriages would be short-lived,compared to 32 percent in 1980.

Although they still believe the marriage and family life is important, today's teenage girls are preparing themselves for the possibility of life withouta wedding band. In fact, 70 percent of the girls said it was possible to havea fulfilling life without marriage, and 53 percent said that having a childwithout having a husband is a "worthwhile lifestyle."

And what about the boys? According to the same study, today's teenage boys are actually a bit more hopeful of having a marriage that lasts than their predecessors from 1980. In 1995, 59 percent of teenage boys said they thought they would be married only once, up from 57 percent in 1980.

The health benefits of marriage

It has long been recognized that people who are married tend to live longer than people who are unmarried (either never been married, divorced, or widowed). Researchers think that this beneficial effect of marriage can be attributed to three factors.

First, marriage has a protective effect on the partners. Research has not shown that being married for the first time has any immediate effects; rather, the effect shows up as time passes. Married men have been found to enjoy better health than single men. Why? There are a variety of factors that come intoplay, including a home atmosphere that reduces stress and illnesses that canresult from stress; better nutrition; reduction in bad habits, such as excessive drinking and tobacco smoking; and care in times of illness. In addition,it is believed that married partners tend to "keep an eye" on each other's health status, and alert one another to anything out of the ordinary.

Second, it may be that healthy people tend to get married more often than less-healthy people--a factor researchers call "positive selection." However, research has shown that health men tend to postpone marriage, marrying later inlife, while their less-healthy peers pursue marriage more actively. This hasgiven rise to the third theory, that of "adverse selection" into marriage. Such men tend to marry earlier, remain married, and are more likely to remarryafter divorce or the death of their wives. For them, being married is a chance to promote health and longevity.

Plainly, there are many factors at play in the relationship of health and marriage, and these factors vary from person to person. What is known for certain is that as men age, their martial status effects their risk of death: married men between the ages of 50 and 70 live longer than their unmarried counterparts. Divorced men who do not remarry face the highest risk of mortality.

Married women seem to have better health than their single counterparts do, according to studies. However, one study from 1987 found that married women may have as high a stress level as single mothers as they struggle to meet thedemands of home, work and family. Another study, reported in the August 1999Journal of Marriage and Family, found that women do more housework after getting married than they do before marriage--while men do less housework after marriage than they did before.

Marriage has long been criticized as an institution that is unfair to women because they are expected to fulfill too many roles and be perfect at all of them, and also makes her dependent on her husband. In a bad marriage, such dependency may make the woman unable to escape an abusive situation. However, issues such as abuse must be considered within the larger scope of society.

What makes a marriage work?

Marriage is recognized throughout the world as a turning point in the lives of the man and woman. It requires more adjustment than possibly any other lifestage as the partners sort out the roles they will play and learn each other's needs and wants. Sacrifice in a marriage will be required, and compromiseis not always easy. Many factors, both internal and external, contribute to whether a marriage will succeed or fail.

The personality traits of the partners play a significant role in the successor failure of a marriage. Studies have shown that a person's level of neuroticism (negativity and emotional instability) is a powerful contributor to theoutcome of a marriage. The more neurotic a partner, the more difficulty he or she had in making the adjustments marriage requires, and the more likely the relationship would end in divorce. Each partner's personality traits can effect the other's ability to adjust. For example, a husband's level of neuroticism and his ambivalence about emotional expression had a negative affect onhis wife's adjustment. However, his agreeableness, openness and conscientiousness had positive effects. Similarly, a wife's neuroticism affected her husband negatively, while her openness and agreeableness affected him positively.

Another important factor is children; studies have shown that couples with children are less likely to divorce than childless couples. In addition, men who are more involved with raising their children tend to have more stable marriages, researchers have found, because their wives are happier.

Other factors, such as economic factors, the couple may have less control over. However, by trying to control the factors they can--such as their reactions to a spouse's needs--experts say couples have a better chance of succeedingin one of humankind's long-standing traditions, the marriage.

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