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In one form or another marriage has existed almost as long as civilization itself. Marriage is a universal institution whereby men and women are joined in a special kind of dependence for the purpose of founding and maintaining a family. This union is regulated by society, and society's laws, rules, customs, beliefs, and attitudes prescribe the rights and duties of the man and woman.
Marriage is found within so many different societies probably because it satisfies so many basic social and personal needs. For instance, it supplies a sanctioned framework for sexual activity (see Sexuality). Marriage also accords status to the couple's children; provides for the care of the children, their education, and their acceptance in society; regulates lines of descent; clarifies division of labor between the sexes; and of course satisfies personal needs for affection, status, and companionship.
One of marriage's most crucial functions is to lay the foundation for the family. Successful child rearing requires extensive parental involvement and the cooperation of both parents.
Marriage provides the framework that makes such cooperation possible. Hence marriage plays a vital role in ensuring the procreation of human beings and the preservation of their societies. (See also Child Development; Family.)
The importance placed on the institution of marriage can be seen in the elaborate and complex customs and rituals that surround it. Although these laws and rituals are as varied and numerous as the social and cultural organizations that invented them, they have many elements in common.
In every society the main legal function of marriage regards the couple's children. Marriage ensures the children's rights and entitles them to the traditional communal privileges, including the right of inheritance. Marriage also defines the children's relationships within the community, and may even determine which future spouses are acceptable for them.
Most societies have rules concerning the marriage of family members as well as the marriage of members of the society to others within and outside the social group. The prohibition of incest--sexual relations with a close family member--is universal. The definition of "close relations" may vary among societies. With very few exceptions, however, sexual relations or marriage between a mother and a son or between a father and a daughter are universally prohibited.
Endogamy, the practice of marrying someone from within one's own tribe or group, is the oldest social regulation of marriage. Cultural pressures to marry from within one's social, economic, and racial group are still very strongly enforced today. Exogamy, the practice of marrying outside the group, is found in some societies with complex lineages that wish to prevent the marriage of persons who may have a common ancestor. This practice can still be seen today in a modified form. In Great Britain, for instance, divorced spouses are prohibited from marrying their sisters-in-law or brothers-in-law.
The rituals surrounding the marriage ceremony itself are associated primarily with fertility and validate the importance of the marriage institution to the continuation of the clan, race, or society. The rituals of the marriage ceremony also express the sanction of the family or community and their understanding of the difficulties and sacrifices involved in making what is considered in most cases to be a lifelong commitment to spouse and children.
Marriage ceremonies include symbolic rites, usually sanctified by a religious order, that are thought to confer good fortune on the couple. Because economic considerations play an essential role in the success of child rearing, the offering of gifts, both real and symbolic, to the bride and bridegroom are a significant part of the marriage ritual. Fertility rites to ensure a fruitful marriage exist in some form in all ceremonies. Some of the oldest rituals still found in contemporary ceremonies include the prominent display of fruits or cereal grains, which may be sprinkled over the couple or over their nuptial bed; a small child who accompanies the bride; and the breaking of an object or of food to ensure a successful consummation of the marriage and an easy childbirth.
The most universal ritual is one that symbolizes a sacred union. This may be expressed by the joining of hands, an exchange of rings or chains, or by the tying of garments. However, all the elements in marriage rituals vary greatly among different societies and are generally fixed by tradition and habit.
Marriage is, by definition, a legally sanctioned union between a man and a woman and is thus viewed as a contract subject to law. Marriage law is the body of legal specifications regulating the initiation, continuation, and validity of marriages. A newly married couple undergoes a radical change in their legal status by the act of marriage--they assume certain rights and obligations to each other. In many societies the couples may be expected to live together in the same or nearby dwellings; the wife may be expected to provide domestic services such as child rearing, cooking, and housekeeping; and the husband may be expected to provide food, shelter, clothing, and other means of support. These are the obligations of marriage in certain societies. The rights of marriage may include the shared ownership and inheritance of property and, in monogamous marriages, the exclusive right to sexual intercourse with each other.
Until the Reformation, the canon law of the Catholic church was the only law governing marriage between Christians in Western Europe, and canon law still has considerable authority in some Roman Catholic countries. The church has historically regarded marriage as a lifelong and sacred union that could be dissolved only by the death of one of the spouses. This conception of marriage viewed the husband and wife as made of "one flesh" by the act of God, and marriage was thus transformed from a civil contract that could be terminated under Roman law to a sacrament and indivisible mystic union of souls and bodies. Under canon law the free and mutual consent of both parties was regarded as essential to marriage, and marriage was regarded as completed by consent and then consummation. Canon law held a marriage to be null and void in cases in which the parties were close blood relations.
Marriage law as it developed in England listed a number of requirements for marriage. These included the specification that each party shall have attained a certain age; each shall be sexually competent and mentally capable; each shall be free to marry; each shall give his or her consent to marry; the parties shall be outside the prohibited degrees of blood relationship to each other; and the marriage ceremony shall conform with the statutory formalities.
The marriage laws of most Western nations are the products of Roman Catholic canon law that has been greatly modified by the changed cultural and social conditions of modern life. Modern marriage law regards marriage as a civil transaction and allows only monogamous unions. In general, the legal capacity of a person to marry is the same all over the Western world and is subject only to impediments such as blood relationship and, in some cases, mental incapacity. The minimum age limits for marriage, which were previously 12 years or even younger, have been revised upward in most countries to between 15 and 21 years of age.
In Muslim countries of the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa, the prevailing Islamic law regards marriage as a contract for the "legalization of intercourse and the procreation of children." Marriage is purely a civil contract and may be completed without any ceremony. The essential requirement of marriage is offer and acceptance between the two parties, expressed at one meeting. Islamic law has historically permitted the practice of polygamy, but polygamy has been waning in virtually all Muslim countries in recent years. (See also Islam.)
Polygamous marriages are still permitted in many African nations, but there is a growing tendency toward monogamy. Many developing nations in Africa and elsewhere are markedly different from Western nations in that there is no uniform marriage law. The regulation of marital relations is based either on religion or on the customary laws of the territory. This leads to a diversity of laws within one territorial unit and often gives rise to complex problems in the case of tribal, ethnic, or religious intermarriage.
Formality in the Chinese marriage celebration has been dispensed with, but the civil marriage must be duly registered in order to be valid. (See also China, "The People.")
Separation and Divorce
In law, when a husband and wife agree to stop living together, it is called separation. A legal separation does not dissolve the marriage contract but merely adjusts the couple's obligations to each other in light of their desire to live separately. Practically, however, separation is often a prelude to divorce.
One spouse can acquire from the court the equivalent of a separation if the other has deserted or is behaving cruelly or viciously. The grounds required for such an action must usually be serious, especially if there are children involved.
The husband and wife need not go to court to end a separation agreement. They can do so at any time by mutual assent, and the law presumes that they have ended their separation if they resume living together.
The act by which a valid marriage is ended is called divorce. It usually frees the two parties to remarry. Divorce is almost universally allowed, and in Roman Catholic countries restrictions on divorce are undergoing gradual relaxation. In regions where the influence of ancient religious authority is still strong, divorce may be difficult and rare, especially when, as among Hindus, the religious tradition views marriage as permanent. On the other hand, custom may make divorce a simple matter. Among some Pueblo Indian tribes a woman could divorce her husband simply by leaving his moccasins on the doorstep. Today principles such as mutual consent are making divorce increasingly acceptable in the industrialized parts of the world. (See also Family Law, "Divorce.")
In the Orthodox and Conservative movements of the Jewish faith, a husband who wishes to get a divorce must first obtain from a rabbinic court a document of divorce written in Aramaic according to a prescribed formula. A religious divorce becomes effective when the husband drops the document into the cupped hands of his willing wife in the presence of two witnesses and the three members of the court. The court officials are present to ensure that religious law has been properly observed. They then record the divorce and issue documents to the man and woman. Although, strictly speaking, Jewish religious law permits a man to divorce his wife at any time for any reason, women have long been granted equal rights with men. In practice, the only basic requirement for divorce is the mutual consent of husband and wife. By long tradition divorce is looked upon as tragic, and unjustified divorce is considered contrary to the will of God. (See also Judaism.)
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