Marriage, like music, is universal in history and around the world. But like music, marriage is constructed in many different cultural ways. A marriage’s contractual aspects are set according to a society’s legal system. The marriage union can also be celebrated in a variety of religious ways.
A legally and socially sanctioned union, usually between a man and a woman, that is regulated by laws rules, customs, beliefs, and attitudes that prescribe the rights and duties of the partners and accords status to their offspring (if any) (www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/366152/marriage, accessed 27Sep12).
The Encyclopedia goes on to describe marriage as being universal because of the functions it performs: “sexual gratification and regulation, division of labor between sexes, economic production and consumption, and satisfaction of personal needs for affection, status, and companionship.” This article also points to the strongest function of marriage in procreation and the care of children.
Marriage (also called matrimony and wedlock) is a social union or legal contract between people called spouses that creates kinship. The definition of marriage varies according to different cultures, but it is usually an institution in which interpersonal relationships, usually intimate and sexual, are acknowledged. Such a union is often formalized via a wedding ceremony (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marriage, accessed 27Sep12).
Some differences in marriage customs may be described in the binaries: arranged or freely chosen, monogamous or polygamous (group marriage of several men with several women is extremely rare), and heterosexual or homosexual.
The Hebrews turned from polygamous marriage at least by the time of their return from exile (c. 536BCE). Judaism, in general, frowns on interfaith marriage—Orthodox opposing and not recognizing the validity of such, Conservative Judaism not accepting its validity but encouraging acceptance of the non-Jewish spouse with a family, and Reformed groups accepting interfaith and gay marriage.
From New Testament writings on marriage, Christians tend to see it as a holy, perhaps even sacramental symbol of the relationship of Christ to his Church. With Jews, divorce (the severance of marital vows) is seen as exceptional and based on extreme circumstances. Conservatives and liberals within the Christian Church differ regarding the terms of divorce and acceptance of gay marriages.
Muslims are urged to live according to the teachings of the Koran (Holy Quran). Marriage is seen as a great blessing. It is better to marry a believing woman than a more pleasing idolatress. Marriage outside the faith to a pure woman is acceptable (some African Christians claim, encouraged as a proselytizing strategy). Divorce is detestable in the sight of Allah. Before Mohammad, men were marrying many wives; the Quran limits that number to four.
In non-religious, secular societies, marriage may be seen as less important; it may be postponed or even ignored with a freer perspective on intimate relationships.
Kay S. Hymowitz has written an informative and provocative book (Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age, Chicago, Ivan R. Dee, 2006). It begins with an explanation as to how early Americans broke with the European idea of “arranged, patriarchal mergers…. American couples were supposed to be breaking their own sod and setting up independent households on Midwestern prairies and in New England towns, where they could raise the next generation of self-governing citizens.” (pp.5-6)
Before “the sexual revolution,” Frank Sinatra in 1955 made popular the old pop song: “Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage. You can’t have one without the other.” That expressed a common sentiment of that time—an ideal soon to change.
Acknowledging the gradual freedom of women from their husbands’ “absolute legal authority” and the dramatic emancipation of slaves from full marriage rights, Hymowitz describes a later, radical and revolutionary idea of marriage in the U.S. She sees the sexual revolution and feminist movement of the late 1960s as having “a profound effect on marriage.”
For the first time in history—not just American history but the history of known human society—people began to toy with the idea that children and marriage were really two discrete life phenomena. If they wanted, if it really made them happy, why shouldn’t men and women have children without being married? (p.6)
Admittedly, there are rich single, parent families. But for the most part they exist among the poor—with dire results for children in many cases.
The unmarriage revolution hit African Americans especially hard….In 1965…Daniel Patrick Monyhan warned of a growing crisis in the black ghetto, where a full quarter of children were being born to unmarried women. Today in some cities it is upward of 80 percent…
An accommodating welfare system made it possible for poor women and their children to get by… A battalion of academics, civil rights leaders, and feminists also actively fomented the revolutionary doctrine. These groups accused Moynihan of racism and—ignoring the fact that until 1960 the vast majority of black children had been born to married couples—celebrated the strong and independent African-American woman and her robust kinship groups. The nuclear family, they scoffed, was nothing worth imitating. It was really a white thing.
From the vantage point of the present, what is astonishing is how few people stopped to consider what unmarriage meant for children. (p.7)
The main thesis of Marriage and Caste in America is that “this breakdown of marriage in the United States… threatens America’s future.” The author’s take on this crisis seems worth further quoting:
There is a typical single mother; and she is not Murphy Brown or Angelina Jolie. She is poor, or near poor. She has no college degree. She has few skills essential for negotiating a tough new economy.
On the other side of the tracks is her college-educated counterpart. She is skilled, of course. She is also married. Now add this fact to the mix: children of single mothers are less successful on just about every measure than children growing up with their married parents regardless of their income, race or education levels: they are more prone to drug and alcohol abuse, to crime, and to school failure; they are less likely to graduate from college; they are more likely to have children at a young age, and more likely to do so when they are unmarried.
Put the two trends together—more marriage among the better educated, on the one hand, and diminished prospects for the children of single mothers on the other—and you get double troubled for this county’s most vulnerable: Poor or working-class single mothers with little education having children who will grow up to be low-income single mothers and fathers with little education who will have children who will have children who will become low-income single parents—and so forth. (p.4)
We admit our article here holds to the bias that love, marriage and children go together. Professor at Loyola University and expert in violence and human development, James Garbarino, writes:
Families are the thread that holds the human race together…. Families are the central microsystem, the “headquarters,” for human development.
What is a family? Despite… diverse cultures with widely differing family forms, three commonalities emerge in most analyses: marriage, child-bearing, and kinship. (Children and Families in the Social Environment, 1992/2009: p.72)
In regards to marriage, there are several issues currently at stake: gay marriage, cohabitation before marriage, child-bearing outside of the context of marriage. In a polarized society, we hope for honest discussion within and between those who see themselves in liberal or conservative camps. For the sake of children, especially, society needs to consider its views on marriage.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
How do you view and how do you define marriage? What is your story in regards to marriage, and how does that experience influence your views?
How did you react to this article? With what are you most in agreement, and with what do you take exception?
What is a key issue surrounding the matter of marriage you would most like to see discussed?
Are you prepared for informed and profitable discussions of marriage with those who hold opposing views, and with children and youth who are confused or wish to challenge your opinion?
Many of the most troubling problems in society (violence in the streets or suicide, eating disorders and cutting in the suburbs) have their roots in family dynamics. Marriage, in most cases, is the entry point to family.
As marriage is related to family, so marriage is also related to sex. Teenagers and young adults wrestle with the question of sex before marriage and how it may affect sex in marriage.
Marriage must be a civil matter; it may also be a religious commitment. It would seem that a rising generation needs instruction from both institutions in order to secure as much permanency of marriage as possible—for themselves and for the sake of children.