Marriage, socially recognized and approved union between individuals, who commit to one another with the expectation of a stable and lasting intimate relationship. It begins with a ceremony known as a wedding, which formally unites the marriage partners. A marital relationship usually involves some kind of contract, either written or specified by tradition, which defines the partners’ rights and obligations to each other, to any children they may have, and to their relatives. In most contemporary industrialized societies, marriage is certified by the government.
In addition to being a personal relationship between two people, marriage is one of society’s most important and basic institutions. Marriage and family serve as tools for ensuring social reproduction. Social reproduction includes providing food, clothing, and shelter for family members; raising and socializing children; and caring for the sick and elderly. In families and societies in which wealth, property, or a hereditary title is to be passed on from one generation to the next, inheritance and the production of legitimate heirs are a prime concern in marriage. However, in contemporary industrialized societies, marriage functions less as a social institution and more as a source of intimacy for the individuals involved.
Marriage is commonly defined as a partnership between two members of opposite sex known as husband and wife. However, scholars who study human culture and society disagree on whether marriage can be universally defined. The usual roles and responsibilities of the husband and wife include living together, having sexual relations only with one another, sharing economic resources, and being recognized as the parents of their children. However, unconventional forms of marriage that do not include these elements do exist. For example, scholars have studied several cultural groups in Africa and India in which husbands and wives do not live together. Instead, each spouse remains in his or her original home, and the husband is a “visitor” with sexual rights. Committed relationships between homosexuals (individuals with a sexual orientation toward people of the same sex) also challenge conventional definitions of marriage.
Debates over the definition of marriage illustrate its dual nature as both a public institution and a private, personal relationship. On the one hand, marriage involves an emotional and sexual relationship between particular human beings. At the same time, marriage is an institution that transcends the particular individuals involved in it and unites two families. In some cultures, marriage connects two families in a complicated set of property exchanges involving land, labor, and other resources. The extended family and society also share an interest in any children the couple may have. Furthermore, the legal and religious definitions of marriage and the laws that surround it usually represent the symbolic expression of core cultural norms (informal behavioral guidelines) and values.
II SELECTING A PARTNER
Although practices vary from one culture to another, all societies have rules about who is eligible to marry whom, which individuals are forbidden to marry one another, and the process of selecting a mate. In most societies, the mate-selection process involves what social scientists call a marriage market. The husband and wife come together out of a wide range of possible partners. In many non-Western societies the parents, not the prospective marriage partners, do the “shopping.” In Western societies social rules have gradually changed to permit more freedom of choice for the couple and a greater emphasis on love as the basis for marriage.
A Dating, Courtship, and Engagement
In societies in which individuals choose their own partners, young people typically date prior to marriage. Dating is the process of spending time with prospective partners to become acquainted. Dates may take place in groups or between just two individuals. When dating becomes more serious it may be referred to as courtship. Courtship implies a deeper level of commitment than dating does. During courtship the individuals specifically contemplate marriage, rather than merely enjoy one another’s company for the time being.
Courtship may lead to engagement, also known as betrothal—the formal agreement to marry. Couples usually spend some period of time engaged before they actually marry. A woman who is engaged is known as the man’s fiancée, and the man is known as the woman’s fiancé (both can be pronounced as fee-AHN-say or as fee-ahn-SAY). Men typically give an engagement ring to their fiancée as a symbol of the agreement to marry.
In the past, dating, courtship, and engagement were distinct stages in the selection of a marital partner. Each stage represented an increasing level of commitment and intimacy. Although this remains true to some degree, since the 1960s these stages have tended to blend into one another. For example, modern dating and courtship often involve sexual relations. Studies indicate that more than three-quarters of young people in the United States have had sexual intercourse by the age of 19. Furthermore, the contemporary mate-selection process frequently includes the practice of cohabitation—living together in an unmarried sexual relationship. Cohabitation has a long history among poor people, but has become popular among young, middle-class adults only since the 1960s. Cohabitation often precedes marriage, but in some cases, people continue to cohabit without marrying.
In general, people tend to date and marry people with whom they have characteristics in common. Thus, mate selection typically results in homogamous marriage, in which the partners are similar in a variety of ways. Characteristics that couples tend to share include race, ethnicity, religion, economic status, age, and the level of prestige of their parents.
In the United States, marital similarity has increased for some traits and decreased for others in recent years. People seek partners who are similar in attributes that result from individual achievement. For example, an individual is more likely to marry someone who has a similar amount of education. At the same time, Americans are less likely to require similarity of factors present at a person’s birth, such as religion and social class. However, the tendency to marry someone of the same race persists. For instance, marriages between African Americans and whites make up less than 1 percent of all marriages in the United States. Until the Supreme Court of the United States ruled the practice unconstitutional in the late 1960s, laws in some states prohibited certain types of interracial marriage, also known as miscegenation.
B Arranged Marriages
Historically parents have played a major role in choosing marriage partners for their children, and the custom continues in the world’s developing countries today. Parental influence is greatest when the parents have a large stake in whom their child marries. Traditionally, marriage has been regarded as an alliance between two families, rather than just between the two individuals. Aristocratic families could enhance their wealth or acquire royal titles through a child’s marriage. Marriage was also used as a way of sealing peace between former enemies, whether they were kings or feuding villagers.
The most extreme form of parental influence is an arranged marriage in which the bride and groom have no say at all. For instance, in traditional Chinese practice, the bride and groom meet for the first time on their wedding day. In some upper-caste Hindu marriages, children are betrothed at a very young age and have no voice in the decision. In a less extreme form of arranged marriage, parents may do the matchmaking, but the young people can veto the choice. Some small cultures scattered around the world have what social scientists call preferential marriage. In this system, the bride or groom is supposed to marry a particular kind of person—for example, a cousin on the mother’s or father’s side of the family.
In many traditional societies, marriage typically involved transfers of property from the parents to their marrying children or from one set of parents to the other. These customs persist in some places today and are part of the tradition of arranged marriages. For example, in some cultures the bride’s parents may give property (known as a dowry) to the new couple. The practice of giving dowries has been common in countries such as Greece, Egypt, India, and China from ancient times until the present. It was also typical in European societies in the past. Although the giving of dowries has been part of the norms of marriage in these cultures, often only those people with property could afford to give a dowry to the young couple.
Families use dowries to attract a son-in-law with desirable qualities, such as a particularly bright man from a poor but respectable family or a man with higher status but with less money than the bride’s family has. In societies in which the giving of dowries is customary, families with many daughters can become impoverished by the costs of marriage. For this reason, in Europe in earlier times some families sent “extra” daughters to convents. In India and China, where it is expected that every woman will marry, families have sometimes tried to limit the number of daughters born to them through infanticide (the killing of infants).
In some societies, the groom’s family gives property (known as bridewealth or brideprice) not to the new couple but to the bride’s relatives. Particularly in places where bridewealth payments are high, the practice tends to maintain the authority of fathers over sons. Because fathers control the resources of the family, sons must keep the favor of their fathers in order to secure the property necessary to obtain a bride. The custom of giving bridewealth occurs primarily in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Anthropologists characterize bridewealth as compensation to the bride’s family for the transfer to the groom’s family of the bride’s reproductive capacities or her ability to work. They debate whether the practice should be seen as the actual sale of a daughter or whether it is a ritual—that is, a symbolic act—rather than an economic transaction.
Although arranged marriage persists in many cultures today, as modernization proceeds and many areas become part of the global economy, parental influences on marriage continue to decline. Young people who work for wages rather than on the family’s land no longer depend as highly on their parents’ resources. As Western popular culture—including motion pictures, television, music, and fashion—spreads around the world, many young people are drawn to Western notions of love, romance, and individual choice. In some places, such as Japan, people combine modern Western and older cultural practices. For instance, parents and computer matchmaking services help find prospective mates, and the individuals can accept or reject the proposed match.
C Conventions and Taboos
Marriage is part of a society’s kinship system, which defines the bonds and linkages between people (see Kinship and Descent). The kinship system also dictates who may or may not marry depending on those bonds. In some cultures people may only marry partners who are members of the same clan—that is, people who trace their ancestry back to a common ancestor. This practice of marrying within one’s group is called endogamy. Exogamy, on the other hand, refers to the practice of marrying outside of one’s group—for example, marrying outside one’s clan or religion.
One rule shared by virtually all societies is the taboo (social prohibition) against incest—sexual relations between two closely related individuals. Definitions of which relationships are close enough to trigger this taboo vary a great deal, depending on the society. In most cases the prohibition applies to relationships within the biological nuclear family: mother and son, father and daughter, or brother and sister. In many cultures, the taboo applies to relationships created by divorce and remarriage (step relationships) as well as to those based on biology. The prohibitions on incest and the rules for marriage do not necessarily coincide. In Britain, for example, steprelatives are not allowed to marry one another, but sexual relations between them are not legally forbidden. A few societies constitute exceptions to the general rule against incest. In ancient Egypt brother-sister marriage and sexual intimacy was permitted in the royal family, probably to maintain the “purity” of the royal bloodlines.
D Monogamy and Polygamy
In the United States and in other Western societies, both law and longstanding tradition dictate that marriages are monogamous—that is, an individual is married to only one other person. This form of marriage exists in all cultures and is the most common form, even in places where other arrangements are recognized. People in monogamous cultures may not have more than one marriage partner at a time. However, if a marriage ends due to the death of a partner or divorce (legal termination of marriage), remarriage is acceptable. Thus, people in monogamous cultures may have more than one spouse during their lifetimes.
Some cultures recognize polygamy—that is, marriage to more than one wife or husband at a time. The marriage of one man to two or more women at the same time is called polygyny. Polyandry refers to the marriage of one woman to two or more men.
Where polygamy exists, in almost all cases it means polygyny is practiced. The Old Testament of the Bible describes the practice of polygyny among the ancient Hebrews. The early Christians outlawed polygyny, which had existed among the pre-Christian tribes of Europe as well as among Hebrews. During the 19th century in the United States, members of the Mormon religion practiced polygyny. Although the church officially rejected the practice of polygyny in 1890, some Mormons still engage in plural relationships. Under Islamic law today, a man may legally have as many as four wives (see Islam). Polygyny is also practiced in some African nations. Even where polygyny is an approved form of marriage, it is a relatively rare occurrence. In reality, most men cannot afford more than one wife. Anthropologists believe that polygyny reflects the male desire for prestige and paternity (fatherhood) rather than the sex drive. It is generally practiced in societies in which wealth, status, and even immortality depend on having many children.
Polyandry is extremely rare. Where it does exist, it seems to be associated with groups who live in extremely impoverished environments. Polyandry is also associated with areas in which there is a shortage of women in comparison to men. In certain areas of Tibet, a woman may marry the eldest son of a family and take his brothers as husbands also. This practice reduces competition among heirs and ensures transmission of land with minimal fragmentation.
III WEDDING CEREMONIES AND CUSTOMS
The ceremony that signifies the beginning of a marriage is known as a wedding. Weddings may be simple or elaborate, but they occur in virtually all societies.
A Ritual Aspects
Anthropologists characterize wedding ceremonies as rituals of transition, or rites of passage. These rites occur when people cross boundaries of age or social status. Any social transition, such as the birth of a child or the death of a person, sets off changes in the lives of all those connected with the individual. Weddings and other rites of passage dramatize these changes for all involved and also allow for the expression of emotions brought on by the events. Weddings announce to the community the union of the individuals marrying and allow the community to express its approval of and support for that union.
Wedding rituals throughout the world share several common features. An essential element of nearly all wedding ceremonies is the symbolic expression of the union between the individuals marrying. This union may be signified by the exchange of rings, the tying of the bride and groom’s garments together, or simply the joining of hands. Other rituals emphasize the function of the marriage as the foundation of the family. For instance, in Hindu wedding ceremonies the bride and groom circle a sacred fire to promote the fertility of the union. Feasting and dancing at weddings by family and friends signifies the community’s blessing on the marriage.
B In the United States and Canada
Until the middle of the 19th century, weddings in Western society were modest events that took place in homes. By 1900 formal weddings and their attendant rituals had become major events in middle-class families. The white wedding—a formal affair with the bride dressed in white—is now the standard throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe, and its practice has spread to Asia and Africa as well.
Many weddings involve a religious ceremony. These ceremonies vary depending on the religion of the bride and groom. Various religions or denominations have distinctive wedding customs. Roman Catholic ceremonies involve a nuptial mass, during which many scriptural texts concerning marriage are read. The presence of a priest and at least two witnesses is essential, as is the expression of consent by the bride and groom. In Orthodox Jewish celebrations, the bride and groom stand under a chuppah—a canopy that symbolizes the home the couple will establish. Following the ceremony the groom smashes a wineglass. Most scholars believe this act commemorates the destruction of the first Jewish temple (the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem) by the Babylonians in 586 bc. In ceremonies governed by the Greek Orthodox Church, the “best man” places crowns attached by ribbon on the heads of the bride and groom, signifying divine sanction of their marriage.
Some American and Canadian couples prefer a nonreligious, or civil, wedding ceremony. Such weddings typically occur in commercial wedding chapels or reception halls, courthouses or other governmental offices, or outdoors. These events tend to be smaller and less formal affairs than traditional religious ceremonies. A government-certified, secular official administers the ceremony in the presence of at least two witnesses. Other couples elope—that is, they have a private wedding ceremony that does not involve a gathering of family and friends.
Most couples exchange some sort of marriage vows (promises). Vows may be prescribed by the church or written by the couple. Traditional Protestant vows include the promise to love and to cherish, for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, until parted by death. The minister asks the bride and the groom if they each make this promise to the other and each responds “I do.”
Following the wedding ceremony, religious or civil, many couples hold a reception. At the reception friends and family gather to eat, drink, listen to music and dance, make toasts, and give gifts to the bride and groom. During the reception, the couple typically cut a special, large cake that is shared with all the guests. The bride and groom may also conduct a receiving line where they greet and thank each guest for attending their wedding.
Many newlyweds take a honeymoon trip after their wedding. During the honeymoon, the couple can spend time by themselves exploring their new status as husband and wife. Popular honeymoon destinations for U.S. and Canadian couples include Hawaii, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
IV PATTERNS AND TRENDS
Marriage patterns throughout the world vary according to custom, tradition, religion, and economic factors. The age at which people marry for the first time, the proportion of adults who marry at some point in their lives, and the likelihood that marriages will end in divorce differ among cultures.
A In the United States and Canada
The dominant patterns of marriage in the United States and Canada are based on those of the countries in northwestern Europe that were the main sources of immigration until the beginning of the 20th century. Historically this European marriage pattern has included a relatively late age of marriage, a relatively large proportion of people remaining single, and an emphasis on the nuclear family (husband, wife, and children) rather than the kin group or clan. During the 20th century, however, marriage and family arrangements have become increasingly diverse.
The United States has historically had higher rates of marriage than those of other industrialized countries, as well as higher rates of divorce. The annual marriage rate in the United States—about 9 new marriages for every 1,000 people—is substantially higher than it is in other industrialized democracies. However, marriage is no longer as widespread as it was several decades ago. The proportion of American adults who are married declined from 72 percent in 1970 to 60 percent in 1998. This does not mean that large numbers of people will remain unmarried throughout their lives. About 90 percent of Americans marry at some point in their lives. Marriage rates in Canada have also declined during the past few decades. In the mid-1940s the annual marriage rate in Canada was 11 new marriages for every 1,000 people. Today 5 new marriages take place each year for every 1,000 people. About half of the current adult population of Canada is married.
The timing of marriage has fluctuated over the past century. In 1995 the median age of women in the United States at the time of their first marriage was 25. The median age of men was about 27. Men and women in the United States marry for the first time an average of five years later than people did in the 1950s. However, young adults of the 1950s married younger than did any previous generation in U.S. history. Today’s later age of marriage is in line with the age of marriage between 1890 and 1940. Moreover, a greater proportion of the population was married (95 percent) during the 1950s than at any time before or since. Experts do not agree on why the “marriage rush” of the late 1940s and 1950s occurred, but most social scientists believe it represented a response to the return of normalcy and prosperity after 15 years of severe economic depression and war. In Canada the median age at first marriage is nearly identical to that in the United States—just over age 24 for women and nearly 27 years of age for men.
Although the divorce rate in the United States has leveled off in recent years, it remains the highest in the industrialized world. In 1997, 4.3 divorces took place for every 1,000 people in the United States. This is the lowest figure since the late 1970s. The median duration of marriage in the United States has increased since 1970, rising from 6.7 years to 7.2 years in 1990. In Canada, each year 2.2 divorces take place for every 1,000 people. Remarriage after divorce has also been common in the United States, with a majority of both men and women remarrying within ten years. Since the 1970s the rate of remarriage has dropped in the United States and Canada. However, cohabitation has become widespread.
B In Other Countries
The average age at which men and women first marry varies tremendously throughout the world. For instance, in India marriages tend to take place at a significantly earlier age than they do in the United States and Canada. The median age of Indian women at the time of their first marriage is just under 19, while for men it is just over 23. Nearly 44 percent of women in India between the ages of 15 and 19 are married. In Jamaica, on the other hand, men and women marry much later in life. The median age of first marriage for both Jamaican women and men is 31. Less than 1 percent of men and women in Jamaica between the ages of 15 and 19 are married.
Rates of marriage and divorce also fluctuate widely throughout the world. For instance, in Cuba the annual marriage rate is 15 new marriages for every 1,000 people, while in South Africa only 3 new marriages take place each year for every 1,000 people. Many of the countries of Western Europe share an annual rate of marriage of roughly 5 for every 1,000 people. Divorce rates in many countries in Western Europe are also similar. In France, Germany, Austria, and Italy approximately 2 divorces take place annually for every 1,000 people. Spain is a notable exception with an annual divorce rate of only 0.6 for every 1,000 people. Higher rates of divorce are found in Eastern European countries—Estonia, Ukraine, and Belarus each have an annual rate of about 4 divorces for every 1,000 people.
V ROLES AND RELATIONSHIPS IN MARRIAGE
Over the past several hundred years, social, economic, religious, and cultural changes have dramatically altered the institution of marriage, especially the roles of husbands and wives, in Western societies. Many factors contribute to the transformation, including the shift from a rural and agricultural society to an urban industrial economy; the increasing emphasis on individual freedom following the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment; and changes in population characteristics, such as the decline of mortality (death) rates and the increase in average life expectancy.
Scholars have identified two primary themes that influence marital change. First, the trend both in society and within marriage has been toward an increase in equality between men and women. Second, individuals have placed greater emphasis on love as the motivation for—and basis of—marriage. In recent decades, these influences have spread beyond Western societies.
A Increased Equality
Historically the roles of men and women within marriages have reflected their roles within society. Laws and customs have traditionally restricted women’s opportunities, limited their legal rights, and required them to be under the protection and control of a man. For example, under the legal doctrine of couverture, developed in England during the Middle Ages, the law viewed the husband and wife as one person—and that person was the husband. In the 18th century, English legal scholar Sir William Blackstone summed up the laws of marriage by stating that “the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated” into that of the husband. English colonists in North America brought their legal traditions with them and the common law of the United States and Canada incorporated the legal disabilities of women. As a result of couverture, a married woman lost many of the legal rights she may have possessed before marriage. For example, a single woman who owned property lost her rights over that property upon marriage. A bride’s wealth became her husband’s.
The tradition of legal patriarchy (male authority) is reflected in social practices related to weddings and marriage. For example, in many cultures the bride’s father “gives” his daughter to the groom. During the wedding, the father may physically walk the bride to the groom and transfer her to the groom’s arm or he may verbally state that he gives her to be married. Traditionally the woman’s loss of her maiden name after marriage signified that her identity was absorbed by that of her husband. It also signified her subordination to him in many matters. For example, a wife was legally obliged to live wherever her husband chose, as well as to maintain the home and submit to her husband’s sexual demands. The husband also had the right to control and physically discipline the wife. In return, the husband was obligated to financially support the family. Wives had no control over property, even if they had owned it before marriage.
In the late 1800s reformers challenged this patriarchal legal tradition and secured passage of Married Women’s Property Acts in the United States and elsewhere. These laws gave women control over property they had owned and brought into marriage, as well as earnings they made outside the home. But these laws did not make husbands and wives legal equals. For instance, a husband could still legally forbid his wife from working outside the home. Laws in Western countries did not begin to reflect marriage as a bond between equals until the middle of the 20th century.
Even as women’s legal status gained parity with that of men, other factors increased the distinction between the roles of husbands and wives. During the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries society began to shift away from a household-based economy. In preindustrial times the family worked together as an economic unit—for example, running a farm. Although the man was considered to be the head of the family, husband and wife both contributed their labor to the family enterprise. The development of the factory system and the growth of cities led to the separation of work and family. This division in turn led to a sharp contrast between the roles of men and women. The pattern of man as breadwinner and woman as housewife subsequently became the cultural ideal of marriage.
Many scholars believe that the central issue in marriage in Western countries today is the redefining of gender relations. Society is in the midst of a difficult transition away from older patterns of marriage, especially male dominance and the division of labor that prevailed in the industrial era. In the United States and other industrialized democracies, one of the most striking social and political developments of the 20th century is the rise in status of women. Both economic and political trends have undermined gender inequality. The shift to a post-industrial, service- and information-oriented economy has drawn increasing numbers of women into the workplace. Modern democracies no longer deny basic rights to women on account of gender.
In response to these changes, analysts expect marriage to become increasingly symmetrical, with greater equality of partners and less stereotypical gender roles. Already women are no longer confined to the role of homemaker and men are not solely defined as the breadwinners. However, women’s lives have changed more than men’s have thus far. The shift of women into the workplace has not been accompanied by comparable change in men’s roles inside the home. Studies indicate that although men have increased the amount of housework and childcare they do, an imbalance remains.
B Importance of Intimacy
The transition from traditional to modern society has increased society’s emphasis on love as the basis for marriage. The concept of romantic love exists in all cultures but is usually not linked to marriage. Love is often portrayed as a dangerous emotion that can end in tragedy. Historically many people in Western societies have also been suspicious of marriages based on love, despite the glorification of love in songs and stories. Passion and romance would quickly fade, many people believed, leaving the couple with a lifetime of regret.
After 1800 a new ideology of marriage gradually took hold. It arose as the result of a variety of social and economic factors associated with the rise of modern society: the shift of work out of the home, the growth of urban living, and the spread of democratic ideals of equality and individual rights. Companionship and emotional satisfaction came to be seen as the criteria for successful marriage. The companionship model of marriage also results from demographic shifts—that is, changes in the characteristics of the population. As the average life span increased and people had fewer children than they had in the past, couples began to experience a prolonged period during which marriage continued without the presence of young children. Compatibility with one’s partner became increasingly important.
As companionship marriage became the norm, people who failed to find satisfaction in their marriages became more likely to consider divorce. Divorce rates in the United States began to rise in the mid-1800s. Each succeeding generation since then has had a higher proportion of marriages end in divorce. The trend has only recently leveled off. A majority of divorced persons remarry, however, suggesting that divorce does not reflect a rejection of the institution of marriage but rather a preference for a different marital partner.
VI LEGAL ASPECTS
Looked at in historical perspective, the role of government in marriage is a relatively recent development. In Western Europe before the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, the Catholic Church presided over marriage. Under traditional pre-Christian practices, in some parts of northern Europe weddings took place in private homes, with elder family members or local officials presiding.
Under the federal system of government in the United States, the individual states regulate marriage. Virtually all states require that individuals must be 18 years of age before they can marry. Persons below that age must obtain parental permission. To obtain a marriage license, most states require individuals to undergo a blood test for rubella and syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease. Many states also require a waiting period of one to five days between the issuing of the license and the wedding ceremony. The marriage must be formalized before a qualified official in either a religious ceremony or a civil wedding. The couple must register a marriage certificate with the government after the wedding ceremony.
Virtually all states ban marriages between certain blood relatives, such as between parent and child or brother and sister. All states prohibit bigamy—that is, a marriage in which either partner is already married. In the 1967 decision of Loving v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that laws prohibiting interracial marriage were unconstitutional.
Although marriage in contemporary industrialized societies usually requires religious or legal recognition, or both, some couples may live together as if they are married and not seek formal approval of their union. In recent years, living together as an unmarried couple, known as cohabitation, has become a widespread practice. In the United States roughly half of all newlyweds have lived together before marriage. Some jurisdictions legally recognize common law marriage. Laws in such places consider couples married if they have lived together for a certain length of time.
VII SAME-SEX UNIONS AND GAY MARRIAGE
Several countries have passed legislation to recognize homosexual unions. Such legislation generally refers to homosexual unions as civil unions or registered partnerships rather than as marriages. These unions usually do not entail the full array of rights to which heterosexual married couples are entitled. Four countries currently legalize gay marriage. They are Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, and Spain.
In 2001 the Netherlands became the first country to legalize same-sex marriages. The new Dutch law eliminated references to a person’s sex in the legal definition of marriage and granted same-sex married couples the same rights that heterosexual married couples have in areas such as inheritance, taxes, divorce, and pension benefits. The law permitted same-sex couples to adopt Dutch children, but not children from other countries. In 2003 Belgium legalized same-sex marriages. The Belgian law gave married homosexual couples most of the same rights as married heterosexual couples have, although it did not allow gay couples to adopt children. In 2005 Spain legalized same-sex marriages. The new law eliminated all legal distinctions between same-sex and heterosexual marriages, including the right to adopt children.
Canadian courts began legalizing gay marriage in a number of provinces in 2002. The courts ruled that a ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional because it violated the equal rights provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In July 2005 the Canadian government approved legislation making such unions legal throughout the country. Canada thus became the fourth country to allow gay marriage.
In late 2005 two other countries took steps to allow same-sex civil unions or gay marriage. In the United Kingdom a law allowing civil partnerships went into force in December 2005. The law gives same-sex couples in civil partnerships many of the same financial and legal benefits as married heterosexual couples enjoy. In South Africa the Constitutional Court ruled in December 2005 that the country’s Marriage Act was unconstitutional because it did not include same-sex unions in the legal definition of marriage. The South African constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The Constitutional Court gave the South African parliament a year to amend the law, and the new Civil Union Act went into effect at the end of November 2006. With the new law, South Africa became the first country in Africa to legalize same-sex marriage. The law guarantees that married same-sex couples in South Africa are not denied the legal rights associated with marriage, such as the right to open joint bank accounts and to visit each other as family members in hospitals. However, the law also includes provisions allowing clergy and civil marriage officers to deny gay couples their services.
In most of the United States, marriage between partners of the same sex is not legally recognized and the issue of homosexual marriage provokes controversy. Religious conservatives who believe that the Bible forbids same-sex relationships constitute the most outspoken opponents of gay marriage in the United States. These critics, who fear that the recognition of gay partnerships threatens the institution of marriage, have spearheaded legislative efforts to explicitly restrict the definition of marriage to heterosexual couples.
In 1996 the Congress of the United States adopted the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which (1) allows states to enact laws that deny recognition of same-sex marriages obtained in other states, and (2) defines marriage, for purposes of federal law, as the legal union of one man and one woman. By 2004, 39 states had adopted legislation similar to DOMA. However, gay-rights activists continue to work toward legal recognition of same-sex unions. In 2000 Vermont became the first state to allow gay partners to join in a civil union that grants them the same rights under state law that married heterosexual couples have. Connecticut legalized civil unions in 2005.
In 2003 the Supreme Judicial Court, the highest court in the state of Massachusetts, ruled that same-sex marriages are permitted under the state’s constitution. The court clarified its ruling in February 2004 by saying that civil unions were not a permissible substitute for marriage. On May 17, 2004, authorities in Massachusetts performed the first legal same-sex marriages in the United States. Massachusetts legislators pledged to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriages but permit civil unions. State voters would need to approve such an amendment.
Following the Massachusetts court decision authorizing gay marriages, some U.S. cities and counties—including San Francisco, California, and Portland, Oregon—began issuing marriage licenses and performing weddings for thousands of gay couples. Opponents argued that these marriages violated state law and immediately challenged them in court. In August 2004 the California Supreme Court invalidated nearly 4,000 same-sex marriages performed earlier in the year in San Francisco. In April 2005 the Oregon Supreme Court similarly nullified nearly 3,000 marriage licenses issued to Portland-area gay couples. The courts ruled that local officials improperly disregarded state law in granting marriage licenses and certificates to same-sex couples. During 2004, partly in reaction to the Massachusetts decision, citizens in 13 states approved state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriages. As of 2005, 18 states had changed their constitutions to ban same-sex marriages.
Although same-sex marriages faced considerable political and religious opposition in the United States, an increasing number of local governments and private corporations recognize domestic partnerships for both homosexual and heterosexual unmarried couples. This recognition allows members of a committed but unmarried couple to enjoy some of the practical benefits enjoyed by married couples, such as insurance, hospital visitation privileges, and inheritance rights. Despite increasing acceptance, domestic partnerships have not been accorded the broad social and legal approval that marriage generally receives.