Anthropology: The Origin, Meaning, and Diversity in Marriage

A Definition of Marriage

Marriage rings

Let’s start from the beginning with a definition. What is the definition of marriage? According to Merriam-Webster, marriage is: “the state of being united as spouses in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law”. Not really romantic when it’s put this way, right? These are the hard facts. Then come the reasons why people get married;  love, family, religion, etc.

How Did Marriage Begin and Why?

Couple walks on train rails.
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The first recorded attestation of marriage ceremonies dates back to 2350 B.C. This union was between a woman and a man from Mesopotamia. For the next several hundred years, marriage developed into a universal tradition adopted by the ancient Hebrews, Greek, and Romans.

Before that, most anthropologists thought that families consisted of loosely organized groups of as many as 30 people. These groups were composed of several male leaders, shared by multiple women, and children. With the venue of agriculture, the members of the tribes began to settle down, therefore a more stable society organization was needed.

In the beginning, marriage had little to do with love or religion. Why did people marry back then? The purpose of marriage was to bind a woman to a man and guarantee that the children were biological heirs. The woman became the man’s property by the act of marriage. And don’t forget that, for a long time, the bride gave up her name to symbolize the surrendering of her identity. Nowadays, things have changed a lot and women can decide to change or keep their name as they wish. Also, depending on where you live, traditions and customs may be very different and your wedding arrangements and preferences may vary from country to country.

Greek and Roman Wedding

My Big Fat Greek Wedding Movie Poster
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In Ancient Greece, a father would hand over and pledge his daughter for the purpose of producing legitimate offspring. If they did not, the husband was allowed to return them and marry someone else. As for Hebrew marriages, it was common for men to take several wives. Men were also allowed to satisfy their sexual needs with concubines and prostitutes. Men were free to satisfy their sexual desires with other women. They were even engaged with teenage male lovers, while the wife needed to stay home to tend to the household. If a woman was not apt to give offspring, the husband could just return her and marry someone else.

Catholic Wedding

Couples get married in catholic ceremony.
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With the rise of the Roman Catholic Church, a priest’s blessing became mandatory for a marriage to be legally recognized. Catholic weddings undergo many time-honored traditions. By the eighth century, marriage was a common ceremony and also became an association with God’s grace. Fortunately, women were given more appreciation in this union made with the Church blessings and men started to show greater respect to their wives. Divorce was forbidden and the Christian alliance became synonymous with the exclusivity of your partner’s body, meaning sex outside marriage was prohibited. Men were now pressured to be sexually faithful. Still, in this union, the man was the head of the family, leaving little to nothing to the wife’s wishes.

When Did Love Become a Thing in Marriage?

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Before Cupid ever became involved, marriage was done for practical reasons and the idea of romantic love only appeared in the Middle Ages. A lot was said about the French being the ones who invented this complex concept of the union of love. Everybody remembers the tale of Sir Lancelot and King Arthur’s wife, Queen Guinevere. The story goes that a brave knight fell madly in love with someone else’s wife. Then, later on in the 13th century, Richard de Fournival, physician to the king of France, wrote “Advice on Love,” in which he says that a woman sends forth her love with seductive glances—”anything but a frank and open entreaty”. That’s a lot of work for Cupid to convince people that marriage should not only be done for practical purposes but should also be an act of love.

Lots of Changes in the Air

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There have been many changes over the years regarding weddings that have put a lot of pressure on the original tradition of marriage. First, when women were allowed to vote. Then the union basically consisted of two full citizens as the wife had the same rights as her husband. Eventually, birth control also allows women to enjoy and express their sexuality. Historian Stephanie Coontz, the author of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, said “Within the past 40 years, marriage has changed more than in the last 5,000.” Then came same-sex marriage, slowly but surely started its way through some more closed-minded group of people. Some countries, states, and families are still a little reluctant about the idea, but a lot of progress has been made in that sense.

Also, marriage doesn’t have to be in a church or another place of religion. Nowadays, lots of couples get married at the courthouse as a civil union. Furthermore, when you live with your partner for more than two years, you are considered a de facto union and it’s basically the same thing in lots of ways as if you were actually married to each other.

Location, Location, Location

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Location is important when looking to buy a house, where to send your children to school, and now location also has its place when it comes to marriage. Companies like Club-Med and Sandals Resorts have popularized weddings as part of an all-inclusive package and have become something really in demand in the past years. Your immediate family and close friends will join you anywhere around the world. Many destinations offer a variety of wedding packages, offering to plan everything for you. The only thing left to do is enjoy an alcoholic beverage with your future husband or wife at the beach.

Wedding in Vegas

Groom holds bride in Las Vegas.
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Who hasn’t heard of somebody or a friend of somebody getting married in Vegas? Bizarre wedding or an exciting adventure? Quick, easy, and cheap, what more could you ask for? Imagine the excitement of being on the strip and doing something as spontaneous as marrying the love of your life. Weddings are usually planned months or years in advance. But, weddings in Las Vegas are just a spontaneous and fun alternative. You just decide right there on the spot and say: “Hey babe let’s go to Vegas and get married!”. We’ve seen this a lot in movies. However, people do it in real life too!

Celebrity Wedding

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Who doesn’t like gossip about our most beloved celebrities? It’s everywhere, on TV, in magazines, or on the internet. Who got married to who? Who got divorced? Did Cardi B file for divorce following rumors of infidelity? The stories seem to keep coming and coming and sometimes the drama gets its way in there too. Some people just like being informed and getting to know what’s going on in the world of the famous. While others are really addicted and idolize the stars who are part of these happy or sad stories.

Long-term Marriage

Senior couple walking along the beach on sand with blue green ocean to the left and clear skies in the distance.
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Isn’t it beautiful to see old couples still holding hands after so many years of being together? The saying goes till death do us part. This does not only happen in movies! Some people find their soulmate, as the saying goes, and live happily ever after. How do people stay together that long? What are the keys to a successful marriage? Communication is one of the most important in order for 2 people to stay married for many years. Communicating clearly and often is what’s going to make the relationship go forward and grow while avoiding unnecessary misunderstandings. Also, something as simple as saying thank you can go a long way to maintaining a strong and healthy relationship.

Even though you’re in love and you want to spend the rest of your life with your lover, personal space and personal time are as important as a couple time. When you see your spouse again, the time you share will be appreciated even more. It is normal to disagree sometimes. It’s not because you are married for better or for worse that you will always have the same points of view as your partner. And it is OK. If it comes to a heated debate and you need to walk away for a bit, it’s fine. Take a breath and come back when you are ready to discuss.

Compromise also plays a big part in a harmonious relationship. Finally, being able to trust and forgive is a giveaway if you want your marriage to last. Remember that trust needs to be earned. Trust is a process. That’s why we say building trust. Forgiveness is important as everyone makes mistakes and it’s important to be able to forgive and move on and appreciate the wonderful moments that are still to come alongside your spouse.

To be Married or not to be Married?

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That is the question nowadays. Depending on where you live and which religion you adhere to, marriage is way more lenient towards couples who have a personal choice than a natural process in life that must be followed, otherwise, family, friends, and society will judge you. The choice is yours. Tradition and religion used to play a big role in the decision to get married. In fact, there was almost no decision to make as this was the way to go.

Unhappy Marriage

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We talked about trying your best to make your relationship work but sometimes, even after all the efforts, it just doesn’t work. And it’s OK. We’ve gone a long way from the times when divorce was taboo and your family would disown you and not talk to you anymore. Sometimes people stay for the kids. In order to provide a steady life either emotionally or economically for their children, couples stay together until the kids move out.

I guess the pros and cons have to be accounted for in those difficult situations. Marriage could be one of the most beautiful things in life, but it could also be a very bad adventure. Either you settle with someone for the wrong reasons or your marriage just falls apart and, you don’t feel heard anymore, sometimes the only solution is to get a divorce. Make sure if there is abuse or any sort to seek help. Friends, family, attorneys, therapists can all play a part in your recovery before, during, and after a divorce.

Marrying for Citizenship

Marriage Fraud in Red box with Indian wedding in background.
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Some marriages are about love or not. Some are strictly for legal reasons, for example, immigration. Immigrating to another country is sometimes a lot easier if you are married to a resident of that country. I am not proposing to do this if you want to immigrate to another part of the world, as this kind of action is often recognized as a fraud. It is actually called marriage fraud and, unfortunately, there are lots of victims.

The Tinder Generation

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I don’t mean to bash on dating apps because I’ve personally known couples who met online and are still having the best time of their life together. But to be honest, the new trend in online dating is that you meet many people without maybe giving them a second chance to start a long and steady relationship. It’s more ephemeral meetings that do not involve commitment necessarily.

Also, there is a fact that people think that the grass is always greener on the other side and, unfortunately, go from one relationship to another without even trying to have a deeper look at what might be the problem. There was a problem, so I quit and moved on. Unfortunately, people are missing out on good opportunities by not making the effort or taking the time to work or discuss the situation. Our world is now going faster than ever and almost everything, and I mean everything, can be bought or found online…even love.

Wedding Post-COVID

Couples kissing with masks on due to COVID.
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COVID has changed a lot in our lives. COVID has changed the way we live, the way we shop, the way we think, and even the way we get married. Many had all their plans ready for the big day. Unfortunately, plans were canceled or changed drastically and people did micro-celebrations. At the peak of the pandemic, no reunion was possible, therefore some people had no choice but to postpone their wedding plans. Then, conditions were a little bit less strict and small groups were allowed to be together, but still with a lot of sanitary measures. This dream of a big wedding, wearing your beautiful white dress that you’ve been thinking of since you were a little girl, marrying your prince charming in front of a huge crowd, will not be happening this year.

Cultural Significance of Marriage in Anthropology

Bride and groom kiss on grass in their wedding outfits.
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Whether you marry the love of your life or your religion-inspired you to go to alter, the fact is that relationships need trust, communication, compromise, and work. Culture, love, family, or just in need of a partner in crime, marriage is something that gets people closer and more intimate. There have been a lot of researches in anthropology about marriage. The significance of marriage is different for everybody. It may be spending time in retirement with someone or having someone to share the beautiful moments of life with. Of course, marriage is not always easy, but in the end, it is so rewarding to have a person to share your life with and enjoy every day to the fullest.

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