Marriage and the Family

Lisa M Vaughn. 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: H James Birx. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2010.

Marriage and families are found in all societies; however, marriage and family customs vary significantly across cultures. Cultures differ with regard to what is considered appropriate premarital behavior, whom one marries, how one marries, a proper marriage ceremony, and length and purpose of the marriage. From an anthropological perspective, there are various marriage systems or “marriagelike” relationships that fulfill both biological and social functions. Regarding families, all societies have parent-child social groups but the size and form of the family varies. Although marriage remains customary across societies, it does not necessarily constitute the basis for family life.


Marriage is found in virtually all societies, and the majority (some 90%) of people in every society get married at least once in their lifetime (Carroll & Wolpe, 1996; Ember, Ember, & Peregrine, 2006). Cultures vary with regard to what is considered appropriate premarital behavior, whom one marries, how one marries, a proper marriage ceremony, and length and purpose of the marriage. Each culture also defines marriage differently although there are some common criteria across many societies. Marriage is typically defined simply as a “socially approved sexual and economic union, usually between a woman and a man” (Ember et al., 2006, p. 343), which is generally denoted symbolically in some way (e.g., ceremony, certificate, symbols—rings). Normally, there are reciprocal rights and obligations between the two spouses and their future children. Viewing marriage as a social process where new relationships are set up between the kin of both the husband and the wife essentially describes all forms of marriage. With this, marriage maintains social patterns through the production of offspring.

Traditionally, marriage was defined as a union between a man and a woman with children born to the woman being recognized as legitimate offspring to both parents (Royal Anthropological Institute, 1951). Marriage was thought to change the status of a man and a woman, stipulate the degree of sexual access for the married partners, establish the legitimacy of the children born to the wife, and create relationships between the kin of both the wife and husband. Anthropologists have since noted the exceptions to this standard definition and have expanded it to reflect broader practices. As such, Miller (2008) offers a working definition of marriage given the complexity of practices that fall under the umbrella of marriage—“a more or less stable union, usually between two people, who may be, but are not necessarily, co-residential, sexually involved with each other, and procreative with each other” (p. 140).

British anthropologist Edmund Leach (1955) observed that marriage may accomplish the following depending on the society. Leach described these rights of marriage as possibilities for either or both spouses:

  • Establish legal father and mother of children
  • Provide control over sexuality of spouse
  • Give rights to labor of spouse
  • Give rights over spouse’s property
  • Create a joint fund of property (for children)
  • Begin a socially significant affinal relationship between spouses and their relatives

In some cultures, there are other reasons for marriage. For instance, the Hindu religion considers marriage sacred and representative of the marriage between the sun goddess Surya and the moon god Soma. Without a wife, a man is considered spiritually incomplete (Kumari, 1988). Representing the two interacting principles of Yin (female, passive, weak) and Yang (male, active, strong), long-term relationships in China are thought to be a spiritual necessity that ensures survival. Still others may marry to gain higher status (Sonko, 1994).

From the ethnographic literature, we know that one group of people did not have marriage as it has been typically defined. During the 19th century, a caste group in southern India called the Nayar appear to have treated sexual and economic relations between men and women as separate from marriage. At puberty, Nayar girls took ritual husbands but after the ceremony, the husband had no responsibility for his wife and typically never saw her again. The girl lived in a large household with extended family and was visited by other men through the years. If she became pregnant by any of them, the man was not responsible for supporting her or the child except for paying for a midwife. The female’s relatives remained responsible for supporting her. Thought to be a response to extended male absence during military service, Nayar unions seemed to fulfill the needs of this particular caste group within a historical and cultural period. Today, the Nayar men are not involved in soldiering to the extent they once were, and stable marital relationships have become the norm (Ember et al., 2006).

Across societies, many people live in long-term, common-law domestic partnerships that are not legally sanctioned. Some people have civil marriages which are licensed and legalized by a justice of the peace while others go through religious marriage ceremonies so they are united from a religious perspective but not a legal one (Kottak, 2008).

Choice of Marriage Partner

Every society has directives and ideological notions about whom one should marry ranging from arranged marriages to exogamous individual choice of partner. Sometimes these directives are informal and implicit, and other times they are formal and explicit. Marriage is one of the primary ways to establish relationships of affinity in contrast to consanguine relationships, which are from bloodlines.

Exogamy and Endogamy

Exogamy, the practice of seeking a husband or wife outside of one’s own defined social group, has adaptive value because it links people into a wider social network that can nurture, provide for, and protect during times of need (Kottak, 2008). For example, the Hindus of northern India practice village exogamy in order to ensure that spouses live in a far-away village or town. In addition, exogamy ensures genetic diversity between groups and maintains a successful human species.

In contrast, endogamy is the practice of marriage within a particular group so that the spouse comes from a specific social category. Sometimes endogamy is based on geographic location. For instance, village endogamy is favored in the eastern Mediterranean among both Christians and Muslims, and among Muslims throughout India and among Hindus in southern India. In other cultures, endogamy occurs to maintain a strong kinship network. Some religious and ethnic groups prefer endogamy in order that groups remain intact. An extreme example of endogamy is India’s caste system, which, although abolished in 1949, still remains in terms of structure and ideology. Royal endogamy, usually royal brother-sister marriage in a few societies, is similar to caste endogamy whereby certain sacred, political, and economic functions can be maintained. Inca Peru, ancient Egypt, and traditional Hawaii allowed royal brother-sister marriages. Other kingdoms, including European royalty, have practiced endogamy through cousin marriage rather than brother-sister marriage (Kottak, 2008).

Hypergyny, Hypogyny, and Isogamy

Status also plays an important role in the selection of a spouse across cultures. Hypergyny, or “marrying up,” indicates a marriage where the bride has a lower status than the groom. Hypergyny is commonplace in northern India especially among upper-status groups and in middle- and upper-class individuals in the United States. The opposite of hypergyny is hypogyny, or “marrying down,” in which a bride has a higher status than the groom. Hypogyny is relatively rare cross-culturally. Isogamy is marriage between partners who are status equals and occurs in cultures where gender roles are viewed as holding equal value (Miller, 2008).

Arranged Marriages

Arranged marriages are marriages that are “arranged” by parents of the bride and groom based on whether they believe the families are good matches. Arranged marriages are well-known in many Middle Eastern, African, and Asian countries. The most important criteria that parents consider are the family’s reputation, social status, education, occupation and income of the spouse, and the absence of undesirable family traits like mental illness or divorce (Miller, 2008).

Cousin Marriages

An example of kin endogamy is cousin marriages, which has two forms: parallel cousins and cross-cousins. The marriage between parallel cousins is comprised of the children of either one’s father’s brother or one’s mother’s sister (linking siblings are the same gender). The marriage between cross-cousins includes children of either one’s father’s sister or one’s mother’s brother (linking siblings are of different genders). Parallel-cousin marriage is practiced by many Muslim groups in the Middle East and northern Africa, especially patrilateral parallel-cousin marriage, which is cousin marriage into the father’s line (Miller, 2008). Matrilateral cross-cousin marriage (cousin marriage into the mother’s line) is favored by Hindus of southern India but only includes about a fourth of the population (Ramesh, Srikumari, & Sukumar, 1989).

Levirate and Sororate

Still common as a form of second marriage, cultural norms in many societies require individuals to marry the spouse of deceased relatives so that alliances between descent groups can be maintained. Levirate is the custom of a man marrying his brother’s widow. Sororate describes when a woman marries her deceased sister’s husband. In some societies, this practice is permitted but not required and widows make other arrangements (Potash, 1986).

Courtship Patterns and Mate Selection

There is a plethora of research about what attracts people to potential mates. Proximity has long been linked to attraction, and physical attractiveness seems to be a key ingredient in romantic relationships especially for males. Several hypotheses have been proposed about what attracts someone to a partner for a romantic relationship. The matching hypothesis proposes that people with equal physical characteristics select each other as partners (Brehm, 1985). The similarity hypothesis proposes that people with similar demographics of age, race, religion, social class, education, intelligence, attitudes, and physical attractiveness tend to form intimate relationships (Brehm, 1985). Another approach is the reciprocity hypothesis, suggesting that people like others who are unlike them (Byrne & Murnen, 1988).

How and why individuals are attracted to each other varies significantly across cultures. Despite some of the differences, there are cross-cultural similarities with regard to mate selection. In a well-known study conducted by evolutionary psychologist David Buss (1989, 1994), more than 10,000 respondents across 37 different cultures responded to questions about factors in choosing mates. In 36 out of 37 cultures, females, as compared with males, rated financial prospects as more important, and in 29 of the 36 cultures, they rated ambition and industriousness as more important. In all 37 cultures, females preferred older mates and males preferred younger mates. In 34 of the cultures, males rated good looks as more important than did females, and in 23 of the cultures, males rated chastity as more important than females. Buss concluded that his findings represented and supported an evolutionary framework of universal mate selection across cultures whereby females look for cues in potential male mates that signal resource acquisition and males place more value on reproductive capacity.

Others have emphasized the cultural differences in Buss’s study. As compared with more advanced or modern cultures, traditional, less advanced cultures place greater value on chastity, domestic skills (e.g., housekeeping), desire for home and children, and abilities to support the home (Zebrowitz-McArthur, 1988). In China, India, Taiwan, and Iran, chastity was viewed as highly desirable in a prospective mate while in the Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway, it was considered irrelevant (Gardiner & Kosmitzki, 2002). Being a good housekeeper was highly valued in Estonia and China and of little value in Western Europe and North America. Refinement/neatness was highly valued in Nigeria and Iran and less so in Great Britain, Ireland, and Australia. Being religious was highly valued in Iran, moderately valued in India, and little valued in Western Europe and North America (Buss, 1994, p. 199).

Gender differences were also revealed in Buss’s study. Women across cultures place high value on characteristics of men that relate to providing resources—good earning capacity, financial prospects, ambition, industriousness, and social status. Men across the 37 cultures place a high premium on the physical appearance of a potential mate; according to Buss (1994), this supports an evolutionary argument because men use physical attractiveness as an indicator that the woman is fertile and has good reproductive capacity.

Other similar studies have shown that men across cultures rate physical attractiveness higher than women do in terms of preferences in a marital partner (Hatfield & Sprecher, 1995). However, there seem to be more consistencies than differences in descriptions of physical attractiveness. For instance, female attractiveness cross-culturally is connoted by characteristics of kindness, understanding, intelligence, good health, emotional stability, dependability, and a pleasing disposition (Shiraev & Levy, 2007). Attractiveness is usually described in terms of cleanliness, health, and feminine plumpness. Although the degree of plumpness varies across cultures, extreme thinness seems to be considered unattractive and unhealthy (Zebrowitz-McArthur, 1988).

Other theories, such as the social construction perspective, suggest that interpersonal attraction is due to individual and cultural factors instead of evolutionary factors. One study conducted in the United States highlights gender similarities in mate selection with both men and women rating kindness, consideration, honesty, and a sense of humor as important traits in mate selection (Goodwin, 1990). A more recent study (Pines, 2001) of American and Israeli students and their perceptions of romantic relationships combines both the evolutionary and social construction theories. Pines (2001) found that more men than women, regardless of culture, reported physical attractiveness as a major part of attraction (evolutionary theory). However, culture was important in other factors of attraction (e.g., compared with Israelis, Americans indicated status, closeness, and similarity as key determinants of attraction—social construction theory). In one study demonstrating different standards of beauty, Daibo, Murasawa, and Chou (1994) compared judgments of physical attractiveness made by Japanese and Koreans. In Japan, attractiveness ratings were positively correlated with large eyes, small mouths, and small chins. In Korea, however, attractiveness ratings were positively correlated with large eyes, small and high noses, and thin and small faces. Koreans were more likely than the Japanese to attach other judgments such as maturity and likeability to judgments of attractiveness (Daibo et al., 1994).

Patterns of courting and flirtation have similarities across many cultures (Aune & Aune, 1994), but there are many exceptions to the rules. Kissing, for example, is a widely acceptable cross-cultural phenomenon but is unknown to people in some cultures in Africa and South America, who would not consider kissing as an aspect of mate selection and reproduction (Shiraev & Levy, 2007). In Mediterranean cultures, physical affection is displayed by touching as a form of communication and is considered acceptable and appropriate, whereas in the United States it may be considered inappropriate with some groups. The expectation of marital fidelity appears to be almost universal, although among some Arctic peoples, it is customary to offer a host’s wife to a guest (Shiraev & Levy, 2007). Men everywhere react more negatively, as compared with women, when their partners share sexual fantasies about having sex with others. Women everywhere are more distressed than men when their partner is kissing someone else (Rathus, Nevid, & Fischer-Rathus, 1993).

A relatively new phenomenon is Internet dating and the development of computer-mediated relationships (CMR). Since the 1990s, the Internet has become a primary venue for social encounters across the globe—offering an expanded world of mate possibilities in a shorter period at less expense (Lawson & Leck, 2006). Although some theorists have lamented the technological isolation and reduction of face-to-face interaction leading to emotional disconnection or superficial attraction that can occur with the Internet (Lawson & Leck, 2006), others have suggested that the Internet can be helpful in promoting romantic relationships because physical attributes and traditional/ constraining gender and relationship roles are downplayed while other factors related to emotional intimacy (e.g., rapport, similarity, mutual self-disclosure) are emphasized (Lawson & Leck, 2006). Whitty and Carr (2006) describe how online relating is different than romantic and sexual relationships offline. Advantages include opportunity to “grow” a relationship, safe space to flirt and experiment with relationship development, and greater freedom for people who are anxious or introverted (Whitty & Carr, 2006). The biggest benefits of Internet dating are the sheer number of potential partners and the freedom of choice among partners (Lawson & Leck, 2006). In fact, in one study examining the dynamics of Internet dating, Internet daters reported being lonely and many said they were seeking comfort after a crisis situation. The majority of the respondents liked the control over the presentation of self on the Internet and the feeling of a safe environment for getting to know someone. Finally, respondents reported that Internet dating provided freedom from commitment and stereotypic roles (Lawson & Leck, 2006).

Some of the typical dating problems still remain with Internet dating—people still tell lies, trust has to be negotiated, presentation of self must be managed, compatibility continues to be important, and appearance and shyness issues do not completely disappear when dating online. Rejection and emotional pain still can be part of Internet dating, as they are with face-to-face dating. There is also a dark side of online relationships, including Internet infidelity, Internet addiction, pedophilia, cyberharassment, cyberstalking, and misrepresentation of self (Whitty & Carr, 2006). However, many Internet daters say they are willing to take the risks associated because of the advantages offered by this technology (Lawson & Leck, 2006). Overall, successful relationships online start with people being honest and upfront in their profiles (Whitty & Carr, 2006).

Restrictions on Marriage: The Incest Taboo

One of the most basic and universal rules of exclusion to marriage is the incest taboo, or a rule prohibiting marriage or sexual intercourse between certain kinship relations. The most common form of incest taboo across societies is against marriage or sexual intercourse between fathers and their children and mothers and their children. In the majority of cultures, brother-sister marriage is prohibited, although there are exceptions. Historically, brother-sister marriage in royal families was considered the norm and even existed to some extent in the general population (Kottak, 2008). A prime example of this was brother-sister marriages of royalty in Egypt at the time of the Roman Empire (Miller, 2008). In some cultures, incest taboos include cousin marriage, although in other cultures, cousin marriage is considered a viable option in order to build localized kinship networks. In other groups, such as the Nuer of southern Sudan, the incest taboo includes all members of the patrilineage in order to create widely dispersed kin networks (Kottak, 2008; Miller, 2008).

One of the most practical explanations for the incest taboo is that it arose to ensure exogamy, which was evolutionarily advantageous in terms of increasing survival via the creation and maintenance of alliances outside the social network. Despite prevalence of the taboo, in one study across 87 societies, some occurrences of incest were identified (Meigs & Barlow, 2002). Reportedly incest was “widely practiced” among the Yanomami of Venezuela and Brazil. Among the Ashanti people, punishment for incest shifted from death to merely being fined. Among 24 Ojibwa individuals, 8 cases of parent-child incest and 10 cases of brother-sister incest were found (Kottak, 2008). In Western societies, father-daughter incest is considered a risk under certain conditions (Meigs & Barlow, 2002). Father-daughter incest is most common with stepfathers and nonbiological male household members but also occurs with biological fathers, especially those who were absent or did little caretaking of their daughters in childhood (Kottak, 2008).

The Act of Marriage

Societies have some way of marking the onset of marriage. Many societies have formal ceremonies and rituals that denote the beginning of marriage while others use symbolic or informal practices to indicate that a marriage has occurred. In the societies where a ceremony occurs, several elements emphasizing important aspects of the particular culture commonly occur as part of the ceremony. For instance, feasting and celebrations typically accompany marriage ceremonies, often with the underlying purpose of bringing the two families and friends together in unification. Shinto customs are still followed by many in Japanese wedding ceremonies with the drinking of rice wine (sake) after the ceremony to confirm the marriage (Gardiner & Kosmitzki, 2002). In some cultures, marriage ceremony customs include ritualized expressions of hostility between kin groups such as the trading of insults, which occurs on the Polynesian atoll of Pukapuka (Kottak, 2008). In Kenya, the rebuilding of a house in the bride’s village represents an important part of the marriage ceremony (Gardiner & Kosmitzki, 2002).

Love and Marriage

The role of romantic love has been debated historically and cross-culturally. Many argue that romantic love did not become part of marriage until Western Europe and America accepted the idea given the strong influence of the Enlightenment and the individualistic emphasis during the French and American Revolutions (Coontz, 2007). Romantic love is more common in cultures where women are dependent on men economically, but increasingly, marriage based on romantic love is becoming widespread in many cultures (Levine, Sato, Hashimoto, & Verma, 1995).

There is cultural variation in the extent to which love plays a role in marriage. Marriage for love is a fairly recent development in the Western world and may be related to the individualistic orientation (Coontz, 2005). In many Western cultures, marriage is viewed as the culmination of romantic love represented by the idealistic and somewhat “fairy-tale” notion that people meet their soul mates, fall in love, marry, and live “happily ever after,” proving that “love conquers all” (Gardiner & Kosmitzki, 2002). People in collectivistic cultures place less emphasis on romantic love and love commitment in marriage. Historically, people married to acquire status through influential in-laws, for political reasons, to forge family alliances, to increase labor forces, and to effect business mergers. Romantic love was not unknown but it was not considered an essential part of marriage and thus was discouraged on the basis of being a selfish and weak reason to marry. For instance, in ancient India, love before marriage was perceived as irresponsible and antisocial. During the Middle Ages, the French viewed love as a type of insanity only curable through sexual intercourse either with the beloved or with someone else (Coontz, 2007).

In contrast, many of the arranged marriages common in Asia, Africa, and other parts of the world do not have romantic love as a basis (Gardiner & Kosmitzki, 2002). This “Eastern ideal” is based on the notion that individuals have several possible mates with whom they could have a successful and enduring marriage. Arranged marriage is still practiced in some places, such as India, where arrangements may be made between families during a child’s infancy. Such arrangements are typically based on the parents’ status and knowledge of other families and possible matches; the marriage is considered the blending of two families (Ember et al., 2006; Gardiner & Kosmitzki, 2002). Arranged marriages are viewed as more than just a union between two individuals and more as an alliance between families and even communities (Gardiner & Kosmitzki, 2002). However, trends are changing even in countries where arranged marriage has been popular. For example, in Japan, love marriages are replacing the earlier practice of arranged marriages, yet traditional customs often remain as part of the ceremony.

For thousands of years, the institution of marriage served many economic, political, and social functions at the cost of minimizing the needs and wishes of individuals (Coontz, 2005). Especially in the last 200 years, marriage, particularly in Europe and America, has become more personal and private with a greater emphasis on the emotional and sexual needs of the couple. With this historical transition came free choice in mate selection as the societal norm and love as the primary reason for marriage. As Coontz (2005) notes, “Marriage has become more joyful, more loving, and more satisfying for many couples than ever before in history. At the same time it has become optional and more brittle. These two strands of change cannot be disentangled” (p. 306). For some, this transformation of marriage and love has been appreciated as a liberating option from restrictive social and cultural expectations. For others, the shift has meant a significant loss of rules and protocol for relationships with nothing offered in its place. With such factors, the need to marry or remain unhappily married decreases.

Coontz (2005) suggests historical factors that have supported single living and personal autonomy. Factors include the belief that women have just as much sexual desire as men; less societal/governmental regulation of personal behavior and conformity; reliable birth control, which became readily available in the 1960s, relieving women from fears of unwanted pregnancy; increasing economic independence of women; and more time- and labor-saving devices, which have lessened the demand on women to do housekeeping. Examining the role of love in marriage provides a unique lens that reveals many aspects of culture, economic, interpersonal, and emotional (Padilla, Hirsch, Muñoz-Laboy, Sember, & Parker, 2007).

Economic Aspects of Marriage

Most marriages (approximately 75%) are accompanied by some type of economic transaction, and exchanges between partners of goods or services and their families and friends (Ember et al., 2006).

Bride Price

Bride price or bridewealth, common in horticultural and pastoralist cultures, is the transfer of goods or money from the groom’s family to the bride’s family. This is the most common economic transaction across cultures. Payment of the bride price can be in the form of money, livestock, or even food. Bride price still occurs globally but is most popular in Africa and Oceania. For example, the Nandi typically offer five to seven cattle, one or two sheep and goats, cowrie shells, and money equivalent to one cow as the bride price.

Brideservice is a type of bride price where labor is transferred from the groom to his parents-in-law over a designated time period. This still occurs in about 19% of societies that have an economic transaction as part of marriage. One particular example is the brideservice still practiced in the Amazon (Ember et al., 2006).

Exchange of Families

In a few societies (about 6% who have economic transactions at marriage), a sister or female relative of the groom is exchanged for the bride. This occurs, for example, among horticultural and egalitarian societies such as the Tiv of West Africa and the Yanomamö of Venezuela and Brazil (Ember et al., 2006).

Gift Exchange

Gift exchange between the two kin groups linked by marriage occurs in some 11% of societies that have economic transactions at marriage. In the United States, it is customary that the groom’s family is responsible for paying for the rehearsal dinner the night before the wedding whereas the bride’s family is expected to pay the costs for everything else (Miller, 2008). Among the Andaman Islanders, kin groups become united through the parents exchanging gifts via a third party once a boy and girl have voiced their intention to marry (Ember et al., 2006).


A dowry is the transfer of goods (sometimes money) from the bride’s side to the new married couple for their use. Occurring in about 8% of societies with economic transactions at marriage, the dowry normally includes household goods such as furniture, cooking utensils, and perhaps even a house. Dowries are still practiced in parts of Eastern Europe, southern Italy, France, and India (Ember et al., 2006).

In parts of India, the dowry passes to the groom’s family making the more accurate term groom price (Miller, 2008). Sometimes, an indirect dowry is provided from the groom’s family by giving goods to the bride’s father who then passes them along to her. Among the Basseri of southern Iran, the groom’s father gives cash to the bride’s father in order to set up the couple’s new household (Ember et al., 2006).

Sexuality and Marriage

In many cultures, marriage sanctions sexual relations between partners. In others, sexuality is confined to pro-creative purposes. Depending on the society, there are different views about procreation. In some societies, it is believed that spirits place babies in women’s wombs. Some cultural groups believe that a fetus must be nourished by continual insemination during pregnancy. The Barí of Venezuela believe that multiple men can create the same fetus (multiple paternity). When the baby is born, the mother names the men she recognizes as fathers and they assist her in raising the child (Kottak, 2008).

Sexual practices differ as well depending on the society. Some societies are more restrictive concerning sexuality. The regulation of premarital sex and extramarital sex differs depending on the society. For example, Inis Beag, off the coast of Northern Island, is a sexually conservative and prohibiting culture. Nudity is prohibited, sexual ignorance is widespread, female orgasm is unknown, marital sex occurs infrequently, and the idea of sexual pleasure is nonexistent (Messenger, 1993). In other societies, such as the Melanesian Islands in the South Sea, marital sex is perceived as a normal and natural form of pleasure; however, premarital and extramarital sex are almost equal to the crime of murder (Davenport, 1965). Reportedly, in the Melanesian Islands, marital intercourse including orgasm is expected to occur two to three times per day in the early years of marriage, and later to subside to once a day or less. Premarital masturbation is encouraged for both males and females. The Trobriand Islanders approve of and even encourage premarital sex and provide thorough instruction in various forms of sexual expression for adolescents, believing that it is important preparation for later marital activities. The Ila-speaking population of central Africa encourage trial marriage between adolescents so that girls can “play wife” with boys of interest before marriage. Reportedly, virginity in this group does not occur after age 10 (Ember et al., 2006). Other cultural groups, such as many Muslim societies, “test” the female’s virginity by displaying blood-stained sheets from the wedding night as proof of her premarital chastity.

Extramarital sex is fairly common across societies, with about 69% of men and 57% of women engaging in extramarital sex more than occasionally. Most societies have a double standard with regard to women’s sexual behavior and expect that women will have more restrictions against extramarital sex.

One commonality of sex occurring during marriage is privacy in almost all societies. North Americans typically find privacy in their bedrooms while others have to locate other private areas or sometimes perform coitus with others present. Nighttime is generally the preferred time for coitus in most cultures although there are examples of preferences for daytime sex (e.g., the Rucuyen of Brazil). There are other prohibitions in some cultures restricting sexual activity, for example, before certain activities like hunting or planting or because of certain events like death, pregnancy, or menstruation (Ember et al., 2006).

The acceptance of homosexual relations differs widely across societies. Some more restrictive societies deny homosexuality and thus forbid homosexual practices. Historically in other groups, like the Siwans of North Africa, there are examples of much greater permissiveness regarding homosexuality, and all males were expected to engage in homosexual relations. The Etoro of New Guinea are reported to have preferred homosexuality to heterosexuality with specific prohibitions against heterosexuality most of the days during a year. Furthermore, male homosexuality was thought to make crops flourish and strengthen males (Ember et al., 2006).

Forms of Marriage

Typically, marriage has been between a male and a female, but some societies have recognized marriage between people of the same biological sex. In the anthropological literature, alternative forms of marriage have also been noted.


Monogamy is the marriage between two people (opposite gender if heterosexual and same gender if homosexual). Heterosexual monogamy is the most frequent form of marriage across cultures and constitutes the only legal form of marriage in many countries (Miller, 2008). Serial monogamy appears to be a common form of monogamy in North American, where people may have more than one spouse in their lifetimes but never legally at the same time (Kottak, 2008).

Same-Sex Marriages

Some societies recognize various kinds of same-sex marriages (Kottak, 2008). Same-sex marriages are legal in Denmark; Norway; Holland; South Africa; Ontario, Canada; and Massachusetts, in the United States. There is much debate politically and socially regarding the legal status of same-sex marriages (Miller, 2008).

Depending on the historical and cultural setting, same-sex marriages have been accepted. In some African cultures, for instance, women may marry other women in order to strengthen their social and economic status among society (Kottak, 2008). Among the Nandi of Kenya, approximately 3% of marriages are female-female marriages. The Nuer of southern Sudan are also reported to have woman-woman marriage. In this type of marriage, a woman with economic means gives gifts to obtain a “wife” and brings her into the residential compound just as a man would do if he married a woman. The wife in a Nuer woman-woman marriage performs productive labor by having sexual relations with a man, as the two women do not have a sexual relationship with each other. Her children, however, will belong to the two women who are married (Miller, 2008). In former times, the Cheyenne Indians allowed married men to take berdaches (two-spirits/male transvestites) as second wives (Ember et al., 2006).

Plural Marriages/Polygamy

Polygamy is marriage that involves multiple spouses, which is still permitted in many cultures (Miller, 2008). The most common form of plural marriage is polygyny, which is the marriage of one man with more than one woman. Polygyny in many societies serves as an indicator of a man’s wealth and prestige—in other words, the more wives he has, the greater status he accrues. In other societies, polygyny is practiced because a man has inherited a widow from his brother (levirate). In still others, polygyny is a way to advance politically and economically. For polygyny to work, there has to be some agreement among the wives about their status and household chores. Generally, there is a first wife or a senior wife who is in charge of the household and has some say-so regarding who is taken as another wife. For instance, among the Betsileo of Madagascar, each wife lived in a different village, but the senior, first wife, called “Big Wife”, lived in the primary village of her husband where he spent most of his time (Kottak, 2008). Other customs like having separate living quarters for cowives who are not sisters helps lessen jealousy among the cowives. The Tanala of Madagascar require the husband to spend one day with each cowife in succession and assist with cultivation of that wife’s land. If this rule is not followed, a wife can sue for divorce and alimony up to a third of the husband’s property. Such a practice gives cowives greater equality in matters of sex, possessions, and economics (Ember et al., 2006).

Marriage between one woman and more than one man (polyandry) is extremely rare, although it is still practiced in Tibet and parts of the surrounding Himalayan region. In Tibet, fraternal polyandry (brothers jointly marrying a wife) is still practiced. Fraternal polyandry is one of the least common forms of marriage globally, but in Tibet, it remains a viable and ideal form of marriage and family. Practically, the eldest brother is normally the dominant authority. The wife is expected to treat all brothers equally, and the sexual aspect of sharing spouses is not viewed as repulsive by males or females. Any offspring are treated similarly, and the children consider all the brothers their fathers. The typical explanation given for this type of marriage in Tibet is that it is a materialistic and economically advantageous one. The brothers do not have to divide their property and can therefore have a higher standard of living. Due to changes in social and economic conditions, polyandry may vanish within the next generation (Kottak, 2008).

Other Forms of Marriage

In the Brazilian community of Arembepe, people can choose among various forms of sexual union including common-law partnerships (not legally sanctioned), civil marriages, and “holy matrimony” (religious ceremony but not legally sanctioned). This means that some can have multiple spouses at the same time from the different types of unions (Kottak, 2008).

Also common among the Nuer was what Evans-Pritchard (1951) called the ghost marriage. The Nuer believed that a man who died without male heirs in his family was likely to trouble his living kin through an unhappy and angry spirit left behind. To appease the angry spirit, a relative of the dead man would often marry a woman “to his name” so that the woman was married to the ghost but lived with one of his surviving kinsmen.

Universality of Marriage

The custom of female-male marriage practiced across societies appears to have adaptive functions that solve problems in societies. For instance, marriage has been proposed as an answer to gender division of labor that exists in every society. If societies designate different economic activities for men and women, there needs to be a mechanism by which the products of labor can be shared between men and women, and marriage is one possible solution.

Another interpretation of why marriage is universal is based on the extended care required for human infants. It has been suggested that infants have a prolonged dependency on the mother (typically the main caregiver in most cultures); this limits the kind of work she can do (hunting, for example). Therefore one solution is that the man must be available to help the woman with certain tasks, thus the mechanism of marriage (Ember et al., 2006).

A third interpretation of why marriage is universal is sexual competition between males for females. Marriage offers one possibility for reducing male rivalry and destructive conflict so that societies can survive (Ember, et al., 2006).


Many believe that divorce occurs more frequently in the modern United States as compared with other societies. However, anthropologists have reported comparable rates of separation and remarriage among hunting and gathering societies and other groups to those in modern-day industrial societies. For example, the highest rates of divorce ever recorded in the first half of the 20th century were in Malaysia and Indonesia, which surpassed the U.S. record rates of 1981 (Coontz, 2007). Depending on the society, ease of divorce varies. Marriage is much easier to dissolve in societies where marriage is more of an individual affair. In other societies where marriage represents a political and social union between families and communities, divorce is more difficult (Kottak, 2008). Considerable bridewealth and replacement marriages (levirate and sororate) work to preserve group alliances and thus decrease divorce rates. A wife among the Shoshone Indians could divorce her husband by merely placing her husband’s possessions outside the dwelling, which was considered her property. Divorce is official among the Cewa of East Africa when the husband leaves his wife’s village taking along his hoe, axe, and sleeping mat (Coontz, 2007). In the traditional society of Japan, a woman wanting a divorce had to complete two years of service at a special temple while the man could simply write a letter containing three and half lines in order to divorce his wife.

Coontz (2007) posits that the reasons for divorce in any given time period relate to the reasons for marriage. For example, a common reason for divorce in contemporary society is the loss of love, lack of individual fulfillment, or absence of mutual benefit. This has to do with the primary reason for marriage being love and romance.

In Western societies, there is more flexibility with the notion of a failed marriage. Generally, if romance, love, sex, or companionship dies out in a marriage, then couples in contemporary Western society may opt for divorce. However, sometimes for economic reasons, obligations to children, negative public opinion, or simply inertia, couples may maintain “failed” marriages. Among countries across the globe, the United States has one of the highest rates of divorce, although rates have dropped as compared with the 1970s. From historical records of divorce in the United States, there is an increase after wars and a decrease after tough economic times. The high rates of U.S. divorce are thought to be related to the economic independence enjoyed by many women and the cultural ideas of independence and self-actualization which give greater permission for people to abandon marriage if it is not working for them (Kottak, 2008).

The Family

A family is a group of people who consider themselves related through kinship, while a household is defined as people who share a living space and may or may not be related (Miller, 2008). Most households consist of members who are related through kinship, although an increasing number do not. For instance, a group of friends sharing living quarters or a single person living alone constitute a household. Young adults in the United States usually live away from home when they go to college. In more complex societies, family members tend to live apart from one another, while in more simple societies, the family and the household are impossible to differentiate (Ember et al., 2006). Across most societies, a primary function of families is the socialization and protection of children so that the children can obtain the cultural behavior, beliefs, and values necessary for survival. The nature of the family inevitably shifts and reflects the social and cultural changes in economics, education, and political systems (Georgas, Berry, van de Vijver, Kagitçibasi, & Poortinga, 2006).

Family Structure and Types of Households

All societies have families, although family form and households vary from society to society. The nuclear household, still commonly referred to as the nuclear family, comprises one adult couple, either married or “partners,” with or without children. Most people belong to at least two different nuclear families during their lifetime. Anthropologists distinguish between the family of orientation, the family in which one is born and grows up, and the family of procreation, the family formed when one marries and has children of his or her own. Nuclear-family organization is widespread cross-culturally and varies in significance from culture to culture, but it is not universal. For instance, in the classic Nayar group, the nuclear family is rare or nonexistent (Kottak, 2008). In contrast, in North America, the nuclear family is the only well-defined kin group and remains somewhat of a cultural ideal (Ember et al., 2006). Such a family structure is thought to arise from industrialism and contributes to geographic mobility and isolation from extended family members. Many North American married couples live far away from their parents in locations generally determined by their jobs in communities (neolocality) and establish households and nuclear families of their own (Ember et al., 2006).

An extended household is a domestic group containing more than one adult married couple related either through the father-son (patrilineal extended household) or mother-daughter line (matrilineal extended household) or through sisters and brothers (collateral extended household). Extended families are the prevailing form in more than half of the world’s societies (Ember et al., 2006). For example, in former Yugoslavia, extended-family households, called zadruga, consisted of several nuclear families living together. The zadruga was headed by a male household head and his wife, considered to be the senior woman. Also included were married sons and their wives and children, and unmarried sons and daughters. Each nuclear family had their own sleeping quarters; however, many items were freely shared among members in the zadruga (e.g., clothes, items from the bride’s trousseau, and other possessions). The Nayar, a caste of southern India, provide another example of extended households. The Nayar lived in matrilineal extended-family compounds called tarawads (residential complexes with several buildings headed by a senior woman and her brother). The tarawads were home to the woman’s siblings, her sisters’ children, and other relatives of matrilineal descent. These compounds were responsible for child care and provided the home for retired Nayar men who were military warriors (Ember et al., 2006).

Expanded-family households (those that include nonnuclear relatives) also exist in some cultures. For example, in lower-class families of North America, expanded-family households are more common than in middle-class families. If an expanded-family household consists of three or more generations, then it is considered an extended-family household. Collateral households, another type of expanded family, include siblings and their spouses and children (Ember et al., 2006). Polygamous married people are considered to constitute complex households in which one spouse lives with or near multiple partners and their children. Descent groups including lineages and clans of people claiming common ancestry may reside in several villages, but rarely come together for social activities. These descent groups are common in nonindustrial food-producing societies (Kottak, 2008).

Changes in Marriage and the Family

Globalization, including technological advances and international migration, has increased the opportunity for interactions among different types of people and contributed to rapid changes in the structure and function of marriage and the family. The institution of marriage continues to retain popularity although many of the details of marriage are undergoing transformation. For instance, the Internet has provided new forms of finding a potential partner and courtship. Also, the age of first marriage is rising in most places due in part to increased emphasis on completing education and higher marital aspirations (e.g., owning a house). Marriages between people of different nations and ethnicities are another example, now increasingly commonplace and leading to pluralistic practices and customs of marriage and family. Coontz (2007) claims that marriage “has been displaced from its pivotal position in personal and social life” (p. 15) with many children being raised in alternative settings. The definition of marriage has also changed, given that most people today live in a global climate of choice with many options. This makes divorce and other relationship forms like cohabitation viable options for many people across the world.

In many societies, people choose to have children without being married, or being a single parent becomes a necessity, and thus one-parent families are becoming more common globally. Traditionally, single-parent families have been more common in Western societies, but there continues to be a large increase in one-parent families with the majority headed by women (approximately 90%). In the 1970s, of the Western countries, Sweden had the highest rates of single-parent families, but now the United States has the largest percentage. One-parent families occur for several reasons, including divorce/separation of two-parent families, births outside of marriage, deaths of spouses, and single people who decide to have children. Some parents may choose to remain single because of lack of suitable partners. For example, in the former Soviet Union, the ratio of women to men is much higher because males are more likely to have died from war, alcoholism, and accidents. In other countries, a common explanation is that one-parent families are able to manage because of support from the state; for example, in Sweden, unmarried and divorced mothers receive significant social supports, maternity leave, and educational leave (Ember et al., 2006).

Another family form that is making a comeback, at least in the United States, is the multigenerational family (three or more generations living together). According to the 2000 Census, there are almost 4 million U.S. multigenerational households; this represents about 4% of all households, and this number continues to rise. The majority of these households include grandparents living with their children and their grandchildren in the house of the grandparent. In about one third of these households, the grandparents live in the home of their children (or son- or daughter-in-law) and their grandchildren. A very small percentage of these households are comprised of grandparents and great-grandparents as well as children and grandchildren of the grandparents (Generations United, 2006).

Some of the reasons for the rise in multigenerational households include financial factors such as high housing costs, high cost of living, child care/elder care expenses, unemployment, parents returning to school, and parents working to save money to become independent. Cultural reasons such as immigration, value systems, importance of ritual and celebration of holidays and events, and desire to stay connected with one’s cultural group all are reported reasons for multigenerational households. Other reasons include individual beliefs that child care and elder care are family responsibilities or that age-integration within communities is important, and a desire to be involved and connected with offspring and elders. Situational factors such as the inability to live alone after being widowed, a divorce that requires moving to a parent’s home with children, an illness requiring regular care and assistance, single parenting, housing shortages, and extended life span also promote multigenerational households (Generations United, 2006). In the future, multigenerational families are expected to become more commonplace and continue to increase. By 2010 in the United States, it is expected that more children will know their great-grandparents, people in their 60s will be caring for 80- to 90-year-old parents, more children will grow up with the support of older relatives, and there will be an increase in four-generational households (Generations United, 2006).

Grandparenting in general is a relatively new phenomenon as of the last 100 years, due to increased life expectancy and good health. The number of grandparents parenting grandchildren has increased generally due to crisis situations involving drugs, divorce, desertion, and death (Glass & Huneycutt, 2002). Other factors contributing to the increase of grandparents raising their grandchildren include high teenage-pregnancy rates, more parents in prison (with some 80% having dependent children), more women using drugs, and parents dying from AIDS. All of these scenarios that lead to the number of grandparents raising their grandchildren are thought to be on the rise.

Increasing numbers of lesbian women and gay males are exploring parenting options (McCann & Delmonte, 2005) and taking on parenthood through donor insemination, surrogacy, fostering, and adoption. Although there appears to be no definitive research pointing one way or another, gay parenting has been a contentious issue for many because of the presumed damaging effects that gay parents can have on their children. Concerns have been raised regarding whether the child will become homosexual, whether the child will be bullied, whether the child will have appropriate opposite-sex role models, and more (McCann & Delmonte, 2005).

Another complexity for family structure is the challenge presented by international migration. Parents may still identify with their ancestral culture and children often become immersed in the new culture, quickly adapting to the language and customs. This can cause rifts in the relationship between parents and children and can contribute to disagreements about social issues like dating, clothing, and careers. Sometimes children also serve as cultural brokers for their parents, navigating complex and unfamiliar bureaucratic systems since their parents may not speak the language or be acculturated to the new country and customs. Immigrant children typically adapt to the dominant culture faster than their parents, which also contributes to conflict between parent and child—parents trying to hold on to previous traditions, while children are adapting to the new, dominant culture as their new way of life. Immigrant children frequently become masters of both cultures, easily adapting between both worlds (Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 2001). Immigrant parents are often conflicted between encouraging their children to develop the cultural competencies of the dominant culture and trying to maintain their own traditions (Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 2001). In addition, resettlement issues such as obtaining housing, food, and employment, and dealing with the bureaucracy of immigration and documentation, can overwhelm parents’ ability to attend to their children. Immigrant families may also experience stress due to adaptation to the United States, including such tasks as learning and/or enhancing English skills and finding employment, housing, and schools; these are difficult tasks for anyone, but especially for immigrants as they also deal with new and different social/cultural expectations and attitudes.

International adoption (sometimes referred to as transnational adoption) is becoming more common in the United States and European countries. Although still on a relatively small scale, international adoption represents a significant shift from historical adoption practices and constitutes an entirely different family structure (Conn, 2009). More than 20,000 internationally adopted children enter the United States each year (U.S. Department of State, 2005) from China, Russia, and Guatemala.


Marriage and family are universal forms of mating and relating; however, the forms of marriage and family are variable depending on social, cultural, and historical influences (Ferguson, 2007). Family arrangements are more diverse now than ever before, and relationships have shifted from having a biological emphasis to a social emphasis. In the future, there is likely to be increased diversity and transformation in the institution of marriage, along with family forms and households, across the globe (Miller, 2008).