MARRIAGE is a personal relationship between a man and a woman, involving sex intercourse between them, and having an aspect of permanence or duration. There are many personal relationships which are not marriages: there are, of course, the personal relationships of men or of women among themselves; there are also personal relationships between men and women but not involving coitus, and relationships accompanied by coitus but having no aspect of permanence. These last are love affairs, not marriages.

Marriage in this sense seems to have its counterpart in the mating habits of certain birds and animals. It is anterior to human custom and law. The primitive and universal quality of marriage is derived from the sex situation rather than from social influences. The species reproduces bisexually by a method which requires a separate sex act for each fertilization. The sex act is pleasurable, and to that extent constitutes an end in itself. It is aesthetically a thing complete in its own transitory moment. But it is also something more than a thing of ephemeral beauty. Taken in connection with its consequences over a period of time, it has an entirely different meaning, for it results in the situation of parenthood. Hence the significance of that aspect of duration which is present in marriage, but not in the love affair. The essen[p.43]tial elements of the marriage problem are already posed by this difference between the aesthetic value of coitus and the biological value of fertilization.

Marriage in nature being so simple a fact, it is confusing to the mind to turn to the complexity of marriage as a social institution, where it becomes tangled up with problems of property, government, law, and religion.

Every human society imposes some standard form upon the marriage relationship. There are social rules governing coitus just as there are social rules governing eating. The sex situation is of course no more a product of these rules than hunger is a product of dinner table etiquette. But we necessarily think of the sex situation in terms of the social rules which are applied to it in our own environment. These social rules generally distinguish between coitus which takes place within and without a marriage union. Marriage in all societies constitutes a standard system of duties and privileges existing between persons designated as husbands and wives. There is also provided a standard means whereby persons can be so designated. So diverse are the systems of responsibilities assumed in marriage, and so various are the means whereby marriage is effected, that the differences among matrimonial institutions are more impressive than the similarities.

The variety of institutional forms which marriage assumes is such that ethnologists are overwhelmed. They try to order their knowledge by sorting marriage institutions into groups and classes. Thus monogamy is distinguished from polygamy, polyandry, and group marriage. Or it is observed that some peoples regard marriages as commercial transactions in which brides are pur[p.44]chased, others think of them as warlike forays in which brides are captured, still others imagine that a marriage is a religious sacrament, or a contract between bride and groom, or a legal status. The wedding ceremony in America is often regarded as chiefly significant in that it serves as an index of the station in life assumed by the families concerned. In the presence of such multiplicity we do well to focus our thought upon those aspects of marriage which are universal.

Not marriage only, but the love affair also, is institutionalized in a variety of forms. Whatever may be the form of the marriage institution, its very existence implies that the community makes a distinction between marital and extra-marital sex intercourse. Some societies require, others permit, others try to forbid sex relations outside of marriage. The enforced requirement to submit to prostitution was characteristic of the temple cults of Mesopotamia; the free permission to indulge sex appetite outside of wedlock was usually a corollary of the institution of slavery which allowed the purchase and use of slave girls for this purpose; a license to sex indulgence was also a part of seasonal festivals such as the Saturnalia. The comprehensive ban upon coitus outside of marriage is especially characteristic of Christian ethics, which are savage upon this point, assuming toward fornication and adultery an attitude of horror comparable to that which most civilizations have reserved for incest.

In consequence of this peculiar bias, all who consider marriage from the Christian point of view place tremendous emphasis upon the sex monopoly aspect of wedlock. To such lengths is this idea carried that permanence itself is often sacrificed to sex monopoly. An act [p.45] of infidelity results in a divorce even when there are children to be cared for. Thus the marriage institution sometimes defeats its natural intent. It is a mistake to regard sex monopoly as a universal characteristic of marriage.

Despite the severity of official Christian ethics toward coitus out of wedlock. Christian communities often temper their condemnation with a tolerant recognition that fornication and prostitution are an inevitable result of the frailty of human nature. And thus in Christian communities as elsewhere there is a tendency toward the standardizing of those sex unions which are not marriage. The duties and privileges of the Christian prostitute, the Roman concubine, the African slave girl, or the Japanese geisha tend to become as clearly defined as those of the wife. A variety of socially defined sex relationships appear. In the old Roman law full legal marriage or justae nuptiae could be contracted only by Roman citizens; the slaves, freedmen, and provincials had to be satisfied with a less formal status. The law of Egypt enforced a contract for a prostitute’s services, but this contract did not constitute a marriage. In the underworld of America the reciprocal obligations of Frankie and Johnnie, according to the well-known ballad, were so well understood that the bar-keeper and the sheriff both recognized “that he was her man, and he done her wrong.” Some of these relationships are so distinctly defined that one hesitates whether to call them marriages or not. So it was with concubinitas and contubernium (slave marriage) in Roman law, and so it is with the common-law marriages in modern America.

In general, it is safe to correlate permanence with [p.46] marriage. That sex institution which looks furthest into the future is the marriage institution; the others are institutions of concubinage or prostitution. A Roman citizen could purchase a slave girl and marry a wife. The slave girl was his as long as she lived, or until he disposed of her. There was permanence of a kind in his relations with her. But the marriage with the wife looked even further into the future. The progeny of the marriage was the heir who would continue the family corporation, administer the ancestral property, worship the domestic gods. The Roman wife was not a slave, for legally her status was that of a daughter (in loco filiae). But in some societies slave purchase is the only sex tie which has any aspect of permanence at all. As to such a culture we say that slave purchase is the marriage institution.

The social institution of marriage seems to be devised in order to put some certainty into sex unions. But it often defeats its purpose, and nowhere more conspicuously than in America, where a slender legal technicality often determines whether one is married or not. The courts are often called upon to decide whether some poor mortal entangled in the law is married or free. A man who has secured a divorce in Mexico from a wife living in New York cannot be sure whether he is married if he happens to be lingering upon the soil of Massachusetts. Two people touring America together may find that as their train crosses state boundaries they are automatically married and unmarried time and again. They pass over rolling prairies as man and wife; the train comes to an iron bridge and presto, they are only lover and mistress; the train moves on through another state and for a few [p.47] tense hours the man is a bigamist; another state boundary is reached, and the two are again legally married.

Even where the legal marriage unquestionably exists, the characteristics of natural marriage may be lacking, so that the marriage has no meaning at all. This is illustrated in the career of Don Juan, whose innumerable marriages were never intended to be anything but transitory love affairs. The same moral can be seen in the story cited from family case records as follows:

Jacob McDaniel and Mary Murphy were reared in the uninspiring atmosphere “Back of the Yards,” and grew up in a community not conducive to highest morals. In fact, the fathers of both were drinking men, and Jacob’s father, especially, had the reputation of being unkind to his wife. The couple had been neighbors and schoolmates from infancy but were in no sense betrothed at the time Jacob became engaged to another girl who had moved into the community. Before the day set for the wedding, however, Mary’s mother discovered that her daughter was pregnant and that Jacob was the one responsible for her condition. Pressure was brought to bear, and five days before her baby was born Mary Murphy became Mary McDaniel. Aside from the gloomy satisfaction of giving the child a name the marriage was a farce, for Jacob never pretended to make a home for his wife and baby. He continued his attentions to the other girl, who was receptive. Eventually they eloped, going to a large city in the Middle West, where they lived as man and wife.1

We might conceivably find something in the nature of marriage in Jacob’s relations to the girl with whom he eloped, but as between Jacob and Mary no real marriage ever existed. It is wrong to consider this an instance of [p.48] a marriage dissolved by desertion; it is rather an instance in which the law describes as marriage something that lacks the essence of the marriage situation.

For there is certainly in marriage a reality which runs deeper than the definitions which our institutions, or the institutions of any society, give to the marriage relationship. This fundamental reality is compounded of three elements: persons, sex, duration.

The development of Western civilization in the past few decades has gone far to strip marriage of all but its elementary meanings. The entanglement of the marriage institution with the institutions of government, religion, and property is rapidly dissolving. The State no longer upholds the husband as the administrative despot of his household, nor permits him to beat his wife with a stick the size of his thumb. The Church sees marriages made without its consent or collaboration. The property rights of husband and wife need not be merged by the act of marriage. Even the social consequences of parenthood tend to be distinguished from the responsibilities of marriage, for the community takes over more and more of the function of educating the young, and the tendency of legislation is to place the legitimate and illegitimate child on an equal footing as regards rights against parents. Moreover, the widespread knowledge of birth control methods is making possible the deliberately childless marriage. If we abstract from marriage its consequences in government, religion, property, and parenthood, what remains?

There remains the fact that certain definite persons are designated as man and wife. This is the rationale of all wedding ceremonies. Whether in form the wedding be a [p.49] purchase, a capture, a sacrament, or a contract, and whether the man be taking his first wife or his tenth, the effect of the ceremony is invariably that certain persons are thereby designated as being thereafter husband and wife, which previously they were not. Thus marriage is primarily a thing of definite persons.

There remains also the fact of sex intercourse (though not necessarily sex monopoly or parenthood). There is no form of marriage which denies this to husband and wife. Even Roman Catholic Christianity, with its strong animus against sex, yields to this universal rule in one of its curious enactments. If two are married, and take a vow that their marriage will be spiritual only, their vow is permitted by the Church. But if they then have intercourse they are not guilty of the sin of fornication, but only of the sin of breaking a vow.

And further, there remains the fact of duration. This does not mean that a marriage is essentially indissoluble. The extreme limit to which a society might go in carrying out the idea of permanence in marriage is to forbid divorce and kill the spouse which survives the death of the other. No marriage custom goes so far as to apply this rule equally to man and wife, though some societies encourage the ritual murder or suicide of a surviving wife. Somewhat less emphatic with respect to the permanence of marriage is a custom which prohibits the remarriage of widows though it permits them to live. And finally there is the attitude which insists on permanence only to the extent of forbidding divorce. And beyond this there are the innumerable devices for terminating a marriage, with a variety of distinctions between the rights of a husband to cast out a wife and the right of a wife to free [p.50] herself from her husband. The marriage which cannot be terminated is the exception among marriage institutions; the marriage which permits divorce is the rule. Both kinds of marriage, however, point to the same conclusion: that marriage is a thing of duration. The persons designated as husband and wife are assumed to continue in that relationship through a period of time. A positive act is required in order to terminate their marriage union, whereas sex relations under conditions of rape, prostitution, or seduction (vide Don Juan), terminate themselves in their own moment. Sex life in marriage is assumed to be continued through time, just as sex life outside of marriage is assumed to consist of separate completed episodes. And when the idea of permanence enters nonmarital sex relations, these approach the status of marriage. As the prostitute becomes a mistress or a concubine her position approaches that of a wife.

If these three things – person, sex, duration – are the essential elements of marriage, it follows that marriage has universally impressed upon it the fourfold quality of personal relationships: nontransferability, continuous variation, freedom, and comprehensiveness. That it is nontransferable follows from the fact that the persons married are specifically designated; if one party marries some other person, he does not thereby continue his first marriage, but makes a new one. That it is continuously variable follows from the fact that it has duration, and must therefore build up a history in which a present is derived from a past. That it is free is a consequence of the sex element, for there is a natural freedom in coitus. This act normally fulfills the desires of both parties. Even the proprietary conception of marriage cannot an[p.51]nul this freedom. Was it not a slave girl whose emotion overflowed in the Canticles? And there is comprehensiveness in the marriage relationship because it is anterior to that sophistication which divides and distinguishes between the different capacities and qualities of a human being. Sex grasps the total psychological person just as procreation engages the whole biological individual. In the presence of such elemental facts as birth, death, and sex the multiplicities of culture dissolve away. The marriage relationship stands before us, therefore, as essentially a personal relationship, more primitive and general than society itself.


  1. Cited in E. R. Mowrer, Family Disorganization (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1927), p. 183.