What is the History of Marriage?

Karyn Maier
Karyn Maier

The history of marriage is as long and varied as the history of human beings. For that matter, it can be said that it is a reflection on the evolution of human civilization. While the practice of forging a union through marriage dates to ancient cultures, there is little evidence that the custom ever originated from a romantic viewpoint. In fact, the history of marriage is very much a commentary on the political, social, and economic status at various points in time.

Wedding bands on top of a marriage contract.
Wedding bands on top of a marriage contract.

In the modern world, people marry for different reasons. The most prominent reason is, of course, for love. However, some marry to obtain citizenship. Others marry to achieve financial security, or to elevate social status. No matter what the reason, one fact about forming such a legal bond has remained unchanged throughout the history of marriage,it is a social institution created for the purpose of procreation. As a by-product of this function, rarely has producing children out of wedlock been endorsed by most societies.

People marry for different reasons, but most notably for love.
People marry for different reasons, but most notably for love.

The act of matrimony has always carried important social and economic responsibility--not only for the wedded couple, but also for the entire community. As such, spouse selection was often a task left up to an elder, such as a parent. Typically, this would have been the father or, in some cultures, a designated matchmaker of the village. In fact, in many parts of the world, arranged marriages have always been deemed as necessary in order for social values to survive. Of course, the business of arranging a suitable marriage for one’s child also often reaped the reward of a dowry for the parents of the bride-to-be, including a down payment in the form of a ring.

Throughout the history of marriage, though, there have been significant shifts in perspective about what constituted marital bliss. In ancient Greece and Rome, for example, marriage was perceived as a means to strengthen political ties, at least among the aristocracy. In the general population, being without a mate was a condition that wasn’t lost on being denied its economic benefits. In fact, women were sometimes forced to marry a male relative in the absence of a favorable suitor, while unmarried men were often excluded from civic activities on the basis of being single and childless.

In the western world, there’s little doubt that the history of marriage has been shaped by ancient Roman, Greek, and Hebrew influence. By the medieval period, marriage customs began to shift with the rise of Christianity and were largely dictated by religious doctrine. Later, marriage evolved into a more secular form of spiritual commitment with the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. However, just as with fashion, certain concepts that have helped to document the history of marriage have either experienced renewal or complete reinvention.

For instance, during the 1950s and early 1960s in the U.S., delaying marriage or refusing to "tie the knot" at all was considered abnormal, even subversive. With the dawn of the sexual revolution of the early 1970s, marriage was no longer considered obligatory and unions were viewed more as voluntary partnerships than matters of convenience. Today, the history of marriage is still being written since there is an increasing movement toward recognizing a legal union between couples of the same sex.

The marriage union dates back centuries, likely originating more from political and economic factors than from romantic considerations.
The marriage union dates back centuries, likely originating more from political and economic factors than from romantic considerations.
Karyn Maier
Karyn Maier

Contributing articles to wiseGEEK is just one of Karyn’s many professional endeavors. She is also a magazine writer and columnist, mainly for health-related publications, as well as the author of four books. Karyn lives in New York’s Catskill Mountain region and specializes in topics about green living and botanical medicine.

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Discussion Comments



It may feel liberating, but what is a life really worth if it is not used to give of oneself to others? And isn't the ultimate display of this sort of life shown in families and in parenting? I think that societies need strong families to survive, as well as a strong faith.



I think that marriage is becoming obsolete and that a strong and central family core is not as necessary as it used to be. We have advanced beyond the paternal society of our ancestors and are free to make our own decisions in the world.


It used to be the case that sex almost always led to children, and therefore, a union was a very serious and longterm issue. Nowadays, children are born unexpectedly because people have casual sex for fun and try to prevent it. This leads to unwanted children or abortion. Marriages are also seen as unnecessary and sometimes absurd because affairs and divorce is so common.


I had a friend who was married to a nice girl from Turkey and found out after the wedding that she was marrying him just to obtain citizenship. She ran away from him and it was heartbreaking. Apparently she had been deceiving him the whole time. I try to carry a healthy skepticism when I meet people who seem overly enthusiastic about marriage.

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