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Marriage – How it began and why


The best available evidence suggests that marriage is about 4,350 years old and became a popular institution across ancient Hebrew, Greek and Roman civilisations. For thousands of years before that time, most anthropologists believe families consisted of loosely organised groups of as many as 30 people, with several male leaders, multiple women shared by them, and children. As hunter-gatherers settled down into agricultural civilisations, society needed more stable arrangements. The first recorded evidence of marriage ceremonies, uniting one woman and one man, dates from about 2350 BC in Mesopotamia. Over the next several hundred years, marriage evolved into a widespread institution embraced by the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans. But back then, it had little to do with love or with religion.

Why did marriages start?
Moonstruck partners pledging eternal love may be the current definition of marriage, but this starry-eyed picture has relatively modern origins. The primary purpose of marriage, earlier on, was to act as an alliance between families, for either economic or political reasons, or both. The marriage was arranged, more often than not, with the couple marrying having no say in the matter. That concept of marriage has remained constant through the ages, although marriage between same-sex couples is a recent phenomenon. According to The Week, the best available evidence suggests that the institution of marriage is about 4,350 years old. For thousands of years before that, most anthropologists believe, families consisted of loosely organised groups of as many as 30 people, with several male leaders, multiple women shared by them, and children. As hunter-gatherers settled down into agrarian civilizations, society needed more stable arrangements. The first recorded evidence of marriage ceremonies uniting one woman and one man dates from about 2350 BC in Mesopotamia. Over the next several hundred years, marriage evolved into a widespread institution embraced by the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans. But back then, marriage had little to do with love or with religion.[1]

Gratian, a Benedictine monk, considered that a couple’s consent mattered more than their family’s approval in the case of an arranged marriage. Gratian brought consent into the fold of formalised marriage in 1140 with his canon law textbook, Decretum Gratiani. The Decretum required couples to give their verbal consent and consummate the marriage to forge a marital bond. No longer was a bride or groom’s presence at a ceremony enough to signify their assent.[2]

Monogamy became the guiding principle for Western marriages sometime between the 6th and 9th centuries AD following a protracted battle between the Catholic Church and the old nobility and kings who wanted to have a second wife. The Church prevailed, with monogamy becoming central to the notion of marriage by the 9th century AD.[3]

One wife or more?
It is widely agreed that the origin of marriage dates well before recorded history. The earliest documented evidence of marriage ceremonies – uniting one woman and one man – can be dated to about 2350 BC in the Far East. The Church prevailed, with monogamy becoming central to the notion of marriage by the ninth century. The ancient Hebrews were allowed to have several wives. Married Greeks and Romans were allowed to satisfy their sexual urges with prostitutes and teenage male lovers, leaving the wives to stay home and look after the household. Some cultures viewed the institution as endogamous (men were required to marry within their separate social group, family, clan, or tribe), exogamous (marrying outside the geographical region or social group) or polygamous (allowing men to take more than one bride).

Polygamy was formally banned towards the end of the Roman Empire with laws against adultery, fornication and other relationships outside a monogamous lifelong covenant. The seeds of modern marriage were sowed here, and they extended into the modern Western world.

Early marriage was seen as a strategic alliance between families, with the parties often having little or no say in the matter. In some cultures, parents even married one child to the spirit of a deceased child to strengthen familial bonds. Ancient Hebrew law required a man to become the husband of a dead brother’s widow. Several ancient societies did much the same thing, although the blood connection might not always be as close. The patriarch Abraham’s wife Sarah, for example, was his half-sister. Whether this was common among the early Hebrews is unclear, but Isaac and Jacob had wives (Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah) from their cousins.

Monogamy (one wife) may seem central to marriage now, but polygamy (a man having multiple wives) was common throughout history. From Jacob to Kings David and Solomon, Biblical men often had more than one wife – anywhere from two to thousands of wives. Monogamy became the preferred status for Western marriages sometime between the sixth and the ninth centuries.

In the beginning, marriage wasn’t founded on love. Its purpose was for a man to ‘own’ a woman and guarantee that the union’s children were his biological heirs. The woman’s father would give his daughter away, saying: ‘I pledge my daughter for producing legitimate offspring’.  If wives could not get pregnant, the men could give the wife back and marry someone else. In many early cultures, men could dissolve a marriage or take another wife if a woman was infertile. However, the early Christian church was a trailblazer arguing that marriage was not contingent on producing offspring.

Divorce has existed for about as long as marriage. The ancient Greeks allowed divorce, but only after the person requesting divorce had submitted the request to a magistrate, who would determine whether or not the reasons given were sufficient. In early Roman culture, divorce was rare, but as time went on and the empire grew in power and authority, civil law allowed either husband or wife to renounce their marriage at will.

Picture Credit/Attribution: Unknown Author, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Left to Right: Prince Edward, Henry VIII, Jane Seymour

Divorce was generally frowned upon throughout the last thousand years, with annulment granted by the Church being the only way to dissolve a marriage. When King Henry VIII decided to divorce Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn, he needed to break ties with the Catholic Church to get his way.

Before 1858, divorce was rare, although in 1670, Parliament passed an Act allowing John Manners, Lord Roos, to divorce his wife, Lady Anne Pierpon. According to the National Archives, that divorce created a precedent for parliamentary divorces on the grounds of a wife’s adultery.

Marriage in days gone by

  • Ancient Egyptians: Ancient Egyptian women had rights and privileges on a par with their husbands. In those days, a person’s legal rights had more to do with social class than gender. For two people to be considered married, all they had to do was move in with each other. There was no legal or religious ceremony to formalise the union.
  • Ancient Greeks: All marriages were arranged by parents and approved by the gods. Women in their early teens were married to men in their mid-thirties. A husband then had to buy his new wife from her father. Many couples did not see each other until after the ceremony when the bridal veil was removed. Greek wives were ‘owned’ by their husbands, who could lend or sell them to others. According to Plato’s Laws, any man not married by age 35 could be punished with a loss of civil rights and financial consequences.
  • Spartans: The Spartans believed that a person’s athletic ability matched their fitness for marriage. Before marrying, a couple was required to wrestle in public to show their compatibility. Spartan women married in their twenties. The groom’s father chose a bride for his son. Twelve months after the selection, the marriage took place. The marriage ceremony took place in the groom’s tent, and the festivities lasted seven days.
  • Romans: Roman brides wore white tunics with orange veils and orange slippers. After the ceremony, the groom carried his bride over the threshold of their new home to symbolise his ownership of her.
  • Medieval Christians: Christian church marriages were thought to be made in heaven and therefore could never be broken. The bride’s father gave the groom a dowry of land or money. If the marriage was unsuccessful, the wife and the dowry were returned to the father’s home, but neither partner could remarry.

Marriage (also called matrimony or wedlock) is a culturally and often legally recognised union between people called spouses. It establishes rights and obligations between them, as well as between them and their children, and between them and their in-laws. It is considered a cultural universal, but the definition of marriage varies between cultures and religions and over time. Typically, it is an institution in which interpersonal relationships, usually sexual, are acknowledged or sanctioned. In some cultures, marriage is recommended or considered to be compulsory before pursuing any sexual activity. A marriage ceremony is called a wedding.[4]

Types of Marriage
The type, functions, and characteristics of marriage vary from culture to culture and can change over time. In general, there are two types: civil marriage and religious marriage, and typically marriages employ a combination of both (religious marriages must often be licensed and recognised by the state, and conversely, civil marriages, while not sanctioned under religious law, are nevertheless respected). Marriages between people of different religions are called interfaith marriages, while marital conversion, a more controversial concept than interfaith marriage, refers to the religious conversion of one partner to the other’s religion for the sake of satisfying a religious requirement.[5]

Monogamy, Polyandry, Polygamy and Polygyny

  • Monogamy is the practice of marrying, or the state of being married, to one person at a time.
  • Polyandry, a woman having multiple husbands, occurs very rarely in a few isolated tribal societies. These societies include some bands of the Canadian Inuit, although the practice has declined due to their conversion from tribal religion to Christianity by Moravian missionaries. The Spartans were notable for practising polyandry.
  • Polygamy, the practice or custom of having more than one wife or husband simultaneously, is rare worldwide and mostly confined to a few regions. Only about 2% of the global population lives in polygamous households, and in the vast majority of countries, that share is under 0.5%Polygamy is banned throughout much of the world, and the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which has said that “polygamy violates the dignity of women,” called for it to “be definitely abolished wherever it continues to exist.”.[6] Polygamy is most often found in sub-Saharan Africa, where 11% of the population lives in arrangements that include more than one spouse.[7]
  • Polyamory is the practice of, or desire for, intimate relationships with more than one partner, with the informed consent of all partners involved. A polyamorous person might have or might be open to having multiple romantic partners. On the other hand, polygamy consists of being married to several partners.
  • Polygyny is the historically most common and accepted form of polygamy, entailing the marriage of a man with several women. It differs from polyandry, where one woman is married to several men.

Group Marriage or Conjoint Marriage is a marital arrangement where three or more adults enter into sexual, affective, romantic, or otherwise intimate short- or long-term partnerships and share in any combination of finances, residences, care or kin work. Group marriage is considered a form of polygamy. Societies which permit group marriage are extremely rare but have existed in Utopian societies[8] such as the Oneida Community[9]. The colloquial usage of group marriage has also been associated with polyamory and polyamorous families.[10]

Today, some married people practice various forms of consensual non-monogamy, including polyamory. These people have agreements with their spouses that permit other intimate relationships or sexual partners. Therefore, the concept of marriage need not necessarily hinge on sexual or emotional monogamy.

He Who Finds a Wife
How a person marries and how he or she finds that mate has varied greatly in different times and places. Among tribal people, ancient and modern, capturing women from enemies has been a time-honoured way of procuring wives. In Roman mythology, at one point in their early history, Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome, and his followers wanted to marry the daughters of a neighbouring tribe, the Sabines. When their request was rejected, the Romans decided on a stratagem. They held a great religious festival and invited the Sabines and other neighbours. At a prearranged signal during the festival, the Romans grabbed the Sabine maidens they wanted and hurried away with them, fighting off any Sabine men who tried to interfere. Eventually, Romulus convinced the women to accept legal marriage, and the two groups peacefully integrated.[11]

Marriage and Divorce Statistics[12]

  • There were 107,599 divorces of opposite-sex couples in 2019, increasing by 18.4% from 90,871 in 2018.
  • The divorce rate among opposite-sex couples in 2019 increased to 8.9 divorces per 1,000 married men and women aged 16 years and over from 7.5 in 2018.
  • There were 822 divorces among same-sex couples in 2019, nearly twice the number in 2018 (428 divorces); of these, almost three-quarters (72%) were between female couples.
  • Unreasonable behaviour was the most common reason for opposite-sex couples divorcing in 2019, with 49% of wives and 35% of husbands petitioning on these grounds; it was also the most common reason for same-sex couples divorcing, accounting for 63% of divorces among women and 70% among men.
  • In 2019, the average (median) duration of marriage at the time of divorce was 12.3 years for opposite-sex couples, a slight decrease from 12.5 years in the previous year.

Older people in England and Wales are getting married and divorced in greater numbers. What’s behind it? Why are these so-called “silver splicers” and “silver separators” starting and ending relationships in later life? Look at the statistics from ONS.

  • The number of brides and grooms aged 65 and over went up by 46% in a decade, from 7,468 in 2004 to 10,937 in 2014, the most recent ONS[13] marriage data has shown.
  • But this is against the backdrop of an ageing population, with the number of people aged 65 and over at 120% of the number 10 years previously – due to the post-war baby boom and people living longer.
  • Marriage rates for those aged 65 and over – the number of people getting married as a proportion of the single, divorced or widowed population – there was still an increase for both sexes since 2009.

Most often-married
Glynn “Scotty” Wolfe is the world’s most often-married man. A flamboyant, Bible-thumping minister, Wolfe held the Guinness Book of World Records title on frequent matrimony. He was married 29 times. He lived in California, and his last wife (Linda) resided in Indiana, but they spent only a week together. Wolfe’s shortest marriage was 19 days and his longest seven years. His widow, Linda Essex-Wolfe, has held the record as the world’s most often married woman with 23 husbands.[14]

Famous Quotations on Marriage

“When a man opens a car door for his wife, it’s either a new car or a new wife.” – Prince Philip

“My most brilliant achievement was my ability to be able to persuade my wife to marry me.” – Winston Churchill

“If I get married, I want to be very married.” – Audrey Hepburn

“By all means marry; if you get a good wife, you’ll become happy; if you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher.” – Socrates

“An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can have. The older she gets, the more interested he is in her.” – Agatha Christie

“If I had a flower for every time thought of you… I could walk through my garden forever.” – Alfred Lord Tennyson

“Who, being loved, is poor?” – Oscar Wilde

“There is no more lovely, friendly, and charming relationship, communion or company than a good marriage.” – Martin Luther

Love and Marriage 298/366
Picture Credit: “Love and Marriage 298/366” by Skley is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Sources and Further Reading

Picture Credit: “Marriage” by Wim Vandenbussche is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

  1. Source/Attribution:
  2. Source:
  3. Source:
  4. Source: Wikipedia, HERE.
  5. Source: Wikipedia, HERE.
  6. Source: PEW Research, HERE.
  7. Ibid
  8. A utopia typically describes an imaginary community or society that possesses highly desirable or nearly perfect qualities for its members. It was coined by Sir Thomas More for his 1516 book Utopia.
  9. Oneida Community, also called Perfectionists, or Bible Communists, utopian religious community that developed out of a Society of Inquiry established by John Humphrey Noyes and some of his disciples in Putney, Vt., US, in 1841. Source:, HERE.
  10. Source: Wikipedia, HERE.
  11. Source:
  12. Source: ONS data at:
  13. ONS: Office for national Statistics
  14. Source:

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