The meaning of marriage is both a romantic and divisive topic to explore. Marriage is a long-standing social institution, ingrained in human ritual. But, what is the meaning of marriage today? Is it still relevant and revered or has it become a beloved but antiquated idea?
Origin of the word ‘marriage’: where does it come from?
As with many things in life, to understand where you are going, you need to know where you have come from. The emergence of marriage provides an insight into the encompassing cultural influence it has had through the ages. The actual word ‘marriage’ first makes an appearance in the period 1250-1300 AD. To put that into context, Amsterdam was declared a city in 1300 and during this period the Aztec culture started in Mesoamerica1.
Marriage has its origins in the Latin word ‘matrimoniu’ meaning ‘mother’ and ‘the action, state or condition’. This then became the Old French word ‘matremoinme’ which developed into the Middle English word ‘maraige’. The original word could be used as a noun for husband in male form or wife in female form2. The longevity of the tradition and the universal nature of its applicability across countries, cultures, class and centuries are indicative of its enduring position in society.
Marriage: meaning and purpose?
“There is no choice more intensely personal, after all, than whom you choose to marry; that choice tells us, to a large extent, who you are.”
Elizabeth Gilbert, Committed: A skeptic makes peace with marriage
The meaning of marriage can be broad and its specificities change from culture to culture, religion to religion and across the timeline of history. However, there are some basic premises upon which the concept is based. Marriage is generally understood as the union and commitment between two people in an interpersonal relationship that is recognized by an official institution, such as the state and church, and is of a sexual nature. It is also acknowledged by a community or social structure to which the couple belongs, such as their friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances.
The dictionary defines marriage as the state of being united as spouses in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law3. However, the understanding of the institution of marriage is at times controversial as it has expanded and diversified in today’s world.
Increasingly people are moving away from the religious connotations attached to the church and service, choosing civil ceremonies and alternative venues. With the legalization of same-sex marriages in some states and countries, and not in others, and the acceptance of polygamous relationships in some religions and others not, the meaning is expandable and contextual. Today people often find second love; it’s not uncommon to start dating after divorce or to get married again.
The idea of one great love does remain, but perhaps more so in fiction than fact. A more flexible perspective towards marriage continues to emerge with a zeitgeist of individual freedoms and diversity. In defining the meaning of marriage, its varied understanding across cultures, religions and legal systems suggest that an inclusive and contemporary interpretation is emerging.
The meaning of marriage has adapted alongside its purpose. And its purpose can be viewed through different prisms. The purpose of marriage can be romantically understood as an enduring and public statement of your love. It can be legally understood as a contract, and financially as a division and allocation of assets. And from a historical perspective, marriage was a means of securing your family’s favor and fortune, politics and even peace, known as a marriage of convenience.
The reality of marriage is that it was in many ways a means of socio-economic survival. Women tended to the home and provided children, and sometimes were even traded as part of an economic or political arrangement, and men provided financial security. However, with the transformed gender roles and social structures today, marriage has evolved to become less about practical subsistence and service, and more about romantic love.
The purpose of marriages can be varied, but one could say that the purpose of marriage today is simply to make a commitment to the person you love. As the ultimate relationship institution, it acts as the bedrock of stability, a secure touch point to reach out for in the challenging moments which arise in every committed relationship.
The purpose of marriage is to establish a framework for the bricks and mortar of everyday love, a frame of reference for lasting love, and a structure to aspire and hold on to. And this is no more clearly exhibited than the wedding vows, vowing to make a wholehearted, lasting commitment to your partner, to have and to hold from this day forward…
Enjoy the beautiful, personal wedding vows in The Vow …
The Vow, Spyglass Entertainment, 2012
How has the meaning of marriage changed?
As discussed, historically marriage was often not based on love but rather took place because of political, economic or social obligations. As society has become more liberal and gender roles have diversified, the meaning of marriage has also changed. Let’s see how.
Women are no longer identified by their role of reproducing children. Both men and women enjoy successful careers. Sexuality is not defined singularly by heterosexuality and sex before marriage is also no longer the taboo it once was. These shifts have had a causal effect on the meaning of marriage.
One of these shifts is that more and more couples in the Western world are choosing cohabitation. It has become quite accepted for couples to move in and live together before getting married, sometimes choosing to remain untitled partners, or getting married older than they did 50 years ago. A study by the Pew Research Centre emphasized the decline in marriage for younger adults, with 20% of 18- to 29-year-olds married in 2010, compared with 59% in 19604. A significant and telling difference.
One of the reasons for this is that historically the meaning of marriage has been closely tied to religion. From Christianity to Islam, marriage is sacred and integral to social and religious traditions. Christianity regards marriage as a covenant ordained by God, with Islam revering marriage as a central institute for companionship and morality. Judaism traditionally views marriage as a contract, with an obligation to have children, and Hinduism distinguishes it as a sacred duty.
Looking at marriage through the prism of religion, the core understanding of marriage is in many ways universal. The traditional meaning of marriage as a contract; an important feature in your religion, with sex before marriage discouraged and procreation encouraged, similarly understood across religions and cultures. And although religion continues to play a vital role in life and in the very conceptualization of marriage, today in a more liberal and tolerant society, the meaning of marriage is arguably more focused on the heart of the matter – love.
What is the meaning of marriage in today’s society?
“Marriage is those two thousand indistinguishable conversations, chatted over two thousand indistinguishable breakfasts, where intimacy turns like a slow wheel. How do you measure the worth of becoming that familiar to somebody—so utterly well known and so thoroughly ever-present that you become an almost invisible necessity, like air?”
Despite shifting consciousness in society and religion, marriage has stood unflappable through an evolving society and come out strong, for better or for worse. An EliteSingles survey of more than 3000 singles found that 75% of men and women still think that marriage is relevant in 2017; with a majority of men and women (40%) saying that it is romantic, 23% liking the idea of the legal commitment and 17% saying it was important for their faith5.
And despite a majority still wanting to get married, the pressure to get married seems to have dramatically fallen. 84% men and 86% women say that they do not feel a pressure to get married today, whereas historically socio-economic structures ensured that marriage was kept in place and advanced by wider responsibilities. But today 75% of singles still want to get married, not for the social pressure, but because of their own personal desire and belief in marriage.
The greatest freedom in and from marriage exists now more than ever before. No longer do people need to get married for a set of socially correct reasons, but purely for the selfish, individualist and perfectly beautiful reason that they love each other. And what’s more is that although the numbers may be declining and the age increasing, people still believe in marriage.
Even as a universal concept, today marriage is refusing to be defined, but rather leaving an open a door for each couple to make it their own. And in that it can be seen as one of the ultimate expressions of love.
Getting into the heart of marriage, watch Jenna McCarthy’s very real and funny TED talk ‘What you don’t know about marriage…’
1. 1300. Gajewski, A. & Opacic, Z. (ed.), The Year 1300 and the Creation of a New European Architecture (Architectura Medii Aevi, 1), Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2007.
2. Matrimony. Online Etymology Dictionary. Found at: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=matrimony
3. Marriage.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 14 Sept. 2017.
4. Cohn, V. 2011. Marriage Rates Declines and Marriage Age Rises. Pew Research Centre. Found at: http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/12/14/marriage-rate-declines-and-marriage-age-rises/
5. Survey statistics from EliteSingles’ ‘Single at a Wedding’ survey, 2017. Sample size: 3134 single men and women.