A Global Look at Marriage in All Its Forms
Marriage in the US
For many in the United States marriage is something reserved for a man and a woman. Often times it is accompanied by religious services and beliefs and can either be to create children in a socially responsible way, or just to show the commitment of a couple. We often like to say that marriage in our country is based on the love between a couple and their desire to be together and be recognized as being committed to each other but there is more to the story. Marriage brings with it tax cuts, benefits, and the assurance that if your spouse falls ill you'll be allowed to visit them in their final moments at the hospital and make crucial decisions like what medical action to take when they can't make decisions for themselves. It also makes inheritances easier and genealogies simpler. In the broadest sense our view of marriage just makes things legally easier for the majority.
Currently the debate over same-sex marriage is one that burns strong and as of yet remains fairly unresolved, but could we be missing something? What do other cultures think of marriage? What does religion think? Are we the odd ones out?
Arranged marriages have existed for hundreds of years, with their first written record being exhibited by Hindus in the second century. It was more or less invented to reenforce their caste system. Women could "marry up" one caste, if they found a man willing, but they were unable to marry anyone lower than themselves, or higher than one caste up. They were welcome to marry their equals but when given the choice it made more sense to marry up in order to benefit their financial situation. Men were able to marry their equals or woman who were one cast lower than themselves but they were not allowed to marry up or conversely marry anyone that was more than just one caste below them. In this way only a small amount of upward mobility was allowed in every generation and the cast system stayed strong.
Of course Hindus were not the only ones to practice arranged marriage. Before the Industrial Age the upper classes of many European countries implemented arranged marriages for political gain. One royal or rich family would be aligned with another through marriage. The couples involved often would not know each other and the wife's only real role was to give her husband as many sons as she could muster. This was to keep the inheritances strong. Kings in particular were very vulnerable if they did not have a son to succeed them after death.
Today arranged marriages are still practiced in much of India. Boys and girls in some areas can be officially promised to each other when they are around five years of age. Sometimes the actual wedding will take place at this age but the tiny couple will be free to resume their normal life with their families after the event, only coming back to their betrothed when they are in their teens. Girls often come with a dowry, a payment to the groom's family to treat the new bride well. Arranged marriages can also be created when the couple is well grown and has decided to get married on their own. From here their parents generally look far and wide for a match that will be good for their son or daughter, someone the entire family can get along with and who has the same interests and educational level as their son or daughter. Some claim that because of this process arranged marriages can be stronger than other marriages. Although the couples will scarcely know each other they can grow to love each other with as much passion as anyone else. Divorce is usually not an option if it goes wrong.
Child marriage has a long history. In the early years of Christians girls were often married soon after their first menstruation, which is usually anywhere between 12 and 16 years of age. Their husbands at the time were rarely their peers but rather tended to be grown men, some who had already been married and widowed before.
In the United States we'd like to think that child marriages are all part of the past but in reality they continue. California has no restriction on age of marriage so long as parental consent is given. Kansas and Massachusetts both permit twelve year old girls to get married with parental consent (the lowest age for the boys is fourteen in both states.) New Hampshire and Texas allow for girls to get married at thirteen (boys at fourteen) with parental consent. Some argue these laws protect pedophiles, claiming that so long as they've gained permission to get married they are beyond prosecution. Child brides in particular have a tendency to grow up and regret their previous marriage.
Marriage to God
In some Christian denominations nuns can give vows to God that are very much like marriage but aren't technically. "Marriage to God" is more a layman's term to describe the bond these women have to their lord. They vow to remain celebrate but so too do priests and other clergy and they wouldn't say they were married to God.
However there are cultures that do marry their god or gods. One of the most notable is the Aravan Festival in India which celebrates a great event in their religion. According to some Hindu sects their god Krishna wanted to get married before the day of his death (prophesied to be in battle the next day.) When no women came forward another god, Lord Aravan, appeared and offered to turn himself into a woman for the night so that Krishna could be married. Today men put on dresses and symbolically marry their god for their prayers to be heard. Some of these men are normal heterosexual believers, but the festival has become increasing popular with transvestites, gays, transsexuals, and hijras (India's "third sex.") The morning after they take their vows they have their wedding bangles cut off and they weep in sorrow for the death of their marriage.
Some argue polygamy (one man and several brides) is the oldest form of marriage. it appears in great abundance in Biblical and historical texts throughout history and there's a pretty good reason for this. Polygamy offers an opportunity to churn out many children and in previous eras this could be a very positive thing. Women often died in childbirth and the children themselves only had about a 50/50 chance of making it to the age of five. In cases where men were rich or royal it made sense to have a lot of offspring. If their eldest son died it had no effect on the inheritance of their wealth or thrown, that would just go to the second oldest. In farming communities polygamy was also popular because many children meant there would be many hands to work the land.
Today polygamy is still practiced in certain African tribes as well as in certain religious circles. Early Mormonism was at least partially based on polygamy but later it rescinded this doctrine and spurned the church to break off into two sects - the latter being Fundamentalist Mormons who still practice "plural marriage."
Others who enter polygamous marriages do so because they believe it works better for them. Sister wives, if they get along, can become very close and be very beneficial to each other. Some argue that since our population currently has two women for every man then this concept works perfectly.
Polyandry (one wife, several husbands) accounts for less than 2 percent of the entire world population's marriages ever. It is a system in which one woman marries several men (usually brothers.) Today it most known form might be practiced by Tibetan woman who live high in the mountains. They live in rural farming communities where each owns a small plot of land. Because they can't afford to have many children to divide the land to they practice fraternal polyandry, marrying brothers. Since the husbands are often brothers the resulting children are family anyway and rarely cause domestic hostility. The woman will only be capable of birthing several children and the eldest daughter will be the one who inherits the land after her mother dies. Younger women are usually not permitted to marry which causes a shortage of women, and allows the men to accept entering polyandrous marriages more freely.
Polyandy in Practice int he Himalayas
Polyamory is the most complex form of marriage. It is a marriage of multiple people who marry at least several of the other individuals in a group. Since it is not legal in the United States, or accepted commonly by any one religion, it remains a fringe option and the marriage aspect of it is often merely symbolic, holding no legal status.
In ancient cultures this may have been practiced as a religious sacrament, while in the modern day it is more connected to feminism and a woman's right to chose her mate or mates, despite what the society around her is saying. Of course polyamorous groups can be composed of any sexuality or sexualities and may have male, female, or mixed members. One reason it remains illegal in many countries is because a marriage like this can quickly become legally complicated if one person dies and leaves an inheritance, or if one decides to separate from the group. This is not to mention it might muddle the genealogy of any children born. Despite all these things polyamory seems to be a lifestyle that has lingered around the fringes of society for at least the last two hundred years in Western society. It may have at times been very hidden, or it may have been as public as the communes of the 1960s. Since 2011 it has been made legal in Canada.
Mass marriages are for those couples that wish to get married alongside hundreds of others. There are many reasons why this might be a good idea. In 324BC Alexander the Great got married in a mass wedding ceremony. He took this opportunity not only to marry his bride (the princess of Persia) but also marry off many of his leading officers to other politically gainful Persian women. This was obviously a political move to create a strong alliance with Persia.
At other times mass marriages have been employed for religious reasons. The First moon Church was accused of being a dangerous cult when it started in 1954. Despite this it has married off thousands of couples in its ranks in a number of mass ceremonies. Brides and grooms rarely knew each other and often didn't even share a common language. Even after Moon's death his widow continues to run these mass wedding ceremonies.
Many impoverished countries are now looking to mass weddings for economical relief. India for example married of 3,600 couples in a 2011 mass wedding. Participants were mostly poor farmers and were from varied religious backgrounds. These mass weddings eradicated the need for dowries and allowed for many individuals who might not be financially ready to get married to do so.
Walking marriages are a creation of the Mosuo who live in large communal houses with their families. No one here has their own bedroom except for women of reproductive age. These women are free to invite any man they like to spend the night with her but in the morning he'll always go back to his own family. When this nighttime visitor starts coming around frequently it can be called a "walking marriage." Very often these women will chose the same partner over a long stretch of time, having a similar pattern of serial monogamy as we do in the West.
These couples are not particularly responsible for each other. In fact the women are responsible for their children and everyone in their family's household but the father of their children is not bound to take care of his offspring in any way. That is not to say he's free, in fact he's bound to his own family's household and must help take care of the children there - his siblings and his sisters' children. This is actually a very stable form of family and provides stability for all. In fact many find the Western idea of marriage perplexing, wondering why anyone would share their finances with their lover, much less their households and all their belongings.
A Look at the Mosuo Women and their Walking Marriages
Traditionally speaking if a woman in the early Christian era could not give her husband a son he was allowed to take on a concubine. Concubines were not technically married to the man but they were allowed to provide back-up offspring to the original marriage. Concubines could be free women of the community or slaves depending on the situation. Royalty also very often took on concubines in addition to multiple wives for the same reason - to create more children.Concubinage seems to have been practiced as far back as the ancient Greek and Romans who felt it was an acceptable addition to marriage. Women who were concubines were often of the lower classes and opted for concubinage voluntarily in an attempt at financial stability. Other cultures to share a heritage of concubinage was ancient Judaism, ancient China, Thailand, some Islamic sects, and in the United States white slave masters often took on black slaves in a concubine relationship (that is an unmarried long term sexual relationship.) Of course in that case it wasn't always voluntary and is yet another part of our history we like to forget about.
Same-sex marriages are struggling for legal status in the United States but have already been approved in many countries. Gays and lesbians have always existed and to some extent have always had unofficial marriages even in societies that didn't allow it. "Boston Marriages" were described as two spinsters living together in the United States in the 1800's. At times that may have been the end of the story but there is some evidence that many of these arrangements were actually lesbian couples living together in harmony. Was this trickery or society turning a blind eye? It was probably a mixture of both.
Of course same-sex marriages gives the US a bit of a head ache sometimes. We aren't at all in agreement with what a same-sex marriage should look like or if it should be allowed at all. Many states won't allow someone from a same sex couple to adopt, even if it is their partner's children. Imagine being the parent of a child who you know you will not be able to make decisions for in an emergency, or even potentially visit in a hospital. Marriage brings with it many social benefits and idea of children complicates the law in some pretty crazy ways. Who are the rightful parents of a child born to a surrogate mother, adopted to two gay men, only one of which is the biological father? We have a lot of talk to do to figure these things out and it will probably be an open conversation for some years to come.
So what IS Marriage?
Marriage is defined by the individual and the society they live in. If we desire to have a cohesive description we need to get together as a people and hash it all out. Otherwise there will always be lingering questions and ambiguity.