Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus, Medical, Legal, Financial, Wikipedia.
Related to monogamy: serial monogamy


marriage, socially sanctioned union that reproduces the family. In all societies the choice of partners is generally guided by rules of exogamy (the obligation to marry outside a group); some societies also have rules of endogamy (the obligation to marry within a group). These rules may be prescriptive or, as in the case of the incest taboo, proscriptive; they generally apply to kinship groups such as clan or lineage; residential groups; and social groups such as the ethnic group, caste, or class.

Historically marriage was typically heterosexual and entailed exclusive rights and duties of sexual performance, but there are instructive exceptions. For example, Nayar women of India would ritually marry men of a superior caste, have numerous lovers, and bear legitimate children. Among the Dahomey of West Africa, one woman could marry another; the first woman would be the legal “father” of the children (by other men) of the second. These examples highlight the functions of marriage to reproduce both a domestic division of labor and social relationships between different groups. Such functions are served even by the more common type of marriage, the union of one or more men with one or more women.

In most societies men and women have been valued for their different roles in the household economy. Marriage therefore often has occasioned other economic exchanges. If a woman's labor is highly valued, a man may be required to offer valuable goods (bride-price) or his own labor (bride-service) to his wife's family. If a man's labor is more highly valued, the bride's family may offer goods (dowry) to the husband or his family.

Marriage as a Societal Bond

In many societies marriage links not just nuclear families but larger social formations as well. Some endogamous societies are divided into different exogamous groups (such as clans or lineages): Men form alliances through the exchange of women, and the social organization regulates these alliances through marriage rules. In some cases, two men from different groups exchange sisters for brides. Other instances involve an adult man marrying the young or infant daughter of another man; sexual relations would be deferred for many years, but the two men will have formed a strong bond. Marriages are often arranged by the families through the services of a matchmaker or go-between, and commence with a ritual celebration, or wedding. Some cultures practice trial marriage; the couple lives together before deciding whether they should marry. Societies have generally prescribed where newlywed couples should live: In patrilocal cultures, they live with or near the husband's family; in matrilocal ones, with or near the wife's family. Under neolocal residence, the couple establishes their own household.

Although marriage tends to be regarded in many places as a permanent tie, divorce is allowed in most modern societies. The causes of divorce vary, but adultery, desertion, infertility, failure to provide the necessities of life, mistreatment, and incompatibility are the most common. Civil unions are now permitted in Western countries, but for nearly a thousand years marriage in the Western world was a religious contract. The Christian church undertook its supervision in the 9th cent., when newlywed couples instituted the practice of coming to the church door to have their union blessed by the priest. Eventually the church regulated marriage through canon law.

In contemporary Europe marriage has lost some of importance, especially as social legislation in some nations has emphasized assuring equal financial benefits and legal standing to children born to unwed parents. Some European nations also grant legal recognition to couples in less restrictive unions; such partnerships typically have some but not all of the legal rights extended to married couples, but the partnership usually can be more easily dissolved.

For the legal aspects of marriage, see husband and wife; consanguinity; divorce.

Forms of Marriage

Monogamy (the union of one wife to one husband) is the prevalent form almost everywhere. Polygyny (or polygamy; having several wives at one time), however, has been a prerogative in many societies (see harem). It is commonly found where the value of women's labor is high and may be practiced as a way of acquiring allies: A man may cement his bonds with several other men by marrying their sisters or daughters. Polyandry (having several husbands at one time) is rare, having occurred infrequently in Tibetan society, among the Marquesas of Polynesia, and among certain hill tribes in India. People who enjoy only a marginal subsistence may practice polyandry as a way of limiting births. It is also practiced where brothers must work together to sustain one household; they share one wife. The custom of marrying a widow to her late husband's brother is known as levirate marriage and was common among the ancient Hebrews. In sororate marriages a widower marries his deceased (or barren) wife's sister. The levirate and the sororate occur in societies where marriage is seen to create an alliance between groups; the deceased spouse's group has a duty to provide a new spouse to the widow or widower, thereby preserving the alliance. Beginning in the late 20th cent., gay-rights groups in a growing number of nations have sought official recognition of same-sex couples through marriage or civil union (see gay-rights movement).


See C. Levi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1969); E. A. Westermark, The History of Human Marriage (3 vol., 5th ed. 1921; repr. 1971); J. M. Henslin, Marriage and Family in a Changing Society (2d ed. 1985); J. F. Collier, Marriage and Inequality in Classless Societies (1988); A. J. Cherlin, The Marriage-Go-Round (2010).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.


a MARRIAGE rule permitting only one partner to either sex. It may include prohibitions on remarriage, but where it does not the terms ‘serial monogamy’ or ‘serial POLYGAMY’ are sometimes used.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



in animals, a condition existing between the sexes by which the male mates with one particular female for a relatively long period of time and usually participates in caring for the offspring. Most birds, including swans, storks, eagles, and vultures, have a single mate for several years or, in some cases, for life. Other birds mate for only one season; they separate after rearing the fledglings (for example, geese), immediately after nest building, or before egg laying (many ducks). Among mammals, the ape has a single mate for several years; wolves, arctic foxes, common foxes, badgers, ermines, and beavers rarely couple for more than one season. Monogamous animals include those insects and other invertebrates in which both sexes (or only the males) die soon after a single mating (the females die after egg laying).

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


Marriage to only one person at a time.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


Zoology the practice of having only one mate
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
References in periodicals archive ?
The culture of monogamy is infused from top to bottom with the sacred, in personal, family, community, and national life.
(26) However, this applies largely to those in casual relationships and to commercial sex workers, whereas the protection of married women against HIV and other STDs the world over continues to rest firmly on the practice of monogamy.
He suggests, instead, that agencies and professionals working in HIV prevention with gay men focus on preaching monogamy, avoidance of anal sex, disclosure of HIV serostattis to partners, and self-esteem enhancement.
Overall the data showed that oxytocin activates the reward system, thus maintaining the bond between the lovers and promoting monogamy.
Heterosexually active men's beliefs about abstinence and monogamy have received scant research attention.
"Missionaries, teachers, and in some cases parents had socialized" these elite women "to believe in the religious and cultural superiority of foreign marital norms, especially monogamy."(33) As Mann further notes,
A Radio 4 documentary, 'Monogamy and the Rules of Love', which features a pair of wife-swapping couples, who use a Google calendar to plan when they have sex with each other, argues that the "taboo" around sharing lovers between an unlimited number of sexual partners could vanish within 10-years, the Independent reported.
The work clears up a long-standing question about promiscuity and monogamy among enzymes.
Beautiful businesswoman Sapphire has ditched monogamy after her husband betrayed her, and is enjoying the casual passion of a very fit younger man, only to fall for another cad.
'What about sex with other people?" Gregory-Lewis asks readers before reminding them, "Monogamy is the simplest agreement to make, but if you're not comfortable with it or know that you can't live with it, then don't make it." Gregory-Lewis describes agreements between couples that allow them to remain honest, if not faithful, to one another.
I HAVE never claimed to be a highbrow intellectual I'm the first to admit the concept of modern art is about as clear to me as Wayne Rooney's stance on monogamy. But my eyebrows visited my hairline when I discovered the pounds 25,000 Turner prize has been won by Simon Starling, who built a shed, turned it into a boat, then rebuilt it again as a shed.
In this Judeo-Christian understanding of the meaning of marriage, three factors are essential: 1) gender difference (male and female); 2) monogamy (two-in-one-flesh); 3) permanence (indissolubility).