Marriage is a specific form of relationship that has developed in human society as a way to make interactions between genders more orderly and subordinate the instinct of proliferation to the norms of society. It is defined by Catholic Encyclopaedia as “a legitimate union between husband and wife” (Ryan, 2003). The concept of legitimacy is derived from some authority, be it religious or civil that sanctions the union between two people. This sanctioning serves to create a type of bond between two people that leads to the existence of certain responsibilities and obligations of both parties, namely of husband and wife. These responsibilities are also an essential part of marriage and define it as a specific type of union.
These obligations refer in the first place to sexual intercourse. In this sense, they are culturally defined to a great extent. Thus, some cultures strictly require either partners, or at least the woman, to have had no prior sexual experience before getting married, whereas in others, like in modern American culture, this experience has almost become a prerequisite. During the marriage itself, most cultures and sometimes even legal contracts stipulate that both partners should have no sexual intercourse with parties other than their spouse, although “among some savage tribes the husband permits his guests to have intercourse with his wife, or loans her for hire” (Ryan, 2003). In most societies, however, such sexual intercourse with an individual other than one’s spouse is strongly discouraged and “has also often been criminalized, especially in the case of a person who is a representative of the government” (Wikipedia, 2006).
Another set of obligations refers to the need to provide financial support for the family. Thus, a husband is usually expected to provide for his wife and earn most or all of the income. To make this burden easier for him, he can hope for a certain portion of the wife’s family wealth included in the dowry. The obligation “to provide his wife with “necessaries”—which included food, clothing, and shelter” was also stated in English common law from which the US concept of marriage was taken (“Husband and Wife”, n.d.). If the spouse does not meet the support obligation, the other party can sue him or her and require the dissolution of marriage. This support obligation now refers to both parties, but is most often invoked by women in divorce proceedings.
In terms of owning property, women were often put at a disadvantage since what belonged to them before marriage was transferred to the husband’s ownership. In the US, this inequality was corrected with the mid-19th century Married Women’s Property Acts that allowed married women to own property. Today, in separate-property states, the spouses have different properties that they hold in their name, whereas they also have some joint spousal property. In contrast, in community-property states “a majority of the property obtained by a husband and wife during a marriage is considered community property” (“Husband and Wife”, n.d.).
When children are born in the marriage, they will most readily be recognized as those fathered by the husband. As a result, the man will in most cases be obliged to provide material support for them until they reach a certain age by paying alimony. When the two divorce, in theory, each spouse can gain custody of the children, although in practice such custody will most often be granted to the wife. In the US, for instance, women receive orders of protection in 85% of cases (Wikipedia, 2006).
Speaking of domestic chores, it is most common to hear that it is the primary responsibility of a woman to attend to domestic matters. She is most often responsible for maintaining cleanliness and order in the house, cooking, washing, paying the bills etc. The traditional role of the woman as a homemaker accounts for this bias, although with the increase in the number of working women this situation is shifting to give the man a greater role in homemaking.
Thus, marriage in modern societies is associated with a range of obligations that arise for both husband and wife. These obligations differ for both genders, although modern trends toward gender equality lead toward the convergence of these responsibilities for both sexes. Women have acquired greater property rights, support obligations now concern both genders, and men may soon have more possibility to take custody of their children. Overall, the obligations cover a variety of areas, including sexual intercourse, legal responsibilities as to property and material support, children, and household duties. Taken together, these responsibilities define marriage that is often a stated or implicit contract between two people.
Ryan, J.A. (2003). Catholic Encyclopedia. History of Marriage. Retrieved April 6, 2006, from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09693a.htm
Husband and Wife. (n.d.). Retrieved April 6, 2006, from http://www.answers.com/topic/husband-and-wife
Wikipedia. Marriage. 5 April 2006. Retrieved April 6, 2006, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marriage
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