Marriage, in some form, is found in most cultures and has been throughout history. There is one notable exception, still present today, the Mosou people of southwest China.
On the surface, it would appear that their culture is devoid of a marriage institution. Fathers do not live with the mothers of their children and aren’t expected to, nor do they, offer any financial support. Instead, children are raised and supported by the mother and her siblings, including …her brothers. There is no formal relationship between the man and the woman, though they may still occasionally sleep together. It would seem that the “relationship” exists solely for procreative purposes.
However, when you dig deeper you realize that even in this weak pairing there are elements of marriage. The Mosou refer to their system as a “walking marriage”. The father doesn’t support his children, but he is expected to be in their lives. He is presented to them on special occasions, such as Chinese New Year. The connection is tenuous, but it exists, and it does so to satisfy one of the basic cultural reasons for the existence of marriage. The joining of kin groups.
So even in cultures where marriage, and the pair-bonding it’s based on are only loosely supported, the basic cultural benefits of marriage are still derived, and this happens because social cultures thrive on the foundations of the marriage institution, as we’ll soon see.
Is Monogamy the Norm?
The answer to that question is difficult, but the general answer is, “no”. Only 17% of human cultures are strictly monogamous. Many cultures honor traditions that include polygamy (multiple wives) and polyandry (multiple husbands). However, even in cultures where relationships aren’t strictly binary a large percentage of the population still favor monogamy or at least serial monogamy. But one man, one woman isn’t as foundational to human societies as people tend to think.
What we find is that monogamy, the commonly assumed basis for marriage, isn’t nearly as common as marriage itself, which suggests that the reasons for marriage run even deeper.
So Why Does Society Favor Marriage?
Whatever the form of the relationship being formalized by marriage, the institution itself confers a litany of benefits to the married parties and upon society as a whole.
Marriage Increases Societal Stability
Humans tend to use kinship ties in order to establish trust groups, and this starts with direct family members. However, it’s useful for society to try and spread kinship groups in order to disperse trust throughout society. This a basic feature of marriage.
Consider a situation where one family has four children. When these children marry, new extended kin groups are formed. Marriage formally ties two unrelated families together, and with four children, that creates a very wide web of kinship trust between five different families that didn’t exist before. And the four other families brought into kinship with our original family, have other children that will also marry, further spreading kinship trust throughout society.
Marriage, in whatever form it takes, helps connect society in a dense network of kinship that simply isn’t possible through biological relations alone. And this extended kinship tends to bring greater stability to society.
Marriage Creates Formal Support for Children
Our species is furthered through procreation, and it’s generally considered advantageous for both parents to participate in the raising and supporting of children. Marriage provides a legal framework for protecting children in this way, by binding parents to each other and to their parental responsibilities. Of course in most modern societies parental responsibilities exist apart from marriage as well, but the legal/social foundation of marriage provides strong incentives for parents to pull their weight.
Marriage Allows Socially Acceptable Cohabitation
Many societies have internalized religious traditions that assert unmarried couples may not cohabitate. Marriage is important for these societies because it allows moral, proper cohabitation. Interestingly, it’s likely that these religious traditions exist to protect formal marriage because of the aforementioned benefits it provides society.
Marriage Supports Pair-Bonded Relationships
Human innately seek pair-bonding. This seems to be as much a cultural instinct as a biological one. People seek love and companionship. They look for close ties that bind them to another person. However, these relationships generally evolve over time and the original basis for the relationship may not apply long term. Marriage creates a new basis for the continuation of these important relationships.
This is particularly useful when the relationship involves children, as the stability of the family unit confers a host of benefits upon children.
Marriage Allows for Moral Sexual Relations
In societies with religious restrictions on sexual expression, marriage allows couples to have sex in a morally-approved manner. Given the importance of healthy sexual expression among adults, marriage in these societies plays a critical role in adult life.
Marriage Offers Legal Protections Not Afforded to Unmarried Individuals
Society goes to great lengths to protect marriage institutions, often creating elaborate legal incentives for married couples. In many countries only married couples can:
● Make legal and medical decisions for each other
● Have hospital and incarceration visitation rights
● Share employee benefits
● Enjoy property and inheritance without a will
● Get certain tax advantages
● Gain immigration residency benefits
So Why Does Marriage Exist?
Marriage is common because it protects many things we value in society. As has been shown, it helps maintain relationships in the face of changing priorities, provides strong incentives for children and their care, and weaves society together in an extended web of artificial kinship groups which allow the protections and trust intrinsic to close family units to be extended out into society as a whole.
But ultimately it exists because people want it. People see value in marriage and appreciate the benefits it brings. Marriage benefits society, and we are all part of that society, which means that each of us benefits from marriage even if we ourselves aren’t currently married.
For that reason alone it is wise to protect the institution of marriage, even as its definition changes to include non-traditional relationships, like same-sex couples. Because it isn’t the people involved that matter. Their gender isn’t important. What’s important is the love and trust that forms a marriage’s foundation, and the connections this forges through society.