Family

Marriage and Divorce

Marriage as a Social Institution

Norms about marriage vary, but marriage is an institution in every society.
Marriage is understood as a union supported by society and culture. Sociologists define marriage as a bond between two or more individuals in an arrangement meant to be stable and long-lasting, usually based in part on a sexual relationship. Marriage is found in all societies. Depending on cultural differences, marriage can require religious, ceremonial, and civil approval. Marriage is often related to norms around bearing and raising children. However, many couples throughout the world decide to have children or cohabitate without ever marrying. While ceremonies for marriage and rules, roles, and norms change from culture to culture, marriage is considered culturally universal and present as a global social institution. Divorce is also recognized around the world, although its prevalence and form can depend on the laws and norms of a country or community. In some parts of the world, such as the Philippines and Vatican City, divorce is illegal.

Marriage and Divorce as Social Contracts

Marriage and divorce have legal definitions but also carry social meanings and impacts.

Sociologists consider the ways that society functions according to social contracts. The concept of a social contract, a voluntary agreement between individuals and government where people agree to follow laws in exchange for benefits such as protection and stability and a recognition of people's rights, was introduced by Enlightenment philosophers seeking to explain why governments exists. Sociologists use this concept to think about various ways that social agreements play a role in social structure and social behavior. Marriage and dissolution, ending a marriage though annulment or divorce, are both social contracts. Many societies also recognize domestic partnership, a legally defined relationship between two people who are living together and who share domestic responsibilities to manage their relationship but who are not joined by civil union or marriage. Marriage, dissolution, and domestic partnerships are defined by laws and give certain rights to the people who participate in them. For example, in the United States, many health insurance policies allow husbands and wives to be covered on their spouse's plan. Marriage allows people a number of legal rights:

  • the right to take leave from work to care for an ailing spouse, under the Family Medical Leave Act (1993)
  • the right to inherit assets and property
  • the right to receive medical information in order to support a spouse's health care
  • the right to Social Security, Medicare, and veterans' and disability benefits
  • the right to sponsor a spouse as an immigrant
  • the right to bring certain types of lawsuits
  • some tax benefits and tax exemptions for transfers of wealth
Marriage and divorce shape the structure of any given society. The values, norms, beliefs, and expectations attached to marriage and divorce strongly influence people's behavior. Changes in these values, norms, beliefs, and expectations both impact and reflect society as a whole. For example, divorce rates can be understood in relationship to gender norms and economic trends. Changes in these areas can bring changes to the particular understanding of the social contract of marriage that prevails in a society.

Divorce Rates in the United States

In the United States, divorce spiked in the mid-20th century, when social changes led to greater financial independence among women. Divorce rates then leveled off, in part because marriage rates went down.