Exploring Marriage Past And Present

Updated April 2, 2024by Regain Editorial Team

Merriam-Webster describes marriage as "the state of being united as spouses in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law". In 2015, the United States joined several other nations around the world in legalizing same-sex marriage. This created a more inclusive meaning of marriage. Today, marriage symbolizes love and eternal devotion. 

Marriage is meant to last a lifetime

Unions based on romantic love appeared just a little over a century ago. Prior to that, they were economical and business arrangements—perhaps the furthest thing from romance you can get. When you consider the evolution of marriage from the ancient period to the present day, you may be surprised to see how much it has changed.  Married life is not the same as it used to be.

Marriage history: Changing attitudes from the ancient period to the present day

Who you’re married to is perhaps the most important part of marriage. Still, the ability to choose your spouse is a modern concept. Rituals and ceremonies uniting two people together date back to prehistoric cultures. Considered the first diplomatic alliance, marriage had political and economic benefits. Whether it was to unite against common enemies, form lasting connections for trade, or establish clear ownership and inheritance of property, marriage was a business arrangement between families and nothing more.

Banns: Marriage goes public

Early religious leaders established marriage as the center of the family and the community. Over time, the Church became more involved in marital unions. For example, it created the "official" wedding ceremony, which took place outside among the couple’s family, friends, and neighbors.

By the Middle Ages, couples were compelled to announce their marriage publicly. Starting in the 13th century, any couple who desired to get married had to publish banns, or public notices, stating the date of their impending wedding and the names of the bride and groom. Like the wedding announcements of the present day, banns alerted the public of the marriage and allowed anyone to come forward and challenge the union. These notices all but eliminated the chances of any wedding taking place that would be considered improper or invalid. Anyone could challenge a marriage for reasons outlined by the Church such as a bride and groom being too closely related or a prior engagement that hadn't been properly dissolved, for example.

Common-law marriages in Colonial America

Marriage banns became a tradition, and they eventually moved to the New World. By the late 17th century, the English settled the Atlantic coast of what would become the United States, bringing their practices with them. The British colonies followed common law, which followed precedent as opposed to written laws. Thus, European marriage traditions made their way to the New World where they adapted and evolved.

The British government started taxing married couples in the home country and the colonies by the end of the 1600s. This might explain why marriage became less common. Many couples entered into common-law marriages, which were unions that were not officiated by a judge or a religious official, in order to avoid paying the fee. All the law required for a binding common-law marriage was for the bride and groom to agree to live as husband and wife (with their families' blessings).

Common-law marriages in the colonies were mostly economic arrangements, but opinions on marriage were shifting during this period. For a woman, marrying a man who could financially support her was the key to her survival. And a successful marriage wasn’t necessarily a happy one. Common law didn't give women any legal rights, and there were no occupations in which a woman could completely support herself. The best chance she had to support herself financially was through marriage. 

The 19th Century: The Victorian period sets the standard for marriage

After the American Revolution and the formation of the United States, the Founding Fathers put marriage under state jurisdiction, changing the meaning of marriage once again. Marriage laws varied from state to state, but they were similar in many ways. British common law influenced the American legal system, and the Victorian values of the 19th century affected the way Americans approached sex and marriage. 

There was a slow evolution in what men and women looked for in a partner, changing the meaning of marriage somewhat. Building upon the companionship that had been important in previous centuries, love, friendship, and companionship all began to factor into choosing a spouse.  

A period of religious and moral reform, the 19th century also brought significant changes in gender roles. At its height, the Industrial Revolution created more economic prosperity in married life, rapidly expanding the middle class. Industrialization created more jobs in the cities. Married men began spending more time working outside of the home, while women were increasingly confined to it.

Getty / Maskot

Unlike previous centuries when women made financial contributions to the household, wives became the sole caretakers of their husbands and children. Victorian men occupied public areas, while women created a domestic haven for their husbands when they returned home. This "separation of spheres" would dominate the Victorian period and dictate the ins and outs of married life. Although the Victorians believed that men were the superior sex, women reigned supreme inside of the home, keeping a clean, orderly household and raising well-behaved, morally upright children. Women sought fulfillment in their roles as wives and mothers. This became the model for 19th-century women to follow as well as the basis for the institution of marriage.

Seduction laws and marriage in the U.S.

This cultural focus on marriage and family filtered throughout society, changing the meaning of marriage for everyone. The legal system found ways to prosecute anyone who deviated from it. In the U.S.,  by the 19th century. Many men would convince women to have premarital sex with them by promising marriage; if the man didn't marry her, the woman's male relatives could charge the man with the crime of seduction. When appearing in court for the charge of seduction, the man could either plead not guilty, or he could marry the woman he seduced. If the man chose to avoid prosecution, the judge married the former lovers right there in the courtroom. For some, married life became about avoiding prison instead of marrying for love.

The twentieth century: A time of social change

The meaning of marriage would undergo the most extreme changes during the 20th century. Rejecting the gender roles of the Victorian period, 20th-century brides and grooms moved away from the separation of spheres. Loosening attitudes about premarital sex made physical attraction another requirement in choosing a spouse. Couples now considered physical intimacy just as important as emotional intimacy.

World War I and World War II altered marriage rates throughout the world, making married life more precious. Both wars saw an increase in marriages, with couples getting married younger. World War I, a defining moment in modern history, changed the nature of marriage and society, which would have repercussions throughout the rest of the twentieth century.

Although love becomes the primary factor in choosing a partner, state laws continue to intrude on personal freedoms within marriage. Women struggled for more equality within their relationships with their husbands, as interracial couples and same-sex couples fight for their unions to be legally recognized. 

World War I, marriage, and social change

During World War I, more women joined the workforce and contributed to the war effort. Replacing men during their military service, many women were more self-sufficient. With more control over their lives, women campaigned for more rights. Although obtaining the right to vote had been on the suffragists' radar since the late nineteenth century, women's wartime experience further fueled the campaign. Women achieved the right to vote in the United States in 1920 with the passage of the nineteenth Amendment.

The 1920s were also a time of recovery and reaction from the "Great War"; World War I killed more soldiers than all of the military conflicts of the nineteenth century combined. With the disastrous war over, the 1920s became a time of thriving material and consumer culture. It also reflected changing attitudes on sex and gender. Having survived such a devastating war, people wanted to have fun. The Roaring 20s were the times of flappers, jazz music, and relaxing attitudes towards sex. The courtship between men and women is no longer supervised, and couples start getting to know each other better before they get married.

The WWII years

The Interwar Years (the two decades between World War I and World War II) follow a global trend in marriage. More couples get married when the economy is thriving. The stock market crash of 1929 shattered the economy, and more people waited to get married. Massive unemployment meant that couples couldn't afford weddings or financially support their families. However, the beginning of World War II brought the economic boom that encouraged marriage once again.

The improved economy coupled with a nation at war created marriage fever. In the U.S., marriage rates rose 80% between 1941 and 1942. Some judges and officiants married hundreds of couples a day. A significant amount of these hasty unions didn't last. About 25% of them ended in divorce after the war ended in 1945.

At the end of the war, society wanted a return to the domestic bliss seen during the Victorian period. The appearance of the "nuclear family"—a husband, a wife, and their children— becomes the ideal. The separation of spheres returns, with women becoming wives and mothers while their husbands were the breadwinners. Still, many women started to question their roles as wives and mothers only.

Marriage discrimination: Women's rights, anti-miscegenation laws, and the fight for same-sex marriage

Although Victorian society cherished the honorable, chaste wife, women began to challenge their husbands' control over their lives by the late nineteenth century. The "first wave" of feminism pushed for more equality both inside and outside of marriage throughout the twentieth century. While their predecessors wanted freedom, the "second wave" of feminists in the 20th century wanted more: they wanted equality.

The "first wave": Women achieve more control over their property

Although women earned the right to vote by 1920, their husbands still controlled their daily lives, which had an impact on married life. A wife couldn't open a credit card without her husband's consent, nor did she have any say in what happened to the couple's communal property. When a woman married, her husband could confiscate all of her wealth and property, keeping it or selling it without her input. 

In the United States, women had varying degrees of control over their property, dating back to the Victorian period. Most women didn't have any say at all. Some states made certain exceptions for women who owned businesses or property, granting them "femme sole" status. These women continued to control their affairs without interference, even after marriage. Responding to social and political pressure, governments started passing resolutions to give women more economic freedoms. 

The "second wave": Feminists address social ills of the age

By the late 1960s, there was a significant population of self-sufficient women who no longer considered marriage to be their only option, which diminished married life as being their sole purpose. Initially addressing politicians for their support, the first second-wave feminists were disappointed when no one would take up their cause. They developed the first feminist "pressure group," the National Organization for Women (NOW). Inspired by the gains the NAACP made for the civil rights movement, second-wave feminists used NOW to push for more gender equality in the workplace.

Pursuing an agenda to convince employers to end discrimination practices against working wives and mothers, NOW's leadership suffered from internal divisions. While some moderate feminists wanted to keep pushing for better conditions for working women, more radical feminists wanted to address more social and political issues that affected them such as the Vietnam War, abortion, as well as sexual assault and domestic violence both within and outside of marriage.

As a result, radical feminism brought about real change for married women. Marital rape was outlawed in the 1970s, and the first domestic violence shelters opened. In 1972, part of the Higher Education Act  known as Title IX  provided more opportunities for women in higher education. Perhaps most importantly, radical feminism pushed for a change in divorce laws. Women unhappy in their marriages could get a divorce more easily, allowing them to leave unfulfilling or abusive relationships.

Anti-miscegenation laws: Bans on interracial marriage

Marriage is meant to last a lifetime

In the United States, white supremacy dominated as a result of slavery. Since the 17th century, anti-miscegenation laws prevented relationships and marriages between whites and African slaves to solidify slavery as an institution. Pro-slavery factions used anti-miscegenation laws to discredit the abolitionist movement, accusing activists of secretly supporting racial equality.

The United States kept anti-miscegenation laws on the books to clearly define how it dealt with race in a post-slavery world. Attempting to preserve white supremacy, the government restricted the fundamental civil rights of newly freed slaves. This included the anti-miscegenation laws against interracial marriages. Whites lynched African Americans for having relationships, or even mild flirtations, with white women, even when they were consensual. This system of white supremacy remained in full effect well into the twentieth century.

The U.S. anti-miscegenation laws also extended to Asian immigrants who arrived in mass numbers in the nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. As Chinese immigrants came to the United States as laborers during the Gold Rush, they were isolated into their communities. The government didn't want these workers to settle in the United States, so it kept them from marrying and starting their own families. First, the U.S. banned Chinese women from migrating to America. Then, it applied the anti-miscegenation laws that were effective against interracial marriage to unions between whites and Chinese migrants.

Eventually, gains made by the first civil rights advocates and the overturning of legal precedent turned the tide against the anti-miscegenation laws. Starting in 1948, states began to repeal their laws, but the regulations in the South remained in force. A Virginia couple, Richard and Mildred Loving, were convicted under the state's laws. After several years of appeals, the Supreme Court ruled anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional. The federal ruling of Loving v. Virginia wiped out the remaining legislation still in effect in the United States.

The final push: Same-sex couples fight for marriage equality in the United States

The legal regulation of homosexuality stems from hundreds of years of religious and secular policing of same-sex relationships. The Church condemned homosexuality, and local and federal governments passed rules banning same-sex relationships. By the nineteenth century, new conversations about equality and freedom influenced the liberation movement. Slowly, activist groups organized to pressure church and state officials into removing legal restrictions against gays and lesbians.

As the social movements of the twentieth century tackled tough questions surrounding gender and race discrimination within marriage, gay rights activists organized under the LGBT banner. Calling attention to all people who do not identify as straight, the LGBT movement used examples of consciousness-raising from the feminist and civil rights movements. Activists used demonstrations to publicize the gay rights movement, taking on state laws that criminalized same-sex relationships.

In response to LGBT activism, government officials responded with even more restrictions and violence. In New York, the state-authorized bullying tactics, including police harassing patrons of local LGBT-friendly establishments. After the Stonewall Uprising of 1969, in which the LGBT community resisted police brutality, the gay rights movement splintered into specific groups tackling issues that impacted their lives. Offshoots of the first activist groups devoted to lesbians and gay people of color organized, while the first ally groups such as PFLAG joined the fight for equal rights.

One of the many issues addressed by the end of the twentieth century was the status of marriage. The government didn't recognize marriages between same-sex couples, and gay and lesbian parents had no rights over their children in custody battles. President Clinton's Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, signed in 1996 exempted same-sex couples from claiming federal benefits.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the tide was changing yet again. Several European nations, beginning with the Netherlands in 2000, started to legalize same-sex unions. In the meantime, the U.S. struggled over whether it was a state or a federal issue. In 2000, as some states started to strike down their sodomy laws, Vermont legalized civil unions of same-sex couples. Finally, in 2003, the Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas ruled sodomy laws unconstitutional. 

In 2012, the movement for marriage equality gained an ally in U.S. President Barack Obama who refused to support the Defense of Marriage Act. The next year, the Supreme Court declared Clinton's Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. Throughout the rest of 2013 and 2014, individual states upheld the Supreme Court ruling, legalizing same-sex marriage. One year later, the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that the remaining 13 bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional, legalizing same-sex unions across the country.

Work through marriage barriers in online therapy

Today's most successful marriages have become partnerships that depend on communication and constant effort. Now more than ever before, couples can create their ideal relationships according to their own values. Honesty and openness with your partner about what you want may be the key to a successful relationship in the modern world.  Professional counseling services can assist you and your spouse as you learn how to communicate better or fine-tune your relationship. 

With as much liberty as we have in marriage today, it could still prove difficult to reach out to a third-party for support in the relationship. You may feel shame about the challenges in your marriage, for example, or you could just be uncomfortable talking about your marital issues in a clinical setting like a therapist’s office. In these cases, you could find online counseling to be a better option. Many couples report feeling more at ease in these internet-based settings. Online couple’s counseling might also be more convenient since it can be accessed outside of normal business hours. 

Research in the field of mental health and psychotherapy supports the use of online counseling for couples. A recent study determined that therapy delivered via videoconferencing technology was just as effective as in-person couple’s counseling. Positive outcomes included greater relationship functioning and mental health gains. 


Marriage as we know it today may be unrecognizable from what it looked like for our great grandparents. Still, contemporary marital unions come with their own set of challenges. You don’t have to navigate these alone, though. The licensed counselors at Regain are here to help you build a healthy and fulfilling marriage you can enjoy for years to come. Get started today

For Additional Help & Support With Your ConcernsThis website is owned and operated by BetterHelp, who receives all fees associated with the platform.
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started
This website is owned and operated by BetterHelp, who receives all fees associated with the platform.