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Marriage is a legal contract between two individuals to form a sexual, productive, and reproductive union. Through the marriage, this union is recognized by family, society, religious institutions, and the legal system. Marriage defines the relationship of the two individuals to each other, to any children they might have, to their extended families, to shared property and assets, and to society generally. It also defines the relationship of others, including social institutions, toward the married couple.

The key features of marriage include a legally binding, long-term contract; sexual exclusivity; coresidence; shared resources; and joint production. Spouses acquire rights and responsibilities with marriage, enforceable through both the legal systems and through social expectations and social pressure.

LEGAL ASPECTS OF MARRIAGE. "Marriage" differs from other, less formal, relationships primarily in its legal status. Marriage is a legally binding contract. As such, the treatment of marriage in the law shapes the institution, and recent changes in family law appear to have made marriage less stable. Historically, in the U.S. and many other countries, both secular and religious law generally viewed marriage vows as binding and permanent. The marriage contract could only be broken if one spouse violated the most basic obligations to the other and could be judged ''at fault" in the breakdown of the marriage (Regan 1996).

Beginning in the mid-1960s, however, states in the U.S. substantially liberalized and simplified their divorce laws. One of the key features of these changes was a shift from divorce based on fault or mutual consent to unilateral divorce, which required the willingness of only one spouse to end the marriage. Most states also adopted some form of ''no-fault'' divorce, which eliminated the need for one spouse to demonstrate a violation of the marriage contract by the other. The shift to unilateral or no-fault divorce laws was accompanied by a surge in divorce rates in the U.S. At least some of the increase in divorce rates appears to have resulted directly from the shift in the legal environment in which couples marry and decide to remain married or in which they divorce (Friedberg 1998). The link between divorce rates and laws that permit unilateral divorce has led several states to develop alternative, more binding, marriage contracts, such as covenant marriage.

key features of the institution of marriage. Permanence, joint production, coresidence, and the social recognition of a sexual and childrearing union are, perhaps, the most important characteristics of the institution of marriage (Waite and Gallagher

2000). These features lead to some of the other defining characteristics of marriage. Because two adults make a legally binding promise to live and work together for their joint well-being and to do so, ideally, for the rest of their lives, they tend to specialize, dividing between them the labor required to maintain the family. This specialization allows married men and women to produce more than they would if they did not specialize. The coresidence and resource sharing of married couples lead to substantial economies of scale; at any standard of living it costs much less for people to live together than it would if they lived separately. These economies of scale and the specialization of spouses both tend to increase the economic well-being of family members living together.

The institution of marriage assumes the sharing of economic and social resources and coinsurance. Spouses act as a small insurance pool against life's uncertainties, reducing their need to protect themselves against unexpected events. Marriage also connects spouses and family members to a larger network of help, support, and obligation through their extended family, friends, and others. The insurance function of marriage increases the economic well-being of family members. The support function of marriage improves their emotional well-being.

The institution of marriage also builds on and fosters trust. Since spouses share social and economic resources, and expect to do so over the long term, both gain when the family unit gains. This reduces the need for family members to monitor the behavior of other members, increasing efficiency (Becker 1981).

THE BENEFITS OF MARRIAGE. As a result of the features just discussed, marriage changes the behavior of spouses and thereby their well-being. The specialization, economies of scale, and insurance functions of marriage all increase the economic well-being of family members, and the increase is typically quite substantial. Generally, married people produce more and accumulate more assets than unmarried people (Lupton and Smith 2003). Married people also tend to have better physical and emotional health than single people, at least in part because they are married (Mirowsky and Ross 1989; Waite and Gallagher 2000). The social support provided by a spouse, combined with the economic resources produced by the marriage, facilitate both the production and maintenance of health.

In most societies, marriage circumscribes a large majority of sexual relationships. Data from the U.S. show that almost all married men and women are sexually active and almost all have only one sex partner—their spouse. Unmarried men and women have much lower levels of sexual activity than the married, in part because a substantial minority have no sex partner at all. (Just under a quarter of unmarried men and a third of unmarried women who were not cohabiting at the time of the survey had no sex partner in the previous year.) Men and women who are cohabiting are at least as sexually active as those who are married but are less likely to be sexually exclusive (Laumann et al. 1994).

A key function of marriage is the bearing and raising of children. The institution of marriage directs the resources of the spouses and their extended families toward the couple's children, increasing child well-being.

Current theoretical issues surrounding marriage focus on the elasticity of the definition: Must marriage, by definition, include only adults of opposite sexes? Is it possible for two men to marry? Two women? An adult and a child? Two children? Clearly, in some societies, a husband may have more than one wife, although the reverse is rarely true (Daly and Wilson 2000). And, theoretically, in countries such as Norway and Sweden in which the legal distinction between cohabiting and married couples has shrunken to the point of vanishing, have cohabiting couples become "married?" Is this just a return to the common-law marriages of the past, or is it something different?

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