Marriage means different things for different people and people enter into marriage for different reasons. Many couples will say that they choose to marry because they want to make a public statement of their love for one another. Others marry to create a stable environment for bringing up children. Some marry because marriage is traditional and they want to be part of that tradition. Sometimes people marry due to parental pressure (or societal pressure) to do the 'respectable' thing. Occasionally people who do not really want to marry do so anyway for the benefits associated with marriage (tax benefits, the right to live in another country or to avoid inheritance tax).
Marriage has both legal and religious functions:
Many people believe that the primary purpose of marriage is reproduction. This is one of the reasons that some people objected to the idea of gay marriage (even if they supported civil partnership). They argued that the concept of marriage is intrinsically linked with the idea of procreation and as this is not possible for same sex couples (or at least not possible without fertility treatments) they should not be allowed to marry.
Civil partnerships were introduced in 2005. A couple who have had a civil partnership have the same legal rights as a married couple. (For example, they have the right to receive a portion of their partner's pension in the event of their partner's death). If a couple decide they want to end a civil partnership then they need to get a dissolution order (the equivalent of a divorce).
Although civil partnership is legally almost identical to marriage, many same sex couples still felt that they wanted marriage. Civil partnership was seen (by some) as a second rate option that implied same sex relationships are not the equivilant of heterosexual ones. The declaration of human rights includes the right to marry and start a family and many same sex couples felt that they were being discriminated against. In 2014 gay marriage was introduced in Britain with the first couples marrying in March of this year.
However, not all gay couples are in favour of gay marriage. The historian David Starkey and the actor Rupert Everett have both questioned why gay couples would want to marry.
The law on gay marriage enables same sex couples to have a registry office wedding. However, it banned the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church from offering gay marriage. Other religious institutions will be able to decide for themselves whether or not to offer gay marriage. However, no religious institution will be required to provide weddings for same sex couples and no same sex couple will be able to prosecute any religious institution that will not marry them. These provisions were intended to protect religious freedom and reassure traditionalists who were concerned about the undermining of the institution of marriage.
The Church of England has told its priests to support members of their congregations who have a entered into a gay marriage but has said that priests themselves should not marry same sex partners. However, some priests have already had gay wedding ceremonies against the Church's instructions.
Most people would say that the couple should have equal status in a marriage. They should both be as important as each other. Christians would agree with this as they would say that God created man and woman to be together. Both are made in God's image.
However, some people believe that men and women should have distinctly different roles within marriage whereas others think that the role they play should be inter-changeable (both can do either role).
Traditionalists would say that the man should go out to work and be the main bread winner whilst the woman should stay home, bring up children and fulfil the domestic role. They might argue that:
Those who believe that men and women should perform different roles in the marriage might believe that a marriage works better if each partner has a very clear role. Without clear expectations of who would do what a couple might be more likely to argue about their roles.
However, many people (both religious and non-religious) consider this an old-fashioned view. Feminists fought for the right for women to be able to have equal opportunities in the work place. They would argue that it is unfair to say that people must play a specific role in the relationship purely due to their gender. It might also be illogical. Each person is different and in some relationships it might make more sense for the man to provide the childcare and the woman go out to work (particularly if the woman has a better paid job).
Marriage is often viewed as a rite of passage within Christianity. It marks the next stage of life and a willingness to bring up children. For Roman Catholics it is one of the seven sacraments (see more details below). For non Catholics it remains an important institution and is believed to be the ideal form for any sexual relationship. Many Christians believe that:
The fact that this does not always occur in practice (in reality many Christians are divorced or are cohabiting) does not remove the fact that within Christianity marriage is still upheld as the ideal of the way things should be.
Within the wider society marriage is also seen as a cause for celebration and something associated with reaching adulthood and finding stability in life. Traditionally, the nuclear family with married parents has been seen as the basic unit of society. Successful family life is essential for the stability of society as a whole (well brought up children become good citizens). However, increasingly people are questioning whether marriage is actually an essential part of society and more and more couples are choosing to cohabit.
Christians are generally opposed to sex outside marriage (as are many other religious believers).
However many non-religious people are not opposed to sex outside marriage and some more liberal Christians might agree with some of their views. Many non-religious people would argue that consenting adults can use their bodies however they like and provided they do not harm anyone else there is no reason why they should not have sex outside marriage (provided they use contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancies and STIs). That said, not all types of sex outside marriage are viewed in the same way. Adultery, promiscuity, pre-marital sex and cohabitation are all sex 'outside marriage' but they are not all the same type of thing!
Very few people would ever argue that adultery is acceptable. This is because committing adultery involves breaking your marriage vows and being unfaithful to your partner. This would almost invariably cause emotional harm to your partner. There are a few cases in which adultery might be regarded as the lesser of two evils but in general it would be frowned upon. Adultery is one of the grounds for divorce under UK law.
Likewise, there are a lot of non-religious people who might support the idea of pre-marital sex and faithful cohabitation but would not accept promiscuity. There are very practical reasons to oppose promiscuity as it increases the likelihood of the spread of STIs. No form of contraception is 100% effective against either pregnancy or the spread of disease and obviously the more people you have sex with the more likely you are to come into contact with someone who has an STI. Many people believe that promiscuous people are also harming themselves emotionally because having a lot of very short term relationships could undermine a person's sense of self-worth. The UK has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in Europe which some people blame on a culture of promiscuity.
Many non-religious people believe that there is nothing wrong with pre-marital sex. If a couple are in a close loving relationship and intend to get married then there is nothing wrong with them demonstrating that love through sex. There is a significant difference between premarital sex and promiscuity as a couple who have premarital sex might still see sex as a special thing to be kept for one person. Many people would argue that as contraception is widely available there is no reason for a couple not to have sex if they love each other.
However, many religious people (and non-religious people with traditional attitudes towards relationships) would argue that if a couple are really in love then they should be able to wait until they get married before having sex. This enables them to keep sex special. It also ensures that they do not conceive children until they are in a stable situation and able to bring them up effectively. As contraception is not 100% effective and a significant number of people who have abortions were using contraception when they got pregnant, it may be prudent (sensible) not to have sex unless you are also willing to have children
Some couples choose cohabitation rather than marriage. This is sometimes due to ideological objections to marriage (e.g. its religious origins or the traditional vows in which women promise to 'obey' their husbands). It might be due to personal experience (e.g. parents in an unhappy marriage). Some people believe that you should not make promises unless you are certain that you can keep them. If a couple get married they promise to remain together until death and many people would argue that people change so this is not something that they can necessarily do. Still others do not see the point of marriage. A cohabiting couple can be just as loving and faithful as a married one. Joint mortgage and joint parental responsibilities are as big a sign of commitment as marriage so why should a couple go to the expense of getting married?
Many people cohabit before getting married. In the 1960s only 5% of people cohabited before getting married. By the mid 1990s 70% of people had lived together first. (Haskey, J., 'Trends in marriage and cohabitation)
The majority of non-religious people believe that there is nothing wrong with cohabitation and if a couple choose to cohabit then that is their choice. Fewer couples are choosing to marry which may suggest that people are becoming more accepting of the idea that cohabitation is as good as marriage.
That said, traditionalists argue that marriage creates a stable basis for family life and argue that marriage is better for children. It is true that statistically children whose parents are married are more likely to stay together than those who live with unmarried parents. However, marriages can and do fail (statistics published for the UK in 2012 suggested 42% of marriages end in divorce) and marriages can be unhappy or even violent. Therefore, there is no certainty that children with married parents will be better off than children of cohabitees.
Christians believe that marriage is a gift from God. In Genesis 2:18 God states 'It is not good for man to be alone' and goes on to create a partner for Adam. It is significant that none of the animals was worthy of being a companion to Adam, only Eve who Adam recognises as 'flesh of my flesh' is a suitable match for him. The story concludes with the words 'That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.' People marry because God created them with this in mind. Even Christians who do not believe that the Genesis story is literally true would usually believe that it has spiritual meaning.
Christianity expects marriage to be monogamous (between two people) and the traditional view is that it should be between a man and a woman (as in the case of Adam and Eve) rather than between partners of the same gender. St Paul wrote:
Christianity also teaches that a married couple should remain faithful to one another and should not have sexual relationships outside of marriage. Traditionally both man and woman are supposed to be virgins at marriage (the white dress symbolises purity).
Marriage is one of the seven sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church. This means that it is something accomplished by God rather than by humans. The marriage ceremony celebrates the fact that God himself unites a couple, joining them together eternally. This is why Roman Catholics are opposed to divorce (what God does is eternal and perfect and cannot be undone).
The wedding vows reflect Christian beliefs and expectations about marriage.
The priest says:
For Christians, marriage must be entered into voluntarily and after due consideration. Both bride and groom must be sure that they want to marry as it is a serious (lifelong) commitment. Before a couple can get married in the church they will have to go to marriage preparation classes with the priest to discuss the nature of the commitment that they are undertaking.
They are called to 'accept children' as Roman Catholic teaching does not permit contraception to be used even within marriage (see page on attitudes to sexuality). They are also expected to bring up their children according to Christian principles.
The vows (promises) that a couple make to each other reflect the fact that marriage should last through the bad times as well as the good. The couple should remain faithful to one another and should not abandon one another if their situation changes. Marriage should last until death, (but after death a widow or widower is free to remarry).