Marriage and Partnership
(Edexcel IGCSE section C)

The Edexcel IGCSE RS specification says:

The issues of, religious and non-religious beliefs/teachings about, and the (differing) attitudes of religious and non-religious people to: marriage and its purposes; the roles and status of partners within marriage/civil partnerships; and the importance and role of marriage in religious communities and society. (Differing) religious and non-religious attitudes towards sex outside marriage (pre-marital sex, promiscuity and adultery) and to couples living together, including in long-term relationships, without being married (cohabitation).  

Christian beliefs/teachings about marriage and its purposes, with particular reference to the marriage vows and the principle of monogamy.

Key vocabulary:

Adultery: A married person having sexual relations with someone other than their marriage partner

Civil partnership (or civil union/registered or life partnership): A legal relationship between two people of the same sex, which gives the partners equal treatment with married couples in a wide range of areas

Cohabitation: Living together without being married

Marriage: A man and a woman who have been legally joined together

Pre-marital sex: Having sexual relations before marriage

Promiscuity: Having sexual relations with a number of partners without any commitment

Role (of men or women within marriage, a civil partnership, long-term relationship or within the family): The part a person plays (in the particular relationship or in the family)

Status (of partners within marriage, a civil partnership or long-term relationship): The importance of one partner in relation to the other

The purpose of marriage:

Marriage: A man and a woman who have been legally joined together

Make sure you can explain why/how marriage demonstrates your love for your partner. You are making public promises (vows) to stay together for life. You are making it much more complicated to separate (because you are recognised by a couple by law).

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:

  • Legal = the couple are recognised as a couple by law. They are then entitled to certain rights that cohabiting couples do not have.
  • Religious = Roman Catholics believe that marriage is a sacrament. Protestants do not believe it is a sacrament but they still think that it is a way of celebrating their relationship in God's eyes.

St Augustine said: 'The union, then, of male and female for the purpose of procreation is the natural good of marriage.'

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 Partnership:

Civil partnership (or civil union/registered or life partnership): A legal relationship between two people of the same sex, which gives the partners equal treatment with married couples in a wide range of areas


Note: civil partnerships are not the same as registry office weddings. A registry office wedding is not religious, but it is a marriage. A civil partnership is not a marriage and is not available to heterosexual couples.

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).

Gay Marriage:

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.

'I am torn. As an atheist gay who regards marriage as part of the baggage of heterosexual society which I have come to respect but can never fully share, I am tempted to say a plague on both your houses.'

David Starkey

'I loathe heterosexual weddings. The wedding cake, the party, the champagne, the inevitable divorce two years later. It's just a waste of time in the heterosexual world, and in the homosexual world I find it personally beyond tragic that we want to ape this institution that is so clearly a disaster.'

Rupert Everett

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.

Many Anglicans (members of the Church of England) in the UK are fairly liberal and would support gay marriage. However, the Anglican Church world wide also includes many very traditional Christians who would be very hostile to it. If the Anglican Church were to offer gay marriage it would be likely to cause a huge split in the church as a whole.

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.

The role and status of partners within marriage/civil partnership:

Role (of men or women within marriage, a civil partnership, long-term relationship or within the family): The part a person plays (in the particular relationship or in the family)

Status (of partners within marriage, a civil partnership or long-term relationship): The importance of one partner in relation to the other

Although most Christians would argue that Christianity teaches men and women are 'equal but different' not everyone accepts that this is possible. The Bible teaches 'wives obey your husbands' and the marriage vows traditionally have reflected this. Thus some people believe that Christianity not only gives women a different role but a subordinate status too.

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:

  • Men and women are biologically different so are better suited to different roles. Men cannot breast-feed infants therefore it makes more sense for women to care for very young children. Perhaps women's hormones make them more nurturing and more suited to child-care in general. Men are (on average) stronger and are therefore more capable of doing jobs requiring physical labour. Their hormonal difference (more testosterone) might make them better able to succeed in business.
  • Some Christians might say that God created men and women for different roles and therefore it is his will that they should stick to these roles. St Augustine said that God created woman as a helper in procreation. In the New Testament 1 Timothy 2:15 says 'women will be saved through childbearing'.

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).

Importance of marriage in religious communities and society:

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:

  • sex should only occur within marriage 
  • children should be brought up within marriage 
  • marriage should last for life

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.

Attitudes to sex outside marriage:

Adultery: A married person having sexual relations with someone other than their marriage partner

Cohabitation: Living together without being married

Pre-marital sex: Having sexual relations before marriage

Promiscuity: Having sexual relations with a number of partners without any commitment

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.

Pre-marital sex:

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.

A study published in 1999 suggested that people who married were nine times more likely to stay together than those who cohabit. BBC report here. Other studies have reported less dramatic figures but agree that marriages are more stable than cohabitation.

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.

Christian expectations about marriage:

Marriage - God's plan for humans:

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:

'Each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband'

1 Corinthians 7:2

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 should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure.'

1 Corinthians 7:9

Marriage - A sacrament:

A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward invisible grace.

The other seven sacraments are baptism, eucharist (communion), confirmation, confession, ordination and last rites. Protestants have only two sacraments (baptism and communion).

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:

The religious community section of the exam paper also requires that you be able to outline the key aspects of a wedding service.

The wedding vows reflect Christian beliefs and expectations about marriage.

The priest says:

Priest: '(Name) and (name), have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage?'

'Will you honour each other as man and wife for the rest of your lives?'

'Will you accept children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?

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.

Priest: Since it is your intention to enter into marriage, join your right hands, and declare your consent before God and his Church.

Groom: I, (name), take you, (name), for my lawful wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.

Bride: I, (name), take you, (name), for my lawful husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.

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).

Further reading:

The BBC bitesize revision RS GCSE page on marriage is here and a separate BBC religions page on marriage is here. Both provide good additional information.