Civil marriage recognizes and creates the rights and obligations intrinsic to matrimony before the state.When a marriage is performed with religious content under the auspices of a religious institution it is a religious marriage.Since the late twentieth century, major social changes in Western countries have led to changes in the demographics of marriage, with the age of first marriage increasing, fewer people marrying, and more couples choosing to cohabit rather than marry.For example, the number of marriages in Europe decreased by 30% from 1975 to 2005.In the 21st century, there continue to be controversies regarding the legal status of married women, legal acceptance of or leniency towards violence within marriage (especially sexual violence), traditional marriage customs such as dowry and bride price, forced marriage, marriageable age, and criminalization of consensual behaviors such as premarital and extramarital sex.The word "marriage" derives from Middle English mariage, which first appears in 1250–1300 CE.This forced Gough to disregard sexual access as a key element of marriage and to define it in terms of legitimacy of offspring alone: marriage is "a relationship established between a woman and one or more other persons, which provides a child born to the woman under circumstances not prohibited by the rules of relationship, is accorded full birth-status rights common to normal members of his society or social stratum." Economic anthropologist Duran Bell has criticized the legitimacy-based definition on the basis that some societies do not require marriage for legitimacy.He argued that a legitimacy-based definition of marriage is circular in societies where illegitimacy has no other legal or social implications for a child other than the mother being unmarried.
When defined broadly, marriage is considered a cultural universal. Individuals may marry for several reasons, including legal, social, libidinal, emotional, financial, spiritual, and religious purposes.
The anthropological handbook Notes and Queries (1951) defined marriage as "a union between a man and a woman such that children born to the woman are the recognized legitimate offspring of both partners." In recognition of a practice by the Nuer people of Sudan allowing women to act as a husband in certain circumstances (the ghost marriage), Kathleen Gough suggested modifying this to "a woman and one or more other persons." In an analysis of marriage among the Nayar, a polyandrous society in India, Gough found that the group lacked a husband role in the conventional sense; that unitary role in the west was divided between a non-resident "social father" of the woman's children, and her lovers who were the actual procreators.
None of these men had legal rights to the woman's child.
Historically, in most cultures, married women had very few rights of their own, being considered, along with the family's children, the property of the husband; as such, they could not own or inherit property, or represent themselves legally (see for example coverture).
In Europe, the United States, and other places in the developed world, beginning in the late 19th century and lasting through the 21st century, marriage has undergone gradual legal changes, aimed at improving the rights of the wife.