Marriage Rules: Part II

Monogamy, polygyny, and polyandry all have inherent though different types of problems for family members.  Not surprisingly, husband and wife disagreements are common with monogamy.   Parent-child rivalry for the attention of the other parent is typical also. 

With polygyny, jealousy between co-wives over perceived unequal attention from their shared husband is common.  However, this is often avoided, or at least reduced, by giving each wife a separate house and a ranked status.  The first wife is usually in a commanding position.  Rivalry is also reduced by sororal polygyny click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, which is sisters marrying the same man.  The assumption is that sisters will be more likely to amicably share a husband.  The most disruptive rivalry in a polygynous family is often between the children, especially if there is something important to inherit, such as a royal title or wealth.  This also results in rivalry between the mothers.  The typical way of avoiding this situation is to formally define the eldest son or daughter of the senior wife as the heir apparent.

With traditional polyandry, the most common source of friction is rivalry between the fathers and their children for the attention of their wife/mother.  This causes tension for the already heavily burdened wife.

Unusual Marriage Arrangements

  map of the Nuer territory in Southern Sudan

Some societies are flexible in allowing unconventional marriage arrangements.  The cattle herding Nuer click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced tribe of southern Sudan are an example.   A woman who is unable to have children is sometimes married as a "husband" to another woman who then is impregnated by a secret boyfriend.  The barren woman becomes the socially recognized father and thereby adds members to her father's patrilineal kin group.

The Nuer also have several forms of "ghost marriage."  A man may marry a woman as a stand-in for his deceased brother.  The children that are born of this union will be considered descendants of the dead man--the "ghost" is the socially recognized father.  This allows the continuation of his family line and succession to an important social position.  A Nuer woman of wealth may marry a deceased man to keep her wealth and power.  Married Nuer women traditionally have no significant wealth--it belongs to their husbands.  With this form of "ghost marriage", there will be no living husband, though she may subsequently have children.  She is, in effect, a widow who takes care of her husband's wealth and children until they are mature.

Second Marriage Preferences

Many societies have specific kinds of second marriage rules that anthropologists refer to as the levirate click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced and the sororate click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.   The levirate specifies that a widow should marry the brother of her deceased husband (as shown in the diagram below).  The rationale for this rule is that it keeps the dead man's children and wealth within his family.  It also maintains the existing bond between the two families.  The levirate was named after Levi the son of Jacob in the Judeo-Christian Old Testament.  It is a marriage rule that was common in Jewish society several thousand years ago and in other patrilineal societies that have polygyny.

levirate diagram

A mirror image of the levirate is the sororate.  It is a rule that a widower should marry the sister of his deceased wife (as shown in the diagram below).  Both families usually encourage this remarriage because it continues the bond between them.  Where polygyny exists, there may be a degree of sexual permissiveness between a husband and his wife's younger sister in anticipation of a presumed future marriage between them. This anticipatory sororate click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced generally is found in societies in which sororal polygyny is popular.  The older sister is likely to encourage this sexual relationship because she knows that her younger sister would be more likely to take care of her children if she dies than would a co-wife who is not related to her.

sororate diagram

The Price of Marriage

The marriage process often involves a predetermined agreement to transfer wealth or to perform labor for one's in-laws.  In the mostly monogamous societies of Europe and Asia, this traditionally has been in the form of a dowry, which is money or property given by the bride's family to the groom, ostensibly to establish a new household or estate.  It is, in a sense, her share of the family inheritance.   Dowries may be seriously negotiated, especially when the bride's family is wealthy.   Until the early 20th century in Europe, rich families commonly hired lawyers do draw up formal marriage contracts that often specified the dowry details.  The North American traditions of the "hope chest" and the bride's family paying for the wedding are survivals of a dowry system.

In India today, the failure to pay all of an agreed upon dowry amount is considered an extremely serious problem.  It places a newly married young woman in a difficult and dangerous position in the home that she shares with her husband's family.  Hundreds of these brides die each year in what are euphemistically referred to as "kitchen accidents."  In fact, some are killed by the husband, mother-in-law, or other members of his family who view the failure to pay the agreed upon dowry as being a breech of contract and the ruining of his life.  The death of his "failed" wife allows him to marry again and to obtain the dowry that his family believes he deserves.

Bride price (or wealth) is the reverse of a dowry.  It involves the groom giving things of high value to the bride's father.   Bride price is most common among polygynous, small-scale, patrilineal societies--especially in sub-Saharan Africa and among Native Americans.  When European missionaries first encountered bride price, they misinterpreted it as being nothing more than a demeaning "bride purchase."  It actually is a way of showing respect for the bride and her parents.  At the same time, it is a compensation for the bride's family for the loss of her economic services.  Very importantly, it is also a way of validating the groom's right to future offspring.  In some societies, children are not "legitimate" if their father did not pay a bride price.  It is more important than a marriage ceremony is establishing legitimacy.

Often the bride price is large enough to require kinsmen to help the groom in making the payment.  This is especially common among pastoralists societies, such as the cattle herders of East Africa who have traditionally paid bride price with cows.  Among tribes like the Nuer, Turkana, and Masai, borrowing to make up the agreed upon bride price puts the groom in debt to his older male relatives for many years.  The bride's father usually disburses the payment in turn as bride price for his sons and nephews.  As a result, the community's wealth is circulated.

map of the Nuer, Turkana, and Masai tribal territories in East Africa   photo of a Masai woman holding her young child
Masai mother and child

Among these tribes, the bride's family has a strong economic interest in keeping her marriage together because a divorce would require the return of the bride price, which often has already been given away to relatives.  If there are children, however, the bride price usually does not have to be returned, but they belong to the groom's family.  He keeps the children instead of the bride price.  In a sense, the bride price becomes a payment for children and, therefore, has also been referred to as "progeny price" click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.


In societies with little material wealth and social rules requiring sharing, it is rarely possible to accumulate a bride price.  As a result, such societies often have bride service instead.  The groom agrees to work for his in-laws for a set period of time.  Among the Yanomamö and other lowland forest peoples of South America, this service may go on for years.  Making it more difficult is the fact that Yanomamö men are customarily prevented from speaking directly to their in-laws and must avoid them.

In Melanesia click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, the Amazon Basin of South America, and scattered elsewhere among warlike peoples, there have been cultural patterns allowing marriage by capture as an alternative method of acquiring a wife.  It has occurred usually when bride price could not be arranged or when women were in short supply.  It is a mistake to assume that marriage by capture is always a forceful act on an unwilling woman.  At times, it is merely a ritual or a cover for a prearranged elopement.

NOTE:  In contemporary Japan there is a system of traditional gift exchanges between the groom's and the bride's families that does not neatly fit the usual definition of a dowry or a bride price.  They have essentially combined both patterns in a largely symbolic gift exchange.  When a couple becomes engaged, the two sets of parents formally exchange betrothal gifts with each other, thereby reinforcing that the marriage will be a bond between the families rather than just the young couple.  In the Tokyo region, these "yuino" gifts usually consist of nine items that are considered to be auspicious (e.g., abalone, dried bonito, dried kelp, etc.).  During this ceremony, the groom also gives "yuinokin" (betrothal money) to his future bride's family.  It is understood that this money is to be used in establishing a household for the newly wed couple.  During the late 1990's this betrothal money averaged 878,000 yen (a little more than $7,300 U.S. dollars at the time).  It is popular for urban Japanese couples to design their own wedding rituals and to incorporate North American traditions (e.g., white wedding dresses, tiered wedding cakes, etc.).  It is also very popular to get married in Hawaii and other places outside of Japan.  For more information about contemporary Japanese marriage traditions see "Marriages of Convenience" and  "What is the Ideal Marriage."


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This page was last updated on Thursday, June 29, 2006.
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