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Marriage: Its Definition and Development

Marriage is a relationship and bond, most commonly between a man and a woman, that plays a key role in the definition of many families. Precise definitions vary historically and between and within cultures, but it has been an important concept as a socially sanctioned bond in a sexual relationship. Globally, societies that sanction polygamy as a form of marriage are far less common than those that do not and monogamy is overwhelmingly most widely practiced, followed distantly by polygyny, which is found primarily in tribal cultures, and with other forms being extremely rare. Since the latter decades of the 20th century many of society's assumptions about the nature and purpose of marriage and family have been challenged, in particular by homosexual advocacy groups, who demand changing the definition of marriage as a heterosexual union.

In modern times, the term marriage is generally reserved for a state sanctioned union. The phrase legally married can be used to emphasize this point. In the United States there are two methods of receiving state sanction of a marriage: common law marriage and obtaining a marriage license.

Since the 12th century Marriage or Holy Matrimony has been a sacrament in the Catholic Church, as well as other Orthodoxies, where it is defined as a relationship between man and woman (although same sex marriage exists in some countries and states). Marriage of some kind is found in most societies, and typically married people form either a nuclear household, which is often subsequently extended biologically, through children, or part of an extended family network. Alternatively, people may choose to be "childfree". Finally, they may be childless due to infertility, and possibly seek treatment or consider adoption. The term wedlock is a synonym for marriage, and is mainly used in the phrase "out of wedlock" to describe a child born of parents who were not married.

There is wide variation in the precise form that marriage takes. Two of the most hotly-debated variants are discussed below: same-sex marriage and polygamy.

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