Marriage and Courtship Patterns

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe changes and trends in courtship, marriage and family patterns

Marriage Patterns

As discussed in the previous section, single parenting and cohabitation, which is when a couple shares a residence but not a marriage, are becoming more prevalent and socially acceptable. We also see declining rates of marriage and individuals marrying much later in life, with 30 years old as the median age for men and 28 years old for women in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

One explanation for this trend may be that people are less motivated to get married than they have been in the past. Historically, marriage has served a variety of functions—financial, political, biological (i.e., sex), and social. The top reasons Americans cite for getting married today are love, lifelong commitment, and companionship; only 49% of survey respondents listed “children” as a reason to get married [1]

The institution of marriage is likely to continue, but some previous patterns of marriage will become outdated as new patterns emerge. In this context, cohabitation contributes to the phenomenon of people getting married for the first time at a later age than was typical in earlier generations (Glezer 1991). Furthermore, marriage will continue to be delayed as more people place education and career ahead of “settling down.”

One Partner or Many?

People in the United States typically equate marriage with monogamy, when someone is married to only one person at a time. In many countries and cultures around the world, however, having one spouse is not the only form of marriage.

A recent article by Thobejane and Flora (2014)[2] provides an updated view on polygamy, or being married to more than one person at a time. Polygamy is more common that one would think, with 83% of human societies permitting the practice, but it is most common in Africa as a reflection of tribal and religious customs and economic and social structures. Instances of polygamy almost exclusively take the form of polygyny. Polygyny refers to a man being married to more than one woman at the same time. The reverse, when a woman is married to more than one man at the same time, is called polyandry. It is far less common and only occurs in about 1 percent of the world’s cultures (Altman and Ginat 1996). The reasons for the overwhelming prevalence of polygamous societies are varied, but they often include factors such as population growth, religious ideologies, and social status.

While the majority of societies accept polygyny, the majority of people do not practice it. Often fewer than 10 percent (and no more than 25–35 percent) of men in polygamous cultures have more than one wife; these husbands are often older, wealthy, high-status men (Altman and Ginat 1996). The average plural marriage involves no more than three wives. Negev Bedouin men in Israel, for example, typically have two wives, although it is acceptable to have up to four (Griver 2008). As urbanization increases in these cultures, polygamy is likely to decrease as a result of greater access to mass media, technology, and education (Altman and Ginat 1996).

In the United States, polygamy is considered by most to be socially unacceptable and it is illegal. The act of entering into marriage while still married to another person is referred to as bigamy and is considered a felony in most states. Polygamy in the United States is often associated with those of the Mormon faith, although that designation is erroneous as the “Mormon Church” (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) officially renounced polygamy in 1890. The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), on the other hand, still holds tightly to the historic religious beliefs and practices and allows polygamy in their sect. The prevalence of polygamy is often overestimated due to shows such as HBO’s Big Love and TLC’s Sister Wives, (2010-present) which have brought the issues of polygamy and the Constitutionality of alternative marriage arrangements into mainstream American discourse. The patriarch in Sister Wives, Kody Brown, is legally married to one wife, has three additional “spiritual wives,” and has eighteen children total among the four wives.

The most extreme FLDS sect has an estimated 10,000 followers in the United States, so the number of polygamous marriages or “spiritual unions” nationally is very small, but there may be up to 40,000 others in Utah and nearby states who practice polygamy illegally, in addition to excommunicated Mormons in polygamous marriages [3]

No one knows how many Muslims in the U.S. live in polygamous families, but best estimates from academics range from 50,000 to 100,000 people [4]. A man might marry a woman under civil law, and not unlike the spiritual unions found in FLDS, an additional two or three marriages might occur in religious ceremonies unrecognized by the state and/or in other countries. While some women consent to polygamous unions, others keep quiet for fear of retribution or deportation and live “invisible lives” (Hagerty 2018).


Courtship is the traditional dating period before engagement and marriage (or long term commitment if marriage is not allowed). It is an alternative to arranged marriages in which the couple or group doesn’t meet before the wedding. During a courtship, a couple or group gets to know each other and decides if there will be an engagement. Courting includes activities such as dating where couples or groups go together for some activity (e.g., a meal or movie). Courting can also take place without personal contact, especially with modern technology. Virtual dating, chatting online, sending text messages, conversing over the telephone, instant messaging, writing letters, and sending gifts are all modern forms of courting.

Courtship varies both by time period and by region of the world. One way courtship varies is in the duration; courting can take days or years.

Medieval painting of a man presenting flowers to a lady.
Figure 1. Courting, Tacuinum Sanitatis (XIV century).

While the date is fairly casual in most European-influenced cultures, in some traditional societies, courtship is a highly structured activity, with very specific formal rules. In some societies, the parents or community propose potential partners, and then allow limited dating to determine whether the parties are suited (in fact, this was common in the U.S. throughout the 1800’s). In Japan, some parents hire a matchmaker to provide pictures and résumés of potential mates, and if the couple or group agrees, there will be a formal meeting with all family parties and the matchmaker in attendance; this is called Omiai. In more closed societies, courtship is virtually eliminated altogether by the practice of arranged marriages, where partners are chosen for young people, typically by their parents or (in the absence of parents) local authorities. Forbidding experimental and serial courtship and sanctioning only arranged matches is partly a means of guarding the chastity of young people and partly a matter of furthering family interests, which in such cultures may be considered more important than individual romantic preferences. Another variation of courtship is the bundling tradition, which likely originated in Scandinavia and was carried to the U.S. by immigrants. Bundling involved potential mates spending the night together in the same bed, though the couple was not supposed to engage in sexual relations. This practice ceased in the late 19th Century.

In earlier centuries, young adults were expected to court with the intention of finding marriage partners, rather than for social reasons. However, by the 1920s, dating for fun was becoming an expectation, and by the 1930s, it was assumed that any popular young person would have lots of dates. This form of dating, though, was usually more chaste than is seen today, since pre-marital sex was not considered the norm even though it was widespread. As a result of social changes spurred by the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, the taboo of sex during dating began to wane. In recent years, a number of college newspapers have featured editorials where students decry the lack of traditionally paired-up “dating” on their campuses. This may be a result of a highly-publicized 2001 study and campaign sponsored by the conservative American women’s group Independent Women’s Forum, which promotes “traditional” dating. Also, in recent years dating has evolved and taken on the metamorphic properties necessary to sustain itself in today’s world. This can be seen in the rise in internet dating, speed dating or gradual exclusivity dating (a.k.a. slow dating). Some theorize that courtship as it was known to prior generations has seen its last days and the next closest thing is gradual exclusivity, where the partners respect and value each other’s individual lives but still maintain the ultimate goal of being together even if time or space will not permit it now.

Courtship is used by a number of theorists to explain gendering processes and sexual identity. Despite occasional studies as early as the 1910’s, systematic scientific research into courtship began in the 1980s after which time academic researchers started to generate theories about modern dating practices and norms. Both Moore and Perper argued that, contrary to popular beliefs, courtship is normally triggered and controlled by women, driven mainly by non-verbal behaviors to which men respond. This is generally supported by other theorists who specialize in the study of body language, but ignores the ways females are socialized to “gain status” by learning to appear attractive to and demonstrate desire for males.

Feminist scholars, however, continue to regard courtship as a socially constructed (and male-focused) process organized to subjugate women. While some criticize feminist interpretations of courtship by pointing to women’s support of courtship and attraction to magazines about marital and romantic experience, such criticisms generally ignore the emphasis on marital and romantic relationships (in many cases as the sole element of women’s value in male-dominated societies) embedded within feminine socialization norms, and the widespread empirical demonstration that courtship patterns almost universally privilege masculine interests and privilege.

Systematic research into courtship processes inside the workplace, as well two 10-year studies examining norms in different international settings, continue to support a view that courtship is a social process that socializes all sexes into accepting relationship types that maximize the chances of successfully raising children. This may negatively impact women, particularly those seeking independence and equality at work.

A Hook-up Culture?

Since the sexual revolution in the 1960s, non-marital sexual relationships have become increasingly acceptable in the United States. The prevalence of one-night stands and non-committal relationships contributes to what sociologists call a hook-up culture. A hook-up culture is one that accepts and encourages casual sexual encounters, including one-night stands and other related activity, which focus on physical pleasure without necessarily including emotional bonding or long-term commitment. It is generally associated with Western late adolescent behavior and, in particular, American college culture.The term hook-up has an ambiguous definition because it can indicate kissing or any form of physical sexual activity between partners. Sociologist Lisa Wade talks more about hook-up culture and sexual activity on college campuses at this link: Sociology and the Culture of Sex on Campus.

According to one study the vast majority, more than 90%, of American college students say their campus is characterized by a hook-up culture, and students believe that about 85% of their classmates have hooked up. Studies show that most students (most recent data suggest between 60% and 80%) do have some sort of casual sex experience. Of those students who have hooked up, between 30% and 50% report that their hook-ups included sexual intercourse. Nationally, women now outnumber men in college enrollment by 4 to 3, leading some researchers to argue that the gender imbalance fosters a culture of hooking up because men, as the minority and limiting factor, hold more power in the sexual marketplace and use it to pursue their preference of casual sex over long-term relationships.

However, most students overestimate the number of hook-ups in which their peers engage. Only 20% of students regularly hook up. Roughly one half will occasionally hook up, and one-third of students do not hook up at all.The median number of hook-ups for a graduating senior on a college campus is seven, and the typical college student acquires two new sexual partners during their college career. Half of all hook-ups are repeats, and 20% of students will graduate from college a virgin, according to the Online College Social Life Survey.

Watch It

This video examines the evolving stages of family life—courtship, marriage, child-rearing, and family life in your later years.

Try It


the act of entering into marriage while still married to another person
the act of a couple sharing a residence while they are not married
the traditional dating period before engagement and marriage

the act of being married to only one person at a time

a form of marriage in which one woman is married to more than one man at one time
the state of being committed or married to more than one person at a time
a form of marriage in which one man is married to more than one woman at one time

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  1. Geiger, A and G. Livingston, 2019. "8 Facts about Love and Marriage in America." Pew Research Center.
  2. Thobejane, Tsoaledi & Flora, Takayindisa. (2014). An Exploration of Polygamous Marriages: A Worldview. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences. 5. 1058-1066. 10.5901/mjss.2014.v5n27p1058.
  3. "Factbox: Five Facts About Polygamists in the U.S." Reuters. June, 12, 2007.
  4. Hagerty, Barbara Bradley. (2018). "Some Muslims in the U.S. Quietly Engage in Polygamy." NPR.


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