In debates over same sex marriage it is sometimes proposed that marriage be completely deinstitutionalised in favour of state recognised civil unions. This would not be a return to common law marriages, but for marriage to have no legal standing at all, and for "husband" and "wife" to have no more legal relevance than "boyfriend" or "girlfriend". "Marriage" would become an optional and voluntary social term for anyone who wants to use it.

Have any states or other jurisdictions in history ever deinstitutionalised marriage in such a way?

  • When you say “state,” do you mean a US state (doubtful), or a state in the more general political sense? – Obie 2.0 Sep 2 '17 at 3:42
  • @Obie2.0 More generally. In Australia marriage is a federal statute. If in the US it is defined at the state level then that would also be relevant. I would guess it is to some extent as individual states were deciding whether they would allow same sex marriage? – curiousdannii Sep 2 '17 at 4:24
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    What about a state in which a union held in an accordance with religious traditions has no legal standing, and the legal union had to be done in a civil procedure, even if the terminology used in the civil procedure is (in local language) "marriage"? Would a state which only recognises civil marriage count, or does the state have to use a different word from that traditionally translated as "marriage". – James K Sep 2 '17 at 6:56
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    I can think of examples of what @JamesK mentions, but in those states there would be no incentive whatsoever to change the word "marriage" to anything else. – oerkelens Sep 2 '17 at 7:47


There is no country that has gone this far.

Civil law countries (i.e. those with legal systems descended from continental Europe, including Japan and Korea, rather than from the British common law system) have long distinguished between a civil marriage with legal effect conducted in a government office building, and a religious marriage ceremony which is optional and has no legal effect.

France has a civil union option which is almost as widely used as marriage which is available to both same sex and opposite sex couples (but mostly used by opposite sex couples despite the original intent) which has fewer legal implications. But, it has not abolished marriage, which has more legal implications.

There are communities, e.g., African-Americans in the United States and many Scandinavian countries, where marriage and child bearing have become separate with most children born out of wedlock and marriage rates that have dramatically declined, but none of these communities have abolished the legal institution of marriage either.

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