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These changes have occurred primarily in Western countries.

In developed parts of the world, there has been a general trend towards ensuring equal rights within marriage for women and legally recognizing the marriages of interfaith, interracial, and same-sex couples.Whom they marry may be influenced by socially determined rules of incest, prescriptive marriage rules, parental choice and individual desire.In some areas of the world, arranged marriage, child marriage, polygamy, and sometimes forced marriage, may be practiced as a cultural tradition.Religious marriage recognizes and creates the rights and obligations intrinsic to matrimony before that religion.Religious marriage is known variously as sacramental marriage in Catholicism, nikah in Islam, nissuin in Judaism, and various other names in other faith traditions, each with their own constraints as to what constitutes, and who can enter into, a valid religious marriage.In The History of Human Marriage (1922), Edvard Westermarck defined marriage as "a more or less durable connection between male and female lasting beyond the mere act of propagation till after the birth of the offspring." In The Future of Marriage in Western Civilization (1936), he rejected his earlier definition, instead provisionally defining marriage as "a relation of one or more men to one or more women that is recognized by custom or law".

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.

The act of marriage usually creates normative or legal obligations between the individuals involved, and any offspring they may produce or adopt.

In terms of legal recognition, most sovereign states and other jurisdictions limit marriage to opposite-sex couples and a diminishing number of these permit polygyny, child marriages, and forced marriages.

The adjective marīt-us -a, -um meaning matrimonial or nuptial could also be used in the masculine form as a noun for "husband" and in the feminine form for "wife".

The related word "matrimony" derives from the Old French word matremoine, which appears around 1300 CE and ultimately derives from Latin mātrimōnium, which combines the two concepts: mater meaning "mother" and the suffix -monium signifying "action, state, or condition".

For example, the number of marriages in Europe decreased by 30% from 1975 to 2005.