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A husband is a male partner in a marriage. Most cultures recognize this common social status with a specific affinal kinship term. In most times and places, men have been expected to become husbands at some point in their adulthood. The stage at which this happens varies greatly, however, as does the social role a husband may play in a family and the legal rights and constraints of his status. Much depends on the typical form of marriage itself, gender role conventions, economic conditions, and religious and political edicts concerning marital roles. Despite such diversity, people often hold very strong opinions on the proper role of husbands in marriages. This is notably so at the present time when marital roles have become the subject of often acrimonious debate between cultural and religious conservatives, feminists, social liberals, and sexual minorities pushing for legal recognition of alternative marriage styles (Coontz 1992).

Most males in contemporary Western countries enjoy a great deal of freedom in choosing when to get married or whether to marry at all. (Statistics reveal that most do by their late twenties, somewhat older than women.) In most societies, where marriages are arranged between families, men have far less choice (Fox 1967). In cultures practicing infant betrothals, a boy may become identified as a husband while still very young at the start of a long period of preparation for the full adult role. In other circumstances, for example, where divorces are prohibited or marriages require a large payment to the bride's family (bride-wealth), men may delay becoming husbands until quite late in life. Among the Maasai of eastern Africa, for instance, men cannot marry until they go through initiation rituals making them into "warriors" and then acquire cattle from their fathers, around the age of thirty. Older men who own many cattle often marry several wives.

The marital roles assumed by husbands also depend upon the general conception of the family. After the Industrial Revolution in Europe, an idealized form of middle-class family life emerged in which an husband was seen as the breadwinner, working outside the household in wage labor, while the wife was confined to raising children and taking care of the private domestic sphere. This ideal came under increasing pressure in the course of the twentieth century as large numbers of women entered the work force and, over time, challenged the disparity in wages and opportunities between men and women. Still favored by social conservatives, the image of the patriarchal nuclear family now competes with an equally popular idealization of the family as a partnership between equals. Both of these versions of marital relations differ from those in cultures where marriages are arranged by and supported in extended families. Here the role of a husband is usually subservient to rules of seniority and gender in the extended household as a whole. In the joint families of rural northern India, for instance, husbands come under the authority of the senior male in the household—usually their father or an older brother—until and unless they survive to take that role themselves.

The role of husband is also a legal status, with rights and obligations set by local convention, religious edicts, and state laws. These often parallel rights to property and its disposal. Among the matrilineal Hopi Indians of the southwestern United States, for example, husbands form rather marginal adjuncts to households in which women and their brothers (if present) own the land. In contrast, for most of Christian and Islamic history, husbands have exercised legal control over wives, often including the right to beat them and to dispose of the property they bring into a marriage either in dowries or by inheritance. Religious fundamentalists have tended to insist on a sharp differentiation on the roles of husband and wife and the requirement that wives submit to their husband's authority. Secular states have tended to move in the opposite direction in modern times, passing and enforcing laws that bring the rights of husbands and wives over children and property more into balance (Ruether 2000).


Coontz, S. (1992). The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. New York: Basic Books. Fox, R. (1967). Kinship and Marriage. Harmondsworth,

UK: Penguin.

Ruether, R. R. (2000). Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family. Boston: Beacon Press.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelatives & Extended Family