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Marriage and partnering

by Megan Cook

In the 19th century marriage was seen as the foundation of society, with each partner’s role set by law and custom. In the 21st century many couples choose instead to live together without being married, or they can have a civil union. Nevertheless, marriage and weddings remain important to many, and in 2013 same-sex marriage became legal.

Marriage in traditional Māori society

Marriage within traditional Māori society was shaped by the importance of family and tribal links.

For most people, partners were ideally chosen from within the hapū or iwi group. Marriages were often arranged, with children promised in marriage from a very young age. People also sometimes found their own partners, and would then seek agreement from senior members of their family.

Intertribal marriage often meant loss or dilution of land or food-gathering rights and the danger of divided loyalties if conflicts arose. A high rate of marriage to outsiders could also break a group down. After armed conflict, for example, the victorious hapū or iwi often absorbed, through inter-marriage, those they defeated.

Political marriages

Rangatira were the exception to the preference for marriage within the group. The marriage partners of young men and women of high rank were carefully chosen to create or maintain links with other iwi or hapū. Waikato Maniapoto iwi were a notable example of this, building up links to major North Island iwi.

Marriage gifts

Wiremu Maihi Te Rangikāheke (Te Arawa), writing in 1856, listed the gifts given to reconcile a family opposed to their daughter’s marriage. ‘Here then are two pieces of land, two dogskin cloaks, two greenstone ornaments, two canoes, two fine flax cloaks, six nets, four bird spears, three whalebone clubs, a maipi spear, a tewhatewha club, and one turuhi weapon.’ The gifts were all the young man’s family owned, given because ‘it is not as if a woman were a thing of small worth. Remember that food comes from the earth, sea-food from the net, and man from woman’.1

Getting married

There was no marriage rite as such, but hapū or whānau approval was required. Extended family would meet and vigorously debate the merits of a relationship. In some cases taonga (treasure) would be given by the family of one of those marrying to the family of the other. When rangatira married into another hapū or iwi, great feasts were usually held.

Sex and marriage

Regulation of sex was not a primary purpose of marriage within Māori society. Most young people were expected to form sexual relationships, and might have more than one before settling down with a partner. In some cases these early relationships became a marriage. The exception to this sexual freedom were puhi – young women of rank, who remained virgins before marriage.

Continuation of traditional marriage

In the 19th century virtually all Māori who married did so according to their own custom. In 1887, for example, there were only 13 marriages between Māori performed according to colonial law. In the early 20th century the majority continued to follow tradition. Māori custom was also used by some mixed Māori–Pākehā, Māori–Dalmatian and Māori–Chinese couples.

Traditional marriage was still in common use in the 1950s.

Colonial law and traditional marriage

Marriage according to Māori custom was recognised as valid by the colonial legal system until 1888. After a Supreme Court decision in that year, New Zealand’s legal system became contradictory. Statutes passed by Parliament continued to recognise traditional marriage, while the courts sometimes didn’t. Court decisions on inheritance and the legitimacy of family relationships could deem invalid marriages that were regarded as legitimate by Maori communities.

Not bothered

When the Supreme Court decided in 1888 that marriage between Māori was governed by English common law, children born within customary unions became illegitimate. Described almost 80 years later as ‘doubtful legally and deplorable socially,’2 the decision was unknown to, or ignored by, most Māori.

From 1909 legal recognition of marriage between Māori required a minister of religion recognised by the Marriage Act 1908 to perform the ceremony. Customary marriage remained sufficient for inheritance of Māori land. This last shred of legal recognition of traditional marriage ended when the Māori Purposes Act 1951 was passed.

After this, to avoid illegitimacy of their children and to access the family benefit, Māori couples had to marry according to European custom. This, combined with the increasing urbanisation of young Māori, resulted in a move away from traditional marriage.

  1. Quoted in Bruce Biggs, Maori marriage: an essay in reconstruction. Wellington: Polynesian Society, 1970, p. 86. Back
  2. Bruce James Cameron, ‘Marriage.’ An encyclopaedia of New Zealand, originally published 1966, (last accessed 20 January 2011). Back

Marriage in the 19th century

In 19th-century New Zealand marriage was a personal relationship with very important public functions. Marriage created families. It provided companionship and sex, and the framework within which children were born and reared.

Marriage was, for many couples, a working partnership, and families were the basis of many businesses. Marriage was seen to encourage social stability and moral behaviour, and allowed secure transfer of property within a family. It had a strong religious meaning, a joining of two people by God for life.

The importance of marriage meant that it was supported and protected by the state and justice system. Entry to and exit from marriage was firmly controlled, and the responsibilities of husband and wife were supported by law and by the fact that the welfare system was very limited.

Marriage or rugby?

In 1896 marriage and rugby were presented as incompatible by Thomas Eyton, promoter of the 1888 New Zealand Natives tour of Britain. His imaginary encounter began:

‘You do not love me?’ he cried, rubbing his hands till his 15-carat gold-plated ring bit his finger. ‘You will not be my wife? That is your final answer! Then goodbye.’ He turned to the door, his great frame shaking with bitter sobs.

‘Stay, where are you going?’ she screamed, fearful lest he might do something desperate.

He folded his arms and raised his eyes ceilingwards. ‘I am going,’ he said firmly, ‘to join a football club.’ Her worst fears were realised.1

Marital duties and responsibilities

Marriage unified a couple. In legal terms, the wife’s existence was much reduced, and absorbed into that of her husband. A wife was known by her husband's name, becoming, for example, Mrs John Jones. The couple set up a home together, and husband or wife was seen to have deserted the marriage if they lived apart.

Within marriage, men and women had different responsibilities, sanctioned by custom and enforced by law. A husband was the legal owner of any property a wife had, and was entitled to any wages she earned. In return, he had to financially support his wife and children, pay her debts and for any items she bought on credit.

Wives were expected to bear and rear children, and manage the household: cleaning, making clothes, preserving food and cooking. In some families the wife was responsible for managing the money. It was also her responsibility to care for elderly or sick family members. In poorer families women would sometimes undertake paid work, and in many families wives assisted husbands with their work.

First marriage

The first European marriage celebrated in New Zealand was between Maria Ringa and the Norwegian whaler and trader Phillip Tapsell in 1823. The marriage did not last – Ringa left her husband on the day of their marriage. She was the first of three high-born Māori women Tapsell married. His second and third wives were Karuhi, sister of Ngāpuhi chief Wharepoaka, and Hine-i-turama Ngatiki of Ngāti Whakaue. 

First regulation

Many colonists arrived in New Zealand already married. They would have wed in a church, register office or registered building (such as a non-Church of England chapel). Two witnesses would have been present, and the marriage recorded in a publicly available register. Before marrying, a licence needed to be obtained, or banns (an announcement of the intention to marry) published.

A variation of this system was soon set up in New Zealand. The regulation of marriage began with an ordinance in 1842 that allowed any minister of a Christian religion to perform a marriage ceremony. The first Marriage Act was passed in 1854; from 1856 non-Māori residents had to give notice of their intention to marry and obtain a marriage licence before any wedding could take place.

Who married who

Choosing a wife or husband depended on who was available. In the early and mid-19th century, Māori–Pākehā intermarriage was common. Until the early 20th century there were more men than women in the European population; single women who migrated to New Zealand usually married within a few years. No more than 6% of Pākehā women over the age of 45 were single.

Couples tended to come from similar backgrounds. Marrying up or down was not usual – movement from one class to another seldom occurred through marriage.

Creating a servant shortage 

The ease and rapidity with which single women found husbands helped continue and build a servant shortage. ‘[T]he demand is increased by the rapidity with which England’s unmarried daughters obtain husbands,’ reported T. H. Gregg in 1875. ‘A short courtship, a shorter notice to her mistress, a new home is set up.’2

Rate of and age at marriage

Between 1855 and 1900 change in New Zealand's population was extensive. The rate of marriage per 1,000 non-Māori New Zealanders per year (which went from 10.91 to 7.67) was strongly affected by these shifts in the population.

English common law (which applied in New Zealand) allowed girls to marry at 12, and boys at 14. Marriage at such an age was rare, and those marrying under the age of 21 required the consent of father, guardian or mother.

Until the end of the period, women in New Zealand married at a markedly earlier age than those in Britain. In the 1870s the median age at which women married was 23, while that for men was 29. In the 1890s the median age at which women married increased to 24, while that for men dropped to 28.

The proportion of the male population who married was smaller than that of the female. There were more men than women, so their chance of finding a partner was lower. Colonial New Zealand may also have attracted men who were not interested in marriage and settling down.


The death of a husband or wife was common, and widows and widowers often remarried. The rate of remarriage amongst those aged 30–45 was high; this was also the age at which people were most likely to have dependent children. Without a breadwinner, women struggled to support their offspring. Widowed fathers were expected to continue working and, if necessary, put their children into institutional care. Finding a wife meant companionship, and keeping the family intact.

Bigamy, polygamy and common-law marriages

Not all marriages were what they seemed. Bigamous, polygamous and common-law marriages usually only came to public attention when something went wrong. (Common-law marriages were those in which a couple lived together and were accepted as married by their friends and family, but were not legally married.) The rate at which such marriages occurred is impossible to find out – those involved kept the nature of their relationship secret.

Breach of promise

Those who failed to honour a commitment to marry could end up in court charged with breach of promise by the abandoned party (invariably a woman), and often had to pay financial compensation.

Breach of promise cases, both local and British, were widely reported. The English cases, featuring millionaires, viscounts and baronets, with huge sums demanded as compensation, brought a whiff of entertaining scandal. New Zealanders were more likely to be farmers and office workers, and the compensation of £100 to £250 ($18,000–$45,000 in 2010 values) was usual.

Breach of promise cases, relatively common in the 19th century, became less so through the 20th century.

    • Quoted in Jock Phillips, A man’s country?: the image of the Pakeha male, a history. Auckland: Penguin Books, 1996, p. 130. Back
    • Quoted in Karen Duder, ‘Domestic servants, marriage and mobility in Dunedin, 1880–1890’. Dip Arts thesis, University of Otago, 1989, p. 18. Back

Marriage, 1900 to the 1960s

To a great extent, marriage retained its privileged status for much of the 20th century. It entitled spouses to rights that were not available to unmarried people, whether in sexual relationships or not.

These rights were wide-ranging. For example the family benefit was only available to married women, and a joint family home was exempt from gift duty, stamp duty and death duty, and could not be seized by creditors. A spouse could not be compelled to give evidence against the other spouse (unless the crime was against them). A wife who assisted her husband after he had committed an offence could not be charged with being an accessory to it. The higher wage paid to all men was justified on the grounds that they were, or would be, married and supporting a family.

Sanctity of marriage 

Marriage was widely considered a serious matter, not to be put aside for the comfort of individuals. When a judge said in 1921 that allowing people to divorce by mutual agreement would be a ‘grave and mischievous departure from the requirements of the public interest in the sanctity and permanence of the marriage tie’ he expressed a common feeling.1

Over this period the duty of spouses to live together, undertaking manly or womanly tasks and providing companionship and sex, remained. But the legally unifying effect of marriage substantially reduced over time, particularly in relation to property. The religious aspect of marriage also weakened.

By the early 1940s there were more divorced than widowed people remarrying – the number of divorced people had increased, and the number of widows and widowers decreased.

Who people married – whether they were of the same or different faiths, cultures, countries, and skin colours – often prompted comment, and sometimes disapproval.

Rate of and age at marriage

The rate of marriage per 1,000 people per year increased slightly from just under 8 in 1900 to nearly 9 in the 1960s. This steadiness was more apparent than real – there were increases at the beginning and end of the two world wars as people hurried into marriage. Tough times decreased marriage – the rate dropped during both world wars and the 1930s economic depression.

The first New Zealand law stating a minimum age at marriage was passed in 1933, with 16 as the minimum for both girls and boys. Occasional marriages of girls under 16 had drawn the attention of women’s groups, and their representations to government resulted in a minimum age being legislated.

Prohibited marriage 

Marriage continued to be prohibited between partners closely related by blood or marriage. A man could not marry his own or his wife’s mother, grandmother, daughter or granddaughter, his niece, aunt, stepmother or step-grandmother, daughter-in-law or granddaughter–in-law. Equivalent limits applied to women. 

Shotgun marriages

Information on the number of women pregnant at marriage began to be collected in 1913. The younger a bride was, the more likely she was to be pregnant. Nearly two-thirds of first births to those under 21 occurred within seven months of marriage, compared with a quarter of first births to those aged 25–30. In the 1920s, 20–25% of all first births occurred within eight months of marriage.

Religious faith and marriage

Although marriage between people with different religious beliefs was common in New Zealand, it was sometimes controversial. The early 20th-century Catholic insistence that civil marriages or those conducted by ministers of other faiths were invalid caused great agitation. Legislation passed in 1920 made it an offence to suggest any marriage was illegitimate.

Attempts to encourage marriage within faith boundaries had limited effect. Some communities were simply too small for marriage within the group to be possible for all its members. Although Jewish religious laws forbade marrying outside the faith, 25–50% of Jews were doing so by the early 1950s. In the early 20th century non-Jews who married Jews often converted to Judaism, but this became less common over time, as marrying outside the community became more frequent.

International relations

Wartime relationships did not always become successful marriages. Writing during the Second World War about the First World War, a senior bureaucrat urged caution because of the ‘many examples of life-long unhappiness resulting from marriages of New Zealand soldiers with women in foreign countries’.2

War brides

War prompted many marriages: the annual rate climbed immediately before and after the two world wars, reaching a high point in 1946 of 12.4 marriages for every 1,000 people in New Zealand (a rate not equalled before or since). Most of these marriages were between New Zealanders, but others involved military personnel serving overseas and women they met there, or, during the Second World War, US soldiers stationed in New Zealand and local women.

In the Second World War more than 3,000 wives, 1,000 children and 700 fiancées came to New Zealand from 35 countries in Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific. Around 3,000 New Zealand women married US troops stationed locally.

    • Quoted in Angela Burgess, The erosion of marriage: the effect of law on New Zealand’s foundational institution. Auckland: Maxim Institute, 2002, p. 26. Back
    • Quoted in Gabrielle Ann Fortune, ‘Mr Jones’ wives: World War II war brides of New Zealand servicemen’, PhD thesis, University of Auckland, 2005, p. 27. Back

Loosening rules, expanding choices: partnering from the late 1960s

The rules around marriage – customary and legal – began to loosen from the late 1960s. The changes were part of a shift in New Zealand society. It became acceptable for couples to live together before marriage, and have children outside marriage. Gay and lesbian couples were increasingly open, and their existence became officially acknowledged. Some men began wearing wedding rings, previously worn only by women, and some women decided to retain their own surnames when they married.

Status of marriage

The status of marriage in New Zealand law and society diminished. Those in de facto relationships (who lived together but were not married) and, later, same-sex relationships, were included in some of the legal entitlements previously reserved for married couples. For example, it became possible to receive welfare benefits without marrying. Division of property on divorce became more equal from 1976, and was then extended to de facto and same-sex couples in 2002.

De facto relationships

The number of unmarried couples who lived together increased rapidly, from 6% of cohabiting couples in 1981 to 22% in 2013. De facto relationships became particularly common for younger people forming their first unions.

Those in de facto relationships were more likely to be in a relationship with someone of a different ethnicity, to have had more previous relationships, were less likely to see barriers to leaving a relationship, and were less likely to be religious.

Civil unions and same-sex marriage

Civil unions, widely seen as a form of ‘gay marriage’, were introduced in 2005. Although strongly opposed beforehand by some Christian groups, the controversy died down afterward. By the end of 2015, 3,342 civil unions had been celebrated by 2,598 same-sex and 744 different-sex couples.  These included 591 couples resident overseas and who didn’t have the option of a civil union in their own country.

In April 2013 Parliament passed the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Act, a private member’s bill introduced by Labour MP Louisa Wall, which allowed same-sex couples to marry. While there was opposition from conservative groups, opinion polls suggested that most New Zealanders, especially younger people, were in favour of the change. The first marriages of same-sex couples took place in late August 2013. By December 2015, 2,112 same-sex couples had married in New Zealand. The number of civil unions dropped considerably in the wake of the law change.

Rate of and age at marriage

The rate of marriage dropped by over half from 1970, when it was 9.2 per 1,000 people, to 2014, when it was 4.44 per 1,000. Despite this, in 2013 the number of married people (1,430,000) far outstripped the number in de facto relationships and civil unions (470,000). In 2005 the minimum age at marriage was lifted to 18, but those wishing to marry at 16 or 17 could do so with consent from parent or guardian.

Who partners who

From the early 1980s the number of couples with partners of differing ethnicity increased. This was particularly true of Pākehā, Māori and Asian people. Among Pacific people there was a slight increase in the rate of same-ethnicity partnering.


Weddings begin and celebrate marriage. Unlike christenings, society debuts, or formal mourning, despite the falling rate of marriage, weddings continued to be an important event in New Zealanders’ lives into the 21st century. What had been of religious significance and then a legal necessity, became a romantic ritual, an expression of commitment, a reason to bring family together, and sometimes a moment of celebrity for the bride.

Wedding planning and paying

In the 19th century and most of the 20th century weddings were customarily paid for by the father of the bride, and planned by the bride’s mother. The degree of involvement by the bride-to-be varied. From the later 20th century the couple were more likely to pay for or contribute to the cost of the wedding, and it was often the bride who organised it.

Building up to it and after

Stag parties, at which the groom and his male friends gather and celebrate his life as an unmarried man, were often held before a wedding. They typically included drinking too much, going to strip clubs and humiliating the groom-to-be, for example by forcing him to dress in an odd way, tying him to a tree, or leading him about while calling attention to him. By the 2000s humiliation of the groom was less common.

Until the late 20th century brides-to-be would usually have a kitchen tea with female friends and relatives, who would give her gifts to help her set up house. By the 2000s it was more common for brides to have a hen party with her friends.

In the 21st century wedding festivities often included a final get-together the day after the ceremony.


Many 19th-century couples did not have a honeymoon. Married life began after the wedding breakfast, in the home they would occupy together. Well-to-do couples were more likely to have a honeymoon, sometimes travelling overseas to do so.

Busman’s honeymoons

Caesar Roose and his new wife Gladys spent their honeymoon looking at oil wells and shipping in the US and Europe; Peter and Doris Mander watched the Sanders Cup yacht race; Harold and Eveline Turbott’s honeymoon cruise was also his passage to China, where he worked at a mission hospital. Roose was an entrepreneur, Mander a world-class yachtsman, and Turbott a doctor. Theirs were ‘busman’s honeymoons’, combining pleasure and business.

After the First World War honeymoons became standard; couples would often leave during the reception following the wedding. In the late 20th century many went a few days later, after socialising with those who had gathered for the wedding. At first most couples took simple honeymoons – a week somewhere within New Zealand, for example. By the end of the 20th century couples usually took longer honeymoons, and overseas travel became common.

Wedding industry

Getting married has spawned an industry. To varying extents dressmakers, wedding planners, celebrants, car- and suit-hire companies, florists, reception centres, caterers, photographers, printers, liquor merchants, cake makers and decorators, gift suppliers and holiday-destination operators all earn a living from weddings. Some specialise and work solely on weddings. There are bridal shows, wedding magazines and theme wedding centres.

In the 21st century a perfect wedding for many people no longer required a white dress and tux. Unusual locations, historically themed dress for the wedding party (and sometimes guests), and novel transport were all commonplace. New Zealand also became an exotic location for overseas couples seeking a dramatic backdrop for their nuptials.

The big day

Where and when

19th-century weddings often took place within the home of the bride or a friend of her family. The move to church weddings coincided with increasingly lavish celebrations.

Morning weddings were the norm until the 1880s (a wedding breakfast was literally a meal eaten in the morning), when late-afternoon or early evening weddings became more common. In the 20th century there was a new focus on partying and dancing as part of the wedding celebration. Often a newly married couple would begin the first dance alone, watched by their wedding guests.

Letting the public in 

Until 1994 the legal requirement that weddings be held with an ‘open door’ – in case of an objection to the marriage – complicated marrying onboard ship, boat, plane or helicopter. If the vessel was tied at a wharf or jetty with its gangplank down, all was well. If not, the couple had to re-marry on land to make it legal. Marrying on board a plane or helicopter in flight was impossible. 

There was a return to weddings outside a church setting in the later 20th century, in places such as public gardens, reception centres, or locations significant to the couple. People began to marry on beaches and in back gardens. Some New Zealanders went overseas for their wedding, with the Pacific Islands a popular destination.


The marriage service best known in New Zealand was that of the Anglican Church. It emphasised the permanence of marriage, its procreative purpose, and set out the relationship of husband and wife (he to love and comfort, she to obey and serve).

From the 1970s people began writing their own vows, in which they could highlight the matters most important to them. Personalised vows became commonplace, and in the 2000s websites devoted to vow writing sprang up.


When weddings were usually paid for by the bride’s parents, it was common for the majority of guests to be older people – family and friends of family. Once weddings were more often organised and paid for by the couple themselves, a majority of guests were likely to be personal friends.

Amongst Pacific Island families, guests might arrive from home islands to help celebrate a wedding, particularly when important families were involved. With their help, significant elements of the wedding would be done island-style.

Meringues and penguins

Bridal dress has changed dramatically over time. White weddings became fashionable in the 1860s, and by the 20th century were common among both Pākehā and Māori. In the 1910s dresses, which had been worn over rigid corsets and were very concealing, began to loosen, flow and reveal. From then on fashions changed decade by decade.

19th-century grooms often wore colourful jackets or coats – blue or a shade of deep red were both common – along with a coloured top hat. Over the 20th century clothing for grooms was relatively stable. Apart from the white gloves, a typical groom’s outfit from the 1920s, including a suit, wing collar and white bowtie, would not cause surprise in the 21st century.

Māori sometimes mixed elements of European and traditional dress. This became increasingly common in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. When Pacific Island people marry, they might wear a dress or suit for the ceremony, then change into traditional dress afterward.


The saying ‘three times a bridesmaid, never a bride’ neatly expresses the tradition that bridesmaids were unmarried brides-in-waiting. When the bride tossed her bouquet, it was often toward one of the bridesmaids – it was supposed to bring her luck and mean she would be the next to marry. 

Bridesmaids, page boys and flower girls

Elaborate weddings, fashionable from the 1860s on, meant the bridal party became larger. A maid (or matron) of honour, several bridesmaids, flower girls and a page boy or two might all be included in a bridal entourage. Bridesmaids proved a popular addition. Their dress complemented that of the bride, and increased the ceremonial and sometimes theatrical aspects of a wedding.


The groom’s attendants – the best man and groomsmen – were dressed to complement the groom. The best man was responsible for the wedding ring given by the groom to the bride. Once men began wearing wedding rings, the best man often looked after that as well.


Giving presents to couples when they married was a well-established tradition amongst European settlers. Often the gifts were useful household items, or even a section of land on which a home could be built. Less mundane presents were also given – some examples are a piano, a racehorse, a pair of duelling pistols and shares in a gold mine. In the case of wealthy families, presents would go well beyond the merely useful, such as elaborate silverware.

Pacific Island migrants had their own gift-giving practices, including the giving of gifts between the families of those marrying. These could include fine mats or money to help with the costs of a wedding.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Megan Cook, 'Marriage and partnering', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 30 November 2023)

Story by Megan Cook, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 May 2017