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Till Dustcloths Do Us Part: The Oddest U.S. Marriage Laws

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Marriage is simply about the love and devotion between two people, right? Not exactly. When a couple gets hitched, they agree to bind themselves not only to each other, but also to the state granting them the marriage license. In reality, for all the parties involved in a marriage to be represented, the state’s governor, legislative bodies, and judiciary would have to join the bride and groom at the altar, since state governments can dictate what goes on between two newlyweds—even though some of the rules they’ve come up with are odd, outdated, or downright offensive.


Alabama: Women are able to retain all property they owned prior to marriage in the case of divorce. However, this provision does not apply to men. Also, incest is legal.


Arkansas: A man may legally beat his wife, as long as it happens no more frequently than once a month. Spousal abuse is also permissible in West Virginia, as long as the beating takes place in public on Sunday on the courthouse steps. It’s okay in Alabama, too, as long as the man uses a stick no larger in diameter than his thumb.


California: The rules get a little more complicated here. A man can beat his wife with a leather belt or strap, but the belt can’t be wider than two inches, unless the man has his wife’s consent to beat her with a wider strap.


Also in California, a husband who suffers from allergies can have his wife jailed if she doesn’t cook her dustcloth after using it.


Colorado: No one may throw shoes at the bride and groom at a wedding.


Connecticut: If a man wants to kiss his wife on Sundays (which is illegal in this state), he has to move to Maryland, where doing so is permissible—but only for one second.


Delaware: Getting married on a dare is grounds for annulment.


Florida: A woman who’s angry with her husband may break no more than three dishes per day.


Kentucky: A woman may not remarry the same man four times, nor may she buy a hat if her husband has not tried it on first.


Michigan: A woman’s hair and clothing belong to her husband. If a man sees that his wife is leaving him, he may follow her into the street and reclaim his property by shearing and denuding her.




Mississippi: The punishment for adultery is a fine of $500 and/or six months in prison.


Montana: Marriage by proxy is legal. This means that two people can get married even if neither one of them is present at the wedding ceremony.


New York: New Yorkers may not dissolve a marriage for irreconcilable differences, unless they both agree to it.


Oregon: No man may curse while having sex with his wife.


Rhode Island: A marriage may be annulled if either of the parties is an idiot.


South Carolina: Civil law in South Carolina stipulates that if a man can prove his now-wife behaved lewdly and unchastely while he courted her, the marriage is null and void. But men who use marriage proposals as means of seduction are subject to criminal law—specifically, the Offenses Against Morality and Decency code, which declares such behavior by males over age sixteen a misdemeanor.


Tennessee: Tennessee marriage laws tend to favor women. For example, a man may divorce his wife only if he leaves her with ten pounds of dried beans, five pounds of dried apples, a side of meat, and enough yarn to knit herself stockings for a year. Also, whereas a woman may kick her husband out of bed without provocation, her husband may not reciprocate, even if she has Popsicle toes.


Utah: Polygamy is only a misdemeanor. However, this law applies solely to couples (quadruples? septuples?) who have sex in the missionary position, and only the missionary position. It does not specify which regulations apply to husbands and wives who, you know, don’t take marriage lying down.


Virginia: In this state (where shacking up is a felony), a man may curse at his wife as long as he does not raise his voice.


West Virginia: First cousins may marry, unless the bride is fifty-five or older.


What Were They Thinking?!
While a number of these marriage laws, though strange, make sense (e.g., Delaware’s rule about double-dog-dare marriages), the rest are amusing at best (e.g., New York’s law regarding irreconcilable differences) and disturbing at worst (beating your wife is never okay). They all make us wonder about the circumstances that led to their enactment and give us a glimpse of our country’s history, when adultery was among the gravest sins and marriage among cousins was not unusual or troubling. And since these laws are still in the books, you should probably bone up on your state’s rules before saying, “I do,” or you could, you know, cede ownership of your hair or something.



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