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Kissing Cousins - The Popularity & Controversy of Cousin Marriage

Published Wednesday, Nov. 15th, 2023

Photo: Light Design / iStock

Talking about taboos: How common is marriage between cousins, which states allow it, and is it really that controversial? 



Every month, thousands of people search online for information on the legality of first and second cousin marriages. 


“Can you marry a second cousin?” they ask, or “Which states allow first cousin marriage?” and “Is marriage between cousins legal?” …You get the idea. 


Of course, some of these queries come from simple curiosity. Some are likely made by snickering teenagers, looking to cause trouble among classmates, or from uninspired comedians and bored office workers. (We’ve all heard the jokes at least once, right?)


But many of these searches are probably made by individuals who, well, want to marry their cousin. 


It makes us wonder: How common is marriage between cousins? Where is it legal to marry a cousin, and under what conditions or restrictions? Why is there so much controversy surrounding these types of consanguineous marriages (marriage between relatives), and has it always been this way? 


Let’s take a look! 

Terms to know: ‘First cousins’ are non-siblings that share grandparents, and ‘second cousins’ are non-siblings that share great-grandparents. Some people may also be cousins through marriage or adoption; different rules may apply to cousins who aren't related by blood.



Close up photo of a bride and groom holding hands taken from above

Photo: aldomurillo / iStock

Does the idea of first cousin marriage make sense to you, or does it give you the ick? The answer likely depends on your cultural upbringing.


First, addressing the ick factor


Any conversation about cousin marriage should probably start by addressing the potential ‘ick factors.’ Most people who are opposed to these types of family ties point out that many cousins are raised as closely as siblings, and that marriage between them feels too much like incest. (Incest isn’t just icky, btw, it’s also illegal in every state. Relationships between cousins are not considered incestuous in most of the world.) Objectors also express concern that children born to people who share a fair amount of DNA (12.5% on average) have increased risks of genetic disease. 


We definitely understand the taboos at play here, but the ‘ick’ isn’t a universally held view. Consanguineous marriages are quite ordinary in other places and account for nearly 10% of marriages worldwide. They’re consistently common in parts of the Middle East, Africa, and East Asia, accounting for nearly 65% of all marriages in Pakistan, 55% in India, and 20% in Turkey (according to this study in BMC Women’s Health Journal). 


A lot of this has to do with family culture and location; while some Americans have only two or three first cousins or second cousins, it’s not uncommon for people in other countries to have dozens of cousins. This means that many cousins simply aren’t that close to each other. For example, Pulitzer Prize-winning data journalist Mona Chalabi (who has spoken about cousin marriage) has nearly 90 cousins, some of whom are related on both sides of their family tree because of consanguineous marriage.


(Chalabi spoke about her large family and her research about the taboo nature of cousin marriages in a popular TEDTalk in 2021. Watch the video below.)


And although there are some documented reproductive health risks (for female partners) and genetic risks (for children) involved, other recent studies claim that most health concerns aren’t warranted. A meta analysis reviewed in The New York Times, for example, revealed that despite long-held beliefs to the contrary, “there is no biological reason to discourage cousins from marrying.” And in 2021, Popular Science confirmed this, with an article titled ‘Go ahead, marry your cousin—it’s not that bad for your future kids’.


Now, whether or not any of this is enough to ease your ick is entirely up to you. 



Close up of bride and groom holding hands on the wedding day, the bride wears red with henna on her hands

Photo: ali awais / iStock



How common is cousin marriage? 


Now that we’ve addressed the taboo in the room, let’s get down to the numbers. 


As mentioned above, it’s estimated that nearly 10% of marriages worldwide are consanguineous. The practice is believed to be most popular in parts of the Middle East, Africa, and East Asia. It’s worth mentioning, too, that cousin marriage is most common in patriarchal cultures where women have less say in who or when they marry. 


In the United States, only 0.2% of marriages are between first or second cousins. To put that into perspective: About 3,980 of the 1.99 million couples married in the US in 2021 may have been cousins. But it’s important to note that this 0.2% estimate is from 1981, and experts believe that number has gone up in recent decades due in large part to immigration. 


There have been some very notable examples as well. Famous people who married their cousin include: Naturalist Charles Darwin married his first cousin Emma in 1839; Tragic poet Edgar Allan Poe married his 13-year-old cousin Virginia Eliza in 1836; theoretical physicist Albert Einstein married his first cousin Elsa in 1919; and politician Rudy Giuliani married his second cousin Regina in 1968.


Which states allow cousin marriage? 


In the United States, marriage between second cousins is legal in every state. Marriage between first cousins is allowed to some degree in 27 states (updated May, 2024). Some states allow it only under certain conditions, such as parties to the marriage being above a certain age or being sterile, but several have no restrictions.


First Cousin Marriage: Legal with no restrictions (at time of writing):  


Alabama, Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, The District of Columbia (DC), Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, and Virginia.


First Cousin Marriage: Legal with some restrictions (at the time of writing): 


Arizona (first cousins can marry if they are 65 or older, or if one partner is infertile); Illinois (first cousins can marry if they are 50 or older, or if one partner is infertile); Indiana (first cousins can marry if they are are 65 or older); Louisiana (cousins through adoption can marry with judicial approval); Maine (first cousins can marry if they undergo genetic testing beforehand); Mississippi (cousins through adoption can marry); North Carolina (first cousins can marry as long as they aren’t double cousins); South Dakota (cousins through adoption can marry); Utah (first cousins can marry if they are 65 or older, or 55 or older and infertile); and Wisconsin (first cousins can marry if any woman in the marriage is at least 55, or if either partner is sterile). 


First cousins are not allowed to marry in other states, and sexual relationships or cohabitation between them may also be illegal there. 



Taken from behind as bride and groom hold hands in front of the wedding officiant on the wedding day, outdoors while friends and family turn to watch

Photo: t:gorodenkoff / iStock



Why is there so much controversy around cousin marriage, and has it always been this way?


The controversy around cousin marriage in the US mostly stems from the potential ick factors mentioned above – perceived similarities to incest, and genetic risks – as well as concerns related to morality, religion, and societal judgement. 


States began enacting legislation to outlaw or regulate these types of marriages around the time of the Civil War, with Kansas becoming the first state to ban cousin marriage in 1858 (according to this study in PLOS Biology Journal). Experts show that marriages between cousins dropped off significantly following shifts in social norms only a few years later, around 1875. 


The controversy began even earlier in Europe, coming to a head when the Catholic Church banned marriage between relatives during the Middle Ages. There’s a lot of speculation about why the Church did this, but financial gain is one common theory: Cousins often married to keep their wealth within the family line, which took financial power away from the Church. By banning marriage between relatives, the Catholic Church became wealthier and more powerful than many families in Europe. In addition, “religious leaders could benefit financially from shrinking family ties,” experts say, because “without a tight extended network those without heirs often left their wealth to the church.” (via The Harvard Gazette)


And we won’t get into it here, but each major religion has its own views on consanguineous marriages, too, with faith leaders citing various nuanced readings of scripture, including from The Bible and The Quran. This influence certainly contributes to the views people hold about these marriages. 


As you can see, this practice has a very long history – as long as the history of marriage itself! In some places the marriage of cousins is considered commonplace and has been popular for hundreds of years, while in others it comes with a big side of ick and a criminal record. 


In the light of all this history and varying state laws, it’s no wonder that there are thousands of searches each month about the legality of cousin marriage. Learn more about this topic and other marriage laws in your state by contacting your local county or city clerk's office.


Read more about a variety of marriage traditions and the history of marriage here. 




Learn more: Is it really that bad to marry my cousin?

Watch this short TED Talk on the topic of cousin marriage delivered by Pulitzer Prize-winning data journalist Mona Chalabi :






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Jessica Levey
Jessica Levey

Lead Staff Writer & Illustrator

Jessica loves exploring the history and magic of ritual, the connections between people and places, and sharing true stories about love and commitment. She's an advocate for marriage equality, LGBTQ+ rights, and individuality, and is an ordained Minister with AMM. When she’s not writing or illustrating for AMM, she enjoys city hikes, fantasy novels, comics, and traveling.

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