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However, a woman in a so-called common law marriage may describe herself as a common law wife, de facto wife, or simply a wife.

Those seeking to advance gender neutrality may refer to both marriage partners as "spouses", and many countries and societies are rewording their statute law by replacing "wife" and "husband" with "spouse". The status of a wife may be terminated by divorce, annulment, or the death of a spouse.

The rights and obligations of a wife in relation to her partner and her status in the community and in law vary between cultures and have varied over time.

The word is of Germanic origin, from Proto-Germanic *wībam, "woman".

These views have changed in many parts of the world.

Children born outside marriage have become more common in many countries.

Traditionally, and still in some parts of the world, the bride or her family bring her husband a dowry, or the husband or his family pay a bride price to the bride's family, or both are exchanged between the families; or the husband pays the wife a dower.

For some, this is a controversial practice, due to its tie to the historical doctrine of coverture and to the historically subordinated roles of wives.

A married woman is commonly given the honorific title "Mrs", but some married women prefer to be referred to as "Ms", a title which is also used when the marital status of a woman is unknown.

A woman on her wedding day is usually described as a bride, even after the wedding ceremony, while being described as a wife is also appropriate after the wedding or after the honeymoon.

In some cultures, the termination of the status of wife made life itself meaningless, as in the case of those cultures that practiced sati, a funeral ritual within some Asian communities, in which a recently widowed woman committed suicide by fire, typically on the husband's funeral pyre.

The legal rights of a wife have been since the 19th century, and still are, in many jurisdictions subject to debate.