The nuclear family was the core of Egyptian society and many of the gods were even arranged into such groupings. There was tremendous pride in one’s family, and lineage was traced through both the mother’s and father’s lines. Respect for one’s parents was a cornerstone of morality, and the most fundamental duty of the eldest son (or occasionally daughter) was to care for his parents in their last days and to ensure that they received a proper burial.
Once a young man was well into adolescence, it was appropriate for him to seek a partner and begin his own family. Females were probably thought to be ready for marriage after their first menses. The marrying age of males was probably a little older, perhaps 16 to 20 years of age, because they had to become established and be able to support a family.
Virginity was not a necessity for marriage; indeed, premarital sex, or any sex between unmarried people, was socially acceptable. Once married, however, couples were expected to be sexually faithful to each other. Egyptians (except the king) were, in theory, monogamous, and many records indicate that couples expressed true affection for each other. Egyptian women had a level of equality to the men, but were expected to obey their husbands and fathers. They participated in business arrangements and in the royal families, were often the real power behind the pharaoh’s decisions. Egyptian wives were well respected and often ran the farms and businesses when their husbands were away.
Family was important in ancient Egypt, and family life began early for the ancient Egyptians. Men and women both tended to marry young, and most marriage were polygamous with the husband having several wives.
The husband usually had a senior or chief wife who was considered higher than the other ones. Although divorce existed in ancient Egypt, it was rare because of the Egyptians’ commitment to the sanctity of the family unit.
Contrary to modernization theory with respect to family development, extended families have not lost their appeal or importance. Most people attempt to live near their parents, siblings, cousins, or grandparents, should they still be alive, and maintain an active relationship with many of their relatives. It is important to note that extended family households which are often found in Egypt do not follow the traditional patterns in which geneaologically related persons of two generations live together or in which married siblings form one household. Rather, extended families are based on the incorporation of unmarried relatives into a family. Widows, divorcees (especially those with no children), and bachelors do not live separately and would be stigmatized should they make this choice. Further, unmarried sons or daughters live with their parents until marriage, irrespective of age. After divorce or the death of a spouse, both men and women, especially if they do not have children, are expected to return to their parents if they are still alive; otherwise they are supposed to live with a brother, sister, or other relatives.