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A wife is a female partner in a continuing marital relationship. A wife may also be referred to as a spouse, which is a gender-neutral term. The term continues to be applied to a woman who has separated from her partner and ceases to be applied to such a woman only when her marriage has come to an end following a legally recognized divorce or the death of her spouse. On the death of her partner, a wife is referred to as a widow, but not after she is divorced from her partner.

The rights and obligations of the 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". In Middle English it had the form wif, and in Old English wīf, "woman or wife". It is related to Modern German Weib (woman, female),and Danish viv (wife, usually poetic) and may derive ultimately from the Indo-European root ghwībh- "shame; pudenda" (cf. Tocharian B kwīpe and Tocharian A kip, each meaning "female pudenda", with clear sexual overtones) The original meaning of the phrase "wife" as simply "woman", unconnected with marriage or a husband/wife, is preserved in words such as "midwife" and "fishwife".

In many cultures, with marriage it is generally expected that a woman will take her husband's surname, though that is not universal. A married woman may indicate her marital status in a number of ways: in Western culture a married woman would commonly wear a wedding ring but in other cultures other markers of marital status may be used. 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.

In the 20th century, the role of the wife in Western marriage changed in two major ways; the first was the breakthrough from an "institution to companionate marriage";for the first time, wives became distinct legal entities, and were allowed their own property and allowed to sue. Until then, partners were a single legal entity, but only a husband was allowed to exercise this right. The second change was the drastic alteration of middle and upper-class family life, when in the 1960s these wives began to work outside their home, and with the social acceptance of divorces the single-parent family, and stepfamily or "blended family" as a more "individualized marriage".

Today, a woman may wear a wedding ring in order to show her status as a wife.

In Western countries today, married women usually have an education, a profession and they (or their husbands) can take time off from their work in a legally procured system of ante-natal care, statutory maternity leave, and they may get maternity pay or a maternity allowance.The status of marriage, as opposed to unmarried pregnant women, allows the spouse to be responsible for the child, and to speak on behalf of their wife; a partner is also responsible for the wife's child in states where they are automatically assumed to be the biological legal parent. Vice versa, a wife has more legal authority in some cases when she speaks on behalf of a spouse than she would have if they were not married, e.g. when her spouse is in a coma after an accident, a wife may have the right of advocacy. If they divorce, she also might receive—or pay—alimony (see Law and divorce around the world).

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