Once considered a fringe type of relationship practiced by religious sects, polygamy has become more well-known in recent years. Reality shows about polygamists make the arrangement seem fairly common, but in reality true polygamy is rare.
How many people actually practice polygamy? Where is it most common, and why do people choose to live in polygamous relationships? Let's take a closer look at polygamy and how it differs from other types of plural marriages.
What Is Polygamy?
Polygamy is when two or more people are married to each other. The term can also be used for any number of spouses living together as one family unit. This includes polygyny, where men have multiple wives, and polyandry, where women have multiple husbands.
In some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, polygamy is legal. However, this does not mean that all men who want to get married must have multiple wives. Instead, they simply need permission from their government to marry another woman.
Polygamy is illegal in the United States, but is no longer prosecuted in Utah. Instead, poylgamous people can be ticketed, similar to getting a traffic ticket. As in the US, polygamy is illegal in most other parts of the world.
Some of the countries where polygamy is legal include:
- India (Muslims only)
- United Arab Emirates
The majority of countries where polygamy is legal and practiced are Muslim. In some places, like the Himalayan Mountains, polyandry is common, and one woman may be married to between two and five men, most often brothers.
Why Do People Choose To Live In Polygamous Relationships?
Most polygamous people are religious, typically Muslim or Mormon. Some anthropological studies associate the taking of multiple wives with high rates of child mortality and difficult economic conditions. More wives can produce more children, and more children can help work or farm and help the family financially.
Some people choose to live in polygamy because they feel it gives them greater freedom. Multiple partners can allow them to spend time with different people, have a larger and more supportive family, and parent multiple children. It can also provide the family with a sense of security and emotional support in case a husband or wife dies.
What Are The Rules Of Polygamy?
The rules of polygamy vary depending on how many spouses are involved, local laws and customs, and the needs of the people involved. Though each country is different, here are some of the most common rules of polygamy:
- A man's fiance must give him permission to take more wives in the future before they are married
- Children in a family where the woman has multiple husbands will consider the oldest husband their father, regardless of who the actual father is. They refer to the other husbands as their uncles
- In some countries, a man can take multiple wives but must limit the number, most commonly to four
Polygamy Vs. Polyamory
Many people confuse polygamy with polyamory. While both involve having multiple relationships at once, there are important differences between the two.
Polygamy involves marrying two or more people, while polyamory means having multiple relationships that typically don't lead to marriage. Polyamorists are free to date whoever they want, and are less likely to stay committed to one partner over another. There are many different types of polyamory, including open relationships, swinging, and ethical non-monogamy.
Polygamy is usually limited by law, whereas polyamory is not. A person can practice polyamory without being legally bound to any specific partner. For example, if a couple wants to have sex with someone else, no laws prevent them from doing so.
Like polygamists, people in polyamorous relationships may face the judgment and confusion of family, friends, and the rest of society. This can make both polyamory and polygamy more difficult and increase the potential for conflict with others, especially in countries where such relationships are unusual.
Polygamous relationships tend to last longer than polyamorous ones do. In a polygamous relationship, a man or women commits to a relationship with multiple spouses and often has children with them. Polygamy tends to be more traditional than polyamory, and is usually a lifelong choice.
Because polygamy involves a man or woman marrying multiple people, it often requires a lot of planning and coordination, and may involve approval and involvement from the other wives or husbands. In contrast, polyamory doesn't require much planning and allows couples to pick up and go whenever they like.
Benefits of Polygamy
Depending on your view of this type of relationship, there are some good things about polygamy. Here are a few of them:
- Companionship. One of the primary benefits of polygamous relationships for all partners can be companionship. Having multiple family members, "sister wives," and/children can help provide a sense of security and stability separate from the marriage itself.
- More children. Men who have more than one wife tend to produce more children than those who only have one wife. For people who want a lot of children, a polygamous relationship may make more sense, especially in polygynous arrangements with multiple wives.
- Increased financial stability. More family members including older children can help contribute to the family income, work on a farm or family business, or work when other family members aren't able to. For women with multiple husbands in the Himalayas, marrying brothers keeps the limited amount of land in the area in the family and protects it from being passed down outside the family or to the children of multiple wives.
- More sexual variety. Polygamy increases sexual variety for the man or woman with multiple spouses. This can increase tensions and jealousy in some families, but can also be a benefit, particularly for spouses who prefer not to be the primary sexual partner.
- Increased social status. Being married to multiple people can increase social status in some parts of the world, though a large number of wives or "harem" is becoming less common as laws and norms change.