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What is Polygamy?

Polygamy is the practice of marrying multiple partners, a complex phenomenon with deep cultural, religious, and legal implications. It challenges traditional views on marriage and raises questions about consent, equality, and love's boundaries. As we navigate its intricacies, we uncover a tapestry of human relationships. What might this reveal about the evolving nature of commitment and family? Join us as we explore further.
Sherry Holetzky
Sherry Holetzky

Polygamy is a marriage that involves multiple spouses, instead of two. Polygamy has been practiced for centuries but has been eliminated in most modern societies. There are a few different types of polygamy. A union that involves one woman and two or more men is correctly termed polyandry, while a union involving one man and two or more women is called polygyny.

The latter arrangement is by far the most prevalent demographic. While polygamy is illegal in the United States and other countries, it is still practiced in many areas. In fact, there is a movement that goes hand in hand with the same sex marriage movement in the U.S. that hopes to include polygamy in the redefinition of marriage.

Polygamy involves more than two spouses.
Polygamy involves more than two spouses.

Bigamy is sometimes used interchangeably with polygamy, although they are not necessarily the same thing. Bigamy technically means having two spouses at the same time, and the term is frequently used to describe two separate marriages, often when one spouse does not know about the other. Bigamy can also refer to having two spouses in a single household, but such arrangements are generally referred to as polygamy.

A polyandry refers to a marriage of one women and two or more men.
A polyandry refers to a marriage of one women and two or more men.

The preferred term in this and similar debates is plural marriage, rather than polygamy. Within the poly culture, words like polyfidelity may also be used. The terms polygamy, polyandry, and polygyny are often seen as being anthropological in nature, and not especially effective for describing in detail the different types of poly relationships.

The concept of polygamy, specifically polygyny, tends to be a fertile issue for controversial debate. While some claim polygamy is a religious tenet, others claim it is a simple matter of choice, one which they believe should be open to all free people. However, the definition of free people often includes minor children, which leads to the other side of the argument. Those who are against polygamy, or plural marriage, believe it is an unhealthy living arrangement, due in part to headlines and news stories that reflect the most extreme cases.

Other concerns are centered on the potential for legalized polygamy to lead to an unbalanced society. Simple math leads to this conclusion. If one man marries two or more women, it may leave two or more other men with no potential mate.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is polygamy and how common is it worldwide?

Polygamy is a marital practice where an individual has more than one spouse simultaneously. It is divided into two main forms: polygyny, where a man marries multiple women, and polyandry, where a woman marries multiple men. According to the Ethnographic Atlas Codebook, out of 1,231 societies noted, 186 were monogamous; 453 had occasional polygyny; 588 had more frequent polygyny, and 4 had polyandry. Despite being illegal in most Western countries, polygamy is still practiced in various cultures globally, particularly in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

What are the legal implications of polygamy in different countries?

The legal status of polygamy varies widely around the world. In some countries, like Saudi Arabia and other nations with Islamic law, polygamy is legally accepted, though often with restrictions. Conversely, in the United States, Canada, and Australia, polygamy is illegal and can lead to criminal charges. However, some countries have complex legal stances; for instance, India allows polygamy for Muslims under the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act of 1937, reflecting the country's religious diversity and legal pluralism.

What are the cultural reasons behind the practice of polygamy?

Cultural reasons for polygamy are diverse and deeply rooted in the traditions and beliefs of a society. In some cultures, polygamy is linked to social status, where wealthier men with multiple wives display their economic prowess. In others, it's tied to the necessity for large families to manage agricultural work or to ensure lineage and inheritance. Additionally, in some societies, polygamy is practiced to strengthen political or social alliances between families or tribes.

How does polygamy affect the family structure and dynamics?

Polygamy significantly impacts family structure and dynamics, creating complex household relationships. It can lead to a hierarchical system among spouses, often with a "senior" wife holding more authority. This structure can affect the distribution of resources, parental attention, and emotional support within the family. Children from different mothers may experience varied levels of care and status, which can influence their social development and family ties. The dynamics are highly dependent on the cultural context and individual family practices.

Are there any modern movements or changes in the perception of polygamy?

Modern movements and changes in the perception of polygamy are evident, with some advocating for its acceptance as a legitimate choice in consensual adult relationships. This perspective is often rooted in arguments for personal freedom and non-traditional family structures. However, there is also strong opposition, citing concerns over women's rights, potential abuse, and the psychological impact on families. The debate is ongoing, with some countries reevaluating their laws and societal norms regarding polygamous relationships.

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Discussion Comments


If you love him so much, you have to be patient and ask your ex-husband to quit that girl. You know that their marriage is legal and he cannot return to you as a husband that will be committing a big mistake from him. If he loves you and you are his sweetheart, he will come back to you, no matter how.


If he really loves and he wants to be with you he'll get a divorce and move on with you. But make sure you see those papers girl! But if you don't care then the hell with it. Stay with him.


I have a couple different issues I need advice with. My boyfriend has just informed me that in the time that he was dealing with depression from our previous breakup he got married. The girl he married doesn't live in the US and went back to her country shortly after. How can we go about this marriage being dissolved or annulled or whatever it is that he has to do?

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    • Polygamy involves more than two spouses.
      By: shotsstudio
      Polygamy involves more than two spouses.
    • A polyandry refers to a marriage of one women and two or more men.
      By: desertsolitaire
      A polyandry refers to a marriage of one women and two or more men.