Do you feel more like a swan or a wolf or would you prefer the craziness of the wild with its polygamous ways?
Most Western cultures are generally shocked at the thought that many live in a polygamous marriage. Is it really that strange though and could there be benefits for all involved? It starts with understanding what a polygamy marriage is first.
Various studies are ongoing in the scientific world as to why humans evolved to monogamous relationships like swans and wolves. Although, it’s still a rare phenomenon in the animal world. Whether it’s to do with our genes or social requirements as we shifted from mobile to sedentary cultures is open to discussion.
Polygamous marriage definition
Polygamous marriage only makes up about 2% of the population, as detailed in this World Population Review article. Although, the rates go up to the 20s and 30s in certain African countries as shown by these Statista graphs.
A polygamy marriage, as described by Britannica, is the act of having more than one spouse. You then get polygyny that refers to one husband and several wives. On the flip side, polyandry refers to one wife and multiple husbands.
There is much speculation and debate about whether humans tended towards monogamy because of our genes or our social makeup. For example, this article talks about lower ranking males pushing for monogamy. Otherwise, they would never get the chance to partner with someone.
On the other hand, as this research from the University of Tennessee explains, there are many potential factors that drove us away from polygamous marriage. These include increasing the likelihood of children’s survival and wellbeing as well as the availability of men.
Are polygamous marriages better?
Perhaps younger generations are generally becoming more tolerant. So, everyone should be able to live how they choose, even if that means being married to multiple wives.
Interestingly, this Gallup survey shows that 20% of Americans thought a polygamy marriage was acceptable in 2020 when compared to 5% in 2006. Perhaps this could also be driven by greater exposure to countries where polygamous marriage is legal either through the media or increased travel.
Our views of the world are necessarily influenced by our societal and cultural upbringing. As we all struggle through this life the best we can, perhaps there’s something to learn from people successfully married to multiple wives.
Are people happier in countries where polygamous marriage is legal? As always with these things, it depends on circumstances but many make it work for both women and men. As this charming story on News24 about a family in South Africa demonstrates, it’s entirely possible to know how to be happy in a polygamous marriage.
Knowing what is a polygamous marriage isn’t just about understanding the legalities. It’s also about setting up the structure and rules of equality for everyone to be content:
Sharing chores and child rearing responsibilities
When considering the question “how do polygamous marriages work?”, the obvious example is the teamwork involved. For instance, the wives can help each other with children while managing a full-time job.
After all, why should society decide how we live? These days, it isn’t just polygamous marriage you’ll come across but also various permutations of living arrangements. As this NYU article describes, many couples in the West are choosing to live apart in complete opposite to a polygamous marriage. Who’s to say what works for you though?
Security and protection
One of the main causes of polygamous marriage is safety from a society that judges single women harshly. Moreover, a polygamous family can pool their resources together and support each other. At the same time, they can also expect contributions from a greater amount of future children.
Western cultures no longer depend on the social status that matters in an agricultural culture. There, you need as many hands as possible in your household to help with the farming. Nevertheless, many cultures still exist like that today and, as this paper explains, a tribal society rates itself on its resources. This includes the size of households.
Who does a polygamous marriage work for?
The polygamous marriage definition refers to being married to multiple people. It doesn’t explain the benefits of a polygamous marriage or the causes of polygamous marriage. As we’ve seen, there are several advantages but the disadvantages of polygamous marriage are also worth considering to understand who actually benefits.
These days, you’ll find such a marriage relatively common in Muslim countries and tribal communities in Africa, parts of South America and Asia. This is partly because the law allows it and, as this article details, it’s part of the traditional customs.
Nevertheless, women in most of those communities tend to be considered inferior. That’s why it’s advantageous to them to find a family to protect them and to give them status. Unfortunately, this gives the men the upper hand which can lead to inequality and even abuse, as this paper details.
In extreme cases, the men create a mini-harem for their sexual satisfaction without following through on their promise to protect and provide for the women and children. Although, there is also now supporting research showing that first wives and children may have long-term survival benefits.
How does this all work in the day to day of a polygamous marriage?
It actually depends on the family with the more open-minded ones all living under the same roof. Most tend to live in separate houses and the husband will alternate several days at a time with each wife.
Of course, this seems strange to most Western minds but perhaps it’s a great way to get some alone time away from your husband? How many wives in the West complain about an over-demanding husband?
Then again, how do you build the same level of intimacy and commitment in a polygamous marriage that most of us expect in a Western marriage?
You might wonder how do polygamous marriages work. Clearly, the dynamics are different. Nevertheless, just as for any relationship it’s all about setting the right expectations and communicating openly and honestly.
As mentioned, the husband alternates a sequence of days with each wife in a polygamous marriage. Interestingly, while Muslim law dictates that a husband should treat all wives equally, this is actually hard to monitor. So, again, this is open to interpretation and potential abuse.
Moreover, in countries such as Malaysia, the first wife needs to give her permission before a second, third or fourth one can be married as explained in this paper. What then happens behind closed doors is up to the people involved but structure and rules are useful.
For example, how much do all the wives need to share about what they do with their husband in a polygamous marriage? What about the frequency of alone time with the husband or even themselves? With so many people to keep happy, it’s also important that everyone has realistic expectations.
Interestingly, perhaps it’s the children who suffer the most
As most child psychologists know, the more children you have in a family, the less likely the younger ones will get the nurture and attention they need. As this paper from the Journal of Family Studies shows, children from a polygamous marriage have more mental health and social issues and do less well at school.
At this stage, it might be worth noting that neuroscience now tells us that dopamine and other hormones and transmitters in our minds allow us to bond deeply with another person in a romantic relationship. This evolutionary phenomenon also helps explain why most of us prefer monogamy.
Of course, everyone is different so much so that research has proven that polygamous men have larger hippocampi, the area of the brain responsible for spatial experiences, among other things. The idea is that a larger hippocampus drives men to search wider afield for more mates although, the research is still ongoing.
Finding happiness in a polygamous marriage
How to be happy in a polygamous marriage actually depends on each situation. Naturally, an abusive polygamous marriage will never be a happy one. Alternatively, one where everyone is treated equally and with transparent expectations can lead to happiness. Of course, the potential disadvantages of polygamous marriage need to be mitigated first.
Define rules of harmony
First, what does a polygamous marriage mean for you? Yes, the law says equality but do you want to keep your job or become a stay at home mum? What about how you plan to avoid competition with other women? It’s very easy for such a marriage to become territorial and miserable.
A good approach is to sit down with the other women and to understand what you all need from each other as well as your shared husband in this marriage. With a caring and attentive man, along with understanding wives, many women end up enjoying having other women in their lives.
All relationships take effort. Most needs fall into the categories of safety, intimacy, trust, acceptance amongst others as detailed by psychologist Dr. Legg.
The hardest part of such a marriage is to balance the different needs. Although, that’s why the first wives are part of the vetting process for future wives. This doesn’t stop things from going wrong though with some wives asking for a divorce. Nevertheless, just like an interview process involves the team, so does finding a new wife to join the household.
Happiness requires open communication otherwise we spend our time second-guessing each other and ourselves. Of course, it isn’t easy talking about feelings and needs but it does get easier with practice as long as everyone is willing to try.
So, what is polygamy marriage for a happy life? It’s about setting boundaries, establishing financial freedom and knowing yourself along with what you want in life.
The simplest way to answer the question “what is a polygamous marriage?” is by saying it’s a marriage with one man and several women. In reality, it’s much more complex because such a marriage involves more people than in a monogamous one along with all their feelings and emotions.
Most countries that allow such a marriage are built up around religion and the concept that marriage provides social status. Sadly, this can lead to inequality with the women who have nowhere to go when things go wrong.
Regardless, many women appreciate having other females around to share the pressures of raising children and running a household.
If you want to make such a marriage work, you need to make sure everyone has their boundaries, along with realistic expectations and transparent, open communication. Then, there are many examples of a solid family network being created who are better equipped to face life’s challenges.
Anne’s passion and purpose in life are to guide people to find their own path and contentment by learning about themselves. Only then can we build and nurture the deep connections we all deserve to have. With a background in Read more psychology and neuroscience coaching, she has helped countless couples transform their communication from aggression to assertiveness and appreciation.
She is both an ICF certified coach and mindfulness-certified, while being a counselor in training, meaning that she offers a holistic approach. You can expect to transform your view of yourself, your relationship, and the world by better understanding the habits of your mind and letting go of the unhelpful ones. You have power over your mind but you don’t have to do it alone.
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.