What Is Polygamy?

Updated March 17, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Polygamy is defined as having more than one spouse or partner. It is different from monogamy definition which is the practice of having a relationship with only one partner. Most polygamous relationships are polygyny relationships, which means a man has multiple wives. Although rare, there are also polyandry relationships, wherein a woman may have multiple husbands.

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Group marriage is another form of polygamy in which a household may consist of a mix of people of different genders. Also, some individuals in various religious groups, such as Mormons, may have more than one wife. People in many other countries around the world may also participate in polygamous relationships. In the United States, however, the law allows for only two partners to be legally married. This means that the individuals who do practice this type of relationship do so without being legally married to more than one person. Instead, they may be married in the eyes of their community, their families, and themselves.

What Is Polygamy? Where Is Polygamy Practiced?

Polygamy is fairly rare throughout the world, with roughly 2% of the global population practicing polygamy. Polygamy is technically illegal in the United States, although it is decriminalized in many states, such as Utah. Some polygamous relationships may not have a legal marriage by law, but they consider themselves to be in a spouse-like relationship with multiple partners. Polygamy is illegal in most countries or at least not officially recognized. However, according to a Pew Research study, polygamy is legal in some countries. 

In Sub-Saharan Africa, 11% of the population lives in a household with more than one spouse. Polygamy is often considered a normal tenet of some religions or even among those who practice no religion. For example, in Burkina Faso, 24% of Christians live in polyamorous households.

Why Do People Practice Polygamy?

There are many reasons that people may engage in polygamy. These reasons may be religious or societal and may include stability, safety, companionship, economic resources, reproduction, or love. 

Some religions, including some forms of Islam, state that a man is entitled to have more than one wife and that having multiple wives is a way to get into heaven. Some believe that their god wanted them to become more numerous, increase their family dynamics, and become better prophets of god’s word. Today, many people still practice polygamy around the world for societal or religious reasons.

The Rules 

Just like any other marriage context, polygamy tends to have rules. In nearly every religion, a relationship is considered polygamous when a partner has more than one spouse. While there are different polygamous relationships, polygyny, a man having more than one wife, is the most common. The rules of polygamy may differ for each religious or individual relationship.

The Practice Around The World

There is a misconception that Islam created polygamy. Polygamy predates the origins of Islam, having been prevalent in many cultures around the world. Islam tolerated and accepted the practice of polygamy with rules and conditions. However, not every Muslim practices polygamy. 

The Quran allows  a man to have up to four wives at a time with permission and on a condition that he can treat them all with equality, justice, and fairness. He should only have one wife if he cannot provide fair and equal treatment. This equality relates to accommodation, food, clothing, and kind treatment. Men may also be allowed to have more than one wife due to sickness, fertility issues, mental health concerns, or simple incompatibility.

Some cultures and countries allow polygamy under certain conditions. For example, in Algeria and Morocco, a man is only allowed to marry more than one wife with a marriage license, and his original wife must agree to it and sign a contract. 

Polygamy is a practice that has taken numerous forms throughout the years, and many countries and cultures have placed conditions and restrictions on polygamy. In many countries, it also isn’t legally recognized. Polygamous relationships are highly contingent on cultural, religious, and regional practices.

The Family Dynamic

The family dynamic of polygamous relationships may differ from that of monogamous ones, especially when children are involved. In some polygamous relationships, the wives may have separate homes that they keep with their children. The husband is often expected to dedicate equal time and attention to each of his wives to ensure that they feel equal love and affection, which is considered their right in the relationship. The wives may then be required to work together to better the entire home and care for all children, not only their own.

Controversy Surrounding Polygamy

Those opposed to polygamy believe that polyamorous relationships can negatively affect society and the family dynamic. They believe that mistreatment and abuse may be more prevalent in polygamous relationships. They also believe there may be more tension and stress among children raised in polygamous households as there may be conflict among wives. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has said, “Polygamy violates the dignity of women,” and they call for it to be abolished everywhere it still exists.

Just like with the interracial relationship history, polygamy has experienced controversies through the years. Polygamy is a relationship style that may not be for everyone. While some people believe that this type of relationship is right for them (whether for religious reasons or not), others believe that it may lead to problems for the women and the children raised in these households. If you are in a polygamous relationship and feel uncertain about your experience, you can seek professional help through an online therapist to work through your experience.

As with any relationship, concerns may arise within your polygamous relationship, and getting help for yourself and your partner may seem difficult at times. However, online therapy platforms like BetterHelp can offer support discreetly, and nonjudgmentally. Research shows online therapy to be just as effective as in-person therapy. With BetterHelp, you can go online and speak with a professional therapist about any challenges or mental health concerns you may be experiencing. 

One of the top benefits is that you can do it all online without ever visiting an office or leaving your home. That may make it easier for you to make your appointments, no matter what is going on in your life. Also, you can contact your therapist via in-app messaging, and they’ll get back to you as soon as they can.

Women And Polygamy 

Evidence suggests that women in polygamous relationships may experience higher rates of mental health symptoms and conditions. One 2013 study found that women in polygamous relationships had less satisfaction with their lives and marriages and more symptoms of mental illness. Other negative practices, such as rape and domestic violence, have also been linked to polygamy.*

*If you are experiencing domestic violence and require immediate assistance, the National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached any time online or by calling 1-800-799-7233.) 

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If you face mental health issues in your polygamous relationship or are attempting to leave one, a mental health practitioner may help. With online counseling from platforms like BetterHelp, you can be matched with a licensed therapist who can help you navigate any challenges you may be experiencing. BetterHelp counseling is completely online and entirely possible from anywhere you have an internet connection. To get in touch with your counselor, you can choose to communicate via text, phone, or video call. 

Counselor Reviews

Please read what others have to say below about their experiences with BetterHelp.

Ian began as my marriage counselor, and then we branched out into individual counseling as well. Ian has helped me through an incredibly intense time, and I feel as though I have come a long way from where I was six months ago, thanks to his guidance.”

Mary has been very helpful with my struggles lately, both in marriage and personal issues. She is a good listener and seems to have good ideas to deal with the problems as they arise. I wish she would talk even more, though I realize I take up space talking. I feel very good about our sessions so far, and I have learned a lot. I highly recommend her if you have issues you are dealing with, plus during covid, she has been a big help.”


If you have questions about polygamy or other relationship matters, a licensed online counselor is available to listen to your concerns and offer support. With BetterHelp, you don’t have to go to a therapist’s office, and sessions occur on a timetable that works for you. Reach out today to get matched with a professional therapist.

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