Exploring polygamy: What to know about this type of relationship

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated April 30, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Polygamy is a term used to describe being married to more than one person. It is not a synonym for polyamory, which is the act of having more than one partner. There are many forms of polyamory, whereas polygamy is a term to describe only one type of relationship. Within polygamy is polygyny, which involves a man with multiple wives, or polyandry, where a woman has multiple husbands. Polygamy can also occur between spouses of the same gender.

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Explore polygamy and its practice today

What is polygamy, and where is it practiced? 

Polygamy is the act of being married to more than one person. In many religions and cultures worldwide, polygamy is a widespread practice.

However, the law in the United States allows only two partners to be legally married. The individuals who practice this type of relationship in the US often 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.

Unlike polyamory, which one out of five people worldwide has taken part in at some point, polygamy is considered rare throughout the world, with roughly 2% of the global population practicing it. Polygamy is 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 in a spouse-like relationship with multiple partners. Polygamy is also illegal in many countries, but according to a Pew Research study, polygamy is legal in a few. 

In Sub-Saharan Africa, 11% of the population lives in a household with more than one spouse. Polygamy is often considered a standard tenet of some religions or even among those who practice no religion. For example, 24% of Christians in Burkina Faso 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, including stability, safety, companionship, economic resources, reproduction, or love. In some cases, people are also polyamorous, meaning they have the capability to love more than one person. In these cases, they may seek to marry their partners to show equal love to each. 

Some religions state that an individual is entitled to have more than one spouse and that doing so is a way to achieve their beliefs about the afterlife. Some believe that partaking in polygamous marriages is required for their religion. In current society, many people practice polygamy worldwide for societal, cultural, religious, spiritual, or personal reasons. 

Are there rules to polygamy? 

Like in many marriages, the people within a polygamous marriage may have rules about what qualifies as infidelity and how many partners everyone is comfortable with. In some marriages, one person might marry several spouses, while those spouses do not have a romantic or sexual relationship with each other. In others, all partners may be equally in love with each other. Polyamory, the practice of having more than one partner regardless of marriage, may have more rules, formations, and types than polygamy. 

Polygamy around the world 

There may be a few myths about polygamy, tying it to specific cultures or religions. However, polygamy predates many religions, having been prevalent in many cultures worldwide. A few religions that accept polygamous marriages are Islam, the Church of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), and some Hindu religions. 

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

Some cultures and countries allow polygamy under certain conditions. For example, in Algeria and Morocco, a man can marry more than one wife with a marriage license if his first wife agrees and signs 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 often contingent on cultural, religious, and regional practices. In addition, polygamy may be controversial, as it can be seen as heteronormative and non-feminist in certain situations. 

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What is a polygamist family like? 

The family dynamic of polygamous relationships may differ from that of monogamous ones when children are involved. In some polygamous relationships, parents may have separate homes that they keep with their children. If the relationship is heterosexual and involves a man with multiple wives, he may be expected to dedicate equal time and attention to each of his wives to ensure that they feel equal affection. 

However, homosexual or bisexual relationships can occur in polygamy, and each family may have their own rules and structure surrounding childcare, housing, and career. Polygamy is not limited to a man with multiple wives, as there are many forms it can take. 

Controversy surrounding polygamy

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

If you or a loved one is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7.

While some people believe this type of relationship is right for them (whether for religious reasons or not), others believe 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 from a therapist to work through your experience.

To address the ethical challenges that may arise in polygamous marriages, many individuals who identify as polyamorous (able to love more than one person) may practice polyamory or ethical non-monogamy to have multiple ethical relationships. Often, these relationships are open to many formats and are not as associated with heterosexuality or unequal relationship dynamics. There are many books on polyamory that one can read if they’re interested in learning to love more than one person ethically. 

Women and polygamy 

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

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Explore polygamy and its practice today

Counseling options 

If you’re in a polygamous or polyamorous relationship or marriage, concerns may arise that could be benefited by a therapist. Knowing you have someone who understands and can provide non-judgmental care can be beneficial. However, many individuals and couples struggle to find compassionate support due to stigmas surrounding polyamory. If you struggle to find help, reaching out to a therapist through an online platform like BetterHelp for individuals or Regain for couples can be beneficial. 

Research shows online therapy can be as effective as in-person therapy. According to one study, many couples prefer online couples therapy to in-person couples therapy due to the connection they feel they could achieve with their therapist over video calling software. With an online therapy platform, you can choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions and find a session that fits your schedule. In addition, you can note upon signing up if you’re looking for a therapist who is non-judgmental of polygamous or polyamorous relationships. 

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.”

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Takeaway

Polygamy is a type of relationship where multiple individuals are married in one relationship. It is often associated with cultures and religions where polygamy is more widely accepted and is not the same as polyamory or ethical non-monogamy. If you have questions about polygamy or other relationship matters, a licensed individual or couples therapist may benefit you. You can reach out to a professional anytime for support and guidance.
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