What Is Polygamy: What You Should Know About Having Multiple Spouses

By: Michael Arangua

Updated October 17, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Richard Jackson

To put it in simple terms, Polygamy is when an individual has more than one spouse-like partner. Most polygamous relationships are polygyny relationships, which means a man has multiple wives. Although rare, there are also polyandry relationships where a woman may have multiple husbands. Group marriage is another form of polygamy where a household may consist of a mix of different sexes. Some religious sects, including Mormons and Muslims, believe in having 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 woman. Instead, they are married in the eyes of their community, their god, their families, and themselves.

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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. However, bigamy, which is being married to more than one partner simultaneously, is illegal. Some polygamous relationships may not have a legal marriage by law, but they consider themselves 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 other countries. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 11% of the population live in a household with more than one spouse. Polygamy is often considered a normal tenant of some religions, such as folk religions and Muslims, or even those that practice no religion. However, 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 purposes, including stability, security, companionship, economic resources, reproduction, or love. Historically, polygamy was practiced to protect widows and orphans during war times. During this period, marriage was necessary as protection and stability for women. Therefore, the war caused an influx in unmarried women due to war casualties. Those women who lost their husbands during the war were allowed to marry men with existing wives for justice and protection.

Some religions, such as 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 Of Polygamy

Just like any other marriage, polygamy has rules that must be followed. In nearly every religion, the 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.

There is a misconception that polygamy was created with Islam. However, polygamy predated the origins of Islam and was prevalent in many cultures around the world. Islam tolerated and accepted the practice of polygamy with rules and conditions. Not every Muslim practices polygamy. The Quran permits a man to have up to 4 wives at a time with permission and on a condition that he can treat them all with equality, justice, and fairness. If he cannot provide fair and equal treatment, he should only have one wife. This equality relates to accommodation, food, clothing, and kind treatment. Men may be permitted to have more than one wife due to sickness, fertility issues, mental health concerns, or simply not getting along.

Some cultures and countries permit polygamy under certain conditions. For example, in Algeria and Morocco, the man is only permitted to marry more than a 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

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The family dynamic of polygamous relationships may differ from monogamous ones, especially when children are involved. In these types of relationships, the husband has obligations to each of his wives and to all of the children that they share. In some polygamous relationships, the wives may have separate homes that they keep with their children. In others, the wives and children may share one home. The husband is 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.

However, 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 feel more tension and stress among children raised in polygamous households as there tends to be more 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.

What It Means For You

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 leaving a polygamous relationship and feel uncertain about your experience—or if you are in one and don’t know what you feel or think about the relationship itself—you can seek professional help to work through your experience.

Like any relationship, there may be concerns within your polygamous relationship that may arise, and getting help for yourself and your partner may seem difficult at times. Online therapy platforms like BetterHelp can offer the support you need. With this service, you can go online and speak with a professional therapist about anything 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 can make it easier for you to make your appointments, no matter what is going on in your life.

Evidence suggests that women in polygamous relationships experience higher rates of mental health symptoms and conditions. One 2013 study found that women in polygamous relationships had lower self-esteem, less satisfaction with their lives and marriages, and more symptoms of mental illness. Other negative practices, such as rape, domestic violence, murder, robbery, and fraud, 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.) If you find yourself in a polygamous relationship and want to leave, that may present a difficult challenge and lead to numerous negative consequences for you or your children.

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If you face mental health issues in your polygamous marriage or are attempting to leave one, a mental health practitioner may help. Online counseling from platforms like BetterHelp is perfectly suited to connecting you with licensed therapists who can aid you through any challenges you may be experiencing in your life. BetterHelp counseling is highly secure, discreet, and all possible from the comfort of your own home. Numerous advanced cybersecurity measures will protect your correspondence with your therapist. To get in touch with your counselor, you can choose to communicate via text, phone, or video call. 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.”


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