Since the 13th century, the nuclear family (A man and a woman married, with children living under their roof) has been the primary arrangement in England, and by default, North America as well as much of Europe.
The nuclear family is essentially a product of monogamy – in which two individuals enter a marriage or a sexual relationship. The practice used to be the norm and is often praised as being the fabric of a strong society. Conservatives often praise the family dynamic of a mother and family, pointing towards statistics that suggest single-parent homes produce children that engage in criminal activities (1).
However, this is a narrow view of the world. Monogamy may be the standard for western civilisation, but in other parts of the world, things are different.
Polygamy has been widely practiced by several cultures throught history, spanning from China to Native American Tribes and from West Africa to India (2). Generally, it was only permitted for a man to have multiple wives, and not for a woman to marry multiple men.
It often seemed that polygamy was widely practiced under circumstances in which men were scarce- something that isn’t such a problem in western countries (3). The lack of requirement present in western countries may explain a lot of the disgust and disregard aimed towards the practice.
Opponents of gay marriage frequently assert that it’s legalisation is a ‘slippery slope’ towards polygamous marriages, to imply a downward spiral into unions less legitimate than the heterosexual, monogamous couple (4).
I have noticed people starting to embrace polyamory- in which a person may engage in relations with more than one partner. There are a variety of reasons for why they do so.
Studies suggest that there’s a lower level of jealousy in polyamorous relationships, there was less chance of cutting ties after break-ups and higher rates of satisifaction (5). There’s also no indication of a higher rate of sexually transmitted diseases, despite the stigma of ‘bed hopping’ and promisicuity.
Is there a legal fight for polygamous marriage on the horizon? Perhaps. A 2012 poll found that 92% of 4,000 polyamorous people agreed that “consensual, multiparty marriages among adults” should enjoy the same legal status as marriage between two people (6).
Where does this leave us? Many are very uncomfortable with the idea of polygamy, and perhaps associate it with repressive marriage structures, in which women serve their shared husband like slaves.
One argument against polygamy is that it leaves many men without wives. It’s even been linked to societies with higher crime rates – as single men rob, murder and rape far more than women and married men (7).
Arguments are also likely to suggest that polygamy is legally complicated, as it’d require thousands of laws to be rewritten with regards to wills, hospital visits, etc (8). It’s also been asserted that polygamous marriages are five times more likely to end in divorce (9).
In my own opinion, I can see both sides of the argument.
Certainly, in poorer countries, there are benefits to the practice. Women who lose their husbands in war, may be left financially fragile, and may need to rely on a shared provider. And often, that husband has prove he is a capable provider for his multiple wives – going before family courts in countries such as Egypt and Iran (10).
I feel, that as long as everybody in the relationship is a consenting adult, and is happy with their arrangement, it should be their own personal business. The legal ramifications of it notwithstanding, I don’t see much reason to condemn or criticise polygamous marriages.
If it does become the ‘new gay marriage’, then this will surely become a debate many people will be having.