What Is Polygamy?

Cropped shot of friends spending time together outdoors

PeopleImages / Getty Images

What Is Polygamy?

When you think of marriage, you most likely think of a union between two partners. However, there are other types of marriages like polygamy.

Polygamy is a type of relationship that typically involves a person marrying more than one partner. When a woman marries more than one man, it’s called polyandry. Polygamy is the opposite of monogamy, where one person marries one spouse.

Polygamy is either illegal or discouraged in most regions. In some cases, polygamy isn’t explicitly unlawful. However, bigamy is. Bigamy occurs when a person who’s married marries another person. Bigamy can occur whether or not the other person knows their partner is currently married.

This article discusses the history of polygamy, the types of polygamy, and how people practice it. It also discusses the impact and pitfalls of this kind of relationship arrangement.

History of Polygamy 

Interestingly, monogamy is a relatively recent concept in human history. Before the formation of urban communities we recognize today, people were primarily polygamous.

While polygamy has a somewhat checkered history in recent times, many people voluntarily opted for a polygamous relationship instead of a monogamous relationship centuries ago.

These days polygamy is frowned upon in many societies and has been outrightly banned in most countries. Polygamy is illegal in the United States, Europe, China, Australia, and many other countries.

Types of Polygamy 

There are generally three forms of polygamy: polygyny, polyandry, and group marriage.

Polygyny 

Polygyny is the specific form of polygamy where a man marries multiple wives. This term is most commonly used interchangeably with polygamy because it’s the most common form of the concept. 

Polyandry 

Polyandry is a less common form of polygamy. With polyandry, you find a woman marrying multiple men. 

Group Marriage 

Group marriage, as the term implies, is when several men and women marry each other. This is a rarer form of polygamy.

While some people might consider the above as types of polygamy, others might recognize them as concepts of their own. And in some instances, the terms are used interchangeably.

How to Practice Polygamy 

Since polygamy is illegal in many countries, people who wish to practice polygamy opt-out of getting married in a traditional setting and choose a casual arrangement.

Polyamory

Polygamy is often confused with polyamory, which is a more acceptable and legal way to be in a relationship with multiple partners in the world today.

Polyamory is a type of relationship where a person has multiple partners but no one is married to each other. All partners typically know of each other and are aware that they are in a polyamorous relationship.

For a healthy polyamorous relationship to work, all partners need to be open and honest with each other. 

In parts of the Middle East and Asia, polygamy is legal. In many parts of Africa, it’s not only permitted but widely practiced, especially in West Africa. Regions in West Africa that are predominantly Muslim allow polygamy. According to Islamic doctrine, a man is allowed to have up to four wives. The practice is discouraged, however, if the man is unable to act justly and treat all of his wives fairly.

Impact of Polygamy 

Over the years, the impact of polygamy on society has been argued about. The pros and cons are often debated, and a case can be made for either one.

Some Believe That Polygamy Violates Women's Rights

According to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, polygamy violates the dignity of women and should be abolished in whatever regions they currently exist. They believe that areas, where polygamy is practiced, infringes upon women's free will.

In areas where polygamy is predominant, women are sometimes coerced into marrying men they have no desire to marry. Laws that allow polygamy are also typically skewed in favor of men.

For instance, with Sharia Law practiced in some parts of West Africa, men can take on multiple wives while women can't. However, it is important to note that there is no one source that dictates Islamic law. Instead, competing interpretations of basic sources that guide the legal system of specific countries, which may include Islamic legal principles, foreign law, and local customs.

Some Believe That Believe Polygamy Benefits Children

On the other hand, people might argue that polygamy allows for the creation of larger family units. A small 2015 study conducted in Tanzania found that polygamy could result in great health and wealth for women and children in polygamous families.

Tips for Polygamy 

Polygamous and polyandrous relationships can be complicated to navigate, certainly more than the more traditional monogamous relationships. So, if you are considering a polygamous relationship in a region where it's legal or a polyamorous relationship in areas where it's illegal to marry multiple spouses, there are things to contemplate to ensure you remain in a healthy and open relationship.

Here are some tips to consider: 

  • Weigh the pros and cons with potential partners before going into a polygamous or polyamorous relationship. Every type of relationship has its advantages and disadvantages, but the deciding factor is what makes you and your partners happy.
  • Practice a culture of open communication. Open communication is an essential ingredient in any healthy relationship, whether monogamous or polygamous. But, it's vital in a polygamous relationship.
  • Ask yourself if this type of relationship is right for you. Ask yourself questions about how you feel about committing to multiple people and what this will mean for any other aspects of your life. 

Potential Pitfalls of Polygamy 

One of the potential pitfalls of polygamy is the adverse effects it tends to have on women. In most polygamous relationships, there's a power imbalance between the men and women in the relationship. Especially because polygyny, where one man has multiple wives, is the more common concept.

In many polygamous relationships, the women are often pitted against each other to compete for men's attention.

In a 2013 study into the impact of polygamy on women’s health, researchers found that women in polygynous relationships are more likely to have mental health issues than women in monogamous relationships. They reported significantly higher levels of anxiety, depression, and decreased life and marital satisfaction.

Some research also shows that children born into polygamous situations can be adversely affected. They believe that polygamous marriages create stressful situations for children that could disrupt their development.

Other researchers argue that polygamous marriages provide more role models for children who can positively affect their development. According to them, polygamous relationships offer more warmth and affection for children than monogamous relationships do.  

Was this page helpful?
7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Polygamy. 2020

  2. Bauch CT, McElreath R. Disease dynamics and costly punishment can foster socially imposed monogamy. Nature Communications. 2016;7(1):11219.

  3. Zeitzen MK. Polygamy(Polygyny, polyandry). In: The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology. American Cancer Society; 2018:1-2.

  4. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Polygamy Remains Common and Mostly Legal In West Africa. January 2019

  5. ScienceDaily. Often decried, polygyny may sometimes have advantages. October 29, 2015

  6. Shepard LD. The impact of polygamy on women’s mental health: a systematic review. Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences. 2013;22(1):47-62.

  7. Elbedour S, Onwuegbuzie AJ, Caridine C, Abu-Saad H. The Effect of Polygamous Marital Structure on Behavioral, Emotional, and Academic Adjustment in Children: A Comprehensive Review of the Literature Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review. 2002;5(4):255-271.