13 May 2013

How Different Is Polygamy?

Key parts of the institution of polygamous marriage are far less distant from the mainstream American practice than it was sixty years ago in the 1950s, although others, commonly coinciding with polygamy in practice, despite not being part of its definition, were more common then.

In particular, the rise of non-marital parenting and serial monogamy has created an environment where it is far less unusual for a man to have children with multiple woman who are simultaneous alive and simutaneously have meaningful coparenting relationships with him, just live multiple polygamous wives. We owe some of that legacy to Republican Ronald Regan whose ushing in of "no fault" divorce to California during his tenure as Governor jump started this trend.


Polygamy is the only common form of marriage that isn't legal somewhere in the United States, that is fairly widespread elsewhere. A large percentage of all cultures known contemporary have had polygamous marriages. It is legal in fifty country, mostly as a result of Islam, but also reflecting a number of animist cultures of Africa, and was practiced in much of East Asia as recently as the 1920s and by illegally the main Mormon denomination in the United States as recently as 125 years ago.

Today, in the U.S., polygamy is practiced on an underground basis by two small minority branches of of fundamentalist Mormons, one until recently centered around Warren Jeffs in Hinsdale, Arizona, and other group of several fundamentalist Mormon families living lives more integrated into mainstream Mormon culture and exemplified by the TLC television reality series Sister Wives that commenced in 2011 and related book about the same family, Becoming Sister Wives (2012).

Polygamy is also practiced in the United States, again, without legal recognition and mostly underground by some Muslims, mostly immigrants and diplomatic officials, and by a small remnant of people mostly inspired by Robert A. Heinlein who are not religiously motivated per se, but often with "New Age" nuances, that combine elements of movements that were vital in the 1960s including the sexual revolution, co-housing, communes and cooperative organization, and so on.

Polygamy is obviously not part of the American mainstream and has even less legal recognition that same sex marriages which are legal in eleven states (and many countries) and have partial legal recognition as same sex civil unions or domestic partnerships in many more jurisdictions.

New Norms: Serial Monogamy and Non-Marital Parenting v. Polygamy

The 1950s was a time period when the share of men who had children with only one woman who was currently living was near an all time peak.

Even before then, the alternative of having a wife and some illegitimate bastard children was mostly restricted to military veterans of foreign wars, who could usually simply ignore their bastards entirely, and members of the upper classes who might indulge their bastard children in a genuine but an inferior relationship if the mother was single at the time the child was born (an affair with a married woman would leave her husband chuckolded with no realistic way of proving paternity).

Indeed, in cultures that allowed polygamy, but did not insist on the principle that all of the wives were equal in status (e.g. in the case of Asian concubines) unlike fundamentalist Mormons and all Muslims, do at least in principle, the children of secondary wives and European bastard children were very much on the same footing.  Indeed, the variation in the nature of polygamy rights between different version of the institution, like the question of equality v. primary and secondary wives, is a key factor that makes it hard to institutionalize legally in the way that marriage between one man and one man, or one woman and one woman has been institutionalized.

But, in the early 21st century, the number of men who have been married to multiple women who are simultaneously still alive and the number of men who have children from multilple women who are simultaneously still alive (two groups that don't fully overlap) is hugely greater as are the number of children who share a household with unrelated stepsiblings who both have other parents still living.

Parents who have children outside marriage are particularly likely to have children with half-siblings.

Unlike Japan or many Muslim countries, children of a terminated marriage or non-marital relationships that have ended often have significant ongoing relationships with both of their parents, as well as many or all of their siblings even if those siblings do not share both parents.  And, the existence of these ongoing relationships with both parents, at least in principle starting from an equal footing for each parent, generally means that their parents are required by necessity to have a significant co-parenting relationship with each other even if their husband-wife or lovers bond has ended.  This is quite similar to the relationship of a disfavored early wife to a husband who has taken a new wife in a polygamous marriage.  Indeed, it is surprising common for "ex's", particularly those who were never married, to have some level of intimate physical relationship even after they are separated.

While it isn't true polygamous, this co-parenting relationship is something of a species of ongoing secondary marriage that prevailing legal norms to not allow to be dissolved except for abuse or neglect or by death, which is quite rare.  It has both financial and interpersonal components and prevailing norms in the early 21st century often call for this relationship to be not just civil but mildly friendly.

The relationships of a man who has multiple living mothers of his children alive at the same time differs more in degree than in kind from that of a polygamist with his multiple wives, and the number of wives a monogamist mainstream American culture man will have in his life doesn't differ all that greatly from the number that a typical member of a polygamist culture will have in a lifetime.

As a dominant culture, polygamy has the problem of creating a pool of unmarried men whose wives, statistically, have married polygamists, something that gross inequality of income and wealth (a rising trend) necessitates.  But, as a tiny minority culture, these excess men can marry outside their community and disappear.

Already, the need to handle the huge variety of different possible paternity arrangements and social circumstances have caused the law of co-parenting to become almost entirely divorced from the law of marriage.

Old Norms (For Non-Mormons): High Fertility

Among the various kinds of fundamental Mormons (and in 19th century among many more mainstream Mormons), among Muslims and among animists, polygamy almost always coincides with a commitment to maximizing the fertility of marriage women and a young age of first marriage.

The amount of genetic distance between half-siblings in modern polygamous families isn't that different from the distance between first cousins of non-incenstous couples in somewhat more inbred communities that have a long standing tradition of first cousin marriage.

In the late 1950s, at the peak of the Baby Boom, this pattern was widespread, as it was among almost all Americans before the Great Depression.  It remained common among all American Roman Catholics even later, although the fertility gap between native born Roman Catholics and native born, non-Mormon, non-Roman Catholics in the United States has narrowed greatly. 

The practice of marrying young and having many children relative to other Americans remains a central cultural distinction of most members of the largest Mormon denomination, especially in Utah and Idaho where Mormons make up the largest percentage of the overall population.  The prominenence of people like Mormon Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012, helped mainstream this idea and many prominent Republicans politicians have large families and have had multiple marriages.

It was not at all uncommon for Americans of the 1950s of all faiths, and Roman Catholics even later, to have large families with five or six children who lived past infancy, often with most of these children settling close to their parents home, marrying members of the same local religious community, and having many children themselves.  Like the many half-siblings of polygamous families, these extended families including many cousins who all shared exactly two grandparents with each other.

Also, while all polygamous families tend to have above average numbers of children, on average those with only two wives aren't quite so extreme in having a maximal number of children per woman as those with more wives. Polygamous families sometimes have four wives and more than sixteen children. But, a polygamous family with one husband, two wives married a number of years apart, and six or seven children at the end of their child bearing years (and fewer in the early days of their marriages), only two or three of which strongly overlap in age, would be considerably more typical.

While a man with six or seven children with some very close in age is unusual, this isn't outside the range of variation seen in monogamous families, especially in this modern era where multiple births (often fraternal) due to fertility treatments are common.

Old Norm: Large, Geographically Compact Extended Families

Of course, at the very early stage, almost all marriages among people in communities that allow polygamy start out as monogamous marriages (except in uncommon cases of simultaneous marriages of sisters to the same man), and almost all initially have no children (unlike the average marriage of a non-college graduate in the U.S. where the first child is born on average two years before the first marriage).

In the intermediate stage, when polygamous marriages have two or three wives and just a small number of young children, again, the family structure isn't that different from siblings who live in the same area together while coordinated by living parents who live in the area, a very common modern family configuration.

Polygamous families are often quite similar to close knit extended families in which at least one of the generations has had many children, but compressed into one or two generations, instead of two or three generations at once.  This is something that I and a lot of other Americans who grew up in very unexceptional families in the 1970s and 1980s are quite familiar with, and for many rural Roman Catholics (including some of my more distant relatives), it is the pattern they grew up in themselves.

At their later stages, when many children have been born to the polygamist man's multiple wives in a Sister Wives or Muslim polygamous marriage, the family structure isn't that different from that in a close knit extended family of siblings with large families themselves who continue to live close to each other (for example, managing a family business such as a farm or ranch together).  Each wife, in both cases, has her own household including her own children, which she has considerable freedom to manage in her own way.  

The children in these families, however they are related, share a common and pervasive religious upbringing, are very close to each other, are a cohesive force to be reckoned with as a clan at their local school and place of worship, and are often fairly bonded to the parents of their same generation relatives in other households. 

In  both cases, the households frequently cooperate financially and assist each other in times of need on matters from child care to shopping and elder care.  In traditional extended families, this is initially coordinated by the parents of the siblings with the "outlaws" eventually developing strong sibling-in-law relationships of their own, and in polygamous families coordinated by the sister wive's common husband.

It is also worth noting that while the polygamous families with the most wives naturally attract the most attention, that in communities that have polygamy, many marriages remain monogamous in fact and most polygamous families involve just two wives sharing a single husband who is spread far less thin than one with four wives like the Browns of the Sister Wives series or the largest number of wives that a man is permitted to have at one time according to  the Quaran (something complicated by the existence of divorce in both Mormon and Muslim polygamous marriage systems).

New Norm: Multiple Adults In A Household

The return of household servants like gardeners, maid and especially, babysitters, daycare centers and nannies, have taken roles similar to those taken by polygamous wives who cooperate by specializing in how they serve the household, for example, by having one stay at home mom care for all of the husband's children so the others can work, rather than hiring someone outside the family to do so.

Old Norms: Courtship and Expectations

All of the ethnographic accounts that I have read of Mormon polygamous families, and "traditional" Muslim families, whether or not they are polygamous, while rejecting a pure arranged marriage model, do feature relatively abbreviated and chaste courtships relative to mainstream American cultures (in which most husband and wives have lived together and been sexually intimate for many months or even years before marrying).  These shallow courtships are matched by an expectation that a deeper love will develop between husband and wife during the marriage while they are already actively in the process of trying to have children together.  Considerable importance is also attached, when feasible, to obtaining consent to a marriage from a father or father-substitute (such as a community religious leader) when a father is not available, and to seeing each marriage as something that involves the entire extended family (including existing wives), even if this consultation requirement is not necessarily absolute.

While this is very rare today, and is gradually fading as a norm even among members of the largest Mormon denomination and more assimilated Muslims in Western countries, it is an attitude still present in many immigrant families from certain cultures and wasn't that different from the pattern of many of my relatives in my grandparents and great-grandparents generation.

Not As Different As You Might Think: Genetic Relatedness Of Same Generation Children

While half-siblings are obviously more closely related to each other than first cousins in a large extended family, this is less true relative to peer polygamous societies worldwide than one might expect.  As a nation of recent and highly mobile immigrants, husbands and wives of all kinds in the United States tend to be less inbred than people in communities in their homelands.

The close genetic relationship between half-siblings in a polygamous marriage is somewhat offeset by the reduced level of inbreeding relative to Muslims and Hindus and Jews and some Roman Catholics with many generations of monogamous large families and little geographic mobility because multiple generations of widely practiced first cousin (and even second or third cousin) marriages have left the average non-incestuously related spouses less distantly related to each other than in some polygamous Mormon communities in North America.  For example, cousins in a monogamous extended family in highly inbred Saudia Arabia or Iceland may be more closely related genetically than half-siblings in a typical polygamous Mormon family.


* In all but a handful of these cultures, all polygamous marriages or almost all polygamous marraiges are polygynous (i.e. consisting of one man and multiple women).  

 "[T]he much rarer practice of polyandry is the form of marriage in which one woman has two or more husbands at the same time, usually among brothers or males of the same family."  The historically attested examples tend to involve circumstances where a society faces of short term gender imbalances and/or severe resource scarcity.  In practice, however, it isn't terribly uncommon in contemporary African-American communities in the United States (and to an increasing but lesser extent, working class white and Hispanic communities) for a woman to have children from multiple men, sometimes the men's only children, and to have meaningful ongoing relationships with more than one of these men at once.  Of course, in these cases, none of the men, or only one of the men at a time, is married to the woman.  Audience responses to the cozy, almost fraternally polyandrous love triangle of the Vampire Diaries television series based on the books by L.J. Smith suggest that the concept, while generating a bit of frission isn't terribly repugnant to mainstream Americans. 

I am not aware of any contemporary or historical cultures that have recognized group marriage (i.e. multiple wives and multiple husbands in a single marriage), a concept explored in fiction most notably by Robert A. Heinlein, e.g. Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and in the recent cable television Battlestar Galactica spin-off mini-series Caprica (2010). 

This post follows the commonly used plain English sense of polygamy as equivalent with polygyny to the exclusion of polyandry and group marriage.

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