What if we were legally free to embrace bigamy or polygamy?
How many of us would make a different choice – and why?
That old Groucho Marx comedy line points to a real fault line in contemporary discussion of marriage and sexuality. Legally, we can have only one spouse.
Monogamy—not to be confused with marital fidelity or having only one sex partner—is the law of the land in all 50 states.
The issue has gained a lot of currency in recent years.
The television show “Big Love” features a polygamous marriage involving a man and three women. It’s a smash hit. There are also religious sects that practice polygamy outside the law. Warren Jeffs, who was prosecuted for having sex with underage women, was an avowed polygamist who claimed religious justification for his marital arrangements.
The fact is, there was a time when polygamy was the norm, and in some countries, in Africa, and elsewhere, it still is. All of the great figures in the Old Testament—from David to Moses—had more than one wife.
The commandment “Do not covet another man’s wife” didn’t mean that your neighbor only had one wife. He most often didn’t. However, they were still “his.”
There’s also a distinction to be made between legal polygamy and de facto polygamy.
A man may have only one wife legally but may be living with more than one woman—and acting as a quasi-husband in each case. Even when men or women divorce, they may still retain significant relationships with their former spouse, especially if children are involved.
Usually these do not involve a continued sexual relationship, let alone a common household—but many times, for economic or other reasons, a strict separation of the old and new arrangements may not be possible.
However it is defined, though, most people assume that monogamy is in the interest of women, who naturally want their men to commit and remain exclusively faithful to them.
Men, the argument goes, are more oriented toward sex and less naturally inclined to sexual or even emotional fidelity. Accordingly, monogamy, and the legal and religious norms that reinforce it, is supposed to encourage male fidelity—in part, by raising the costs of infidelity, especially if children are involved.
Are these sexist assumptions?
It depends on who you talk to.
Many men bristle at the suggestion that they are less inclined to want a traditional marriage. Likewise, many women feel that monogamy, while providing a measure of security, has the potential to turn their relationship into a trap. There’s a reason that more and more women are divorcing their husbands.
Would legal authority for multiple marriage partners help or hurt? Who would benefit more, men or women?
Some research on the topic is providing a surprising answer. According to studies published in Psychology Today, on balance, monogamy benefits men more than women.
Polygamy, far from benefitting men by providing more legal sexual partners, could be a real boon to women, especially if the man is wealthy and in a position to support them. It not only provides security but the foundation for a community and even a close “sisterhood,” the very things that many women feel that a more traditional, “nuclear” marriage denies them.
Would changing the law actually expand the range of options for men and women both?
It could just create more straitjackets.
Many people are not remaining faithful in their marriages, and have more than one partner while still legally married to one person. Their affairs, once discovered, may lead to the dissolution of their marriage—but not necessarily, especially if both parties are “straying,” and each is conveniently looking the other way.
Even so, maybe in a funny way, the marriage double-standard has its place.
As humans we want to bond, and we sometimes develop the notion, romantic or not, that life-long marriage might “save” us—or at least give us someone to talk to and be with, especially when we’re old and infirm.
In theory, existing marriage law—for gay couples, as well as straight—might keep us focused on this cherished ideal.
The 21st century, like the one before it, is continuing to expand our notions of freedom, and in part through the internet, it’s spreading them worldwide.
Many of our “affective” ties and arrangements were born out of economic necessity, and that necessity is no longer so stark. As the pace of change accelerates, and our personal options expand, the once time-honored notion of “one flesh”—or at least one partner at a time—may no longer suit our psychic and libidinal needs.
Of course, there’s another type of arrangement I haven’t even mentioned: polyandry. In this case, it’s the women who have multiple mates, and they get do it on their own terms. Some women of means say they are doing that now, informally, but they don’t have children with different men and get the men to shoulder the burden of child care.
Apparently, that occurs in only one percent of all bird species.
Could women one day get there, too?
Would we even want to?
Lauren Taylor is a fashion model by day, and a homebody by night. I don’t feel luxurious, trendy, or glittery.I am rich in the intangible, less visible things. Keeping my body—and my mind—in shape is a must, though. I do yoga, journal and love to meditate, but I am far too lazy for cardio kick-boxing, and the gym, in general, makes me ill. Half the time, I don’t know why I am in a profession that so celebrates glamor and narrow range of beauty. I am good at it? It pays the bills. I travel and I meet people. And I write.
Editor: Elysha Anderson