In the state of nature, human beings were generally polygamous, as are most animal species. The few animal species that are monogamous include the emperor penguin, the prairie vole, and the red-backed salamander. The trematode Schistosoma mansoni, which causes schistosomiasis, is monogamous in its female-male pairings inside the human body. Can you feel the love blossoming inside you?
Polygyny and polyandry
Historically, most cultures that permitted polygamy permitted polygyny (a man taking two or more wives) rather than polyandry (a woman taking two or more husbands). In the Gallic War, Julius Caesar claims that, among ancient Britons, ‘ten and even twelve men have wives in common’, particularly brothers, he says, or father and sons—which to me sounds more like group marriage than polyandry proper.
Polyandry is typically tied to scarcity of land and resources, as, for example, in certain parts of the Himalayas, and serves to limit population growth. If it involves several brothers married to one wife (fraternal polyandry), it also preserves the family’s land from division. In Europe, this was generally achieved through the feudal rule of primogeniture (‘first born’), by which the eldest legitimate son inherited the entire estate of both his parents. Primogeniture has antecedents in the Bible, with, for example, Esau selling his ‘birthright’ to his younger brother Jacob.
Today, most countries that permit polygamy—invariably in the form of polygyny—are countries with a Muslim majority or sizeable Muslim minority. In some countries, such as India, polygamy is legal only for Muslims. In other countries, such as Russia and South Africa, it is illegal but not criminalized.
Under Islamic marital jurisprudence, a man can take up to four wives, so long as he treats them all equally. While Islam permits polygyny, it does not require or impose it: marriage can only occur by mutual consent, and a bride can stipulate that her husband-to-be cannot take a second wife. Monogamy is by far the norm in Muslim societies, as most men cannot afford to maintain more than one family, and many of those who can would rather do without the trouble.
Polygamy is illegal and criminalized across Europe and the Americas, in China, Australia, and other countries. Even so, there are many instances of polygamy in the West, especially within immigrant communities and certain religious groups such as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS Church) and other Mormon fundamentalists.
The pros and cons of polygamy
A man who takes more than one wife satisfies some of his sexual urges, signals his high social status, and generally feels better about himself. His many children supply him with a ready source of labour, and the means, through arranged marriages, to forge multiple social, economic, and political alliances. Polygyny may be costly, but in the long term can make a rich man even richer.
Even in monogamous societies, powerful men often establish long-term sexual relationships with women other than their wives (concubinage), although in this case the junior partners and the children born to them do not enjoy the same legal protections as the ‘legitimate’ wife and children. In some cases, a man might get divorced to marry a much younger woman (serial monogamy), thereby monopolizing the reproductive lifespan of more than one woman without suffering the stigma of polygamy. Divorce has become so common in part because people are living for much longer, whereas in the past death would have done the job.
Polygyny might even benefit the women involved, who may come to enjoy one another’s company and share in the burdens of housekeeping and childrearing. Younger wives may add to the status of the first wife, while subtracting from her workload. In times of war, with high male absenteeism and mortality, polygyny ensures that every woman can find a husband, thereby supporting population growth or replenishment.
Polygyny also has many cons, particularly when seen through a modern, western lens. First and foremost, polygyny sanctions and perpetuates gender inequality, with co-wives officially and patently subordinated to their husband. Women in polygynous unions tend to marry at a younger age, into a household that breeds jealousy, competition, and conflict. Although the husband ought in principle to treat his co-wives equally, in practice he is likely to favour one over the others, most probably the youngest, most recent one. Tensions may be reduced by establishing a clear hierarchy among the co-wives, or if the co-wives are sisters (sororal polygyny), or if they each have their own home (hut polygyny).
While polygyny may benefit the men involved, it denies wives to other men, especially young, low-status men. These frustrated men, who have little to lose, are more likely to turn to crime, including sexual violence.
Polygyny may also be disadvantageous for the offspring, who receive only a small share of their father’s attentions, especially if he is distracted by his latest wife, or busy amassing resources for his next one. But on the other hand, they do share in the genes, outlook, and expertise of an alpha male.
The rise of monogamy
In the West, we are taught from a young age that true love is the love of just one person, who can, in turn, answer all our needs: the princess awaits her prince, and, once they are united, they live happily ever after. But according to genetic studies, it is only very recently, about 10,000 years ago, that monogamy became prevalent, let alone universal or near-universal as it is today. Single unions may have developed hand-in-hand with sedentary agriculture, helping to preserve land and property within the same narrow kin group.
Polygamy may enable a man to sire more offspring, but monogamy can, in certain circumstances, represent a more successful overall reproductive strategy. For example, by guarding a single female, a male can ensure that the female’s offspring are also his, and prevent the infants from being killed by male rivals intent on returning the female to fertility. Compared to the young of other species, children are very dependent, and for much longer, and bi-parental care makes them more likely to reach reproductive maturity. Without bi-parental care, human beings may never have evolved the large and hungry brains that have led to democracy, space exploration, and the Daily Mail.
The Bible creation story presents an essentially monogamous ethos. In the Book of Genesis, God creates Eve from one of Adam’s ribs or sides. Upon seeing Eve for the first time, Adam says: ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh… Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.’ At the same time, there are several instances of polygamy in the Old Testament: Moses had two wives, Abraham three, Jacob four, David at least 18, and Solomon 700. God knows how he found the time to write so much.
According to the Book of Deuteronomy, which forms part of the Old Testament, a man must bequeath his property to his first-born son, even if he hates that son’s mother and loves another wife. In a letter to the Saxon Chancellor Gregor Brück, Martin Luther confides that he cannot ‘forbid a man to marry several wives, for it does not contradict scripture.’ But no such qualms for St Paul: in his First Epistle to Timothy, he declares that ‘A bishop must be blameless, the husband of one wife…’ As a result, the Roman Catholic Church has long condemned polygamy, arguing, albeit tautologically, that conjugal love must be undivided.
Polyamory: the return of polygamy
With the Church in decline, so is monogamy, with divorce rates peaking at about 50% in the US and as high as 70% in Belgium. Meanwhile, polygamy is making a comeback in the form of polyamory. The word polyamory (‘many loves’) only entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006: it can be defined as the philosophy or state of being romantically involved with more than one person at the same time, with the knowledge and consent of all parties involved. Polyamory has long been recognized as an alternative lifestyle in the gay subculture, and is becoming more and more mainstream, driven by feminism and gay emancipation, and the fragmentation of families and communities.
Unlike polygamy, which usually amounts to polygyny, polyamory is not culturally codified, and can take any number of forms: triads, quads, maybe one couple with another, and so on. Polyfidelity refers to a closed polyamorous relationship in which the parties agree to restrict themselves to one another, rather than take outside lovers. In some cases, there may be a primary couple with one or more secondary partners who may be more distant or occasional, although not necessarily less loved. In other cases, one partner may have, or want, outside relationships, while the other may be content with just the primary relationship. Importantly, polyamory, unlike polygyny, does not in principle discriminate between men and women.
Polyamory is less limiting than monogamy, allowing for rewarding relationships with more than one person, without the need to abandon one relationship for another, or forego potentially rewarding relationships. It recognizes that some people’s relational needs are best met by more than one person, and, conversely, relieves the pressure of having to meet all of another person’s needs. By creating more space around a relationship, it can breathe new love and new life into the relationship.
Because polyamory is non-excusive, existing relationships and friendships are less likely to be abandoned in favour of a single person, leading to a larger and stronger social network with more resources, skills, and perspectives to draw upon. Unlike with serial monogamy, there is less incentive to write off one relationship—and, by extension, a part of one’s history—simply because a more exciting or convenient one has come along. While some people see their polyamory as an identity or orientation, others see it more in terms of an ethical alternative to infidelity.
The drawbacks of polyamory remain substantial. Given the emphasis on monogamy, and the stigma of polygamy and polyamory, it may be difficult to find people, or the right people, with whom to conduct polyamorous relationships.
The vast majority of people are inclined (perhaps naturally so?) to possessiveness and jealousy: the princess does not await the prince, but her prince. A new relationship is full of enthusiasm and excitement, which can be hard on an existing partner who has not been made to feel that he or she is not expendable or interchangeable. Jealousy can also pose a particular problem if only one half of a couple is polyamorous, while the other half merely tolerates, rather than embraces, it.
Polyamory demands time, energy, security, self-knowledge, emotional intelligence, and communication skills from all parties involved. Notwithstanding the stigma and lack of legal recognition, things can get pretty complicated, which can undermine relationships and the very viability of the project.
So what future for monogamy and polyamory? What future for love? Please post your thoughts in the comments section.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.