The Rise and Fall of Monogamy
What future for monogamy and polyamory?
Posted April 19, 2017
[Article revised on 25 April 2020.]
In the state of nature, people were generally polygamous, as are most animals.
With many animals, the male leaves the female soon after mating and long before any offspring are born. A male bear will kill and eat any bear cub that it encounters, even if it happens to be his own.
On the other hand, over 90 per cent of avian species are socially monogamous, as are the emperor penguin, the prairie vole, and the red-backed salamander.
The parasitic flatworm Schistosoma mansoni, one of the major agents of the disease schistosomiasis (bilharzia), is monogamous in its male-female pairings within the human body, suggesting that monogamy is not necessarily more sophisticated, or ‘higher order’, than polygamy. 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 Cæsar claimed that, among ancient Britons, ‘ten and even twelve men have wives in common’, particularly brothers, or fathers 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 the one wife (fraternal polyandry), it also protects the family’s land from division.
In Europe, this was generally achieved through the feudal rule of primogeniture (‘first born’), still practised among the British aristocracy, by which the eldest legitimate son inherits the entire estate (or almost) of both his parents. Primogeniture has antecedents in the Bible, with, most notably, 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 others, 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 it is true that Islam permits polygyny, it does not require or impose it: marriage can only occur by mutual consent, and a bride is able to stipulate that her husband-to-be is not to 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 could would rather not. That said, polygyny remains very common across much of West Africa.
Polygamy is illegal and criminalized across Europe and the Americas, as well as 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
What are the pros and cons of polygamy (or polygyny)? A man who takes more than one wife satisfies more of his sexual appetites, signals 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 create multiple, reliable, and durable social, economic, and political alliances. Polygyny may be costly, but in the long term it can make a rich man richer still.
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 their children born to them do not enjoy the same legal protections as the ‘legitimate’ wife and children.
Louis XIV of France, the Sun King, had a great number of mistresses, both official and unofficial. His chief mistress at any one time carried the title of maîtresse-en-titre, and the most celebrated one, Françoise-Athénaïs, Marquise de Montespan, bore him no fewer than seven 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 social stigma of polygamy.
If divorce has become so common, it is in part because people are living for much longer, whereas in the past death would have done the job of divorce. ‘Till death do us part’ means a great deal more today than it ever did.
Polygyny might even benefit the women involved, who may come to enjoy one another’s company, and share out the burdens of housekeeping and childrearing. Younger wives may add to the status and standing of the first wife, while at the same time subtracting from her responsibilities. In times of war, with high male absenteeism and mortality, polygyny supports population growth and replenishment by ensuring that every female can find a mate.
But of course polygyny also has drawbacks, especially when viewed 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 setup that, by its very nature, fosters jealousy, competition, and conflict, with instances of co-wives poisoning one another’s offspring in a bid to further their own.
Although the husband ought in principle to treat his co-wives equally, in practice he will almost inevitably favour one over the others—most likely 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 keep a separate household (hut polygyny).
While polygyny may benefit the men involved, it denies wives to other men, especially young, low-status men, who, like all men, tend to measure their success by their manhood, that is, by the twin parameters of social status and fertility.
With little to lose or look forward to, these frustrated men are much more likely to turn to crime and violence, including sexual violence and warmongering. It is perhaps telling that polygamy is practiced in almost all of the 20 most unstable countries on the Fragile States Index.
All this is only aggravated by the brideprice, a payment from the groom to the bride’s family. Brideprice is a frequent feature of polygynous unions and is intended to compensate the bride’s family for the loss of a pair of hands.
Divorce typically requires that the brideprice be returned, leaving many women with no choice but to remain in miserable or abusive marriages.
If polygynous unions are common, the resulting shortage of brides inflates the brideprice, raising the age at which young men can afford to marry while incentivizing families to hive off their daughters at the soonest opportunity, even at the cost of interrupting their education.
Brideprice is often paid in cows, leading some young men to resort to cattle raids and other forms of crime. Gang leaders and warlords attract new recruits with the promise of a bride or an offer to cover their brideprice.
Polygyny also tends to disadvantage the offspring. On the one hand, children in polygamous families share in the genes of an alpha male and stand to benefit from his protection, resources, influence, outlook, and expertise.
But on the other hand, their mothers are younger and less educated, and they receive a divided share of their father’s attention, which may be directed at his latest wife, or at amassing resources for his next one.
They are also at greater risk of violence from their kin group, particularly the extended family. Overall, the infant mortality in polygynous families is considerably higher than in monogamous families.
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 relatively recently, about 10,000 years ago, that monogamy began to prevail over polygamy in human populations. Monogamous unions may have developed in tandem with sedentary agriculture, helping to maintain land and property within the same narrow kin group.
Polygamy may enable a male to sire more offspring, but monogamy can, in certain circumstances, represent a more successful overall reproductive strategy. By sticking with the same female, a male is able to ensure that the female’s offspring are also his, and prevent this offspring from being killed by male rivals intent on returning the female to fertility (breastfeeding being a natural contraceptive).
Monogamy may also have more long-term advantages. Compared to the young of other species, human children are much more dependent, and for much longer. Bi-parental care makes (or made) them much 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 too is monogamy. Divorce rates have peaked at about 50% in the US, and as high as 70% in Belgium. Meanwhile, polygamy is making a comeback, but this time in a new and different form.
The term polyamory (‘many loves’) first entered into the Oxford English Dictionary as recently as 2006. Polyamory is the philosophy or state of being romantically involved with more than one person at a time, with the knowledge and consent of all parties involved. The focus is more on intimacy than on sex, and polyamorous relationships, while being romantic, need not be sexual.
Unlike polygamy, which usually amounts to polygyny, polyamory is not culturally codified, and can take any number of forms: triads, quartets, 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 are perhaps more distant or occasional, although this need not mean that they are any less loved.
In other cases, one partner may have, or wish for, outside relationships, while the other may be content with just the primary relationship. This particular form of polyamory, on the part of just one partner, need not involve any bisexuality.
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.
Polyamory acknowledges 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 tired, claustrophobic relationship, it can breathe new love and new life into the relationship.
Because polyamory is non-exclusive, existing relationships and friendships are less likely to be abandoned or neglected 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 an older relationship—and, by extension, a part of our history and who we are—simply because a more exciting or convenient one has come along.
Of course, polyamory also has drawbacks.
From a young age, we are taught that true love is the love of just one person, who, it is presumed, will be able to meet all our needs. The princess awaits her prince, and, when he finds her, they live happily ever after. There is no question of another prince, and still less of a squire or lady-in-waiting.
Given this state of affairs, and the stigma of polyamory, it may be hard to find people, or enough people, with whom to conduct polyamorous relationships. But this is more a criticism of society as it stands than of polyamory proper.
Assuming that there is a primary couple, it may be that polyamory is better suited to gay couples, since it is then much less likely to call upon bisexuality, which is not in everyone’s skill set.
The vast majority of people are prone to possessiveness and jealousy. The princess does not await the prince, but her prince. A new relationship is full of enthusiasm and excitement (or, in the jargon, ‘New Relationship Energy’), which can be tough on an existing partner.
Jealousy can be even more of an issue if only half of a primary couple is polyamorous, while the other half merely tolerates, rather than embraces, it.
Polyamory is elitist insofar as it demands time, energy, security, self-knowledge, emotional intelligence, and communication skills, and all of these in spades.
Notwithstanding the stigma and lack of legal recognition, things can get pretty complicated, which can undermine the quality of the relationships and the very viability of the enterprise.
Many people may not have the resources to manage much more than one relationship, and, of course, may not feel a need for more than one partner, if even that.
We may decide to reject polyamory for ourselves, but even if we do, there is much to gain from adopting a more fluid, flexible, and forbearing approach to relationships—and steal a bit more life from the jaws of death.
So what future for monogamy and polyamory? What future for love? Please post your thoughts in the comments section.
Neel Burton is author of For Better For Worse and other books.