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Sunday, June 3, 2012

How to make polygamy work for you

I’ve been perfectly happy with my single marriage to one person, but if you’re thinking multiple spouses would suit you better, Gregg Strauss, a graduate student at the University of Illinois has a couple of suggestions for how to do it right.

Traditional polygamy is almost always polygyny, or one man married to more than one woman. Putting aside considerations of gender roles, this system is inherently asymmetrical. Even if men and women are considered to be societal equals (which is obviously not the case in many sects that actually practice polygyny), the man will yield more power within the family than any of his wives. While they are expected to devote themselves entirely to him, he is expected to split his attention between all his wives.

This doesn’t just apply to sex but to the control of resources as well. Because the central spouse (usually a man) is by definition a member of each subunit of the family, he has broader power to make decisions for the entire family. The peripheral spouses have no authority to make decisions that affect the other peripheral spouses.

Happily, there are ways to engage in polygamy that don’t require one person to be subservient to another.

One option is polyfidelity. In this model, each spouse marries every other spouse. Thus, everyone is equally committed to everyone else and yields equal power within the family. To me, this sounds like a crazy idea. After all, how likely is it that several people would all wish to be married to each other? Leaving aside the fact that at least some of the members of this union would have to be bisexual, it seems implausible that all the people that one person would wish to share her life with would also feel the same way about each other.

Another possibility is the molecular model in which each person can have as many spouses as he or she likes, none of whom necessarily have any relationship with each other. Of course, the logistics of hopping from home to home and the placement of children could make this an organizational nightmare.

Obviously, this was only a thought experiment, considering that polygamy is illegal throughout most of the world. Nonetheless, I’m not buying it. While it’s true that in theory these two models could allow people to have multiple spouses without sacrificing any autonomy, I doubt it would work that way in practice. 

I’m sticking with my monogamous marriage, thanks.