Polygamy is the practice of having more than one spouse at the same time. Polygyny is when a man is married to multiple wives at a time, and polyandry refers to when a woman is married to multiple husbands. If a marriage has multiple husbands and wives, it can be referred to as a group marriage.
In contrast to polygamy is monogamy, which is a marriage consisting of only two spouses.
Religious Views on Polygamy
Religions have differing views on marriage and polygamy. For example, because Buddhism does not regard marriage as a sacrament and only a secular affair, forms of marriage vary by country. For example, Thailand legally recognized polygamy in 1955, and Myanmar outlawed polygyny in 2015.
In Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church condemns polygamy. The Lutheran Church accepts some polygamists. The Anglican Communion ruled that polygamy was permissible in certain circumstances in 1988.
In Islam, a Muslim man may have more than one wife at the same time, up to four wives, according to Islamic marital jurisprudence.
Hinduism allows polygamy with circumstances. For example, traditional Hindu law allowed polygamy if the first wife could not bear a son. Additionally, Balinese Hinduism allows for sanctioned and unrestricted polygamy, but the marriage is regulated by adat or traditional customs.
In the United States, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Mormons practiced polygamy from 1847 to 1857. The U.S. government made polygamy illegal in response to the LDS Church, and the church outlawed the practice in 1890. Some small groups that split from the LDS Church still practice polygamy.
Legality of Polygamy Around the World
Around the world, the legal status of polygamy varies. Societies either outlaw, accept or encourage polygamy.
In those countries that accept or encourage polygamy, polygyny is most common. In countries where marriage is legally monogamous, de facto polygamy is allowed if adultery is not illegal. In this case, there would be no legal recognition for non-official “spouses.”
In every country in North America and South America, polygamy is illegal, and practice is criminalized. In the United States, polygamy is illegal in all 50 states; however, in February 2020, the Utah House and Senate reduced punishment for polygamy to the status of a traffic ticket.
All of Europe and Oceania, except for the Solomon Islands, do not recognize polygamist marriages. In Australia, polygamous marriage is outlawed, but polygamous relationships are common within some indigenous Australian communities.
In Indonesia, polygamy is legal in some areas, such as in Bali, Papua, and West Papua. Balinese Hinduism allows for polygamy, which has been practiced for centuries by the Balinese and Papuans. Protests to outlaw polygamy and polygamous marriages occurred in 2008 in Indonesia, but no action has happened.
Some countries that have outlawed polygamy may recognize polygamous marriages from other countries. For example, Sweden recognizes polygamous marriage performed abroad. Switzerland outlawed polygamy, but polygamous marriage conducted in another country is handled on a case-by-case basis. Polygamous marriages entered into abroad in Australia are recognized for limited purposes only.