Polygamy is the term used to describe a marriage between at least three people. Polygamy contrasts with monogamy, which is a marriage between only two people. While monogamy is the standard approach to marriage in Europe and the Americas, polygamy is common in much of Africa and the Middle East, and is also seen in parts of Southeast Asia. Ultimately, however, according to Pew Research released in 2020, "only about 2% of the global population lives in polygamous households."
The morality and societal worth of polygamy are fiercely debated. Westerners who promote polygamy on religious grounds (typically fringe-sect Mormons) often maintain that households with more parental contributors can create a richer and more stable family life for their children. However, opponents argue that polygamy is exploitative and founded upon the mistaken belief that women are inherently less worthy than men—and that those who promote polygamy tend to be those most likely to benefit from perpetuating said belief.
Polygamy-related terms and definitions
Polygamy is the general, gender-neutral term for any marriage between three or more people. Polygyny is a specific term used to describe a marriage that includes one husband and at least two wives. This is by far the most common (and the most frequently legal) form of polygamy. Polyandry is a specific term used to describe marriages between one wife and at least two husbands.
Group marriage is blanket term for marriages that include multiple husbands as well as multiple wives. Polyamory is the practice of having multiple romantic relationships, with all parties having full knowledge and granting full consent. Not related to marriage. Polygeny is the (outdated) theory that humankind's different races evolved from different sets of ancestors. This term is unrelated to polygamy but is occasionally confused with "polygyny", so it is included here for the sake of clarity.
Religious views on polygamy
Buddhists regard marriage as a secular affair rather than a sacrament. As such, each Buddhist country has its own stance on polygamy. For example, Thailand legally recognized polygamy in 1955, whereas Myanmar outlawed polygyny in 2015.
In Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church condemns polygamy, as do most protestant churches. However, the Lutheran Church accepts some polygamists and the Anglican Communion ruled in 1988 that polygamy was permissible in some circumstances.
This subsect of Christianity is known for its historically atypical stance on polygamy. In the United States, the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Mormons practiced polygamy, which it called "plural marriage", from 1847 to 1890. The U.S. government made polygamy illegal in 1862, largely in response to the LDS Church. The church, realizing that support for polygamy was likey preventing Utah's statehood, outlawed the practice in 1890 and church founder Joseph Smith disavowed the practice in 1904. Some small Mormon groups that split from the LDS Church still practice polygamy, as do a few members of society at large, but these unions are not legally registered or recognized.
Hindu law allows polygamy within certain parameters, though the application varies from one Hindu country to another. 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.
Islam is the only major religion whose sacred texts arguably endorse polygamy. Verse 3 of Surah 4 An-Nisa (Women) declares that a man may marry up to four women under specific (and debated) circumstances. In observance of this text, many Muslim countries allow a man to have up to four wives. However, many also require the man to state whether he plans to be monogamous or polygamous as part of the marriage agreement with his first wife, and if she disallows it, he cannot marry another wife while married to her. Also, polyandry, in which a wife has multiple husbands, is still strictly prohibited.
Muslim acceptance of polygyny is illustrated by the fact that polygamy is most common in the Middle East and North/Central Africa, the regions of the world that are home to the highest concentrations of Muslims, and illegal in most other regions. Furthermore, several countries recognize polygamous marriages between Muslims, but not between practitioners of other religions.
Many prominent Jewish leaders, including Abraham, David, and Jacob, are described in the Torah as having polygamous/plural marriages. However, like all but a few contemporary Christians (whose Old Testament mirrors the Torah), modern Jews have disavowed the practice.
Legality and recognition of polygamy around the world
The legal status of polygamy varies from country to country, with each nation either outlawing, accepting, or encouraging polygamy. In those countries that accept or encourage polygamy, polygyny is most common. In countries where only monogamous marriage is legally valid, de facto polygamy is typically allowed as long as adultery is not illegal. In regions such as these, in which polygamy is outlawed but tolerated, there is no legal recognition for additional spouses after the first.
Polygamy is illegal and criminalized in every country in North and South America, including all 50 U.S. states. However, in February 2020, the Utah House and Senate reduced the punishment for consensual polygamy, which had previously been classified as a felony, to roughly equivalent to a traffic ticket.
With the exception of the Solomon Islands, polygamous marriages are not recognized in Europe and Oceania. In India, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore, the governments recognize polygamous marriages, but only for Muslims. 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 did not result in legislative changes.
In some African countries, polygamy is illegal under civil law but still allowed through customary law, in which acts that have traditionally been accepted by a particular culture are considered legally permissible. This arguably confusing loophole results in two types of marriages: "civil" marriages and "customary" or "religious" marriages, and enables countries such as Liberia, Malawi, and Sierra Leone to allow and even support polygamous marriages without officially recognizing them.
Another unusual loophole is that many Muslim countries will recognize polygamous marriages as long as the husband, before marrying his first wife, informs her that he intends to add additional future wives and she consents. If the first wife does not consent, the husband is not allowed to marry any additional wives as long as he is married to her.
Some countries that have outlawed polygamy may still recognize polygamous marriages from other countries. For example, Sweden recognizes polygamous marriages performed abroad. Switzerland outlawed polygamy, but polygamous marriage conducted in another country is handled on a case-by-case basis. Australia recognizes polygamous marriages formed in other countries only under certain circumstances.