Neel Burton M.D.

The Pros and Cons of Polygamy

Is there a link between polygamy and social unrest.

Posted January 4, 2018 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina

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  • Polygyny may 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.
  • Polygyny sanctions and perpetuates gender inequality, with co-wives officially and patently subordinated to their husband.

[Article updated 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.

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).

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.

Let’s talk about the rarer polyandry first. 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.

So 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.

argumentative essay about polygamy

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.

As I argue in my book, For Better For Worse , 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.

So draw your own conclusions.

See my related post, " Polyamory: A New Way of Loving ."

Dupanloup I et al. (2003): A recent shift from polygyny to monogamy in humans is suggested by the analysis of worldwide Y-chromosome diversity. J Mol Evol. 57(1):85–97.

Fragile-States Index 2017. The Fund for Peace; DHS; MICS.

Neel Burton M.D.

Neel Burton, M.D. , is a psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer who lives and teaches in Oxford, England.

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The Case Against Encouraging Polygamy

Why civil marriage should not encompass group unions

argumentative essay about polygamy

Now that same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states, writer Freddie de Boer wants its proponents to adopt a new focus. “ Where does the next advance come?” he asks in an essay at Politico. “Now that we’ve defined that love and devotion and family isn’t driven by gender alone, why should it be limited to just two individuals? The most natural advance next for marriage lies in legalized polygamy.”

The time is ripe, he argues, in part because there’s no longer a strategic reason to hold off. “To advocate for polygamy during the marriage equality fight may have seemed to confirm the socially conservative narrative, that gay marriage augured a wholesale collapse in traditional values,” he observes. “But times have changed; while work remains to be done, the immediate danger to marriage equality has passed.”

He proceeds to argue that “the case against polygamy is incredibly flimsy, almost entirely lacking in rational basis and animated by purely irrational fears and prejudice.” And he goes further, insisting that even if there are pragmatic reasons to deny state-sanction to polygamous marriage, we must extend it anyway because it is a human right. “We must insist that rights cannot be dismissed out of short-term interests of logistics and political pragmatism,” he says in the essay, adding in a followup blog post that “logistics are never sufficient reason to deny human rights.”

All three of those arguments strike me as wrongheaded.

I suspect that there are still strategic reasons for gay-marriage advocates to refrain from pushing for plural marriage; there are numerous rational arguments against state endorsement of group marriages; and having a polygamous marriage recognized and incentivized by the state is not a human right.

The law should, I think, allow groups of people to sleep in the same house, engage in group sex, and enter into contracts or religious arrangements of their liking. If a polyamorous family lived next door to me, I’d welcome them to the neighborhood and champion treating them with love and respect. But I think it would be imprudent to include their arrangement in civil marriage, with its incentivizing benefits, because if group marriage were to become normalized and spread beyond a tiny fringe the consequences for society could be significant and negative.

The Politics of Gay Marriage

​Gay marriage remains illegal in Australia, most of Asia, Africa, and Oceania, and parts of Europe and Mexico; the most liberal of those countries strike me as the most natural places for “the next advance” of marriage. I’d urge my fellow gay-marriage proponents to focus their efforts there––and legalizing group marriage in America right now would strengthen the hands of gay-marriage opponents abroad, confirming slippery-slope arguments that were raised and rejected here. If it ever made sense to avoid this fight as a matter of political strategy, it still does; if gay marriage was ever a more important priority​ than plural marriage, it remains so.

The Utilitarian Case Against Group Marriage

The strongest argument against state-sanctioned group marriage is how poorly it has worked out for women and low-status men in most times and places it has been tried.

Jonathan Rauch puts it succinctly :

There's an extensive literature on polygamy. Here’s a 2012 study, for example, that discovered “significantly higher levels of rape, kidnapping, murder, assault, robbery and fraud in polygynous cultures.” According to the research, “monogamy's main cultural evolutionary advantage over polygyny is the more egalitarian distribution of women, which reduces male competition and social problems.” ...monogamous marriage “results in significant improvements in child welfare, including lower rates of neglect, abuse, accidental death, homicide and intra-household conflict.” And: “by shifting male efforts from seeking wives to paternal investment, institutionalized monogamy increases long-term planning, economic productivity, savings and child investment.”

De Boer responds that “basic social science tells us that the very illegality and taboo that I’m trying to get rid of distorts the empirical picture. When a practice is illegal and taboo, that practice will necessarily be undertaken by people who tend towards extremist or outsider lifestyles. The fact that in America we associate polygamy with radical religious types is a function of that illegality and that taboo.”

But plural marriage is associated with those negative outcomes even in cultures where it is or was neither taboo nor illegal. Says De Boer, “The truth is that we don’t know what a wealthy Western society like America would look like with polygamous marriage because conservatism has prevented that society from existing.” He is right that we cannot be sure what the United States would look like if polygamy were legalized tomorrow, and perhaps America would be exceptional. It is also possible that the vast majority of plural marriages would occur within fundamentalist religious groups, as happened in the past; and that those plural marriages would be as coercive and destabilizing as has typically been true.

Either way, it is incomplete at best to assert that it is impossible to know what a polygamous society would look like “because conservatism has prevented that society from existing.” There are strong conservative arguments for risk-aversion and against experimenting with legalized group marriage, but there are equally strong technocratic, feminist, and progressive arguments against incentivizing polygamous marriage. If plural marriage is recognized by the state and practiced mostly in Berkeley and Williamsburg, those left-leaning arguments may well go unarticulated. I expect that they’ll be made forcefully, though, if the result of normalized plural marriage is, for example, a spike in the number of middle-aged religious conservatives who coerce their first wives into letting them marry teenagers summoned from fundamentalist Mormon sects or polygamous tribal societies abroad.

Numbers are the next-strongest argument against plural marriage. Here’s Rauch again:

...when a high-status man takes two wives (and one man taking many wives, or polygyny, is almost invariably the real-world pattern), a lower-status man gets no wife. If the high-status man takes three wives, two lower-status men get no wives... This competitive, zero-sum dynamic sets off a competition among high-status men to hoard marriage opportunities, which leaves lower-status men out in the cold. Those men, denied access to life's most stabilizing and civilizing institution, are unfairly disadvantaged and often turn to behaviors like crime and violence. The situation is not good for women, either, because it places them in competition with other wives and can reduce them all to satellites of the man.

Where plural marriage exists in America, this is already happening. As The New York Times reported in 2007, “ Over the last six years, hundreds of teenage boys have been expelled or felt compelled to leave the polygamous settlement that straddles Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah. Disobedience is usually the reason given for expulsion, but former sect members and state legal officials say the exodus of males—the expulsion of girls is rarer—also remedies a huge imbalance in the marriage market. Members of the sect believe that to reach eternal salvation, men are supposed to have at least three wives.”

On his blog, De Boer responds to concerns about gender imbalance in the marriage market. My responses follow:

1. We already have lots of sad horny angry dudes.

That is not an argument recommending a policy that might create orders of magnitude more.

2. Government has no business trying to regulate the sexual or romantic “marketplace” so that men feel like they have an adequate number of partners to choose from. Society has no legitimate interest in ensuring that you feel like you have a good chance of getting laid.

Getting laid, which does not require marriage, is beside the point. And the point isn’t to ensure that men “feel like” they have an adequate number of partners to choose from––it is to ensure that both genders do have at least some realistic opportunity to participate in the institution of marriage, the same cause that drove so many impassioned proponents of gay marriage to broaden the institution. I’d further argue that the government does have an interest in regulating the sexual marketplace in this sense: Nature has given humanity a world with roughly equal numbers of men and women, a highly beneficial reality, and if that parity were threatened by large numbers of parents choosing the gender of their children, the government would, I think, have an interest in outlawing that practice to avoid the terrible consequences that could result from a significant imbalance.

3. Traditional marriage has traditionally invested men with superior power, too.

In practice, the power imbalance in polygamous unions has arguably been both greater and more resistant to egalitarian trends. And in any marriage that grows beyond two people, a new problem presents itself: the possibility of a majority ganging up on a minority.

4. That polygamy often functions to have one man who dominates the household and lots of subservient wives is a function of patriarchy. It’s our duty to destroy patriarchy. If we undertake that effort, the benefits will accrue to traditional marriage, to polygamous marriage, and to the unmarried.

By this logic, why not destroy patriarchy and then, only once you’ve succeeded, recognize group marriage?

5. That the idea of one wife with many husbands is just assumed away is itself reflective of ingrained sexism.

Ingrained sexism exists and will shape how polygamy plays out if it spreads! And even apart from ingrained sexism, men may turn out to be more averse to sharing a wife with other men than women are to sharing a husband with other women.

6. The notion that polygamy will necessarily and perpetually default to one husband, many wives because of inequality in social and economic capital between men and women seems to me to be a matter of declaring defeat in the battle against sexism.

Even if longstanding patterns reversed and women began to take multiple men as spouses in much higher numbers than the reverse, there would still be a category of losers––low status women, in this case––who would be denied the opportunity to marry by the inegalitarian structure of polygamous society.

7. While a huge amount of work remains to be done, we’ve seen remarkable progress in closing the gap in social and economic capital between men and women in recent decades. There are a lot of relationships out there, right now, where the woman is the partner with more social capital, more education, a better income, and better prospects. It’s one of the most obvious changes in educated, elite society. Under those conditions, I can easily imagine one wife taking multiple husbands. And while we should never presume progress, I think we have a clear duty to spread that changing condition in the relative social and economic value of men and women throughout society. If we do, you’ll find this problem goes away.

Among highly educated, high-income Americans in polyamorous relationships––not marriages, just relationships––a woman taking on multiple boyfriends is still, as best I can tell, the least common arrangement. There is every reason to think that the pattern would hold if polygamous marriages became common in secular society.

Apart from any of these other objections, polygamist unions seem likely to prove less stable than two-person unions, which aren’t particularly stable themselves these days. If each individual in a polygamous union is no more or less likely to seek a divorce than a person in a monogamous union, the failure rate would still be at least a third higher, assuming a three-person grouping, and higher still for larger plural marriages. That isn’t sufficient reason to punish people for attempting polyamorous unions, but seems like a good reason to avoid encouraging them.

The option of plural marriage might also destabilize some two-person unions, with one spouse regarding the existing arrangement as “till death do us part,” only to be confronted with a spouse who, while averse to divorce, is pushing for a new member of the marriage. “Either she joins us,” a husband might say, “or I’m out.” It’s hard to say if changing norms would make that scenario more likely than it is now.

Then there are the logistical problems that plural marriage presents, which would seem to require altering core features and benefits that presently make up civil marriage. Mary Anne Case, a law professor at the University of Chicago, has pointed out that the legal institution is largely concerned with the "designation, without elaborate contracting, of a single other person third parties can look to in a variety of legal contexts.” Three-, four-, or five-person unions would require abandoning that aspect of marriage.

Americans can presently marry a foreign citizen and bring them here, after jumping through bureaucratic hoops, eventually sponsoring them for U.S. citizenship. Would the advent of plural marriage require that this practice be ended? Or would group marriages include the right to confer unlimited citizenships?

When I got married I was eligible to add my wife to my employer-sponsored health insurance. In a world of plural marriage, would this benefit of the institution end, or could I add as many people as I liked to my employer’s insurance plan?

If the parties to a plural marriage disagree about a medical decision that needs to be made on behalf of an unconscious spouse, who would get to decide the matter? Who would receive the Social Security survivor benefits if the patient died? These logistical matters add real costs to recognizing plural marriages––and they lessen the simplifying benefits that marriage confers on society. They also suggest that expanding the definition of civil marriage to encompass more than two parties is a far more radical, fundamental change than was recognizing unions of same-sex couples.

Plural Marriage Is Not a Human Right

Is the state denying a human right when it declines to recognize polygamous marriages? De Boer answers affirmatively, but does not explain what makes something a human right that must be recognized irrespective of its consequences. I could surmise a rationale if someone put life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness––or food, shelter, and medicine––into a category called human rights.

I cannot surmise the rationale for putting “equal treatment for polygamous unions” in that category. If De Boer objected, as many libertarians do, to the state putting a thumb on the scale and incentivizing marriage with benefits that are denied to the unmarried, to business partners, to spouses, and to non-romantic friends, I’d grant the coherence of his complaint; but as best I can tell, he’s fine with unequal treatment for the married and unmarried so long as the married include polygamists.

The closest he comes to a rationale is arguing that “consenting adults who all knowingly and willfully decide to enter into a joint marriage contract, free of coercion, should be permitted to do so, according to basic principles of personal liberty,” adding “the preeminence of the principle of consent is a just and pragmatic way to approach adult relationships in a world of multivariate and complex human desires.”

I agree that consenting adults who decide to enter contracts while free of coercion should be permitted to do so, but I disagree that the state is obligated to call these contracts “marriages,” to extend to the parties all benefits of civil marriage, and to rewrite those attributes of civil marriage that are inseparable from two-person unions. In declining to do so, the state does not deny anyone equal protection under the law.


There could be benefits to recognizing polygamous relationships. Casey E. Faucon, a fellow at the University of Wisconsin Law School, asserts that there are 150,000 polygamists now living in the U.S., and that many second and third polygamous wives “are left without any legal recognition or protection,” a situation that might be remedied were they brought into some sort of regulatory framework. She claims to have a set of regulatory rules that “ensure consent, prevent unequal bargaining power between the parties, and protect individual rights, all while addressing and respecting the religious beliefs that lead polygamists into these otherwise taboo marital arrangements.” Perhaps some formal recognition short of marriage would be salutary.

But the assertion that “the case against polygamy is incredibly flimsy, almost entirely lacking in rational basis and animated by purely irrational fears and prejudice” could not be more wrong. Adherents of that position are blind to the many rational, good-faith concerns about the normalization of polygamous unions, and deaf to the conservative logic behind special benefits for unions between a man and a woman, a man and a man, or a woman and a woman. There are empirical, cultural, and pragmatic reasons to incentivize civil marriages of that sort.

And if civil marriage’s benefits are extended to a practice as historically and potentially destabilizing as polygamous marriage, it will undermine the conservative case for conserving civil marriage and strengthen the libertarian case that the state should get out of the business of incentivizing any particular relationship structure.

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Essays on Polygamy

The importance of writing an essay on polygamy.

Writing an essay on polygamy is important for several reasons. Firstly, it allows for a deeper understanding of the practice and its cultural, religious, and historical significance. Polygamy has been a controversial topic for centuries, and by writing an essay on it, one can contribute to the ongoing discourse and shed light on its complexities. Additionally, writing about polygamy provides an opportunity to explore the ethical and legal implications of the practice, and to consider its impact on individuals and societies.

When writing an essay on polygamy, it is important to approach the topic with sensitivity and an open mind. It is crucial to consider diverse perspectives and to avoid making assumptions or passing judgment. Researching the history and cultural context of polygamy is essential, as is consulting a variety of sources to gain a well-rounded understanding of the topic. In addition, it is important to critically analyze the information and to present a balanced argument in the essay.

Furthermore, when writing about polygamy, it is important to consider the implications of the practice on gender equality, individual rights, and family dynamics. Addressing the ethical and legal aspects of polygamy is also important, as is discussing the potential impact on mental and emotional well-being. By thoroughly examining these aspects, one can provide a comprehensive and insightful analysis of the topic.

Writing an essay on polygamy is important for gaining a deeper understanding of the practice, its cultural and historical significance, and its ethical and legal implications. By approaching the topic with sensitivity, conducting thorough research, and considering diverse perspectives, one can contribute to the ongoing discourse on polygamy and promote a more nuanced understanding of the practice.

The history and cultural significance of polygamy in various societies Polygamy has a long history and has been practiced in various cultures around the world. In this essay, we will explore the cultural significance of polygamy in different societies, and how it has evolved over time.

The legal and ethical implications of polygamy Polygamy is a controversial practice that raises many legal and ethical questions. In this essay, we will discuss the legal and ethical implications of polygamy, including its impact on family law, human rights, and gender equality.

The impact of polygamy on women and children Polygamy can have a significant impact on the well-being of women and children in polygamous households. In this essay, we will explore the impact of polygamy on women's rights, mental health, and economic stability, as well as its effects on the development and well-being of children.

The role of religion in the practice of polygamy Religious beliefs and traditions often play a significant role in the practice of polygamy. In this essay, we will examine the role of religion in the practice of polygamy, including how different religious groups interpret and justify the practice.

The psychological and emotional dynamics of polygamous relationships Polygamous relationships can be complex and fraught with emotional and psychological challenges. In this essay, we will explore the psychological and emotional dynamics of polygamous relationships, including issues of jealousy, competition, and intimacy.

The economic implications of polygamy Polygamous households may face unique economic challenges and opportunities. In this essay, we will discuss the economic implications of polygamy, including the division of labor, financial resources, and inheritance rights.

The impact of polygamy on community and social structures Polygamy can have a significant impact on community and social structures. In this essay, we will explore how polygamy affects social dynamics, community cohesion, and gender roles within a society.

The portrayal of polygamy in popular culture and media Polygamy is often portrayed in popular culture and media, but these representations may not always accurately reflect the realities of polygamous relationships. In this essay, we will analyze the portrayal of polygamy in popular culture and media, and how it influences public perceptions of the practice.

The potential benefits and drawbacks of legalizing polygamy The legalization of polygamy is a contentious issue, with proponents and opponents arguing for its potential benefits and drawbacks. In this essay, we will explore the arguments for and against legalizing polygamy, and the potential implications for society.

The future of polygamy in a modern world As society continues to evolve, the practice of polygamy may also undergo changes. In this essay, we will speculate on the future of polygamy in a modern world, and how it may adapt to changing social, cultural, and legal norms.

Negative Outcomes of Polygamy in a Society

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argumentative essay about polygamy


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Love in the Time of Monogamy

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argumentative essay about polygamy

By James Ryerson

  • April 5, 2016

It’s hard to say how many people in the United States practice polygamy — estimates vary widely, from 20,000 to half a million — but it’s clear most of their fellow Americans disapprove. In a 2013 Gallup poll about morally controversial issues, a mere 14 percent of the public said they accepted polygamy (only adultery and cloning humans had lower approval rates). An earlier poll found two-thirds of the public felt the government had a right to outlaw the practice, which typically takes the form of a married man also living in a marriage-type relationship with other women. So don’t read too much into the popularity of TV shows like “Sister Wives” and “Big Love.” The country is not ready for plural marriage.

Certainly that was a bet Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. was willing to make last year. In his dissent in Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court case that recognized a right to same-sex marriage, he sought to capitalize on widespread discomfort with polygamy: “It is striking how much of the majority’s reasoning would apply with equal force to the claim of a fundamental right to plural marriage.” The majority had outlined a right to marriage that could not be constrained by historical definitions or legislative whim. But if there was nothing special, legally speaking, about the man-­woman aspect of traditional marriage, what was so special about the two-person aspect?

Roberts intended his argument as a reductio ad absurdum, assuming that defenders of same-sex marriage would be alarmed by the implication. While some rose to the bait — the same-sex marriage advocate Jonathan Rauch, for example, was quick to offer arguments for why polygamy was different — other progressive thinkers, like the political philosopher Elizabeth Brake, embraced the opportunity to explore novel possibilities for marriage reform. In the essay collection AFTER MARRIAGE: Rethinking Marital Relationships (Oxford University, paper, $29.95), edited by Brake, she and nine other philosophers consider what further consequences might be implied by the principles of the same-sex-marriage movement — ­including, notably, the “disestablishment of marriage itself.”

As traditionally understood, a liberal state lets individuals decide for themselves, whenever possible, how to live, and so it can’t justify its policies solely by appeal to controversial moral doctrines. Yet only such doctrines, progressives have argued, could justify limiting the benefits of marriage to male-female couples (or, in an earlier era, to single-race couples). Extending this logic, Brake suggests that the same principle forbids the state to limit the benefits of marriage to romantic-love dyads — which represent just another “controversial conception of the good.” Surely, she speculates, there are other legal arrangements, less exclusive and less burdened by their history than the institution of monogamous marriage, which could offer support to adult partners, children and caregivers. Contributors to her volume entertain some possibilities: relegating marriage to private contract; replacing marriage with a parenting agreement; modeling marriage on friendship instead of romantic unions; recognizing temporary marriages (those intended to last for only a set time); and allowing polygamy.

Not all the essays are so strenuously avant-garde. One of the more nuanced pieces, by the philosopher Peter de Marneffe, articulates a liberal position on polygamy that opposes its legalization but also its criminalization. The government, according to this view, may legitimately withhold the benefits of marriage from adults in polygamous relationships (on grounds that such relationships characteristically deprive children of material and emotional resources from their father), but may not prosecute them, as is currently possible in some states, for polygamous cohabitation (because this is private consensual sexual activity). Here, de Marneffe finds himself in agreement with the law professor Deborah L. Rhode. In ADULTERY: Infidelity and the Law (Harvard University, $28.95), Rhode concludes that “perhaps the most plausible solution” to the problem of polygamy is partial legalization: invalidating criminal laws against cohabitation but retaining the prohibition on multiple marriage licenses.

In the United States, polygamy is technically a form of adultery, since it involves sexual relations between a married person and someone who is not his or her legal spouse. Adultery remains illegal in 21 states. Rhode, though no fan of adultery, argues that it should not be prohibited by law, because such laws infringe on our constitutionally protected right to privacy — and have proved woefully ineffective, in any event, at protecting the institution of marriage. Laws criminalizing polygamous cohabitation have comparable flaws, she observes.

Rhode is sympathetic to efforts to get the government out of people’s bedrooms, and she even notes that polygamy sometimes offers benefits, and not just to the men involved: “Some Mormon women consider polygamy a solution to such difficulties as single motherhood, poverty, loneliness and work/family conflicts.” And among some African-American women, she reports, an arrangement known as “man sharing” is considered a route to family stability in communities where high rates of imprisonment and unemployment have created a shortage of potential husbands. But Rhode also cites evidence of practical problems with formally legalizing polygamy. After World War II, France, looking to increase its labor supply, allowed the immigration of polygamous families from Africa — only to encounter difficulties with coerced marriages and excessive demand for government benefits.

Aside from questioning the legal status of polygamy, you might also wonder about its biological status — whether it is a “natural” state of affairs for humans. In OUT OF EDEN: The Surprising Consequences of Polygamy (Oxford University, $29.95), the evolutionary psychologist David P. Barash tackles this issue. Surveying the anthropological, biological and psychological evidence, he argues that humans, like most mammals, are not built for monogamy. Evolutionarily speaking, polygamy was the “default setting for human intimacy,” and polygyny — an arrangement in which a man mates with a harem of wives — remains our biological inclination. Barash is aware that such a claim about human nature will sound retrograde. But the facts, he insists, are the facts.

Barash cites four major pieces of evidence. The first is that in polygynous species, males are generally larger than females, because of the need to compete for access to females. The greater the degree of polygyny, the larger the size difference. (Orangutans are quite polygynous, and the male is 25 to 50 percent larger than the female; gibbons are close to monogamous, and the body sizes of males and females are roughly equal.) The size difference of male and female human beings has suggested to biologists like E.O. Wilson that humans are “moderately polygynous” by nature.

Second, in polygynous species, males are more inclined than females toward violence and physical aggression — and Barash’s analysis finds that the ratio between men and women as perpetrators of violent crime is about 10 to 1 across every state in the United States and every country with available data. The third relevant fact is that in polygynous species, females become sexually and socially mature at a younger age than males do (which is also true of humans). And finally, there is the historical record: DNA retrieved from early human fossils, for example, reveals a disparity between a low diversity of Y chromosomes (which are inherited from fathers only) and a high diversity of mitochondrial DNA (which is inherited from mothers only), suggesting that a relatively few men contributed a relatively large fraction of genetic material.

Let’s assume Barash is right and humans are polygamous by nature. So what? To his credit, Barash does not argue that because polygamy is natural it is desirable. Nor does he imply that monogamy is a stifling social convention imposed on our free animal natures. On the contrary, he notes that monogamy has many advantages as a marital lifestyle (chiefly, it better promotes paternal love and devotion). Monogamy may not be natural, he explains, but “some of the best things we do aren’t those that ‘come naturally.’ ” The trouble is that doing those unnatural things — learning a second language as an adult, avoiding sugary foods — isn’t easy. If we want to live monogamously, we will be more successful, Barash suggests, if we are honest about the biological forces we are up against.

James Ryerson is a senior staff editor for The Times’s Op-Ed page.

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Monogamy Versus Polygamy Issue Coursework

The debate on monogamy and polygamy issue has been there for a time and these two are usually a point of reference for all that argue on both sides. The following two quotes have often drawn fierce debate on monogamy and polygamy:

And if you fear that you cannot act equitably towards orphans, marry such women as seem good to you, two and three and four; but if you fear that you will not do justice between them, then marry only one or what your right hands possess: this is more proper that you may not deviate from the right course. (Muhammad 4:3)

And they ask thee a decision about women. Say, Allah, makes known to you His decision concerning them, and that which is recited to you in the Book concerning orphans of the women to whom you do not give what is appointed for them while you are disinclined to marry them. (Muhammad 4:127)

Different Ulama have often taken both sides and in particular, Muhammad Abduh who supported the idea that monogamy was the true intent of the holy Quran. According to a report by Kamis, Muhammud Abduh’s argument was based on the following ideas. Verse 4:3 recommends that you only practice polygamy when you can do justice to the women but he felt that this kind of justice was very hard to practice. The verses support the polygamy idea mainly due to the issue of widows and orphaned children and by this fact he may not have seen the need for polygamy if there were no widows and orphans. A report by Kamis was quoted claiming that “polygamy is a deviation from normal marital relations and justified only in emergencies star’s social, such as war, provided no damage and tyranny” (Kamis 1). By looking at the effects of the social reality of polygamy in the community, Abduh must have interpreted the verses such that social values were protected. Probably he must have seen that polygamy was not necessary under normal circumstances. It may also be suggested that since Muhammud Abduh was an Islamic modernist he may have campaigned for a modern interpretation of the verses such that they made sense in modern times which favor monogamy more than polygamy.

Other Ulama advocates for polygamy based on interpretation of the same verses. They may be supporting the idea that polygamy would be a good chance to help the widows and the orphans in society. These cases could arise due to social factors such as war which often leaves the ratio between men and women unequal. The verses support polygamy to allow the men who have the capacity to take care of the orphans without being unfair to the widows. The verses allowed marriage to up to four wives. Others may have interpreted the verse as an advantage to protect the Islam community in terms of numbers and they may have seen political influences supporting the ban of polygamy as a threat to their population hence they felt the need to retain polygamy as indicated in the verses.

Muhammud Iqbal as a Leading Modernist

Muhammud Iqbal was one of the leading Islamic modernists. He advocated for a modern interpretation of Islam and Islamic law. He advocated for a balance between modern and traditional Islam and discouraged extremism. He was quoted suggesting that “Islam is a religion of moderation and the middle path as the best option It opted for the moderate approach instead of the extremist tendencies of the old period” (Amir 22). Iqbal’s thought was that Islamic religion should change with the change in time as the whole society was changing for example in medicine, science and all other aspects of society. He called for the interpretation of the Islamic law in a way that allowed embraced the changes in society with time so as to make sure that Islam religion remained relevant and practical in all aspects.

Reconstruction of Religious Thought

The book is actually a collection of Muhammud Iqbal’s teachings about Islam. The book expresses his thought of what he believed to be the modernization of Islam. He advocates for a modernized interpretation of Islamic law. The book also touches on religious knowledge, humanity and its interpretation, Islamic culture, understanding of prayer and the philosophy of revelation of religion. The book also looks at the basic principles of Islamic culture and framework and ends with an outlook on the reality of religion. Throughout the book, Muhammud Iqbal advocates for the reconstruction of religious thought as the title suggest in that due to the changes in society a better interpretation of the Islamic law in all aspects of life such as Islamic culture, philosophy understanding of religion and all other aspects was necessary so as to ensure that Islamic religion was able to handle the challenges of the society that came with changes due to modernization.

Iqbal believes in an extension of the right of interpretation beyond Ulama

Muhammud Iqbal was an Islamic modernist. One of his thoughts was the right of interpretation of Islamic law to be extended to other parties besides the Islam council Ulama. His idea was that there was the need to train and educate people whose role was to interpret the Islamic laws according to the changing times at the same time preserving the basic principles of Islam. Such people were not only to be deployed in courts and parliaments and lawyers but in all sectors of society such as banking. The Ulama was to have an advisory role over these interpreters in case they had problems with the interpretation and in this way, he thought that Islam would be incorporated into all sectors of the society as compared to the centralized interpretation of Ulama and Islam would never be overtaken with time (Iqbal 1; Amir 1). He thought that the challenges that came with global modernization could only be handled if the traditional settings such as the council of elders having the role of interpretation could be replaced with extended systems which would ensure Islamic culture was represented in all aspects of modern life.

Family law and Modernism

The Islamic family law is one of the basic fundamentals of Islam. The law holds dear to the Islam community and as such many kinds of forces that seem to threaten or influence the law are always faced with criticism and resistance. Islamic modernism calls for continual change in the interpretation of Islamic law to ensure Islam stays at par with the changing world and at the same time maintains the fundamental Islamic principles. The changing world usually presents new challenges to the family setting thus demanding new ways to overcome such challenges. A family setting may change from the tradition where women were usually housewives to a modern setting where they take roles such as supporting the family due to current challenges. How Islam addresses these new challenges in the family settings due to modernization may be taken as a reflection of the success or failure of Islamic modernism. A report by SIS claims that: “Our laws must, therefore, address the complexities and realities of modern life while accounting for the universal and eternal principles of justice and equality in Islam” (Sisters in Islam 1). This gives an example of how family law and modernism are intertwined such that the success of one automatically means the success of the other one (Javid 1).

Difference between Abduh and Rida in regards to their thought

Muhammud Abduh was a modernist who believed that Islam needed to integrate with the ever-changing global community. He discouraged the traditional extremists but rather advocated for knowledgeable Islamic leadership citing that God created man and gave him the gift of knowledge and education. He believed that Islam as a religion was to protect mankind from all forms of discrimination and empower him with human rights. He however advocated for the protection of the basic fundamental Islamic laws.

On the other hand Muhammud Rida though initially a modernist later became a conservatist. Rida’s thought was that Islamic religion and politics be integrated together and he advocated for unity among the Muslim community. This may have led to his being a conservatist since his thought may not have integrated well with the changing world at the time. Politics and religion could not have been merged and the idea of unity may not have worked well since different people had different thoughts and ideas and their interpretation of Islamic law could have differed.

Works Cited

Amir, Munir. Muhammad Iqbal’s Concept of Islam . Kyoto Bulletin of Islamic Area Studies, 2009. Web.

Iqbal, Javed. Iqbal’s Concept of Ijtihad . Qlcian , 2009. Web.

Javid, Iqbal. Modern Indian Muslims and Iqbal . Modern Indian Muslims and Iqbal, n.d. Web.

Kamis, Suna. P olygamy Sunna… Really? Amanah Sejahtera, 2010. Web.

Muhammad Speaks. Teachings of the Holy Qur’an on Polygamy . Muhammad Speaks, n.d. Web.

Sisters in Islam. Modern Islamic Family law . Sisters in Islam, 2009. Web.

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IvyPanda. (2022, June 18). Monogamy Versus Polygamy Issue.

"Monogamy Versus Polygamy Issue." IvyPanda , 18 June 2022,

IvyPanda . (2022) 'Monogamy Versus Polygamy Issue'. 18 June.

IvyPanda . 2022. "Monogamy Versus Polygamy Issue." June 18, 2022.

1. IvyPanda . "Monogamy Versus Polygamy Issue." June 18, 2022.


IvyPanda . "Monogamy Versus Polygamy Issue." June 18, 2022.

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Psychological impact of polygamous marriage on women and children: a systematic review and meta-analysis

Ismail shaiful bahari.

1 Department of Family Medicine, School of Medical Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Health Campus, 16150 Kubang Kerian, Kelantan Malaysia

Mohd Noor Norhayati

Nik hussain nik hazlina.

2 Women’s Health Development Unit, School of Medical Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Health Campus, Kubang Kerian, Kelantan Malaysia

Che Abd Aziz Mohamad Shahirul Aiman

Nik ahmad nik muhammad arif, associated data.

All data are available within the manuscript.

Over the last two decades, there has been significant growth in public, political, and academic awareness of polygamy. Polygamous families have distinct household problems, usually stemming from jealousy between co-wives over the husband’s affections and resources. This study aimed to ascertain the psychological impact of polygamous marriage on women and children worldwide.

A systematic search was performed in MEDLINE (PubMed), Scopus, CINAHL (EBSCOhost), Google Scholar, and ProQuest using search terms such as “marriage” and “polygamy.” Studies published from the inception of the respective databases until April 2021 were retrieved to assess their eligibility for inclusion in this study. The Joanna Briggs Institute Critical Appraisal Checklist was used for data extraction and the quality assessment of the included studies. The generic inverse variance and odds ratios with 95% confidence intervals (CI) were calculated using RevMan software.

There were 24 studies fulfilling the eligibility criteria, and 23 studies had a low risk of bias. The pooled meta-analysis showed women in polygamous marriages had a 2.25 (95% CI: 1.20, 4.20) higher chance of experiencing depression than in monogamous marriages. Children with polygamous parents had a significantly higher Global Severity Index with a mean difference of 0.21 (95% CI: 0.10, 0.33) than those with monogamous parents.


The psychological impact of polygamous marriage on women and children was found to be relatively higher than monogamous marriage. Awareness of the proper practices for polygamy should be strengthened so that its adverse effects can be minimized. The agencies involved in polygamous practices should broaden and enhance their understanding of the correct practice of polygamy.

Supplementary Information

The online version contains supplementary material available at 10.1186/s12884-021-04301-7.

Polygamy may create a complex family system involving the husband’s relationship and relations between subsequent wives and children [ 1 ]. Polygamous families have distinct household problems, usually stemming from jealousy between co-wives over the husband’s affections and resources [ 2 ]. In addition to studies documenting polygamy’s detrimental effects on wives’ health, researchers have identified polygamy as a risk factor for adverse child health outcomes [ 3 ].

Polygamy is defined as “a marital relationship involving multiple spouses” [ 4 ]. There are three types of polygamy: polygyny refers to “one husband [who] is married to two or more wives,” polyandry refers to “one wife married to two or more husbands,” and polygynandry refers to “a group marriage scenario in which two or more wives are simultaneously married to two or more husbands” [ 4 ]. Only 2% of the global population practices polygamy. Polygamy is most often found in West and Central Africa, which the highest was in Burkina Faso (36%) with widespread among people who practice folk religions (45%), Muslims (40%), and Christians (24%) [ 5 ].

A recent systematic review had confirmed that children from polygamous marriages experienced physical and emotional abuse associated with parental neglect and abuse [ 6 ]. A qualitative study on female children and young adults found that polygamous marriage formed an emotional abuse to the daughters since they have witnessed the mother’s severe pain of second marriage and ascribe the mother’s pain to it [ 7 ]. These abuses may be associated with more mental health problems, social problems, and lower academic achievement in children from polygamous marriages compared to monogamous marriages [ 8 ].

In a qualitative study of American Muslims of various ethnic backgrounds, women in polygamous relationships have reported being abused by their husbands or other wives [ 3 ]. The prevalence of emotional distress (86.8%), fearful feeling (17%), low self-esteem (58.4%), and loneliness (64.1%) have also been found higher among women in polygamous relationships compared to monogamous marriages with the prevalence of 17.9, 7.7, 7.7, and 12.8%, respectively in Bedouin-Arabs of the Negev region in Israel [ 9 ] In polygamous marriages, where the mother is the first wife, the environment at home is stressful, parental investment is low, and resources are diluted; however, studies on polygamy and associated fertility issues have been mixed [ 10 ].

Polygamous women are genuinely at risk of experiencing psychological and emotional distress. For example, one study found that women in polygamous marriages are at a higher risk of low self-esteem and depression than women in monogamous relationships and enjoy less marital satisfaction and more problematic mother-child relationships [ 11 ]. There were significant differences between women in polygamous and monogamous marriages. There was a higher prevalence of somatization, depression, anxiety, hostility, paranoid ideation, psychoticism, general symptom severity, positive symptoms total, and psychiatric disorder, as well as lower ratings of life and marital satisfaction, family functioning, and self-esteem among polygamous wives [ 12 ]. A recent study also demonstrated similar findings but showed no significant difference in women’s marital satisfaction between polygamous and monogamous marriages [ 13 ].

On the bright side, polygamy also demonstrated positive impacts. Childless wives are willing to have legal and valid polygamous marriages than the other wives to obtain offspring and descendants for the husband. Besides that, warmth and affection for polygamous families may provide positive role models for children’s mental health and self-esteem [ 14 ].

Determining the impact of polygamous marriage on women and children worldwide can provide a better assessment than discrete primary studies. Identifying this impact can help give a clear understanding and serve as the basis for the development of appropriate strategies that address primary prevention to counter the potential negative impact affecting women and children. This systematic review and meta-analysis aimed to ascertain the psychological impact of polygamous marriage on women and children worldwide. We have included both women and children because the impact of polygamous marriage might affect both groups. This review summarizes the available evidence, effect estimates, and strength of the statistical associations between polygamous and monogamous marriages and the psychological impact on women, and children.

Study design and search strategy

A systematic review and meta-analysis were conducted to assess the impact of polygamous marriages on women and children. The Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) guidelines were followed [ 15 ]. This review was registered in the PROSPERO database (CRD42021226530). The review followed the process outlined in the protocol. A systematic search for relevant articles was performed in the MEDLINE (PubMed), Scopus, CINAHL (EBSCOhost), Google Scholar, and ProQuest databases. The search was undertaken using descriptors such as “marriage” (MeSH terms) OR “polygamy” (text word) AND “women” (MeSH terms) AND “children” (MeSH terms). The search terms were flexible and tailored to the various electronic databases. Studies published from the inception of the respective databases until April 2021 were retrieved to assess their eligibility for this study. The reference lists of the included citations were cross-checked to find additional potentially eligible studies.

Eligibility criteria

The inclusion criteria included studies that reported the psychological impact of polygamous marriage on women and children of all ages up to 18 years old. The Oxford dictionary defines psychological impact as involving the mental and emotional state of a person [ 16 ]. In this study, polygamy referred to “a marital relationship involving multiple wives” [ 4 ].

Studies with cross-sectional, case-control, and cohort designs published in English were included. Case series/reports, conference papers and proceedings, articles available only in abstract form, editorial reviews, letters of communication, commentaries, systemic reviews, and qualitative studies were excluded.

Study selection and screening

All the records identified using our search strategy were exported to EndNote X8 software (Clarivate Analytics, Philadelphia, PA). Duplicate articles were removed. Two independent reviewers screened the titles and abstracts of the identified articles. The full texts of the eligible studies were obtained and read thoroughly to assess their suitability. A consensus discussion was held in a conflict between the two reviewers, and a third reviewer was consulted. The search method presented in the PRISMA flowchart ( Fig.  1 ) shows the included and excluded studies, with reasons for the exclusions.

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Prisma flow chart impact of polygamous marriage on women and children

Quality assessment and bias

Critical appraisal was performed to assess the data quality using the Joanna Briggs Institute Critical Appraisal Checklist for cross-sectional, case-control, and cohort studies [ 6 ]. Two reviewers performed the bias assessments independently. The risk of bias was considered low when more than 70% of the answers were “yes,” moderate when 50–69% of the answers were “yes,” and high when up to 0–49% of the answers were “yes.” Studies that showed a high or moderate risk of bias were excluded from the meta-analysis [ 17 ].

Data extraction process

Two reviewers independently extracted data into Microsoft Excel 365 (Microsoft, Redmond, Washington). The process included the first author, publication year, study location, study design and setting, study population, sample size, impact, polygamy definition, and data for calculation of effect estimates for psychological impact. In the event of missing data, the authors were contacted to obtain further information.

Results synthesis and statistical analysis

The prevalence outcomes of the total sample over the total population were reported as percentages, and the cumulative estimates were reported as odds ratios (OR) and mean differences (MD) with 95% confidence intervals (CI). The analysis was performed using RevMan software version 5.4 (Nordic Cochrane Centre, Copenhagen, Denmark). We used a generic inverse variance with a random-effects model to pool the data. The I 2 statistic was used to assess heterogeneity. As a guide, I 2 was interpreted as follows: 0–40% might not be important, 30–60% may represent moderate heterogeneity, 50–90% may represent substantial heterogeneity, and 75–100% indicated considerable heterogeneity [ 18 ]. The subgroup analyses were performed based on geographical regions if there was an adequate number of articles for each subgroup. Sensitivity analysis was conducted for studies with a wide range of confident intervals.

Characteristics of the included studies

A total of 1847 articles were retrieved through the electronic database search using different search terms (Supplementary file  1 ), and 545 duplicated records were removed. The remaining 1387 articles were screened for eligibility. Among them, 1353 articles were excluded based on their titles and/or abstract evaluations. The full texts of 35 articles were searched. Subsequently, ten articles were excluded; where eight studies [ 19 – 26 ] did not present the main outcome, one study [ 14 ] was a review article, and one study [ 27 ] was in another language. Twenty-four studies underwent a quality assessment using Joanna Briggs Institute Critical Appraisal Checklist (Fig. ​ (Fig.1, 1 , Supplementary file  2 ). Based on the quality assessment, 23 studies had a low risk of bias and one study had a moderate risk of bias [ 28 ]. All the low risk studies were cross-sectional and proceeded with quantitative assessment.

Among the 23 studies, 17 are about women [ 4 , 9 , 29 – 43 ], while six other studies focus on the children [ 44 – 49 ]. Among the studies, 11 of them is from Israel [ 4 , 9 , 30 – 32 , 34 , 44 – 46 , 48 , 49 ], three studies from Turkey [ 40 , 41 , 43 ], two studies from Iran [ 36 , 38 ], a study from Uganda [ 29 ], a study from Nigeria [ 47 ], a study from Egypt [ 33 ], a study from UAE [ 37 ], a study from Syria [ 39 ], a study from Tanzania [ 42 ] and a study from Jordan [ 35 ]. The smallest sample size was 66 [ 38 ], and the largest was 2000 [ 35 ]. This study included 5963 women (Table  1 ) and 1567 children (Table  2 ).

Summary of research articles ( n  = 18) on the impact of polygamous marriages on women

Summary of research articles ( n  = 6) on the impact of polygamous marriages on children

Prevalence of polygamy

Seventeen studies were included for estimation of the prevalence of polygamy in the women population [ 4 , 9 , 29 – 43 ]. A wide range was observed, ranging from 6.3% [ 39 ] to 66.7% [ 43 ]. The pooled prevalence of polygamy reported between 2001 and 2019, mainly in the middle-east region, was 41.12% (95% CI: 31.89, 50.36) (Fig.  2 ).

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Impact of polygamy on women compared to monogamy

In this review, the psychological impact, including depression and anxiety, on women in polygamous marriages compared to monogamous marriages was evaluated. Only the pooled meta-analysis analysis for depression [ 34 , 37 , 40 – 43 ] showed a significant difference among women where it is 2.25 (95% CI: 1.20, 4.20) higher chance of experiencing depression in polygamous marriages compared to monogamous marriages. However, for psychological distress (OR 1.57 [95% CI: 0.60, 4.10]) [ 29 , 39 , 42 ] and anxiety (OR 1.20 [95% CI: 0.47,3.11]) [ 41 – 43 ] there were no significant difference between women in polygamous and monogamous marriages ( Fig.  3 ) . Panic disorder, too, did not show a significant difference (OR 4.05 [95% CI: 0.71, 23.13]). Sensitivity analysis was conducted in the anxiety data due to the wide range of confident intervals in Yilmaz [ 43 ]. The estimated OR changed to 0.88 (95% CI: 0.55, 1.40) with I 2 of 0%.

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Forest plots for A psychological distress, B depression, and C anxiety among women in polygamous versus monogamous marriages

Four studies [ 9 , 30 – 32 ] evaluated a broad range of psychological impact using the Symptom Checklist-90-Revised (SCL-90) instrument ( Table  3 ) . The scores for somatization (MD 0.50 [95% CI: 0.28, 0.72]), obsessive-compulsive (MD 0.37 [95% CI: 0.09, 0.64]), interpersonal sensitivity (MD 0.41 [95% CI: 0.14, 0.67]), depression (MD 0.46 [95% CI: 0.16, 0.77]), anxiety (MD 0.49 [95% CI: 0.23, 0.75]), hostility (MD 0.49 [95% CI: 0.25, 0.73]), phobia (MD 0.39 [95% CI: 0.11, 0.67]), paranoia (MD 0.36 [95% CI: 0.20, 0.51]), and psychoticism (MD 0.42 [95% CI: 0.20, 0.64]) had significantly higher occurence in the women from polygamous marriages than monogamous marriages. Global Severity Index (GSI) for psychological dimensions is also higher in polygamous marriage compared to monogamous with a mean difference of 0.44 (95% CI: 0.20, 0.68). Furthermore, four studies [ 9 , 30 – 32 ] also reported on family function by using McMaster Family Assessment Device (FAD) among women where polygamous marriage had shown a mean difference of 0.34 (95% CI: 0.20, 0.49) compared to monogamous marriages.

Mean differences in the Symptom Checklist-90-Revised scores among women in polygamous marriages versus those in monogamous marriages in four studies [ 9 , 30 – 32 ]

Impact of polygamy on children compared to monogamy marriages

There were two studies [ 44 , 46 ] which reported the impact of polygamy in the children in terms of psychological impact using the SCL-90 instrument ( Table  4 ) . All scores for the psychological impact reported a slightly higher risk in children with parents practicing polygamy compared to monogamy where somatization (MD 0.20 [95% CI: 0.07, 0.34]), obsessive-compulsive (MD 0.27 [95% CI: 0.012, 0.42]), interpersonal sensitivity (MD 0.30 [95% CI: 0.14, 0.46]), depression (MD 0.22 [95% CI: 0.08, 0.37]), anxiety (MD 0.07 [95% CI: − 0.06, 0.20]) with p  > 0.05, hostility (MD 0.24 [95% CI: 0.09, 0.39]), phobia (MD 0.33 [95% CI: 0.18, 0.49]), paranoia (MD 0.16 [95% CI: 0.01, 0.31]), and psychoticism (MD 0.28 [95% CI: 0.12, 0.43]). The GSI for children with polygamous parents have higher mean difference which is 0.21 (95% CI: 0.10, 0.33) compared to monogamous parents. In terms of social problems [ 44 , 46 ], children with polygamous parents have higher risk of family dysfunction with MD 0.33 (95% CI: − 0.11, 0.77) compared to monogamous marriage. For school achievement, two studies [ 45 , 46 ] reported children with polygamous parents had lower scores compared to monogamous parents and a study [ 47 ] reported that children with polygamous parents had difficulties in understanding subjects such as Mathematics and English.

Mean differences in the Symptom Checklist-90-Revised scores among children with polygamous parents compared to monogamous parents in two studies [ 44 , 46 ]

The review was conducted to determine the psychological impact of polygamous marriage among women and children. The pooled prevalence of polygamous marriage in women from 17 studies was 41% (95% CI: 32, 50). Among women, depression was found to be significantly different between polygamous and monogamous marriages. Women and children in polygamous marriages have higher scores in somatization, obsessive-compulsive, interpersonal sensitivity, anxiety, hostility, phobia, paranoia, psychoticism, and GSI compared to monogamous marriages.

Various research reported that first wives in polygamous marriages would have a higher risk of depression, anxiety, and negative attitude [ 25 , 38 , 50 , 51 ]. These researches reported similar findings as this current meta-analysis, where women in polygamous marriages have two times higher risk of developing depression compared to monogamous marriages. Al-Sherbiny [ 41 ] reported the “first wife syndrome,” where the first wife reported difficulties faced psychological, physical, and social problems among women in a polygamous marriage. This syndrome goes through a course of reaction where the initial response from the first wife after being informed of her husband’s remarriage is in the form of a nervous breakdown, emotional upset, or outburst of anger. Negative attitudes towards the husband and hostility towards the new wife always exist. After a lapse of time and gradual adaptation, these women reported that negative physical, psychological and social attitudes would decrease [ 33 ].

Al Krenawi [ 25 ] also reported that the transition from sole wife to senior wife is traumatic, leading to the senior wife having a loss of self-esteem. The Bedouin-Arabs of Negev showed that 58.4% of the polygamous wives had low self-esteem. This circumstance encouraged them to withdraw from their social networks, contributing to feeling lonely (64.1%) among these polygamous wives.

Women in polygamous marriages scored significantly higher in all psychological dimensions in the SCL-90: somatization, interpersonal sensitivity, depression, anxiety, phobic, paranoia, psychoticism, and GSI, and these findings were similar to a review [ 13 ]. Al- Issa [ 52 ] indicated that somatization might be more prevalent in the non-western world than in the west. This may be due to the ethnicity of Arabs, where exhibiting somatization behaviour is one of the major ways to express emotional distress [ 4 , 23 , 52 ]. In this culture, the first wife is usually not consulted when her husband s to remarry, leading to fewer familial, social, and economic resources where it can be distressing [ 53 ]. This would lead to first wives in polygamous marriages having more anxiety, psychoticism, paranoia, and feeling of powerlessness than the second and third wives [ 22 ]. Apart from that, this meta-analysis also reports that family functioning scores have been worse in women with polygamous marriages than monogamous marriages. It may be due to the husband’s attention being divided between two families; thus, economic resources became more diluted. One study reported that family functioning and financial status depend on one another, strongly associated with mental disorders [ 54 ]. A worsened family’s economic situation could lead to poorer family functioning [ 32 ].

Children with polygamous parents experienced more psychological impact compared to monogamous parents; however, these findings were limited to only two studies. A review based on five papers concluded that children from polygamous families had higher levels of psychological impacts than those from monogamous families [ 8 ]. Elbedour [ 10 ] suggested that polygamy effects on children are more noticeable and disappear as they grow older. Children in polygamy marriages will have lower academic achievement [ 6 , 24 , 25 ]. Still, children’s academic achievement may be less affected due to a better understanding of stressful events and more successful managing emotions [ 48 ]. Children from kindergarten through Grade 6 reported a lower level of education achievement based on the examination results. They had difficulty adjusting to their schools, thus indicating that these social problems were impacted by their parents’ polygamous marriage that has affected their formal education system [ 45 ]. The children of these marriages will have a huge disadvantage in their education and increase school dropouts.

The SCL-90 instrument performed on the children in polygamous marriages showed higher psychological impact scores in all nine domains [ 44 , 46 ]. However, there may be an additional cultural impact on some of the domains. Research revealed that Arab children exhibit higher levels of depression compared to the control samples in the United States [ 55 ]. It also implied interpersonal sensitivity, where its risk increased in conjunction with the presence of depression [ 56 ]. Despite having parents with polygamous or monogamous marriages, family functioning plays a much more prominent role in children’s self-esteem, peer relation, and mental health [ 44 , 46 ]. Findings indicated the impact of polygamy itself, but a well-functioning family will not impair children’s social adjustment and mental health [ 57 ]. Economic status also plays a significant role in family functioning and children’s mental health [ 46 , 58 ]. Unfortunately, the children perceived that their parents’ polygamous marriages had made their families’ economic and family functioning worse [ 44 , 46 ]. This plays a major role in dealing with children’s emotional and financial pressure.

This meta-analysis has a few limitations. Most studies have a very different range of tests and scales that hinder making a reasonable conclusion. The random-effects model assumes the presence of heterogeneity in which each study has its study-specific effect. However, subgroup analysis to explore the differences to understand the observed effect was not possible due to limited studies. This study is limited by only including studies published in the English language. Most studies were conducted in the Middle East, specifically Arab societies, limiting the results and comparisons. We could not deduce whether the impact is solely due to polygamous marriages or the culture of societies. All the included studies were of cross-sectional design. Due to its nature, temporal causation cannot be established.

The psychological impact of polygamous marriage on women and children was relatively higher than monogamous marriage. This study also concluded that polygamous marriage plays a major role in the development of children not only mentally but also socially. Family functioning also has a major role in determining the outcome of polygamous impact on the population. Awareness of the proper practices for polygamy should be strengthened so that its adverse effects can be minimized. The agencies involved in polygamous practices should broaden and enhance their understanding of the correct practice of polygamy. It is also necessary for healthcare professionals to have a better evaluation for women and children in this family practice to provide them with a better quality of life. Polygamy should be recognized as a particular risk factor for developing social problems in children; thus, with proper education to the families, more attention to the children’s emotional and social needs is required to avoid this situation. Future studies on polygamous marriage should emphasize more on children with broader sampling across various cultures. These studies should also use standardized measuring tools to ensure a better conclusion.


The authors also would like to acknowledge Mr. Amran Mamat and Ms. Nurul Azurah Mohd Roni, librarians from Hamdan Tahir Library, for their assistance with database searches.

Authors’ contributions

Conceptualization, ISB, MNN, and NHNH; methodology, ISB, MNN and NHNH; validation MNN and NHNH; formal analysis, MNN, CAAMSA and NANMA; investigation, CAAMSA, and NANMA; resources, MNN and NHNH; data curation, NHNH, CAAMSA and NANMA; writing of original draft preparation, CAAMSA, and NANMA; writing of review and editing, ISB, MNN, NHNH, CAAMSA, and NANMA; visualization, ISB, MNN, NHNH; supervision, ISB and NHNH; project administration, NHNH; All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.

Availability of data and materials


Not applicable.

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Home / Essay Samples / Sociology / Polygamy / The Problems Caused By Polygamy

The Problems Caused By Polygamy

  • Category: Sociology , Life
  • Topic: Polygamy , Problems

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