To have and to hold…a few more.
There seems to be a conspiracy amongst my friends to get married and produce offspring before the year is out while I join Facebook groups called ‘All my friends are getting married. I’m just being awesome’. Even Prince William’s doing it, and making people in the UK bridal and engagement ring industry very happy as a result. With the idea of getting hitched to a one and only forever and ever consequently on my mind, I got to thinking about the prospect of a one and a few more. This limerick from William Cosmo Monkhouse refers to the practice of ‘trigamy’ that in seventeenth to nineteenth century England was used to indicate that someone was married to three people at one time.
There was an old fellow of Lyme
Who lived with three wives at one time.
When asked, ‘Why the third?’
He replied, ‘One’s absurd,
and bigamy, sir, is a crime.’
Our president is not the only leader with more than one wife, or the only one who is proud of the fact: the king of Swaziland, Mswati III, is thought to have married a jaw dropping total of thirteen women. In the Sudan Omar Hassan al-Bashir has tried to encourage polygymy as a means of increasing the population and it isn’t only leaders in Africa that think it’s a good idea: last year Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov urged men in Chechnya to marry more than one woman since to be an unmarried woman is considered dishonourable.
Even if people in polygamous marriages are not financially affected by the arrangement, it seems possible that some partners may not get enough emotional support if their partner’s attention is diluted by polygamy.
Polygamy, meaning ‘often married’, can be broken down into two main categories: polygyny and polyandry. Polygyny refers to a man marrying more than one woman, and polyandry to a woman marrying more than one man; if a person is married to only one person at a time he is practising monogamy. In South Africa it is only monogamy and polygyny that are legal: women are not legally permitted to acquire more than one husband. Polyandry is in fact historically extremely rare: Ethnographic Atlas Codebook discovered that out of the 1231 societies studied 186 were monogamous and only 4 polyandrous while the remainder were polygynous, some to a greater extent than others.
On the face of it, South Africa permitting polygyny but not polyandry seems blatantly unfair, because there needs to be a good reason why one gender is legally permitted to do something while another is not. In South Africa’s case polygyny is defended as a traditional ‘African rite‘ and the cultures that have practised it have only ever allowed men many wives but defending a practice because it is traditional is notoriously problematic: female circumcision in African countries, ‘bride stealing‘ in Chechnya and homophobia in Uganda spring to mind as examples that reveal traditional but by no means harmless convictions. I am not interested in defending polygyny by referring to its place in tradition but rather in knowing if there is anything particularly valuable about polygyny as opposed to polyandry, and whether there is something particularly valuable about polygamy as opposed to monogamy as a practice, independent of its history.
Polygyny, though legal under customary marriage law in South Africa since 1998, has come under heavy criticism globally and locally. Reverend Kenneth Meshoe, leader of the African Christian Democratic Party, last year accused it’s proponents of being abusive of women. A polygynous marriage into which women have entered unwillingly is an obvious case of abuse (and this has certainly happened in South Africa), but unless this is a pervasive feature of all or most polygynous marriages, we do not have reason to reject polygyny on these grounds (but rather to ensure that laws prevent abuse). There are many cases of abusive monogamous marriages, but instances of the type do not identify necessary qualities of the type. What we need to identify are qualities that all or most polygynous marriages share or that they encourage, and that qualify them as morally wrong, harmless, or admirable.
Since people vary so widely, I can’t think of any reasons why polygyny would be better than polyandry. Though women are commonly thought to be more ’emotional’ (and so perhaps more vulnerable to being hurt by feelings of jealousy or neglect that may arise from a polygamous union) than men, there are certainly many emotional men around too. A friend of mine argues that monogamy is based on the misperception that one person can ‘own’ another and that to attempt to do this is not only futile, but destructive, particularly of the autonomy of the people involved. According to him, overcoming the tendency towards jealousy is both virtuous and an aim that we should strive for, though of course polygamy is not the only way to pursue this goal. I think it would depend heavily on the individuals involved in the relationship: those who are open minded, good at communication and not prone to jealousy or competition for a partner’s attention would appear to be better candidates for polygamous relationships, but there is no reason why women or men as a whole are more likely to possess these qualities.
One possible problem for polygamy that is particularly relevant in Africa is the potential for spreading HIV to all members of a marriage since here there is such a high concentration of people suffering from the disease. Though people in monogamous relationships are also vulnerable to being infected by unfaithful or dishonest partners, they have only one partner to place their trust in. Since they spend relatively more time with this partner they may come to know their partner better than someone with multiple wives or married to a man with multiple wives can come to know to their partners. Perhaps then monogamous people are more likely to accurately predict when their partner will cheat, or to recognise that their partner has cheated and so avoid becoming infected. However, a proponent of polygamy may argue that if a person has many partners he will be less likely to cheat since he is less likely to be bored: finding all the qualities one finds attractive in one person is a tall order, but far more do-able if the task is handed to three, for example.
Another obvious concern is that people in polygamous marriages may neglect their husbands or wives; most people would agree that having one partner is time-and-energy consuming enough. Even if people in polygamous marriages are not financially affected by the arrangement, it seems possible that some partners may not get enough emotional support if their partner’s attention is diluted by polygamy. However, polygamy may be attractive to those who like their own space and find monogamous relationships to be too demanding. Polygamy could free up time for worthy pursuits by distributing emotional and practical responsibilities, particularly in the area of child rearing. Similarly, one of the most important reasons that many people enter relationships is to be ‘known’ in a profound sense and it is debatable how deeply partners in a polygamous union can come to know each other. Again, some people may be content not to be known to this extent, though others may feel frustrated. ‘ Group marriage‘ or ‘polygynandry’ in which there are two or more of each gender in a marriage is another form of polygamy and one that is illegal almost everywhere. However, given the potential for irregularity of levels of affection between partners, group marriage may be one way in which a person could ensure that he does not end up as a minor and neglected partner in the marriage – by acquiring another partner.
Apart from anything else, the widespread disapproval in some societies of polygamous marriages is one factor counting against entering into them: life tends to be made tougher if one’s lifestyle is generally frowned upon. However, this is not a sufficient reason to avoid them altogether if one genuinely feels that such a marriage would fulfil all parties involved, and this seems at least conceivable. In many societies however polygyny is in fact admired as a sign or status and virility. Jacob Zuma, for example, is thought to have endeared a large portion of the population to him by sporting so many wives.
As far as morality is concerned there seems to be nothing inherently wrong about having more than one partner, assuming that all partners are aware of the arrangement and agree to its conditions and that all involved are honest, respectful and thoughtful. Though it may seem a danger that polygamous marriages objectify partners as status symbols to accumulate and show off, this is also a danger in monogamous relationships, and the quality of a relationship, either monogamous or polygamous, seems highly dependent on the people who enter into it. Much literature over the past centuries, particularly in the West, has idealized monogamous partnerships and many who are raised on these ideas are likely to feel some aversion to the idea of polygamy, but one virtue of polygamy is that the multiple partnerships are practised openly and do not contain the deception and crushed expectations characteristic of relationships in which one partner secretly sees other people. Many people have claimed to be in love with more than one person at a time, and if this and getting beyond jealousy is indeed possible, then perhaps polygamy in all of its forms should be legalized the world over.
In Woody Allen’s movie, ‘Vicki Christina Barcelona’ there is a happy polyamorous union in which, at least for a time, the best is brought out in those involved. Is this is a fantasy? Is it bound to be a short lived occurrence? Is a genuine romantic emotional connection undermined if it is not the only one in a person’s heart? Though it may be difficult to imagine being in a polyamorous relationship, it is also clear to me that people vary widely in their tastes when it comes to relationships, and adultery is all too common and destructive. It would be interesting to see how many people, if given the chance, and assuming legalisation would decrease societal disapproval where it exists, would choose to have and to hold a few more and whether this would make all concerned happier, or not.
Image by Pink Sherbet Street Photography