The term polygamy means “many marriages” and has been around since the beginning of man. In ancient times, polygamy is thought to have been an accepted and “legal” practice but in modern day society, it has become extremely taboo and most polygamists have gone underground to avoid detection. As a result, it fell out of the social limelight until recently.
Under current law, any marriage occurring after the first “legal marriage” would be considered invalid , however polygamy is not normally considered grounds for divorce because the polygamist spouses typically enter into the multiple marriage arrangement voluntarily. There are exceptions to this of course, as in the case of underage brides however, these instances would normally raise criminals charges and because the girls are underage, the marriage would be considered void anyway.
There are actually several varieties of marital arrangements that fall under the “polygamy” heading:
Polygyny – The most common, known as polygyny is one man with many wives. This arrangement is the theme for the popular HBO series Big Love and is also found in several Mormon fundamentalist colonies living in Utah and surrounding states. Polygyny is still widely accepted in many African cultures as well as countries in the Middle East. This practice is the most commonly known form of polygamy in the States however, under DOMA such multiple marriages are not recognized as being valid and subsequent wives would not retain the legal rights and benefits that are normally afforded to spouses..
Polyandry – Use to describe the “one woman with many husbands” scenario. Polyandry is thought to be prominent in social cultures with limited resources or who seek to limit their population. Polyandry, in wide practice, would not only control the number of children born within a society but it would, theoretically, also increase the children’s chances of survival.
Group Marriage – A group marriage is a combination of polyandry and polygyny with multiple partners of both genders forming a family unit. Like Polyandry and Polygyny, all parents in a group marriage share the responsibilities for the entire family including the financial aspects as well as parenting of all the children.
Technically, any form of polygamy is a charge of bigamy (times the number of additional spouses) but in a polygamous relationship all the spouses are aware of the others. That is, they reside together in one family unit. Bigamy on the other hand, is typically used to apply to multiple marriages where the spouses are unaware of the others.
To avoid charges of bigamy, some polygamists practice what is known as serial monogamy, meaning that they marry and then divorce each spouse, one at a time so that there is only one legal marriage at any give time. This allows all the spouses to enjoy a formal marriage ceremony and in the case of polygyny, all the wives can legally assume the husband’s name.
Although this type of arrangement would still be considered bigamy by mainstream western society, most U.S. jurisdictions have little interest in prosecuting polygamous communities. The community members typically try to remain under the radar. With the exception of serial monogamy practices mentioned above, polygamists usually enter into their first marriage legally and then other spouses are brought into the fold at later times, without divorcing the first spouse. In these cases, only the first marriage would be considered valid under U.S. law and without former marriage ceremonies to document the bigamy, it is difficult to prove such cases.
However, some polygamous communities include the marriage to girls under the legal age of consent as an acceptable practice and it is in these instances that legal authorities will usually get involved. Depending upon the age of the minors, practitioners could face charges of child abuse .