four-pairs-of-hands-piled-togetherPolygamy is the practice of marrying multiple spouses—either in religious, cultural, or legal ceremonies.

What is Polygamy?

Polygamy can be broken down into two sub-types:

  1. Polyandry is when a woman has multiple husbands.
  2. Polygyny occurs when a man has multiple wives.

Rarely, group marriage can occur. In a group marriage, several members of a group are married to one another and might engage in sexual relationships, take responsibility for children, and conduct similar family-oriented activities. For example, four people might all marry one another, and various members of the group might have sexual or romantic relationships with one another.

Polygamy and Culture

Polygamy has been common for much of human history. Many civilizations have practiced it at one time or another, and polygamy is referenced frequently in the Bible, Qur’an, and Torah. Social customs and economic pressures may contribute to the decision to pursue polygamy. In a society where women are dependent upon men, for example, a man might marry more than one wife. Historically, polygyny has been more common than polyandry, and is correlated with patriarchy. Polygamy is less common in contemporary times, but is still practiced by some societies.

Polygamy in the United States

In the late 19th century the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints banned polygamy, but some Mormon splinter groups still practice polygamy.

Because polygamy is banned in the United States, people who are polygamous do not typically enter into legal marriages with more than one spouse. Instead, they often legally marry one spouse and then have “spiritual marriages” with subsequent spouses. Some large polygamous compounds have been implicated in cases of underage marriage and sexual coercion, but not all polygamous relationships are abusive, and some political parties—notably some libertarians—advocate for the legalization of polygamy.

Polygamy in Popular Culture

In recent years there have been several portrayals of polygamous families on television in the United States, such as:

  • Big Love, an HBO series, follows a fictional polygamous Mormon family.
  • Sister Wives, a reality show, tracks the lives of a real Mormon fundamentalist family engaged in polygamy.
  • The 19th Wife, a Lifetime movie, tells the story of BeckyLyn, a plural wife accused of killing her husband, and is based on David Ebershoff’s novel of the same name.
  • Escape, a memoir by Carolyn Jessop, details her escape from a polygamist sect.
  • The Lonely Polygamist, a novel by Brady Udall, describes an American polygamous family from the father’s point of view.


  1. Livingston, B. (2010, September 27). Unfamiliar world of polygamy is opening up in TV shows, films. Retrieved from http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/television/news/2010-09-27-polygamy27_ST_N.htm.
  2. The history of polygamy. (n.d.). Utah History to Go. Retrieved from http://historytogo.utah.gov/utah_chapters/pioneers_and_cowboys/historyofpolygamy.html
  3. What is polygamy. (n.d.). Polygamy.com. Retrieved from http://www.polygamy.com/
  4. Zeitzen, M. K. (2008). Polygamy: A cross-cultural analysis. Oxford: Berg.

Last Updated: 08-18-2015

  • Leave a Comment
  • lynett c,

    lynett c,

    June 16th, 2014 at 3:16 PM

    I need help. I need to talk to someone familiar with polygamist family problems. they’re affecting my marriage.

  • steve


    December 16th, 2014 at 12:23 PM

    lynett, did you find a marriage counselor that is familiar with polygamist and other alternative relationship types?

  • roxann


    January 24th, 2017 at 6:30 PM

    do you have a counselor Steve my relationship is in trouble i feel it

  • Keisha803


    December 2nd, 2017 at 2:29 PM

    Me and my husband need to talk to someone about this. He’s hurting so bad.

  • Reese B

    Reese B

    December 19th, 2017 at 1:55 PM

    Can you recommend any therapists for polygamous marriages?

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    December 19th, 2017 at 8:33 PM

    Dear Reese,

    If you would like to search for a therapist, please feel free to return to our homepage, http://www.goodtherapy.org/ and enter your zip code into the search field to find professionals in your area.

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of counselors and therapists who meet your criteria. From this list, you can click to view our members’ full profiles and contact them for more information. You are also welcome to call us for help finding a mental health professional. Our phone number is 888-563-2112 ext. 1. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time.

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

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