Polygamy and Polyamory

About half a year ago, I explained how to extend marriage to more than 2 people:

Monogamous marriage is the union of two people, so we can say that polyamorous marriage is the union of N people, where N > 2 (and we might bound it to distinguish unions from communes, so we might say that N <= 6). Hence if A is married to B and to C, then B and C must necessarily be married. Divorce occurs when one or more partners withdraw from the union, in which case the withdrawing partners can form their own union or become single. The simplest way to divide property is then in proportion to the number of people in each new, smaller union; custody is more complicated, but it’s already complicated now when only monogamous marriages are recognized.

Of course, this is a restricted situation: it only applies to polyfidelitous groups. But if my reading of the polyamory primers I’ve looked at is accurate, then in the main situation, primary/secondary relationships, there isn’t enough economic interdependence to justify wholesale marriage. It makes sense in that situation to allow certain economic unions, but I don’t think anything like the current situation of marriage is required for secondary relationships. Unfortunately, this leaves open multiple-primary situations.

Back then, I said traditional polygamy would not be covered, because its arrangement is more like this of a star than this of a triangle or a square with diagonals. But now that Jill brought up polygamy again, I’ve thought about this more and realized that there actually is a way of permitting polygamy in a gender-neutral, non-patriarchal way.

Essentially, if John marries Mary and Linda, then Mary and Linda are considered married. That’s perfectly fine, even if they’re straight – after all, some polyfidelitous collectives are straight, so that the males only have sex with the females and vice versa. In terms of legal privileges, the relationship of Mary and Linda isn’t very different from the one either has with John. From what I’ve read about harems, the bonds between the wives are strong enough to justify giving them such rights as to make medical decisions for one another, to inherit one another’s property without paying an inheritance tax, etc.

Of course, the polygamists who want these relationships to be legal don’t want an egalitarian relationship. But the law doesn’t need to account for that any more than it needs to give special status to monogamous D/s relationships. John, Linda, and Mary are free to designate John the head of household and agree that Linda and Mary must obey him, just as they would if John only married Linda.

The other problem, abuse in Mormon marriages, doesn’t need to be treated any differently from in Protestant marriages. The current abuses are independent of whether the arrangement is polygamous or monogamous; they come not from the existence of harems, but from the practice of marrying off girls too young to have legal rights to abusive men. If that’s an argument against legalizing polyamory, then NAMBLA is an argument against legalizing gay marriage.

12 Responses to Polygamy and Polyamory

  1. Stentor says:

    If that’s an argument against legalizing polyamory, then NAMBLA is an argument against legalizing gay marriage.

    Amen.

  2. The trouble with this argument is that most of the legal “stuff” of marriage is empirical and case-based, not logical. Our current marriage law is *barely* able to deal with the complexities that arise when a marriage has only two partners, and that despite hundreds of years of experience dealing with traditional (inegalitarian) two-partner marriages.

    I know of no long-running legal tradition with egalitarian poly marriages, or even inegalitarian marriages but where the wives are legally married to each other. Without this kind of experience, we don’t know how these relationships would “play out” legally.

    One factor I’ve never seen raised is that carefully-constructed poly marriages — such as the “line marriages” in Heinlein’s Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” — could tie up property for generations. The money would never get passed on to most of the children, because the younger spouses keep inheriting (tax-free) from the older. A line marriage becomes a type of corporation, a way to concentrate wealth.

    I don’t think we can or should have legalized polyamory until polyamorists have built up legal structures & experience with them.

  3. Bitter Scribe says:

    I don’t think it’s as simple as you make out, especially if there are children involved.

    When a monogamous couple divorces, there are all sorts of factors that play into how much of one spouse’s property and income the other should be entitled to. These include length of time in the marriage, each party’s earning potential, the number of children, their ages, their medical or other special needs, etc.

    Now in a polygamous “marriage,” you’d have to factor similar considerations for the remaining wife or wives into the equation, which would make it exponentially more complicated.

    These complications wouldn’t arise in a monogamous gay marriage, which is one reason why I think “if gays can get married, then why not…” is a bunch of bull.

  4. Older says:

    Seems to me that the legal system doesn’t deal very well with marriage of any kind. It pretends that it’s a contract between two people, when in reality it is much more like a contract between two people on one side, and the government on the other side. Moreover, it incorporates religious elements into a relationship controlled by the government.

    Polyamorous people, as well as a good few who are strictly monogamous, often disregard legal marriage entirely and make their own arrangements, which work as well as the legal ones. Yes, they break up sometimes, but more often than not, they are able to do it without too much difficulty. And I don’t believe they are more likely to break up than conventionally married folks.

    If a specific agreement in written form is required for a marriage, there’s no reason why the parties to it can’t reach their own agreement, no matter how many of them there are.

    In my own family, counting me and my two daughters now middle aged, there are among us eight marriages, three of which were legal and one possibly legal. The rest without benefit of the assistance of the Great White Father in Washington (well, actually Oregon). I honestly can’t see any differences between them.

  5. whig says:

    Monogamous marriage has a lot to recommend it, and here I am not speaking of legal advantages, but of the fact that people who love and trust one another can complement one another’s strengths and weaknesses. Adding a third or fourth partner to such a complementary sharing is fraught with problems, jealousy even when all partners remain faithful within their marriage.

  6. [...] About half a year ago, I explained how to extend marriage to more than 2 people:. Monogamous marriage is the union of two people, so we can say that polyamorous marriage is the union of N people, where N > 2 (and we might bound it to …Read more: here [...]

  7. [...] settlements to women already in unofficial polygamous relationships), and that led to a link to this post by Abstract Nonsense on how to extend marriage, legally, to polygamous and polyamorous relationships. I’ve posted [...]

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