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Monogamy vs Polygamy; What's The Difference?

Updated on September 30, 2010

In order to try answering this question, I will tell a story. The story is about two men, born on the same day, in two different countries on different parts of the world. One was born in a country in the western part of the world where the dominant religion is Christianity while the other one was born in the Eastern part where the dominant religion is Islam.

They both grew up normal kids in their own backgrounds, got educated to the higher education level with the attendant college degrees. They both turned into very responsible members of their societies. Both of them had normal relationships with the opposite sex and actually had steady girlfriends by the time they were graduating college. After college, they both landed good jobs and were doing very well. In fact, you could say that they became wealthy. Finally, it came time to get married when they turned twenty five and each of them, as expected, got married to the girl they started going steady with during their last year of college.

After five years of marriage, the one from the East, who I will call Muhammad, took a second wife, as is acceptable in his society, and wedded her. Then, just five months after Muhammad's second wedding ceremony, the one from the West, whom I will call John, concluded his divorce from his wife of five years and took a second wife. By this time, they were both thirty years old and each had a four year old child. They went on with their lives, one with his two wives and the other with his second wife.

Seven years down the road, when they were both thirty-seven, John began having problems in his second marriage which has also produced one child. He tried everything possible, with his wife, to sort out their differences because that marriage was the second for both of them. When their efforts didn't work, they headed to the divorce court and had the marriage dissolved. After this second divorce, John was understandably reluctant to remarry and decided to wait a few years before marrying again. He wanted to have some time alone with his children; John Jr. who was eleven and Janet who just turned six.

Meanwhile, his counterpart from the East, Muhammad, was still living happily with his two wives and three children. His first wife had given birth to their second child while the second one also gave birth to her first. Three years later, when he turned forty, Muhammad decided to take a third wife to commemorate an important change in his status. He had achieved the position of Imam in his religious life and thought he needed to mark that achievement with a wife. So he took his third wife.


Back in the West, after living alone with his children for the last three years, John decided it was time to get married, once again. On his fortieth birthday, he proposed to this girl he'd been seeing for the past two years and they got married shortly afterwards. Five years into the marriage his third wife took in and gave birth to a child, John's third. After another five years, John's latest wife decided they weren't compatible anymore. John, himself, said he thought they'd grown apart over the years and back to the divorce court they headed. So it happened that at fifty years of age, with three children ranging in age, from twenty-four to five years, John once again, found himself single.

At this time in the East, Muhammad's two junior wives had each added a child, bringing the total number of his children to five. Beside that, there was nothing else to report because the family was living very happily. Muhammad, being a good Muslim, was doing his best to keep his wives happy and, from the looks of it, he appeared to be successful doing that. He thought that, even though his religion allowed him to take four wives, he was okay with three. He believed that three wives were the number he could very comfortably take care of physically, financially and emotionally. After all, that was the condition his religion gave everybody to meet who wanted to take multiple wives.

John, on the other hand, was anything but happy. He was alone and this was six years after his last divorce. He had decided not to remarry after that last divorce but now he was realizing that that was easier said than done. He wasn't getting any younger and he was missing the touch of a woman in his life. After all, he has always believed himself to be the marrying type and had always dreamed of growing old with someone he loved, and who loved him back. At this point, the argument for taking another wife became overwhelming and he did. So, it happened that at the ripe young age of fifty-six, with children aged thirty, twenty-five and eleven, John jumped into his marriage number four which might not be his last, given his history.

The story of these two men, while it might not be typical, illustrates polygamy and monogamy in two different cultures that support each. It tries to show where the similarities, if any, are between these two systems of marriage. Monogamy is supposed to be a one man, one woman thing and, therefore should be for life. When we can marry as many times as possible, just as long as we can divorce, then there's no difference and we have no moral justification to criticize those who practice polygamy.

The bottom line is that these two men both slept with multiple women in their marriages. The only difference is that while Muhammad was sleeping and keeping is women, John was getting rid of one before getting into bed with the next. You could call Muhammad greedy for keeping all the women to himself but then, you have to call John mean for swapping the women with other men. Monogamy, as practised today, is like a game of musical chairs where you sit briefly and get up for the next chair so that somebody else can jump on the chair you just left. Polygamy, on the other hand, is like a version where you keep every chair that you sit on so that nobody else can sit on them.

My conclusion is that the reason monogamists give for criticizing polygamists is moral and is based on the Christian ethic of one man, one wife. What they conveniently forget is that the same ethic also prescribes that the marriage should be for life. Therefore, once you divorce and marry somebody else, you're no different from a polygamist because you have slept with a second woman which is what monogamy is meant to guard against. This is what I think. What do you think?



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