Disclaimer: I myself have never been in a polygamous relationship. This article does not seek to invalidate those who are in happy, monogamous relationships. Its purpose is to deconstruct the reasons for why monogamy has ascended over other forms of relationship through the lens of power and economics.
From the moment we are born, we become enculturated in a society that is dominated by the discourse of heterosexual monogamy. We read fairy tales about princesses living happily ever after with their princes, learn about falling in ‘love at first sight’, and follow the narrative where we seek to find ‘the one’. Our status quo is monogamy, and it is viewed as the embodiment of the essential characteristics of love: namely, respect, trust and honesty.
Polygamy, on the other hand, is viewed as a deviation from our relationship norms. It is often associated with promiscuity, jealousy and moral bankruptcy, and is excluded as a legitimate arrangement by many legal systems. However, if we examine monogamy through the economic framework of capitalism, it can be viewed as a part of a broader mechanism which reinforces male power over women. Therefore, polygamy is not inherently bad, but is avoided because it would mean a subversion and destabilisation of the dominance and power inherent to a patriarchal, capitalist system.
At a broad stroke, capitalism is an economic system based on oppression, the exploitation of human labour, market competition, and the pursuit of profit and self-interest. While it is primarily an economic theory, capitalism has penetrated our daily lives and social behaviours, including our romantic relationships. In a capitalist system, monogamy oppresses and controls women by requiring their fidelity to one man, whilst exploiting their roles as child-bearer and housewife. Monogamy is also strengthened by privileging romance over other types of relationships, as exclusivity to one spouse distances women from friends, support networks and political activism. From the perspective of the patriarchy, marriage and monogamy is, unsurprisingly, endorsed as the most desirable and economically-advantageous arrangement.
Monogamous love and romance is therefore supported by the central capitalist principle of property and ownership – with women being the property in this context.
Marx, for example, writes that the bourgeois sees his wife as a “mere instrument of production.” Engels describes monogamy as an economic institution which is male supremacist in nature. He writes that “the first class antagonism that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between men and women in monogamous marriage, the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male.” As Mimi Schippers eloquently summarises in her book Beyond Monogamy, the idea of “finding ‘the one and only’ and staking a claim of ownership on another person … reflects and maintains capitalist ideology and the inevitability and desirability of private property.” Monogamous love and romance is therefore supported by the central capitalist principle of property and ownership – with women being the property in this context. Thus, capitalism is inherently patriarchal, and monogamy is a tool of patriarchal oppression.
The narrative of finding ‘your other half’ encourages fidelity, particularly from women, who are taught to devote themselves to one man. Feminist scholar Victoria Robinson contends that institutional monogamy operates “through the mechanism of exclusivity, possessiveness and jealousy, all filtered through the rose-tinted lens of romance.” In this vein, monogamy also breeds the idea that a person is only capable of loving one person at a time, and that when we move to another partner, our previous feelings for our former partners can, or should be, extinguished. Tropes such as the jealous ex-girlfriend reinforce competition between women for male affection and divide women by making them potential rivals. Men, too, can be assumed to be too jealous and possessive to allow others to share their partner.
Therefore, polygamy also has the potential to challenge and shift masculinity. Instead of competing for the affection of their desired partner, partners would instead be encouraged to ‘cooperate’ with one another – a process which is antithetical to the capitalist system.
Collage by Eilis Fitt
Human emotions are complex, and we are capable of simultaneously loving multiple people and in different ways. For example, we may still love our previous partners, even if we are in a new relationship. Yet love is often conceived as a zero-sum game, where suitors compete for their desired partner, with an ultimate ‘winner’ and ‘loser’ in any given quest for a suitor’s affection. With this mentality, we effectively enter the competitive marketplace of relationships, where partners are objectified and love commodified and sold as a monogamous product. As capitalism is profit-driven, love in a capitalist system becomes outcome-orientated and hostile. With polygamy, we may instead learn to share our love and affection, and move away from practices which promote jealousy and the characterisation of partners as property. Polygamy challenges the capitalist and patriarchal status quo, and pursues philosophies which embrace collectivism over individualism, cooperation instead of competition, and romantic fluidity over strict adherence to one partner.
Monogamy has also been referred to by various commentators as ‘mononormativity’. In this contest, the term describes a relation of power, where monogamy is to be understood as representing a dominant discourse which has come to be viewed as the natural and compulsory state of affairs.
While monogamy has developed to become considered natural, polygamy has not. However, what is considered ‘normal’ has always been determined by those with power in any given society – in this context the patriarchy. As discussed above, the dominant discourse of monogamy perpetuates asymmetrical power relations between genders. If we challenge the assumption that we are naturally monogamous, we may come to discover that there are many different types of relationship arrangements we could pursue. Therefore, polygamy not only unmasks the myth of monogamy as natural, it also disrupts the traditional and orthodox foundation of society: heterosexual marriage and the nuclear family. By understanding the ways in which the dominant narrative of monogamy has constrained our relationships with one another, we learn that monogamy is, in fact, a choice, and not a compulsory aspect of our lives. We are capable of, and empowered to, subvert monogamy through other forms of romantic arrangement, such as polygamous relationships.
Polygamy challenges the capitalist and patriarchal status quo, and pursues philosophies which embrace collectivism over individualism, cooperation instead of competition, and romantic fluidity over strict adherence to one partner.
Like all relationships, polygamy is not without problems. Polygamous relationships have existed throughout history, but often involved men marrying multiple wives. Popular depictions of polygamy, such as threesomes, often portray men as being the centre of multiple females’ attention. Thus, polygamy does not automatically displace the patriarchy within relationships and erase the feelings of jealousy which partners may feel.
However, to solely focus on the problems of polygamy would be to become blind to the limitations of monogamy. All relationships must work on equality, respect and trust, not just polygamous ones. To cite problems associated with polygamy as reasons for its elimination, is an inadequate case.
Ultimately, monogamy is a political, cultural and social institution which promotes the capitalist patriarchy, erases non-heterosexual relationships, delegitimises other forms of human relationships and perpetuates male economic dominance over women. It functions as a norm which has, over time, developed into the natural and expected state of human affairs. However, human relationships are nuanced, complicated and difficult to define – and monogamy is not a model which may accommodate the desires and needs of everyone. By weaning ourselves off the narrative of ‘the one’, however, we can regain our power to choose who and how to love.