Polygamy involves having more than one husband or wife; multiple marriage. This is a controversial issue and has been made illegal in some countries. The vast majority of polygamy worldwide is rooted in religious belief. Most commonly, in the United States, people associate polygamy with Mormonism. However, world wide, Polygamy is far more associated with Islam. According to Islam, every Muslim male is authorized up to four wives. Polygamy is practiced by millions of people, and the idea that it is just something associated with mormons is false. So, what are the risks polygamy can have on the psychological health of participants?

Polygamy is the practice of having numerous husbands or wives. In its most common form, polygamy is patriarchal; there is one husband and several wives. For the most part, at least in Canada and the United States, it is quite rare (although recently making a comeback thanks to popular tv shows showing a positive side to it); this is particularly true in the West. In its illegal form polygamy is referred to as bigamy; the marriage to more than one person, often without the knowledge and consent of all parties. However, polygamy does still take place across the world, and is common in some areas. It can be seen as beneficial; if a polygamist family share a house, they also share the burdens of chores and work to keep the household going. Friendships can develop and marriages can become more like communities; this might be appealing. In some cases there may be less risk of a disagreement ending in a stalemate, as discussions will have to take place between several people in order to reach some kind of democratic solution. Children can have the input of numerous adults in their care and upbringing, which is valuable. Viewed in this manner, polygamy is not always a problematic way to live. However, this is not the case in all polygamist marriages, which can present unique and difficult challenges and in many cases (historically around the world), oppress the women involved who may have no choice or freedom to leave.

Challenges And Unique Effects of Polygamy

One great risk of polygamy is that it can be rooted in power. If there is one husband and several wives, it suggests that he holds the majority of power. He might be able to pick and choose between wives, favouritism and manipulation are commonplace. This can be detrimental to the psychological health of the women; they might feel like a commodity, have low self-esteem and experience feelings of jealousy. In some parts of the world, women might be forced or coerced into polygamous marriages, again this can cause on going mental health problems. Polygamist marriages could develop into situations where one, or several, wives are side-lined and exploited for their domestic labour or monetary income, rather than being cherished in a loving marriage. Situations can become desperate and potentially violent. This will be very damaging for the women and leave them highly vulnerable. They might develop psychological issues such as anxiety and depression. Depending on where the polygamous marriage is taking place, this can be further compounded by outside opinions and judgements. For example, if it is happening in a country where polygamous marriage is unusual, wives may face negative attention and abuse from the media and other people in the local community. These factors will add to the already existing problems and cause the women to feel shame, and possible anxiety about sharing and discussing their difficulties. They may feel trapped and consider running away or even suicide.

In Muslim countries, women may not have any say in the marriage at all and can be in a position of helplessness, having no legal recourse to free themselves. When dealing with effects of polygamy, a therapist cannot discount the heavy religious context that is likely to be present. Since most polygamous marriages are rooted strongly in religion, this aspect must be of paramount importance in consideration of counseling someone who is in such a relationship.

How Polygamy Affects the Family

A polygamist household when looked at from the outside is often just a large family, where people try to work together to make the best of their lives. The most telling variable in how a family is affected by their choice of marriage is in their religious beliefs. A family is guided by their beliefs, not simply by their marriage status. A mormon family that happens to be polygamist will be most affected by Mormonism. A Muslim family that is polygamist will be most affected by Islam. If all of the spouses involved are doing so of their own accord and no one is being coerced or oppressed due to religious or social pressure to be in that situation, then this is a vastly different scenario as opposed to cases where one woman might be an underage child being forced to marry without having any freedom to say no (which, sadly, is not uncommon worldwide). The greatest effect of polygamy on a family is most often conflict. For women in a patriarchal family, jealousy, self-esteem issues, and feeling overwhelmed and under-appreciated are significant hurdles.

Effects of Polygamy On Children

Let us now look at what happens when polygamous marriages result in child birth. Again, we can argue that this could be a positive experience for children, particularly if the family cohabits. It is likely that they will have siblings of a similar age, and so will have lots of people to play with. The input they gain from their various parents can be beneficial and valuable, and they can learn how to live alongside others without conflict. It is possible that polygamous marriages can provide a supportive and loving network for the upbringing of children. However, this is the best possible outcome. In some situations this is not the case. If the parents do not cohabit, consider how the child will feel if the father chooses to spend more time with another wife and her children. Even if the married adults do decide to cohabit it can still be negative for children. It is likely that there will be numerous children at one time, because of this it is possible that children will feel a lack of attention and focus on them, particularly from their father. They might try to compete for his attention. Again, favouritism might creep in. For example, if the husband prefers one wife, he will probably also prefer her children. If the polygamous marriage is happening in a place where that is not the norm, as the children grow older they will realise their family is unusual and may feel confused about this. They may also face bullying and verbal abuse at school. Children can be victims of harassment and isolated among friends due to stigma and being different. We must always remember that no matter what our personal belief is about polygamy, even if we feel it is morally wrong, the children of a polygamist family are innocent and should never be made to feel different or any less simply due to their life at home.

How Therapy Can Help With The Effects of Polygamy

Therapists are experts in dealing with issues and conflict. In a polygmous marriage, by definition, there is going to be a lot of conflict simply because there are more people involved (potentially many more if there are a lot of children). Many would say it is hard enough to have a healthy relationship with just one person, so needless to say, in a relationship with several people, and potentially a great many children, challenges will be numerous. A therapist can help sort out the tangled web of conflict and strife, help each person find individual time to themselves and bring some much needed direction. Therapists should not be judgmental and instead seek to offer help that is grounded in understanding and self discovery. If you have experience of polygamy, whether you are part of a polygamous marriage or you were raised in a polygamous household, and feel that it may have had a negative impact on your psychological health, help is at hand. Therapists and counsellors are trained to help people work through their difficulties. They will not judge, or betray the trust of people who confide in them. Instead, they can support you and provide a safe place to disclose anxieties and other feelings. If polygamy has affected your life and you are in need of support, do not hesitate to speak to a therapist or counselor.

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