Reader Request Week 2008 #9: Polygamy

Not everyone sends reader requests through the comments (although you should, hint, hint); some send them through e-mail. Here’s one of the e-mailed ones, from Tristan:

You’ve been very vocal about your support for gay marriage. Do you also support polyamory?

To start, I think we might have a bit of term confusion. I suspect Tristan is asking if I support polygamy, which is marriage (presumably legal) among multiple partners, rather than polyamory, in which a person has multiple emotional/sexual relationships. Nearly all polygamists are polyamorous, I would imagine (otherwise what’s the point); but not everyone who is polyamorous is a polygamist, nor to my understanding would necessarily choose to be even if polygamy were legal. Some would; others not so much.

Be that as it may, being as I am in science fiction/nerd circles, I have a fair number of friends who are openly polyamorous, and some who are in functionally polygamous relationships, which is to say, there’s more than two of them who live and function as a household. Would I support these folks having legal rights and responsibilities to each other as well emotional/romantic ones? At the risk of making sure I’m absolutely, positively never elected to any public office in the land (and this may be a feature, not a bug): Sure. Why? Because it would make them happy, it would do me no harm, and in a general sense I’m a fan of people who care for each other being afforded the legal right to make sure they can care for each other, which when it comes down to it is one of the big attractions to being in a legally codified relationship.

Do I expect polygamy to become legal here in the US in my lifetime? No. Leaving aside some obvious arguments, here’s some other reasons why:

1. Polygamy comes with some seriously bad cultural baggage, which is to say that in the public mind polygamy is synonymous with polygyny, in which one dude gathers up a lot of wives to him. The history of polygyny in the US (at the very least) is not a happy one, since so often its practitioners are of the “marry yet another 14-year-old, knock her up and keep her uneducated” variety. And I think this is a very real and substantive concern, although ironically, most of the functionally-polygamous relationships I know about personally are polyandrous — which is to say that that there’s generally one female and two male partners. I don’t know enough about the relationships to know whether the guys are also involved sexually with each other, which of course would add another dimension to things — and which, not coincidentally, brings up to point two:

2. It’s just another way for gays to totally marry other gays. The day three gay males show up to the courthouse to codify their delightfully threesome-tastic relationship is the day certain heads pop off and blood fountains from the neck (again, some people would see this as a feature, not a bug). Even worse, what if there’s a woman involved but the guys are, like, bisexual? They could be totally going at it without her as the sandwich filling! And that’s… well, that’s just going too far. Basically, everyone who has gay panic now would devolve into full blown hysteria (or testeria, if you prefer), and would run about making hand-wringing motions.

3. Businesses would oppose it on cost grounds. Here in the US, most people get their health insurance and other critical benefits through their work. Anyone who has had to argue with an HR department about getting their spouse on a health plan that’s (slightly) better than the one the spouse gets through their own work knows how dealing with spousal benefits is like pulling teeth; how do they think the HR department is going to react to an additional spouse on the plan? Or another spouse after that? Yeah, business would hate hate hate the idea of polygamy, although I guess you could argue this would be the thing that finally pushes the US to universal health care (i.e., businesses offloading the cost onto the government). Which of course would just make polygamy Yet Another Socialist Plot.

4. The current set-up of mistresses and serial monogamy works just fine for people in power. What? Instead of screwing around I have to have another wife? Insanity! Lots of folks just want to screw around, you know. They don’t want to have to drag a relationship into it, and they’re not sure why anyone else would want to, either. The idea of people actually loving (as opposed to simply boinking) more than one person makes them uncomfortable.

5. Dude, same-sex partners can get married in only one commonwealth in the US as it is — and even then those married couples are explicitly not married in the eyes of federal law. Thus we have same-sex marriage in the US and don’t have it, all at once. There’s no way for polygamy to jump the line ahead of same-sex marriage, either practically (since that’s a struggle in process) or theoretically (for the reasons noted above). Maybe if “polygamy” were strictly defined as “one husband, multiple wives,” it might have a chance, but I don’t think most of the potentially polygamous folk I know would want that particular set-up.

Leaving aside the issue of whether polygamous partners will ever be able to marry in groupings of more than two people at a time, the theoretical posits of the mechanics of group marriages are interesting (and a bit intimidating) to consider: Whether every existing spouse has to approve a potential spouse; whether one person could be married to two (or more) people who would not also be married to each other; what happens if one spouse wants to divorce a second spouse but a third spouse wants to stay married to both, and so on. Pre-nups will be totally off the hook. And no matter what happens, divorce lawyers would be fruitful and multiply. I’m surprised they haven’t started lobbying for legalized polygamy already.

So, yes: At the end of the day, I would support polygamous partners all being married to each other. But on a realistic level, I don’t see how we would get there from where we are now. I wouldn’t mind if this were merely a lack of vision on my part.

(there’s still time to ask questions for Reader Request Week 2008: Post your question here.)

74 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2008 #9: Polygamy”

  1. I like testeria, and shall have to use it appropriately all over the web so it shall spread.

  2. The real problem (yes, I am a lawyer) is how you structure the legal difficulties. What if my spouse wants to marry another person and I say no–do I get to veto that? If he marries her anyway what happens to our community property; is that shared? And what if she then takes a wife, with my permission but not my spouse’s?

    I’m not saying these problems mean we should utterly forget about even trying, but it’s not simply a matter of “and then my secondary gets all the shared benefits too”.

  3. Mythago:

    Oh, sure. This was the stuff that came off the top of my head. There’s lots of other ways to approach it.

  4. Has anyone figured out whether laws governing business partnerships or corporations could be be used by those seeking to form domestic partnerships? I don’t think there’s any law against business partners or corporate board members having sex with each other, if they so choose, but forming a “business” might be a useful way to deal with shared property, taxes, inheritance, etc.

  5. I’ve wondered that myself, Ford. I’m sure someone’s looked into it.

  6. John
    –you get asked some odd shit, man.

    –and what’s maybe even weirder, you ANSWER!

    –for what it’s worth, in college I took an anthropology class and the professor commented that in anthropological studies of cultures/tribes/et al that practice polygamy, in which most cases were a single husband with numerous wives, the wives were for it and the men would have been happy to get rid of the system.

    The gist, apparently, being that many polygamist cultures/tribes/et al developed for economic reasons, ie., the man supports the women, and all in all, the men would like to get away from that. (Obviously, many people only think with their sex organs, so they believe that the only reason to have multiple wives is so you can have sex with whomever you want when you want, although my experience with one wife would suggest that having multiple wives may just be a way to be told to go away by many more women on any given day. I suppose the odds might actually work in your favor. All in all, though, realistically speaking, this strikes me as being one of the more unrealistic reasons to have a polygamist situation.)

  7. As much as I find your answer interesting (and I do!) I find the logical leap inherent in the question even more interesting. That logical leap being that gay marriage and polygamy are somehow related, which of course they aren’t. I don’t really have a philosophical objection to polygamy, but it isn’t analagous to gay marriage, really.

    Gay marriage being a slippery slope towards polygamy is a classic talking point among a certain set. And of course the slippery slope doesn’t stop at polygamy! Expect the question for your NEXT reader request week to be “You’ve been vocal in your support for gay marriage AND polygamy. Do you think dudes should be able to marry furries?”.

  8. I’m pretty sure there are a lot of married furries already, Eddie.

    Also, you know, if the dude had asked if I supposed marrying a dog, I wouldn’t have answered. I think the polygamy question is reasonable.

  9. One rather significant issue with polygyny is not just the cultural baggage, but that actual damage it can potentially do to a culture. The problem with polygyny is that the normal birth rate gives us a 49/51 male/female split. Once you have high status males taking up one or more “extra” wives, you start to have issues with low status males not ever being able to get a wife. In smaller polygamous communities, such as the those in Utah, male children are regulalry cast out, so as not to compete for wives. The result is a disaffected underclass with no future.

    Case in point: The Middle East. Ever wonder why you have so many willing to be suicide bombers? 72 Virgins starts to sound really good when you have no possibility of getting a wife in this life.

    I believe there have been studies done documenting this effect across a number of different cultures

    One thing that is interesting to me is what is going to happen with China. Due to their 1 child per family rules and the usage of various elective gender selection methods, their ratio of males to females is 60/40. Even though they are strictly monogomous, they are ending up with the same effective ratio. What will happen to China when 1 in 5 males can never get a wife? The “mail order bride” business may soon be going the other way . . .

  10. Ford @ 7

    Has anyone figured out whether laws governing business partnerships or corporations could be be used by those seeking to form domestic partnerships?

    Oooo. Wives as employees. That should go over well.

    Would harassment laws be enforced?

    Mark Terry @ 9

    the wives were for it and the men would have been happy to get rid of the system.

    Don’t surprise me none. I had three daughters and a wife. Spoiled me against affairs….

    I don’t need anymore women in my life I can tell you that.

  11. It’s rather a shame that Heinlein didn’t explain how to get past some of the issues you have brought up about the group marriage in the Lazarus Long family. I have always thought it would be a nifty way to live, but the legal problems inherent in the system boggle the mind.

    Oh – that’s right – in his world, they shot all the lawyers, so I guess they didn’t have to worry about that any more.

  12. Frank:

    “Oooo. Wives as employees. That should go over well.”

    Well, you could make everyone equal partners.

    Interestingly, when we fist moved to Ohio, I incorporated and hired my wife to do bookkeeping, because it was cheaper to get insurance for our family if she was my employee (and she and our daughter covered separately), than it was covering her as my spouse. The tax code, it is wacky. I don’t remember it notably changing our relationship dynamic.

  13. John: True. I was trying to not say dogs, and was thinking furries in the sense of some rather scary pokemon art I here is out there, rather than peeps who dress up in bear suits, who of course can get married if they want.

    And ya, the question was entirely reasonable. My brilliant psychic internet powers just thought that there might be some subtext.

  14. Scalzi

    I don’t remember it notably changing our relationship dynamic.

    It is easy for a single employee to capture the attention of the boss.

    Forget about men-women, when you have more than one employee, it increases the odds that you will have one who demands a lot of attention which creates an interesting, and sometimes downright annoying, dynamic amongst the others.

    This is also true when you have more than one child.

    Extrapolating this to the subject at hand makes my head ache.

  15. Frank:

    “Extrapolating this to the subject at hand makes my head ache.”

    Heh. Yes, it’s a good argument that monogamy is at least a simpler subject.

  16. Speaking as someone who would certainly like to have the option of legally marrying my fiance, I pretty much agree with the practical upshot of your analysis.

    I don’t think a large fraction of poly people would be interested — a number aren’t interested in marriage for political reasons (though if same-sex marriage rights were more widely available, that might shift in some cases) and many are only interested in single-primary relationship systems.

    Honestly, I’m at this point more interested at the practical level in dealing with things like the fact that “advocating polygamy” is a felony in Michigan. First things first.

  17. Am I correct in thinking that USAians without partners subsidise USAians with partners via their employer’s healthcare arrangements? As in if you add/remove a partner from coverage under your employer’s healthcare, your take-home pay does not change?
    If so, this would prevent employers being in advance of the law in this area. In NZ, many employer’s perks (e.g cheap travel for airline employees) that traditionally also applied to spouses were changed many years ago to apply to ‘another person as specified by the employee, subject to rules about how often you can change that person’. This was well before the Matrimonial Property Act was replaced with the Relationship Property Act, and Civil Unions introduced.

  18. Poly covers a lot of different things and that is one of the problems as it does not have the same long established social rule book that monogamy and marriage do. Poly is too diverse to pin down.
    I’m in a open marriage. To be honest most folks can’t even get their act together for one healthy relationship let alone 2 or more. Think of how much work goes into having one person in your life and then scale up. If you hang out in the various poly communities you find enough conflicts and issues to make you wonder why anyone goes through that door in the first place.
    If the reason for marriage is for benefits and legal status then equality and fairness would be everyone gets to claim one partner and one only. But some factions of poly loath anything that resembles hierarchy and one partner being different from the others.

  19. One culture in which the one husband/many wives setup seemed to work was that of the Cherokees. However, the choice of the 2nd wife was made by the 1st wife, the 3rd by the 1st & 2nd, and so on. If the husband was on good terms with everyone he might be consulted. And marriages lasted until the women threw the men out.

    As to serial wives, which seems to be common now, i like what L. Sprague DeCamp said in his autobiography when someone suggested he get a new wife: (quoting from memory) “I have spent decades getting accustomed to the quirks and foibles of one woman and you want me to start afresh with a new one? Are you insane?”

  20. Mar Evans

    “I have spent decades getting accustomed to the quirks and foibles of one woman and you want me to start afresh with a new one? Are you insane?”

    Yep. Pretty much.

  21. #20. Errol:
    Am I correct in thinking that USAians without partners subsidise USAians with partners via their employer’s healthcare arrangements? As in if you add/remove a partner from coverage under your employer’s healthcare, your take-home pay does not change?

    This is not the case in my experience. In the US if you have health insurance from your job you have to pay a fraction of the premium yourself, and if you add a spouse or children the premium goes up and so does your share.

    There may still be a hidden subsidy as you describe, but if so it is partial, not total.

    If you really want to, you can often refuse health insurance from your employer, and save the premium share while taking the risk of being uninsured.

    If you and your spouse both work at jobs with insurance you can game the system by choosing to who to cover under which plan. Taking not just cost but benefits and job security into consideration, hopefully.

  22. The current set-up of mistresses and serial monogamy works just fine for people in power.

    I’m not sure Elliot Spitzer would agree.

    As someone said, he wasn’t paying her $4000/hour to have sex with him. He was paying her to go away afterwards.

  23. #24 Capt Button
    There may still be a hidden subsidy as you describe, but if so it is partial, not total.
    OK, thanks

    So typically if you refuse health insurance, your comments imply that it is at least time-consuming if not difficult/impossible to un-refuse it later if your [spouse’s] situation changes?

  24. St. Peter –

    One rather significant issue with polygyny is not just the cultural baggage, but that actual damage it can potentially do to a culture.

    Actually, what you’re doing is mistaking correlation for causation. There are Islamic nations that are not the middle east that have legal polygamy, and are not tyrannical dictatorships and breeding grounds for terrorists.

    In those countries, polygamy is remarkably rare because the rules of Islamic society make it impossible for anyone other than wealthy people who don’t mind having multiple spouses to have them. The “damage” you predict simply isn’t there.

    I believe there have been studies done documenting this effect across a number of different cultures

    Great. Let them account for Malaysia.

  25. To argue in a different direction, I propose we level the playing field and remove any legal benefits associated with being “married”. In the eyes of the law and our government, we should all be seen as individuals.

    And, for full disclosure, I am happily married.

  26. Ford said

    Has anyone figured out whether laws governing business partnerships or corporations could be be used by those seeking to form domestic partnerships?

    Yes, that is what the folks I know in these particular arrangements tend to do.

    The problem is that it doesn’t account for things like hospital visits. “This is also his wife” doesn’t really tend to fly, depend on where in the country you are.

    The joke I always made with my (now ex) boyfriend and girlfriend is that he and I should get married and then immediately divorced before they got married, as I would have more rights (socially speaking, as in the hospital visiting scenario) as his ex-wife than as his girlfriend.

  27. Where I work (and I suspect it’s the same for most other people), there’s an annual “open enrollment” period, during which you can sign up, change, or give up your various benefits (health insurance, life, some of the retirement things, occasionally dental). So if you decline health insurance and then change your mind, the most you’d have to go uninsured would be one year.

  28. My reply at 30 was aimed at 26 Errol. This one is aimed at 28 Carl…

    It actually makes sense to me to remove tax benefits for being married, and to instead shift the focus to the presence of dependents. If your spouse is a dependent, you get a tax break; if they work then they’re on their own for paying taxes.

  29. Frank @13:
    re wives as employees – Speaking from personal experience, you have it the other way around, it’s the board of directors and their employee, which explains my nickname as ‘the hardest working man in polyfidelity’.

    I would certainly like to be able to marry other SO, or at least be able to enter a domestic partnership, but I’m not holding my breath.

    re Eddie Clark – I believe this is what you were trying to say:

  30. Josh Jasperon @27

    IIRC, Malaysian cultures are also matriarchal, so you’ve got Islamic matriarchys as well.

    To revisit the employee angle… one of the cultures we studied in anthro ( I have a minor in it, and really, all I’d need for a BA are some field work courses ) it was the 1st wife who’d pick out the 2nd wife as a business partner. The men worked outside the home usually, while the wives ran small businesses near the home ( food stands, hand crafts, etc. ) It was a Muslim city in, I think West Africa, one of the drier regions, it’s been 20 years, and I can’t remember which one. The impression from the filmed interviews with the husbands was that it was a case of “I’d better do as she says, if I ever want any peace in my life.”

  31. There’s been talk in Canada recently of polygamy and the conservative pundits are using it to declare that they were right about gay marriage leading to a slippery slope of really icky things they don’t want to think about.

    We have universal health care, but there would still be the problem of benefits. I think the easy solution to that is that the benefits would only cover one spouse (and children of course).

  32. Errol: When my fiance was laid off, my employer allowed me to add him to my insurance because he’d had a “change in status.” Basically if my domestic partner’s job status changed, i could immediately add him to my insurance, and have it come into effect the day after his insurance expired. Marriage also falls into this “change in status” category, as does having a baby. For the most part, you must wait until the annual enrollment period, but certain life events allow you to enroll outside then.

    Because of this, I have some “warm fuzzies” towards the gay community because their civil rights movement has allowed me to add my (straight) domestic partner to my insurance.

    I have some “dark stabbies” towards lawmakers, because the amount of money my employer pays to cover my fiance gets added to my taxable income. So just when we could afford it least, I had to pay out extra for his health insurance, and I got taxed extra for the privilege.

    Of course I’m grateful that I could do this at all, but at least we have the option of getting married and making that “taxable income” penalty go away. Gay people don’t have that option; they are punished financially for using their employer’s healthcare benefits to cover their partner.

  33. My father worked in Saudi Arabia around 1960 for a couple of years, for Aramco. Since he lives in a camp of almost excluvisely foreign workers, with basically nothing but sand and the south end of camels moving north for hundreds of miles, when he arrived with the family, the usual thing was to hit the store for supplies before heading out to the camp. Months of supplies, food, toiletries, etc.

    A favorite sport among the locals was to watch the newbies come out of the store with box after box after box, and stuff them in to the truck, then saunter up and comment, “Good lord, man no wonder you people can only afford one wife!”

    Of course, if you’ve been there before, you know the correct answer was “Yeah, and I hear that since King Saud discovered income tax, that’s all you can afford, too.”

    As for singles subsidizing families on premiums, it depends on what state you’re in, and how the insurance company and your employer choose to structure it. At my place of employement, the boss pays 80% of the premium for me, but zero on the premium for spouses (which is eactly as much, IIRC), or families. So here, we don’t.

    In any event, most of the legal effects of marriage can be duplicated with various forms of contract, such as a power of attorney, advanced directive for medical decisions, etc. Some, however, cannot, such as marital privilige.

    And there’s a twisted consequence to discuss: If we can define marriage in any way we want, with any number of people, what is to prevent, say, the mafia, from all marrying each other, so that if they get caught, they not only can’t be forced to testify against each other, they’re specifically prohibited from doing so by marital privilige?

  34. What will happen to China when 1 in 5 males can never get a wife? The “mail order bride” business may soon be going the other way . . .

    Based on a documentary I saw, the policy is already having an effect. The result is a devastating upswing in kidnappings.

    Boys are kidnapped to be adopted as sons, usually under the age of seven or eight; the people who adopted them on the documentary tended to keep them locked indoors and hit them for trying to escape, rather than being nurturing. Girls are kidnapped in their teens to be sold as wives for young men who otherwise might not get married, much as women are trafficked in the sex trade. The girls, from what I can recall, tended to be bought by the ‘groom’s parents, because if a family stops having sons, that’s a big disaster in Chinese culture, so a son who can’t give you a grandson is a tragedy.

    I’d been hoping that the changed ratio might lead to women being valued more in China. In a way, it is – but only as commodities, and only in their teens. Parents who had to sell their babies to adoption traffickers because they couldn’t afford the fine for breaking the one-child-and-only-once-you’re-married-which-you-can’t-do-till-you’re-21 rule got a much lower price for selling female babies than male.

    It’s a mess, and unbelievably sad.

  35. Count me as another person with no moral objections to either polyamory or polygamy.

    However, as another damned lawyer, I think the practical problems that people have pointed out would require a rather massive revision of various areas of the law — family law (obviously), property, tax, health care, trusts and estates, etc.

    Some parts would be simple — like letting all three of my wives visit me in the hospital. Some are more complicated. Which wife gets to decide whether to pull the plug if I am on life support? Is it the senior wife? Do they take a vote? A cage match?

    3+ =/= 2 in many, many ways that have nothing to do with moral judgments.

  36. Kit- Societies that have lower-than-normal numbers of women limit the women’s choices. Because they are so rare, they are forbidden to do anything other than reproduce. It is only when there is an “overabundance” of women that women are given the ability to choose something other than becoming someone’s wife or baby-maker.

    The above may sound bitter and one-sided, but it’s true of any profession. Once people stopped being tied to the land as farmers and/or serfs (thanks to advances in agriculture, etc.), they were given the freedom to do things other than farm, like become philosophers, inventors, and statesmen. Same goes for the industrial revolution. Once factories became more efficient at making stuff, the people who normally would have made said stuff were free to pursue other careers.*

    *Hmm. “Free to pursue other careers” sounds like a corporate way of saying “We’re laying you off.”

  37. Throw my hat in the “for it” ring. Some of the problems y’all have brought up are pretty interesting, especially when it comes to adding a new member to the group. Who decides? It seems that in a group marriage, everyone involved would have to act with a certain level of maturity and compassion for the others in the group.

    Oh, wait. We’re supposed to do that anyway.

    What about “term” marriages? This has been done in some SF, and I like the idea, but I’m not sure I see the point of it. Except it’s a cleaner version of our current system, with its “marry for life until you get a divorce that no one planned for.”

    At least with a specified term, all the break-up details can be planned for and written out pre-nup. And if the folks involved change their minds, they can always go for another term. This works for any number of people/genders in the marriage.

  38. Term marriages could be nice, provided there were some flexibility as to the length of term you could go for. I’m sure that for every couple/group that wanted to try out a few years of marriage and go from there, there’d be another couple/group that didn’t want to deal with the hassle of remembering to renew their marriage contract every few years. And I shudder to think what might happen to older folks (probably the most likely to forget to renew) who suddenly discovered, when their partner became terminally ill or some such thing, that they weren’t actually married any longer.

  39. Mike @ 33 –

    IIRC, Malaysian cultures are also matriarchal, so you’ve got Islamic matriarchys as well.

    No, they’re not. Really. I lived in Singapore, which is about as close to Malaysia as Manhattan is to Fort Lee New Jersey. I know Malaysia pretty well. Not Matriarchal.

  40. Things like medical decisions are not nearly as complicated with polygamy as they would seem at first glance. Many family law issues could be dealt with exactly the same way they are dealt with when the question is about decisions made by multiple children for an elderly parent. You have four kids, who gets to decide when to pull the plug? How is that significantly different than having four husbands? You can give a medical power of attorney to one of them, or you can only allow the plug to be pulled if three of the four agree, or whatever arrangement you feel comfortable with. I know my dad’s already written up a document expressing what rights my mother *and* us kids have in making decisions for him. (He’s being proactive because of the history of dementia in his family, and he wanted it written down before he was incapable of making such decisions.) And this in a normal monogamous marriage. Polygamy doesn’t have to be more complicated, just more explicit, perhaps. More choices have to be specifically expressed and fewer assumptions can be made. But I find that true even in the non-legal aspects of polyamorous relationships.

  41. It would be great if some writers who like to put poly into their stories had a better grasp of what it really is so it does not come across as an author’s personal porn fantasy or as a lazy shortcut for making something more exotic. Not that I will name names, but there are plenty of offenders out there.

  42. After following a stream of consciousness directly from this entry, I remembered a question that I’ve been wanting to see answered for a while:

    Where does Heinlein fit into your personal universe?

    I suspect the answer’s got some nuances, even though I fear that as posed it’s too vague.

  43. First: The prospective new member has to get along with everyone already in the partnership. Follow the 90 day rule, which says that people can only be on their best behavior for at most 90 days. After that they relax around you and act normal. The prospective husband or wife proves to be a prick after 90 days, you’ve saved yourself a lot of grief.

    Second: Marriage and divorce would have to be simplified. Greatly simplified. A declaration that two people will be living together and sharing income and expenses, plus the filing of a simple form with the local government, suffices to establish a basic marriage. A declaration that an additional party will be joining the marriage, plus filing a simple form with the local government, suffices to establish the new partner as a member of the marriage. Divorce works the same way. Only in this case the declaration involves all parties directly involved announcing that they are dissolving their partnership, and the filing of a simple form with local government. Obviously the legal oligarchy is going to hate this.

    Third: All marriages regardless of size must establish at the beginning who the alpha male and the alpha female are. They run the show, they decide who will and who will not join the marriage. Marriage is not a democracy but a participatory despotism. As a member of a marriage you have a voice, and any smart despot will listen, but you can’t overrule the despot. You don’t like the way the Alphas are running the marriage, divorce them and find another marriage to join.

    Fourth: Everybody is responsible for the children. No exceptions. Refusal to take responsibility for the children means automatic divorce and criminal prosecution for fraud with no need for a prior agreement in writing or orally. The agreement to help raise the children of a marriage is automatically assumed and requires no specific statement on the part of any party. Again the legal oligarchy is going to hate this part.

  44. The A-marries-B-marries-C problems that people always bring up whenever this subject comes around usually become implausible if you let a “marriage” consist of more than two people but still forbid simultaneous membership by the same person in more than one. That is, you wouldn’t have [A is married to B] and [B is married to C], you have [A, B, and C are married], which one presumes would better reflect the actual householding and family-ing going on.

  45. If a relationship works for the people in it, who am I to pass judgment on their loving for each other? (Then again, I live in that heathen, we’re-the-only-one commonwealth where same sex couples can actually get their relationship acknowledged by the gummint.)

    And if we ever do get to the more complicated matrimonial structures Heinlein envisioned in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, I figure it’ll be the Lawyer Full Employment Act of 2027.

  46. SaintPeter: Most of the females I know are of the opinion that at least half the men in the country aren’t fit to marry anyway, and I suspect many would rather share a good husband than have sole posession of a bad one.

  47. Jed @47:

    I’m not willing to lie on a contract, which makes the concept of group marriage useless to me. My established marriage is not transitive; my fiance is not a part of it (and if he were interested in being so he would not be my fiance).

    I’m not in a marital relationship with my fiance’s wife/husband’s girlfriend (this is the same person). This is the case even to the extent that we have a our-adult household (increasingly so).

  48. Alan @46: So, if A, B, and C are married and have explicitly agreed not to have children, but then A and B change their minds and do so without C having a say in the matter at all, C should still be forced to care for the child or be guilty of fraud? It’s A and B who’ve committed the fraud here, unless you’re going to argue that the agreement to remain childless had no weight and that no one should marry at all unless willing to care for children. But why on earth should marriage be contingent on that?

    Then again, I can see how you might think it should if you also think each marriage should contain at least one man and one woman.

  49. Keri #39-
    Technically serfdom died due to the plagues and a couple serious famines. Once there was an over-abundance of land and a serious lack of people to work it, former serfs had value as workers (Europe before the plagues of the 14th and 15th centuries was crammed with overpopulation). After 40-60% of the workforce died, it was nearly impossible to keep workers unless you were offering more than your neighbors since everyone needed them. Thus died feudalism.

    Also, having just got married, I can tell you that the whole tax break thing doesn’t work at our income level anyway in the US. If I’d gotten to file as single I’d have gotten about 1k back from the Feds and 300 from the State. My husband would have had about 400 from each.
    Because we got married and filed jointly, we ended up getting 3 dollars from the feds and and owing the state a bit. Yay joint income shoving us right into another tax bracket! (I’d be poverty level on my own, so it does have the perk of you know, money).

    Many employers these days are giving benefits to any designated partner, so that’s a plus.

    And personally, one husband is plenty to worry about. But I never learned to share well either ;)

  50. Wow, I wish we could edit comments. I have more bad grammar and awkward language in the previous comment than I usually feel good about even on the internet. Sigh.
    I guess 2-3 hours of sleep and an ongoing 15 day work week are some excuse, right?

  51. Alan Kellogg @46 — Why not just say you’re against the idea? Because with a model like that that denies the personal freedoms that exist in monogamy, or even serial monogamy, I can’t see anybody signing up. It certainly doesn’t look like any successful poly relationship I’ve ever seen, IRL or in fiction.

  52. most of the functionally-polygamous relationships I know about personally are polyandrous — which is to say that that there’s generally one female and two male partners.

    My informal observation from real life experience is that those tend to be the longest-lasting and most stable, though I don’t have anything like a statistically-useful sample size. One could come up with all sorts of theories about women being better communicators/relationship builders, or more inclined to work at it, and thus more effective at the point of a “v”.

    I know one FMF triad who have been married and divorced in different combinations at different times due to the need for insurance coverage.

    I enjoyed Wen Spencer’s take on the topic in A Brother’s Price.

  53. #52 Nobu:
    Also, having just got married, I can tell you that the whole tax break thing doesn’t work at our income level anyway in the US.

    I haven’t looked at the tax rules on marriage for over 10 years, but as I recall it, it isn’t so much a matter of income level as income ratio. If both spouses make about the same amount of money, they owe more tax married than single. If one spouse makes much more than the other, they end up owing less tax than if they were single.

    The year I got married my taxes went down $1500, since my wife was a college student without an income that year.

  54. I haven’t seen anyone mention immigration and pensions, which are major factors for some people. Many private pensions are regulated by the federal ERISA, for example, so the federal law controls how those can handle non M+F marriages. In the western US where I grew up, water rights and easements on federal land are also important. There are even federal benefits contingent on being the spouse of someone who sells cut flowers.

    Any significant changes to the laws that are based on M+F marriage would have to pass through the bottleneck of the most vociferous voters in the most conservative state that has a senior Senator and then get a really big stack of bills through Congress in a timely and more or less synchronized way. Congress can barely get the budget bills passed every year.

    So, although I personally think that plural marriages are not only okay but even a better or more natural choice for some people, I also think that there is no way it is going to happen in the USA in my lifetime.

  55. #56 Captain Button- well, I make about 14k a year. My husband makes about 45k. So by your statement, we should be getting a tax break (I claim 0 on my taxes for with-holding, he claims 3 since he is head of household).
    Fortunately, we just live off his income and save all of mine. I think in our case the problem is that with his income I’m no longer classified as below poverty level.

    Also, to echo what Scalzi and others have said, the only poly relationship I’ve seen work for more than ten years is MMF. Of course, it is literally the only poly relationship among my friends that has worked out at all. The others, even the ‘open’ marriages, all fail within 3-7 years. And yet my friends keep trying. So must be something there for them.

  56. Many years ago on USENET, it was pointed out that since you can’t be compelled to testify about private communications with your spouse and you can give (a certain amount of) money to your spouse tax-free, legalizing polygamy would give a new meaning to the phrase “Mafia families”.

    Personally, I’m all for removing “marriage” as a recognized state of affairs in civil law and replacing it, as someone upthread suggested, with a more general protection for dependents.

  57. AlanV@51

    “unless you’re going to argue that the agreement to remain childless had no weight and that no one should marry at all unless willing to care for children. But why on earth should marriage be contingent on that?”

    There’s an argument to be made here that there is no other reason for marriage – ie. to provide for the upbringing of children. Otherwise it’s either A) a business partnership or B) some sort of religious commitment. If it’s A, then it’s just a matter of codifying how property should be managed and who gets to make management decisions (which, not to be cold or anything, includes health care and end of life decisions). I don’t see how that’s particularly different from a business partnership and why it should get any special privileges. If it’s B, then it’s none of the government’s business, and each religion can make their own decisions about what is and isn’t valid.

    In case it’s not obvious, I’m playing Devil’s advocate here. I think, in most cases, you’re probably right – people overly complicate the problems because they conflict with their underlying religious beliefs, not any logical argument. There are practical and legal issues about fairness, inheritance, the tax code etc., but frankly those exist in the current system as well.

  58. I don’t have a lot of data points, but the longest-lived live-in poly relationships I’ve encountered in my area (the ones that have lasted over ten years) are a quad (two men, two women), and two women and a man. Those two groups are, I would say, less visible in our local poly community, and I wonder if it’s simply a matter of “it’s working, so I’m living my life rather than participating as much in the quote-community-unquote”? No clue.

    It is a little strange to hear, in essence, “polyamory never works”. While I have only one live-in partner (of 24 years of living together), I’ve also a partner of nearly eight years and another of a bit over five years. I do think there’s a lot more complexity, and not all relationships last forever, but I don’t think that it has to be as intractable as people make it, and I wonder if it’s really as difficult as some make it out to be.

  59. Regarding businesses fighting this change because of extra spousal benefits – I think if this were the only change for the business (and ignoring all the other legal changes mentioned here) they could adapt fairly easily.

    From my personal experience as health costs rose my health benefits from the same company have gone from all-inclusive (bring the whole family) to completely ala-carte: Just the employee: $X, add the spouse: $X+$Y, add N kids: $X + $Y + N*$Z. I can imagine they would add an M (number of spouses, M=Married, get it?) multiplier to the $Y fairly easily.

    Of course you’d need a spreadsheet to find your best overall benefits if each spouse had his/her own possible health insurance. It could be a cottage industry for a smart geek with a computer. They’d set up a stand at Wal*Mart next to the H&R stand. Shoot, H&R would probably offer the service during the non-tax season.

  60. “The day three gay males show up to the courthouse to codify their delightfully threesome-tastic relationship is the day certain heads pop off and blood fountains from the neck (again, some people would see this as a feature, not a bug).”

    *thinks of three friends who are in a relationship together*

    *walks away whistling*

  61. @ Susan

    That is what my two boyfriends and I plan on doing. We have a triad and whichever arrangement provides the best overall insurance situation will be what we go with. If Bf1 has excellent insurance, I have insurance, and Bf2 has poor insurance then Bf1 and Bf2 will be together etc etc.

    We have talked about having a sort of “living” prenup. We start with a legal contract and then every time something significant happens (new assets, new job, kids, pets, and so on) we review and update the document. We would also probably review the document once a year or so regardless of changes. This way, if things turn out badly we have updated documents to, hopefully, keep court costs low. Kind of how people should be constantly updating their will…

    Anyway, we are all youngish so who knows how this will work out but at least it is a plan of sorts.

    p.s. I read heinlein when I was 12 and I definately think that it influenced my preference for a poly relationship.

  62. I have a lot of friends in interesting combinations – a functioning 2M 2F quartet, MMF triads, MFF triad that lost the second F after 8 years, a number of open marriages, both acknowledged and covert (and a couple of people who inexplicably cheat on spouse rather than agreeing on open relationship, but badly enough that the social group and thus spouse end up aware…. Dumb, dumb, dumb….)

    I think generalizations don’t work. People are different.

  63. A few thoughts:

    Thanks for the post!

    I certainly agree that we’re not going to have poly marriage anytime *soon*, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it happens eventually. In 1965, I can imagine people saying, “We’ll never have same-sex marriage in my lifetime, ’cause after all in 16 US states people of different races still can’t get married.” My guess is that within 25 years, same-sex marriage will be fairly widespread (but not universal) in the US, and that by then people will have started seriously pushing for multiple-adult marriage. But of course I’m talking through my hat here; my future predictions are often more optimistic than is warranted.

    …On a side note, I see polygamy equated with bestiality remarkably often, and it always surprises me; a lot of US law around who can have sex with who has to do with consent, and it seems obvious that it’s possible to get explicit verbal consent from multiple adult humans in a way that just isn’t possible with animals. But yeah, given how many people use polygamy and bestiality as the main examples of obviously evil things that will inevitably result from legalizing same-sex marriage, there’s clearly a long way to go in getting widespread social acceptance of polyamory, much less poly marriage.

    I’m surprised not to see more people here mention that in sf, poly marriage is usually described as falling under the general rubric of contract law. But yeah, as several people have noted, a lot of US laws would need to be tweaked/adjusted to make that work.

    But yes, Mel@43 made a great point: a lot of the things that monogamous people have a hard time figuring out about polyamory (like the common “but … how can you love more than one person? that’s not possible!”) are pretty similar to, or at least analogous to, things that come up all the time regarding multiple people who aren’t lovers in the monogamous world (nobody would say “but … how can you have more than one friend? that’s not possible!” or “but .. how can you have more than one family member? that’s not possible!”).

    I agree that the expense of health insurance for multiple partners would be a big stumbling point for a lot of businesses. But a lot depends on what’s socially acceptable. In the US today, if you have 15 kids, your health insurance will cover all of them (possibly with some additional cost to you, I dunno), and nobody says that that’s weird or unusual or that insurance should only cover the first kid.

  64. Specific responses to Nobu@58: “Of course, it is literally the only poly relationship among my friends that has worked out at all. The others, even the ‘open’ marriages, all fail within 3-7 years” — This seems to suggest that to count as “work[ing] out at all,” a poly relationship has to last more than 7 years. Do you apply the same standard to monogamous relationships? ‘Cause I’ve seen a whole lot of those that haven’t lasted 7 years.

    Of course, there’s also a question in some cases as to what it means for “a poly relationship” to last a given period of time, because a lot of poly relationships don’t consist of exactly n people. In fact, most of my experience involves having what I would call multiple two-person relationships at once, rather than one multi-person relationship per se. For example, in one of my current relationships, we just reached our tenth anniversary, but we’ve both had a variety of other partners during that time. That partner has been together with one of their other partners for, what, 13 years now? Something like that. But I wouldn’t say that the three of us have a poly relationship; in our particular case, I would consider that two different relationships.

    But yeah, as a couple of people have noted, there are a lot of different ways to do polyamory, so it can be hard to generalize about this stuff.

  65. Jed @67:


    My husband and I have been together for fourteen years. In that time I’ve had several other serious relationships, some of which lasted about a year, one of which lasted five and a half, the last of which is, well, my fiance. He’s had a few casual things, and now has a relationship of I think seven years duration with his long-distance partner and three years with his local one.

    None of this was ever One Big Relationship, though it has had family units consisting of networks of relationships that happen to work out sensibly as family units. But I consistently run into stuff that basically trivialises and dismisses the fourteen years I’ve been with my husband because completely different relationships in which he was not a participant ended. I, uh, what?

    I don’t have “poly relationships”. I have multiple relationships, which makes me poly, or the system of relationships I’m in poly, but all my relationships are dyads.

  66. K@68: Cool! Congratulations on 14 years with your husband! Fwiw, I think that’s great.

    …Unrelatedly: I had some not-very-serious thoughts about the Mafia/poly connection, but I didn’t want to completely hijack the discussion here, so I posted ’em in my blog; if anyone’s interested, follow the link.

  67. Something like this doesn’t help the poly advocates. This is the specific sort of thing that led to the Mormons being suppressed and polygamy banned in the US over a century back.

    I’ve known several poly “marriages.” A few have done quite well long-term. A few, not so well. Track record overall maybe about like monogamous marriages. None involved minor children at home. What’s that mean? Got me.

  68. Jedd@66,

    In the US today, if you have 15 kids, your health insurance will cover all of them (possibly with some additional cost to you, I dunno), and nobody says that that’s weird or unusual or that insurance should only cover the first kid.

    Actually I do know and said so in 62, but I know nobody reads my comments (pouts).

    In my experience if you have health insurance and want 15 kids covered you are going to pay for each kid. The corporation I work for covers the basic coverage for the employee only and anything above that (including upgrading to the good coverage for the employee) is paid for by the employee. Essentially the company kicks in a lump sum and beyond that is up to the worker. There may still be a few companies that offer “bring the whole family” but I don’t know of them.

  69. I think there is a great deal of ignorance when it comes to polygamy. It has been a common practice for thousands of years. The current head of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress is a polygamist. It has been practiced for over a hundred years in the United States. There is a great deal of humanity that is not covered in anthropology classes. People have made polygamy work well – both in the United States and abroad.

  70. Good essay, John. Mythago hit what is, to me, the key: From society’s viewpoint, marriage is and always has been primarily an economic institution–a means of determining the placement of property. Forms of marriage have changed as property relations have changed. Polygamy would seriously mess with that.

    Besides, it’s morally wrong. *checks mirror* Oh, scratch that last; I forgot who I was for a second there.

  71. I don’t see how we would get there from where we are now. I wouldn’t mind if this were merely a lack of vision on my part.

    In 2008 when this was written I would have agreed. Now in 2013, I think there is a real possibility that I may see at least a serious push for it in my lifetime. And I wouldn’t bet against full legalization either.

    You know who we’d have to thank for it if it happened too? The anti-gay rights bigots who kept on saying “well if you have ‘gay’ marriage, you might as well legalize polygamy too. Hysterical hyperbole on their part sure, but I’ve started to see people turn around and say “so what is the big deal with this polygamy thing anyway?” and “yeah, you know that may not be a bad idea”. Damn it, the anti-change lobby have raised the awareness of the issue quite well amongst the public. People have look at the hysteria and started wondering just exactly what there was to be hysterical about. In making people aware just how little equal marriage would truly affect anyone but the couples in question, they’ve opened the door to people realizing that multiple person marriage wouldn’t affect them greatly either.

    I love that irony. In their attempts to stop equal marriage, they’ve not only failed but paved the way for one of their hot button derailing arguments to become legal too. Not to say I expect it in the next ten or even twenty years (although given how things can unexpectedly snowball I wouldn’t totally rule it out). Next thirty or forty years? Yeah I can see that.

%d bloggers like this: