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Is three really a crowd?

Some friends, mostly women, and I have been having this on-going discussion about polygamy and whether or not we could see ourselves available to two or more spouses. The discussion spawned from the now-defunct HBO series “Big Love,” which we were fans of.  Whenever there is news about polygamy, the discussion resurfaces among us. Recently, we heard the story of Zionnghaka Chana, 67, who lives together with his 39 wives and more than 120 children and grandchildren in some sort of tribal Christian cult in North Eastern India.

Of course that is an extreme example but the idea of two, three or four consenting adults coming together in perfect matrimony is not so foreign.  Despite the natural impulse to curl your lips up in disgust, I have been stunned by the number of female friends, who have said that they are okay with the concept of sharing their husbands.  From an analytical standpoint, it can make sense.  So much lip service, and blog bandwidth, has been given to the black marriage crisis in the black community. We have all heard the statistics: 42 percent of American black women have never been married, compared to 21% of white American women. Between 1970 and 2001, the black marriage rate dropped by 34%, compared to 17% in the general population. African-American women are the least likely group to get married in the United States. And if we do wed a black man, those couples have the highest divorce rate in the United States. Not to mention the higher incarceration rates for black males, which also play a role in the decrease in the availability of marriageable Black men.

So with those statistics threatening the future of the institution of marriage, could marrying in the plural be the answer to not only saving the black marriage but also stabilizing black families?

Polygamy and Polyandry, which is the pairing of one woman with several mates, has a long history in the world — a history I won’t bore you too much with.  But I will say that although some say its Biblical, there has always been a much more important societal justification behind it, particularly the unequal ratio of males to females. While it is true that at birth, the number of each sex are pretty much equal (at birth, there are 101-104 males per 100 females), war and other factors leads to females outnumbering males.  Historically, the uneven ratio led to polygamy as it became acceptable for men to take on another bride, usually sisters of the wife of a fallen brother, to ensure that these women were taken care of but more importantly, that the population within a tribe or ethnic group of people continued to grow. Of course, there are a few exceptions, like in the some parts of India, Africa and Amazon, where fraternal polyandry is used to keep the population in check (one woman with several husbands can’t make as many babies as the reverse).

According to researchers at Brigham Young University, an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 people live a polygamist lifestyle in the US. I actually believe that number to be too low. Folks may not like to admit it but there are women, some within our own families, who know that their husband has a whole other family on the side.  The other woman, and her kids, are the ones that usually show up at the funeral and everyone, with exception of the “wife,” is wondering why “that strange lady’s son looks an awfully lot like Uncle Joe.” Uh-huh. What do you think the S.O.S Band meant when they sang, “I don’t care about those other girls, just be good to me?”

Growing up in Philly it was not uncommon to know someone who was a product of an Islamic polygamist relationship, in which the orthodox rules of Islam virtually allow a man to marry several women at one time. As a teen, I became infatuated by the concept and would probe them with all sorts of questions about how their alternative families worked and how their mothers dealt with being one of several wives. And while, I anticipated their mothers being those submissive types, who flinch every time their husbands said, “boo,” I was surprised to discover that many of these women were very well-rounded, educated and logical in their practice of polygamy.  Some were stay at home mothers but the vast majority of these women had careers and lives of their own, outside of their unions. They didn’t view their sister wives as competitors but rather helpmates in their family. And more importantly, they took no crap from their husband.

While it is logical to believe that men are the ultimate beneficiaries of polygamy, the reality is that any man, who takes up more than one spouse has to be financially and emotionally stable enough to carry the load of responsibility.  And with several wives outnumbering the male, each requiring their needs and desires to be fulfilled, I can imagine who really gets to call the shots in the relationships.  But with anything, it is a matter of personal choice. And while I personally have considered the idea, I don’t think I could get past the sharing of a man in that context. Call me selfish, but “know thy self and to thine own self be true.” However if a woman, or a man for that matter, decides of free will to enter into multiple relationships – and is emotionally mature enough to handle it – well I believe more power to them.  There is more than one way to be unified in matrimony. I’m just presenting an alternative view.

Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things.

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