As a poly person, I can’t tell you how many times someone has asked me if I consider myself a sister wife. “Yes, my partner has a wife,” I explain, “but I’m polyamorous, not polygamous.” Usually I’m met with a blank stare, because a lot of people just assume they’re the same thing. Spoiler alert! They’re not.
Here are some of the major differences between polygamy and polyamory.
Divided along Gender Lines
Polygamy can be divided into two subgroups: “polygeny” and “polyandry.” The former is what most of us envision when we think of polygamous relationships—a husband with multiple wives. Polyandry, on the other hand, refers to the practice of a wife having more than one husband.
What’s important to note is that polygamy is for heterosexuals only. And good luck if you’re one of multiple partners and you want to choose a new partner of your own to add to the mix. Either a man can have multiple wives or a wife can have multiple husbands, never both.
Often Religious in Nature
Most polygamous relationships are rooted in religious doctrine. For example, some Mormon sects believe that both God and Jesus had multiple wives, and that this is a solid way to get into Heaven. This explains why Mormons practice polygeny vs. polyandry.
Having multiple wives is also handy when you want to have lots of kids who will go on to follow the same religious footsteps as you and ultimately join you and your many wives in the sweet hereafter.
About Plural Marriage
Polygamy is all about tying the knot, which is why it has been deemed illegal in many parts of the world, and why lots of people feel particularly squirmy about it. These marriages are recognized by the church, not the state, and partners of each husband are often referred to as “sister wives.”
Perhaps you’ve seen the Netflix docuseries 3 Wives, One Husband. It provides a quick glimpse into plural marriage, though I’d be interested to hear how it stacks up against real-life polygamy, beyond the camera. Is it really so dramatic?
Open to All Combinations of Gender and Sexual Orientation
Compared to polygamy, polyamory is much more freewheeling. You can have a girlfriend and a boyfriend, and your girlfriend or boyfriend can have girlfriends and boyfriends. Depending on the number of people you have in your polycule, things can get pretty complicated, but that’s fine.
There are no hard and fast rules about how to structure poly life. It’s all about having the freedom to live as you like with whomever you like, provided you’re not hurting anyone.
About Different Types of Intimate Relationships
Polyamory is not about marriage. Sure, some poly people might choose to have a commitment ceremony where they celebrate their love for one another, but they don’t consider this a legal contract and there are no religious connotations.
In fact, some poly people don’t want to be in committed relationships, or don’t feel the need to define things in such absolute ways. There’s lots of room in the poly lifestyle for different types of loving bonds, from romantic friendships to live-in sexual partners.
Another defining feature of polyamory is that the rules are determined by none other than those involved, there’s no preordained path to poly bliss. This doesn’t mean that rules aren’t important, but rather that they exist as a result of multiple conversations wherein everyone is heard and given the chance to weigh in.
Polyamory is rooted in a much more democratic and liberal philosophy than polygamy. But when it comes down to it, happiness is happiness. As long as you find joy and love in your relationships and no one’s miserable, what’s the harm?
There is so much more to this topic than one blog post can allow. Please check out this article at Psychology Today if you’re still curious: What Is the Difference Between Polyamory and Polygamy?
Do you have experience in a polygamous or polyamorous relationship? Please share in the comments!