Variation in affinal relations

As we saw in this week’s readings different cultures around the world have different ideas about who counts as family and what different family members’ rights and obligations are relative to others. Some of these kinship systems can be very different from the ones we are most familiar with. In this assignment use the required readings to reflect on how your life might be different and how your outlook on the world would change if you lived in a different culture that had a different definition for the ideal form of marriage.

In the article “Polyandry: When Brothers Take a Wife” we learn about marriage among the indigenous peoples of Tibet where one woman takes multiple husbands. While polyandry (one woman, multiple men) is quite rare, polygyny (one man, multiple women) is considered the ideal form of marriage in many cultures. How would you like to be a participant in a poly marriage? What might be some of the benefits of such a lifestyle? What drawbacks do you foresee? Do you think this form of marriage is unacceptable in the modern US? Why?

In the article “Family and Kinship in Village India” we learn about arranged marriages in India where the parents of the bride and groom negotiate the union among themselves with a limited amount of input from the couple to be engaged. The traditional marriage in India is also a contractual exchange accompanied by a dowry (property paid by the bride’s family), which contrasts with another common practice, bridewealth (property paid by the groom’s family). How would you like to be a participant in an arranged marriage, accompanied by a formalized exchange of property? What are the pros and cons of such an arrangement? Do you think this form of marriage is unacceptable in the modern US? Why?

Your assignment is to leave a thoughtful reply in the comments section below. In the space of about 300-500 words address one of the two articles mentioned in this post (or do both if you feel ambitious). The point of the assignment is to prompt you to see things from another culture’s point of view and to reflect about your own cultural behaviors. This is not an exercise in right or wrong. It will be given a completion grade. Queer and gender-nonconforming students can interpret the scenarios above creatively. Approach the problem in whatever way seems most appropriate.

Deadline is 9am Friday, November 1st. After I drink my coffee and drop my kids off at school I’m logging to grade this so you better be done by then.


About Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is a project cataloger at The Mariners' Museum library. He has a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill and was formerly a professor at ODU. You can find him on Twitter @m4ttTh0mps0n.
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8 Responses to Variation in affinal relations

  1. Alicia Sposato says:

    Personally I don’t think I would like participation in a polyamorus marriage of any sort. I feel like the biggest downside would be jealously among the spouses. While I feel polygyny would have very few positives, economically it would be very expensive because of the amount of children and wives necessary to support. It could also be repressive to the wives, as polygamous marriages are predominant in patriarchal societies.
    However polyandry is definitely a better idea in terms of economics. There are fewer kids and wives necessary to support and more individuals working to bring home income. If polygyny were to occur in a society with equal job opportunity among the genders it could be a great potential income source if some of the wives entered the job force.
    A big issue with polygyny would be the preferential treatment of the children. Because each wife would be sure they were the mother they would know it was their kid. With polyandry the family would not know the father and no real preferential treatment would occur which would make polyandry less likely to cause family tension than polygyny.
    Personally I don’t think I would be able to participate in a polyamorus marriage. I would get jealous way too easily and also I feel it would cause a lot of fighting, it’s hard enough for me to get along with one individual. I can’t imagine trying to sustain a marriage with more than one individual.
    As for polygamous marriages in the United States I don’t think they will ever be accepted. For one we have laws that mandate monogamous marriage as the only legal marriage. And secondly there is a great stigma in our society for polyamory. Our society firmly believes in monogamy, even though we don’t always practice it. It is unlikely that we would accept polyandry or polygamy in marriage.

  2. Lauren says:

    The polyandry chapter was an interesting read. That said, I certainly would not want to participate in that lifestyle for several reasons. I am married, and the amount of emotional work it takes to have a successful marriage is tremendous, and I only have one husband. What the chapter didn’t discuss was the personal relationships among the wife and husbands. From the information provided, these marriages represent “the good life”, which is likely our version of “The American Dream.” In Western culture, we (ideally) marry for love, not economic prosperity, but a dual-family income certainly provides financial stability, so perhaps the ideas aren’t too far apart. That said, our culture bases relationships on compatibility, so personally, I would have a difficult time accepting a lifestyle where my chief responsibilities included providing sex to several husbands and raising what I can only assume would be a boatload of kids. And since a majority, if not all, of the responsibility falls to the woman, I would again have to say that this would be a big no for me.
    Some advantages of this lifestyle would be, as mentioned in the chapter, more partners providing financial support and contributing to the household wealth, and the children having several father figures. Disadvantages would be the inability to form a close bond between a wife and husband because of the rule that the wife must show equal affection. And what if she hates ALL of her husbands???
    I feel the same way about polygamy as I do about polyandry, and that is that it would not be something I chose willingly. In polygamy, I would think that there would be much more jealousy among the wives than there would be among husbands.
    Neither of these lifestyles would be widely accepted by modern society here in the U.S. because of the way we view and define marriage. However, polygamy does exist here in the states, and is even being brought to the forefront by TV shows such as “Sister Wives”, so maybe our exposure to different lifestyles will lead to a broad acceptance…but I doubt it.

  3. Kennedy Jenkins says:

    Between the two articles, I found the one on polyandry to be more amusing. I myself would not like to be a participant in a poly marriage, but that may be because of how and where I was raised. I am accepting of the cultures of others, however I do not think it is something I would be comfortable with.
    As far as benefits go, I see the several advantages mentioned in the article as being true. The men do not have to divide their land up between siblings. They can all share the large piece left by their parents. The children would have multiple suppliers, so they would never have to worry about not having money or food. The wife would be well-supported. The husbands would have extra money or food because, unlike in a monogamous relationship, they would have one wife and a few children to take care of as a whole rather than one man to a wife and three or four kids.
    There actually aren’t many drawbacks to polyandry that are recognizable. The reason we see it as strange is because that is not something our culture participates in. Perhaps in a scenario, one of the brothers feels as though he must compete for the attention of the wife. Maybe he is significantly younger than the wife and she is not as attracted to him as the other brothers. Therefore, if he is not receiving equal attention, he may feel the desire to leave the marriage. He would have to rebuild a life starting with almost nothing. Also, the equal treatment of children would be a challenge. If the wife has a child, and which brother is the father is apparent, the other brothers would not be as invested in that child because they know it is not theirs. The biological father would probably be likely to show favoritism toward that child and treat it more special than the rest.
    Such a marriage is not accepted in the U.S. today. I don’t feel as though it is necessary to adopt a form of polyandry. It is used in Tibet as a way of giving people a higher standard of life. Farming land is scarce and dividing things would be a challenge. However, here we don’t have to have such forms of marriage in order to have a higher standard of life. There isn’t a shortage of land and there are opportunities for a good life.

  4. Julia Cram says:

    As a female, I would not partake in a marriage with multiple husbands. I dislike that kind of lifestyle because it would feel like cheating. I would feel as if i were being used or as if i was not important. To me, marriage is sacred and important. It is a bond that should not be broken and shared between TWO people. Not multiple. However, if I were to take the position of a man, then yes I would go for that type of lifestyle. Having multiple wives means having more of your genes being passed on to the next generation. And that is the goal of every species, even humans. The idea of polyandry would be great IF emotions were out of the question. Jealousy would over take many people and they would begin to feel possessive of their spouse. Emotions are what cause humans to make mistakes and cause them to act rashly. Take emotions out of the picture and the idea would work. However that is impossible so the idea of multiple spouses could never work. Sadly, emotions are what make a marriage. It is a strong emotional commitment and requires a lot of time.
    The benefits are multiple incomes and more women to take care of the children. With more income and children having a better upbringing, it can lead to success in life. However, it would hard to form bonds.
    Having multiple husbands and wives takes something out of marriage. It is supposed to be a special bond between two people. Having multiple partners ruins that bond. It takes the intimacy out of marriage. In some cultures, men women are brought up thinking it is okay, however, in America the idea is foreign and shunned upon. Americans focus on one person (most of the time), they want a special person to share their lives with. In the US, there is not need to assert dominance by showing off how many children you have, in fact birth rates are decreasing instead of increasing. American lifestyle does not call for multiple children anymore. We do not need children to tend the farms and livestock.
    I would also assume that their would be tension in the family. Children would compete with each other to get the father’s attention. The wives would also compete. The house would never be calm. A family must work together and stand by each other. I feel that one with numerous spouses and children would not share the comfort and love a normal family would have.

  5. Travis Taylor says:

    From the two different articles I came to a conclusion that polyandry marriage is more interesting, but way less attracting to me. Being involved in a relationship with multiple brothers and one wife would make me feel lonely at times while the other brothers are having time with her. If it were me I would rather have more than one wife, so that I would always have someone to watch my child, cook, and whatever other responsibilities. If I got angry at a brother over the sexual time spent with our wife, I would make sure the eldest brother knew my feelings, which would probably end up in a fight. I am shocked that there would not be an increase rate in cheating if a couple males only had one wife to share. Also I believe the women should have the right to choose one man or however many men, but still have the right to choose her sexual partner. When the wife has a child I believe that the man that created him should be the father. If all of them are the father than how can that child get that one-on-one bonding relationship with their creator (father). I feel like in the United States men need to have the feeling of dominance, and to fit into society everyone needs to have a wife and kids. Now that is just what I think the general conception of marriage, but do not get me wrong there are multiple ways of marriage here in the United States, men with men etc. People in the U.S. do not have the kinship that they do, and if we did it would allow us to have more connections throughout the world. I think it would be very interesting to go and document or study one of these unique types of marriage ceremonies.

  6. Cynthia Palacios says:

    I have absolutely no interest in a poly relationship, but an arranged marriage sounds interesting. I definitely would not want to be in one myself, but it has somewhat of an exciting air to it because I like surprises. These marriages can be extremely beneficial for one of the spouses, usually the bride. It’s a chance for her to move up a class or caste which is major to the family even if they don’t move up with her, the family gets a stipend for her loss, and the groom is able to find an “ideal wife”, meaning someone who will cook, be docile, care for children, etc. The major con would obviously be not being happy with your partner, even if it makes you rich. I think about 90% of marriages in India are still arranged, and only 5% end up in divorce which would seem good, but it’s actually just because divorce isn’t an option for most couples. It’s either maintain your family’s honor and live with someone who provides for you, or possibly move back into the slums which is usually seen as being worse than death, and have your family and friends never look at you the same way again. I think in some areas a divorced spouse is even looked at like a widow, and widowed females aren’t even allowed to live with the rest of society as normal.
    I actually know someone whose parents were in the process of arranging a marriage for him the last time we spoke, and they live here in the US so I’m guessing it’s not completely unacceptable. His parents described it as Americans “fall” (in love) while Indians /choose/ who they will be with meaning they have more control over their life and don’t go skipping around with partners. It gets tricky though, because his parents are strict in their Hindu culture, but he himself is very americanized and doesn’t want this marriage- which is how I would think many families in America are today (parents want it, kids don’t).
    Obviously to Americans, this practice is taboo and cruel. However, arranged marriage isn’t really meant to strip someone of their freedom and make them miserable just for the family’s benefit. I understand it to be a way for the parents to show that they care. They want to make sure their child is successful, has “the good life”, and is taken care of in their future.

  7. Erin Rissling says:

    Before reading the article, the concept of polyandry was not something I had heard of. Having multiple wives is definitely more common, although still considered taboo within our society. However, multiple husbands, let alone brothers is not something that I think I could participate in. There are some undeniable benefits such as a higher standard of living as discussed in the article. Thinking economically, the United States is seeing an insanely high rate of poverty right now and if people were more willing to try this type of lifestyle, I think that less people would be suffering from lack of proper food, housing, clothing, goods, etc. Although there might be an economic benefit, I think this form of marriage would never been acceptable in the modern US. We are far too individualistic of a society and the concept of marrying whomever it is that your sibling is marrying and living all together doing the same type of work would not be ideal for us. We have all been socialized into believing that we can do whatever we choose to with our lives and have whatever career we want, but if the men were forced to be in this type of marriage they would be condemned to work within the family for the extent of their working lives. The norm has been set in America and polyandry is not it. Once a norm has been established, if would be incredibly difficult to modify it. If polyandry had been the way were all grew up knowing a marriage to be, then we would find monogamy foolish and wonder how such people can survive with only one working man in a family.

  8. Anthony Carter says:

    If I had the chance to marry women and share that same marriage with my brother I would have to pass up the offer. I have a feeling my brother and I would be terrible at treating our wife with respect. We would end up having competitions with each other to see who can get our wife to stay the night. We would get so caught up in trying to steal the wife from each other, it would be hard to actually focus on the marriage or love behind it. Even though I would pass up the offer of a poly marriage, I can see the benefits of a relationship like that. If a woman had more than one husband, she would have abundant amounts of protection. She would also have variety of personalities to choose from on any given day. If a man had more than one wife, he could have plenty of meals available for dinner, and he could choose anyone to sleep with.
    Even though the benefits are present, the conflicts outweigh them for sure. I cannot imagine sharing a wife, and not getting jealous about the kids not being mine. I cannot imagine letting my brother take my girl to dinner and a movie while I sit there with his kids. That connection with your wife is shared, and you cannot do anything about it. Divorce is an option but those are never a great thing to take on. Monogamy makes more sense to people like me who believe in deeper connections with one individual, and protecting that connection. In the United States, marriage is practiced through monogyny. It has been that way forever. Traditional households raise their kids by teaching them the value of finding the “right someone” not “some ones”. Poly marriages would be seen as wrong and weird for many of us. This goes against tradition, religion, and norms. This is why it is unaccepted today, but if you take the physical marriage out the picture and look at poly relationships, then the results are different. Today the idea of “dating “or seeing more than one girl at the same time is a common idea to a lot of guys. Girls are also “talking” or “messing around” with multiple men as well. So if there weren’t laws or tradition, poly marriages in the United States could be common.

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