Musings Of A Spiritual Atheist
Multiple Marriage

More accepted in some parts of the world but rejected in the west is multiple marriage. A few thousand years ago this was quite normal in many countries. Multiple marriage most commonly takes the form of one man being married to more than one woman, and perhaps also having other women as consorts or concubines, i.e. sexual partners who are not formally married to the man but are bound to him by convention. The children from both wives and concubines are considered to be legitimate, although not necessarily of the same status. Much less common is the situation where one woman has more than one husband, although there have been some societies which allowed this.

An arrangement which appears not to have been endorsed by any society is one in which multiple men could be married to multiple women within a single group. Such an arrangement would undoubtedly raise several important questions, although it is not, in principle, much different from the other two.

Also, in countries which endorse same sex marriages, it could be envisaged that three or more men could be married to each other. The same could apply to three or more women. In addition, since some individuals are neither exclusively heterosexual nor exclusively homosexual, a fifth type of marriage can be envisioned. That is one in which bisexual individuals are married to other bisexual individuals or to a mixture of bisexual and monosexual individuals of either sex who are willing to participate freely in such an arrangement.

The willingness to freely participate in a marriage is the important point. Marriage should never be coerced. It should always be freely entered into as a partnership between equal individuals. Any marriage in which one of the partners is coerced into consenting is not a valid marriage and is null and void from the beginning. This does not apply to a marriage freely entered into but in which one of the participants changes their mind and becomes unwilling after the marriage has taken place. In that case the resolution should be through divorce.

If sexual intercourse is coerced from an unwilling spouse using any kind of coercion then it is no different from rape and should be subject to the same judicial penalties.

In a multiple marriage to whom are each individual married? In polygynous arrangements the male is married to each woman individually. The women have no formal relationship with each other, other than as wives of the same man. They are not married to each other as well as to him. A sharp separation is made between the relationship of the man to each wife and the relationships between individual wives. The same comments could be applied to polyandrous marriages.

This separateness of the relationships is based on the practice of men having different rights than women in some societies. In these societies, men are generally thought to be more important than women, and permitted greater privileges. The principle that all individuals are equal does not support this. What a man is permitted is permitted to women as well, and what a woman is permitted is permitted to men as well. There can be no distinction. If a man is permitted more than one wife, then a woman is permitted more than one husband. Exactly the same principle should apply in all marriages, including homosexual and lesbian marriages.

The precedent in polygynous marriages is that the man is separately and individually married to each of his wives, but there is no formal relationship between the wives. If this principle is applied to multiple partner marriages, then each individual would be legally bound only to those formally married to that individual, and any other individuals in the marriage group would not be spouses and would not be entitled to share in any of the benefits or obligations deriving from the marriage between two specific individuals.

Such marriage groups could easily become very complicated, leading to difficulties, not the least of which is the status of any children from individuals legally married to more than one individual who, in turn, may also be married to more than one individual. It is tempting to resolve this issue by saying that the birth mother should have sole responsibility for her children, as she would be the obvious parent. Doing so ignores the principle that all are equal. The father also has the right to know and influence his children to the same degree as the mother. In a multiple marriage with multiple sexual involvement it may not immediately be clear who the father is, requiring genetic testing to determine. Even this may not resolve the issue if two males are siblings, twins perhaps, with very similar DNA.

Compound this with marriages in which some of the partners are homosexual, lesbian or bisexual as well as heterosexual and the complexity just grows. Couple this again with the practice in some jurisdictions of common law marriage, in which two individuals living together as marriage partners for a minimum period of time are considered to be legally married, and the confusing complexity increases exponentially.

Another problem arises when individuals in a multiple marriage are divorced. They divorce only the one individual and remain married to any others to whom they bound themselves. Only if all marital ties are nullified does an individual cease to be married. Should there be multiple marriages between multiple men and women followed by numerous divorces (and possibly remarriages) the relationships could become quite complex.

There is an interesting conundrum that can emanate from multiple marriages. If a man is married to one woman (the first woman), and the first woman is married to another woman (the second woman) as well as to the man, the man is not considered to be married to the second woman. What is the situation if the man and the second woman have sexual intercourse? Presumably it would be adultery, since they are both married to another person (the first woman). Would this adultery be grounds for divorce, bearing in mind that the aggrieved party is married to both of them? Now consider how complex and confusing this could become if there were a marriage involving five men and five women, four of each being married to two of the others of the opposite sex and two of the same sex, and one being married to only one person, but not the other monogamous individual. Admittedly, I am making this scenario out to be very confusing, but it has its roots firmly planted in the reality of what multiple marriages within the context of the Canadian constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms could lead to.

In current society sexual liaisons are not uncommon and we undoubtedly have individuals who already have such complexity in their relationships, but without the legal protection for any children’s rights that the state should have provided in legislation. Regardless of the type of relationship, if it results in a conception and birth the child born as a consequence should be treated as the offspring of both parents and accorded all the same legal rights that a child born from a religiously or socially endorsed relationship is entitled to receive.

It is important to keep in mind that it is not the child who determined the relationship between the parents. In most cases it was both of the parents, the exception being coerced sexual relationships, and the child is entitled to be supported, both materially and emotionally, by both parents. There is no longer any reason for dispute about parentage as it is quite easy to determine what this is with modern DNA testing. In fact, any person’s biological relationships with any larger group of individuals can be determined with relative ease.

There is also the case of a woman who is married to two men and one of the men fathers a child with her. If the man who is the biological father dies, does the other man have any responsibility towards the child? Should he pay child support if they later divorce?

In the case of a coerced sexual relationship, the child is often stigmatised, but this is not how it should be. It should always be kept in mind that all children, regardless of the type of relationship which led to their conception, are still just children and innocent of any wrongdoing when born. All individuals are equal and whether they are conceived in a legally or religiously endorsed relationship, from a casual and temporary relationship or as a consequence of some kind of coercion should make no difference whatsoever to the inherent value of the child.

Perhaps this is where the focus should be: on the rights of children born into multiple relationship families, rather than on the individuals forming the relationships. Modern DNA testing can determine who the parents of a child are with almost absolute accuracy, so there should be no difficulty in establishing parenthood. What would be needed as a consequence of multiple marriages is legislation clearly setting out the rights of any children born and the obligations of both biological parents and any other adults in the marriage to that child, including support and inheritance, and a means of enforcing those obligations which does not add to any problems which may arise.

In Canada, two people who cohabit, i.e. live as husband and wife for a period of two years or longer, are considered to be married and most of the laws regarding property and inheritance apply to them as they do to couples married more formally. There is little difficulty arising from this approach and people just accept it as part of Canada’s social practices. Since it works reasonably well, perhaps consideration should be given to encouraging this type of marriage as society’s norm and dispense with the more formal arrangement. Any problematic legal questions that might arise could be settled easily enough by passing appropriate legislation to protect the interests of participants and offspring. Religious people who insist on a formally recognised tie between the spouses could arrange for a church service and blessing to recognise and endorse their marriage. This kind of marriage was used extensively in the past with few problems and was accepted as the usual way to be married. Legal marriage contracts were reserved for those who had special inheritance needs involving the transfer of property or titles.

There is no reason that marriage must be an either/or situation with full, formal, legal ties at one end and informal cohabitation at the other, and varying blends of legal and informal commitment could be imagined. The point is that full, legal marriage with formal, legal obligations may no longer be in the best interests of society in general and some other arrangement, or arrangements, may be more appropriate. This has been the situation in Canada for many years now and it has worked quite well, with those wishing it being able to be formally married and those wanting something else to informally cohabit. If we accept that adults should be free to make their own decisions then perhaps those decisions should include how their emotional and sexual relationships should be structured

Divorce could be handled the same way, by simply separating and announcing that they were no longer a couple if their marriage was informal, or by court decree if their marriage was a formal, legal tie. Churches would be free to do whatever they chose for those married by them, since it would be a non-legal, religious ceremony endorsing the relationship alone and not the making of a legally binding contract.

Any children, of course, must retain all the rights to which they are entitled from their parentage and family associations, and this should be made clear in legislation. It should not be possible for a parent or other adult with obligations to abrogate or modify the rights of a child, even if the child agrees. Some will undoubtedly suggest that a formal agreement could be allowed after the child reaches an age when they may be legally entitled to enter into such an agreement and after it has been made clear that they are not being coerced in any way, but doing so would negate the whole concept of what constitutes a right. It should not be possible to modify human or other rights at all, as doing so demeans the concept of a right. Rights should be immutable and not subject to agreements to terminate or modify them. It should be the exclusive domain of the right holder to decide whether they will exercise a right and to what degree every time they wish to do so. Nobody else should be able to limit or influence that. We understand this with a woman’s abortion rights and it should be no different with any rights associated with a child’s parentage.

The simple fact is that the vast majority of parents voluntarily acknowledge parenthood and accept their responsibilities to their children. There are exceptions, but they appear to be rooted more in an extreme degree of selfishness or dislike for the other parent than anything to do with the child. However, once again, establishing parenthood is a relatively simple matter with modern DNA testing and legislation enshrining the rights of children with regard to their parentage can easily be enacted.


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