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What is Polyandry?

Tara Barnett
Tara Barnett

Polyandry is a form of plural marriage in which one woman has multiple husbands. While it is a much rarer marriage tradition than polygyny, the practice has been found in numerous cultures, most prevalently in the form of fraternal polyandry where two or more brothers share the same wife. This fraternal marriage system ensures a single line of heirs with rights to paternally descendant property and wealth, rather than the multiple lines of inheritance that would result from each of the sons of a family starting families of their own.

It also ensures that resources are focused around one set of progeny, and with multiple working men to support this set of children, increases the chances of survival of future generations. This practice is typically characterized as the product of extremely scarce resources combined with low female birth rate.

When one woman is married to multiple husbands, it is referred to as polyandry.
When one woman is married to multiple husbands, it is referred to as polyandry.

Unlike polygamy, polyandry is not typically sanctioned by any government or religion, but rather exists as a cultural practice. In Tibet, where polyandry was once widely practiced, the marriage system has been rendered illegal by the Chinese government, although regulations are typically not enforced. Enforcing laws about group marriage is notoriously difficult when practitioners do not live publicly in cities, and so the practice continues in many areas without legal benefit or consequence.

Like all systems of human commitment, polyandry does cause a number of common conflicts for its practitioners. When children of plural fathers ask who their specific father is, they are typically told that all their fathers are equally responsible. This is not a problem in polygyny, where the child's primary mother is obvious.

Many wives in this type of arrangement also admit to issues with jealousy among husbands, though they also pride themselves on the ability to work out these issues within the marriage. Since this is an enduring practice in many cultures, most engaging in this behavior have a wealth of community resources available to help them deal with these issues.

Media characterizations of polyandry often attempt to portray practitioners as sacrificing love for tradition and survival in harsh conditions. These portrayals often do not acknowledge that polyamorous relationships exist voluntarily in many Western countries, and though these arrangements are not recognized by law, they are mainly entered into freely and often involve multiple men who are faithful to one woman for extended periods of time.

That is to say, a form of long-term commitment similar to polyandry exists in Western cultures. This marriage structure exists because it works for some situations both emotionally and economically.

Discussion Comments


Within a couple years of our marriage, we started up a relationship with another male. I encouraged my wife to do it as, for some reason we both enjoyed it. We were careful not to have the "who's my daddy" issue during the child bearing years, but this has been continuous for almost fifty years now. It grows stronger as we age, and is more stable and enjoyable now than it it ever has been. My wife wears a wedding band and diamond from each of us although we have never tried to make it official for obvious reasons. Its a strong, very loving, and sexual relationship and I expect it to continue until one of us passes.


@clintflint - As I understand it, in the system of fraternal polyandry in Tibet, single women will often live by themselves with children from lovers, without any stigma, so there would be ample opportunities even within that community for children to recognize that, biologically, one man and one woman make a child.

Hopefully, they are also taught that humans are creative, adaptable creatures, capable of all kinds of wonderful combinations to make up a family.


@pleonasm - Well, maybe in a world where communities are isolated, this would be the case, but I doubt there were many places where that was pure and absolute. Even before the advent of radio and television, communities would have mixed and polyandrous practices are fairly rare, so children would have always been questioning.

They question in every community. What child hasn't wondered if they were adopted at some point? If the children are relatively happy or content, it doesn't go any further than idle questions.


Honestly, I just don't think kids that are raised in a community where this is the normal practice would question who their biological father is. For one thing, most of the time the community isn't going to be all that technologically advanced (because, sadly, many cultural practices like this end up being wiped out when a community encounters foreign religion and technology) so it won't even occur to the children to wonder about a "real" father, because, in their minds, they already know who their real fathers are and there is no reason to doubt it. They don't know about things like DNA.

For another, even if they do know about DNA, if they are taught that the important part of fatherhood is responsibility, or the role assigned by marriage, then the fact that one person in particular provided the sperm probably won't matter.

It is only because polygamous marriage isn't our norm that we think it would be natural for a child to question this kind of system.

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    • When one woman is married to multiple husbands, it is referred to as polyandry.
      By: desertsolitaire
      When one woman is married to multiple husbands, it is referred to as polyandry.