Types of Marriages from Monogamous to Polygamous

It has been widely debated of whether or not marriage is a universal phenomenon. Anthropologists have studied the cultures of the world and have come to the conclusion that indeed, it does seem that marriage, in one form or another, is universal in all cultures. However the form it takes varies depending on the needs and ideals of the group. Marriages can take on many different forms: monogamy, polygyny, polyandry, arranged, and individual choice. (Searles and Lee, 2002, p. 172). Each form has its advantages and disadvantages for both men and women.

Monogamy is marriage where each person has only one spouse. (Haviland, 2002, p. 490). This type of marriage is the only legal form of marriage accepted in North America. It is advantageous in the sense that it is legally sanctified and all benefits of being married are only granted to those who fit within a monogamous marriage. These benefits include tax deductions, the ability to share a spouse’s health and life insurance benefits, and inheritance. Monogamy also fits well into the industrialized culture of North America. The drawbacks to this type of marriage for men are the biological restraints of only mating with one partner. This seems to go against a primate’s nature to produce as many offspring with as many different females as possible. However men benefit from monogamous relationship as the female often takes care of their domestic needs, provides the majority of the child care, and when the man gets older tends to his health needs. For women monogamous marriages help provide benefits such as health insurance, protection, money, and providing a male role-model for her children. Drawbacks for women in this type of marriage stem for the instability of such systems and the high trend of divorce.

Polygyny and polyandry are both forms of polygamous relationships where more than one spouse is taken. In polygyny a man takes more than one wife. (Haviland, 2002, p. 225). This type of marriage is seen in cultures that value women’s work, such as in the case of the New Guinea Highlands, or where women are seen as a display of wealth, as is seen in many Middle Eastern countries. In polygyny, young men have a great disadvantage, as it take wealth in order to acquire more than one wife. Older members of the culture, who hold wealth, have great power over younger members by controlling access to women. (Searles and Lee, 2002, p. 172). For women, the drawback to this type of marriage is that they are seen as an object, as opposed to an individual. Love matches are not the norm, and usually these marriages are seen as an economical exchange as opposed to a partnership. The benefits for women in this example, however, are that there are other women to spread the work around to, and others are available to help with raising the children and preparing for birth. Other drawbacks occur when there are disagreements or jealousies that arise between husband and one of the wives, or between the wives.

Polyandry, in contrast, is where one woman marries more than one man. This type of marriage occurs in areas where there is a shortage of land, such as in the mountainous areas of Tibet and Nepal. In this example one woman will marry into a family of brothers. This is an advantageous situation for men, because even if they are not the one responsible for creating a child, their lineage will live on through their brother’s “contribution.” Other advantages of this system is that because all the children born are from the same patrilineal group and one mother, the land owned will be able to be passed down to future generations without dividing it. (Searles and Lee, 2002, p. 173). Another interpretation of this occurs in situations where the woman is expected to marry the husband’s brother in case he passes away. This is known as levirate. This is advantageous for the man in that his family still maintains reproductive rights over the woman and maintains ties with her family lineage. For women this is advantageous in that she and her children will be provided for in case of her husband’s death, but is disadvantageous if she does not get along with the husband’s brother.

The ability to choose one’s own spouse is not a universal characteristic of marriage. In some cases, as in many North American societies, choosing a spouse is a personal choice. However in countries such as India, arranged marriages are more common. The success of arranged marriages is dependent on the conditions under which the mate was selected and the compatibility of the union. An arranged marriage has advantages over the right to choose a spouse because of the family interest in the union. Family members will often look for the best match for their child and will take into consideration aspects of married life a single person doesn’t have intimate knowledge of. For example a long-time married couple will know what elements create strife in a marriage and what characteristics are important to making a compatible match. They will also take into consideration what their child likes and expects from a spouse. These considerations were illustrated in the example presented in the textbook on “Arranging Marriage in India.” (Haviland, 2002, pp. 230-233). Of course selecting your own spouse has its advantages. In these cases romantic love can play a part in the decision. Also a person knows more about what they are looking for in a life partner than their parents do, and individuals are more willing to accept the possibilities of marriage outside a cultural group, allowing for more possible matches.


Haviland, William A. (2002). Cultural Anthropology. (10th ed.). Fort Worth: Harcourt College Publishers.

Lee, Valerie L., and Searles, Richard T. (2002). Study Guide for the Telecourse Faces of Culture. (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

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