A Brief Guide to Marriage Around the World

It seems every six months or so someone’s questions lead me to write a long involved post on social media about the history of marriage, the variety of forms marriage takes around the world, and how monogamy as practiced in the US and Europe today has not actually been the “one true” marriage for the past thousand years. In fact, as practiced in the US and Europe today hasn’t even been around for a hundred years.

The topic came up again recently. I decided this time instead of posting on social media, I’ll write a blog post so I don’t need to keep rewriting the same info. So this week we’re taking a break from the current running blog series. Today’s post is a brief review of marriage practices around the world. Thursday will be a review of the history of Christian European marriage–which is what most people I know are talking about when they go on about “traditional marriage.”

A Glossary of Marriage

Anthropologists have spent over fifty years arguing about how to define of marriage. As far as I can tell, they still haven’t come to a consensus. Think about that a moment. Marriage varies so widely across cultures that we can’t even define it properly. Most attempted definitions include one or more of:

1) restricted sexual access (ie, sex only with marital partners)

2) economic responsibility for marital partners

3) recognition of paternity and/or responsibility for raising children together

There seems to be a general consensus among anthropoligists that marriage is universal. I find this a questionable conclusion, especially in light of the sonhun (“walking marriage”) of the Mosuo. (My usual reference for the Mosuo practices is http://www.mosuoproject.org/mosuo.htm — a site which I recall as being maintained by members of the Mosuo. Unfortunately that site is down as of this writing. For an academic source check here: https://imaginarsocial.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/stacey_marriage1.pdf) It seems (especially in light of the argument about defining marriage) that anthropologists have sometimes looked for a practice which might resemble marriage as they understood it and then adjusted the definition to fit.

While you are thinking about that, here are some terms related to marriage I’ll be using in this post:

  1. Monogamy: marriage involving two people
  2. Polygamy: marriage involving more than two people
  3. Polygyny: marriage involving one man and several women
  4. Polyandry: marriage involving one woman and several men
  5. Group marriage: marriage between multiple men and multiple women, sometimes called polygynandry
  6. Term marriage: marriage which lasts only for a set time
  7. Arranged marriage: marriage which is arranged by a third party with the consent of the spouses-to-be
  8. Forced marriage: marriage with is arranged by a third party without the consent of one or more spouses-to-be
  9. Social polygamy: arrangement where marriage is legally only recognized between two people, but sexual/romantic/intimate relationships outside of marriage are socially recognized
  10. Social monogamy: only marriage between two people is legally and socially recognized, but other relationships are expected as long as they are hidden

Marriage Around the World

Marriage both now and throughout history has taken a variety of forms.
The Ethnogrphic Atlas found that of ~1300 cultures, most practiced a mix of polygyny and monogamy, some practiced monogamy, and a very few (four) practiced polyandry. Anthropologists have since found an additional 53 cultures which practice polyandry and (according to wiki) 4 which have group marriages. Unfortunately I don’t have access to the citation for group marriages.

Many of the cultures which practice exclusive monogamy allow for social monogamy or serial monogamy. I don’t know of any cultures which practice social polygamy today. Several countries in Europe used to practice it, including France where the king’s mistress had a recognized position in the court. (For a layperson’s introduction: Kathleen Wellman, Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2013.) Concubinage was a common practice in some socially polygamous cultures. Concubines had a socially (and sometimes legally) recognized position, but did not have the status of wives. (As practiced in Greece and Rome: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/9781444338386.wbeah22061/abstract)

Some cultures allow for term marriages. In the US, the best known of these may be the Celtic tradition of handfasting* (marriage for a year and a day). Some neo-pagan groups have revived this tradition. Term marriages were also practiced in pre-Islamic Arabia and Persia. The custom, most often called mut’ah, survives to this day in the Shi’ite sect of Islam. There are accusations that in some cases mut’ah is practiced today as a religiously legitimate cover for sex work and sexual trafficking.

Arranged marriage has been the norm for much of recorded history and remains common in some parts of the world. Forced marriage has often, though not always, existed side by side with arranged marriage. In some places forced marriages have been technically illegal but still practiced. For instance, in Christian Europe a marriage could only happen with the consent of both the bride and groom. However, women and men were both often pressured or coerced into a marriage against their will. Women seem to be the victims of forced marriage more often, as many cultures that have arranged marriage allow the man to arrange his own marriage. However in cases of child engagements or where a large inheritance or political alliance was in the balance, both sons and daughters might be bartered off. (And yes, I am deliberately referring to people as property in this case, because often that is exactly what they were treated as.)

Arranged marriages continue in many parts of the world today. I have known or known of people in the US, Israel, India, and several Islamic countries who have been in arranged marriages or had an arranged engagement that was later broken off. Some have sought out arranged marriages through the services of a matchmaker. Others have had their marriages arranged by families. All the people I have personally known have been pleased with their arrangements and had the right to break off the engagement if they changed their minds.

Forced marriage, either legal or illegal, continues to be reported in many parts of the world today.

I apologize for not citing my information on arranged and forced marriages. I do not currently have any saved citations, and searching for citation is likely to be triggering for me. However information on these marriage forms is relatively easy to find. Adding “pdf” to your search terms is quick way to filter for academic papers.

Wrap Up

Obviously this is a very general overview. The full details on the variety of marriage practices around the world could fill a library. I am a some-what read layperson and not any kind of expert. Please use my citations as a jumping off point for your own research, don’t take them as the end-all be-all on marriage. And if you have additional information or citations, please share in the comments.

*Many sources will cite the work of A.E. Anton in the 1950s who said that handfasting only meant betrothal and the idea of it being a “year and a day” marriage could not be found prior to mythic histories from the 1800s. However other sources cite the Gaelic scholar Martin Martin’s book “A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland” published in 1639: “It was an ancient custom in the Isles that a man take a maid as his wife and keep her for the space of a year without marrying her; and if she pleased him all the while, he married her at the end of the year and legitimatised her children; but if he did not love her, he returned her to her parents.” The Statues of Iona (1609) are also cited as banning marriage contracts for a set term of years, suggesting that such marriages were allowed prior to 1609. I haven’t been able to find a non-pay walled text of the Statutes and don’t have access to a copy of Martin Martin.

 

(All citations accessed on 4/16/2016 unless otherwise noted)

Book Review: When Someone You Love Is Polyamorous by Dr. Elizabeth Sheff

book review when someone you love is polyamorousA few years ago, I said that with Dr. Sheff’s The Polyamorist’s Next Door we finaly had a book to share with friends and family trying to understand polyamory. Dr. Sheff has done herself one better.

When Someone You Love Is Polyamorous is a clearly laid out book that introduces the basic concepts of polyamory in simple, easy to understand language. Topics include advantages and challenges of polyamory, why are people polyamorous, and children in polyamory.

Dr. Sheff doesn’t sugarcoat the problems in polyamory, including the lack of diversity among people willing and able to be openly polyamorous. She does lay out clearly what polyamory is, why it works for some people, and why it isn’t cheating or religious-style polygyny. I especially appreciate Dr. Sheff’s taking the time to explain why many poly folk want to “come out” to friends and family, and how friends and family can be supportive.

There are two things I would have liked to see in this book. The first is an explicit acknowledgement of the variety in polyamory. Dr. Sheff does describe several different ways people structure polyamorous relationships. Still I would have liked to see something like “Every polyamorous relationship is different. What you see in TV or the media may not be anything like the relationships your loved ones form.”

The other I would have liked to see addressed is abuse. You’d think “non-abusive” would be covered under “ethical” “honest” and “consensual.” But I’ve known a number of people who believed a poly relationship had to be abusive or coercive. Best to grasp that bull by the horns. “People who don’t understand polyamory may fear their loved one is being abused. The vast majority of polyamorous relationships are non-abusive and abuse seems to occur in polyamory (about as often/slightly more often/slightly less often) than in monogamy. If you have specific concerns about the way your loved one is being treated in their relationships, don’t focus on polyamory. Instead talk with your lloved ones about the specific issues that concern you.”

Those two points aside, When Someone You Love Is Polyamorous is a well written and useful book. I recommend it for anyone considering coming out to their friends and family, or anyone who has come out but is having trouble getting their loved ones to understand and accept their relationships.

Announcing the Polyamory on Purpose Resource Library

Last month, the Polyamory on Purpose Patreon campaign reached the community goal of $95 pledged per month*. So thanks to my amazing Patrons who have been supporting my work here, I am ready to launch the Polyamory on Purpose Resource Library.

Since I’ve started this blog, I’ve occasionally included resources ranging from legal help to organizational tools to other blogs with good practical info on polyamory, and you can find those resources under the “Resources” category on the blog. Now you will be able to find all those resources, and many more, in the same place.

Like all of Polyamory on Purpose, the Resource Library will focus tools and resources that will help with both daily life and the practical challenges that crop up in polyamorous relationships.

Patrons will get access to the Resource Library January 18th. The Resource Library will be publicly available on February 1st. After the initial launch, the library will be expanded regularly—my goal is to add a new resource every 2 weeks. As with the initial launch, Patrons will see library expansions 2 weeks before they go public.

If you have created or know of a resource that you think should be added to the Polyamory on Purpose Resource Library, please let me know!

*Patreon has recently changed the page display so the amount shown is what I received last month after fees and such. So even though the page doesn’t say $95, that’s the amount that Patrons have pledged.

Meeting Other Polyamorous Families

For children in minority families, nothing can be so powerful as meeting others like them. As an adoptee, I remember the first time I met other kids who were adopted. For the first time, there were other people who understood, really understood, what it was like. The questions and uncertainties of having other parents out there…somewhere.

I’ve heard similar experiences from mixed race children, children of LGBT parents, children living with chronic illness, and others. Not being alone is a very powerful thing, and especially powerful for a child, who has very little power over their own lives.

Meeting other polyamorous families can go a long way towards helping your child deal with any discrimination they face, to not feeling alone and misunderstood by all the other kids they know and more. It can give them their own community and peer group. They can talk together about the problems and challenges and joys of growing up in a non-traditional family.

So… meeting other polyamorous families is pretty awesome—but how do you do it? Most of us don’t exactly take out ads in the yellow pages! Actually, it may be easier than you think. Here are a few places you can connect with other poly families.

OKCupid

Yup, the dating site. If you’ve never been on OKCupid, you may not know that they have a search setting for “just friends”–that is, you can use the dating site as a way to connect with people locally for no other reason than to make a friend. OKCupid is also (as of this writing, and I don’t expect it to change soon) the go-to dating site for poly folk.

You can hop on OKC, do a search for folks with “poly” or “polyamory” in their profiles who are looking for friends. And see if anyone mentioned having kids in their profiles. If they do, send a quick message:

Hey, I see you are polyamorous and interested in making friends. We are looking to connect with other poly families in the area. We’d really like for our kids to have a chance to meet other kids growing up in poly families. Would you be interested in getting together sometime? I noticed you like Italian food, I make a mean manicotti.

If you live in a small town or rural region, you may need to search pretty far out. But kids today are real social media savvy. Even if you can’t meet in person, your kids can still connect through Skype, G-chat, or other online platform.

Local Polyamory Groups

There are two ways of meeting other polyamorous families through a local poly group. The first is to go to group meetings and connect with people directly. Some local groups having Family Nights and other kid-friendly gatherings. If your local group doesn’t, you can always suggest they start one or volunteer to host or organize one.

If you can’t make it to the group meetings, you can join the local groups mailing list and connect with other families that way. Let folks know that you can’t make the meetings for whatever reason, but would love to meet other polyamorous families. Would anyone in the group w/ kids who’d be interested in meeting send you a message?

MeetUp and Facebook are both good places to find local poly groups.

Polyamory Conferences

Cons are always a great place to meet people. Some poly cons have activities specifically for kids. When I want to APW a few years ago they had a kids and family room set up. Parents took turns helping out, and volunteers ran kid-friendly activities. Other cons set up informal networks for parents to trade kid-sitting while attending adult-only parts of the con. Parents can also arrange activities together and generally let the kids hang out. You can find a list of poly cons for the next year on Alan’s List of Poly Events.

Be aware—some cons and poly events are 18+ (or local equivalent) ONLY. If you aren’t certain, make sure you check with the con organizers before bringing your kids.

 

My family will be attending Loving Move’s Poly Living 2016 in Philadelphia. We’d love to meet you and your family. If you plan on attending, please get in touch!

 

This post is part of  the Raising Children in Polyamorous Families blog series.

Resources for Custody Cases Involving Polyamory

I don’t have nearly as much to offer here as I’d like. Unfortunately, resources for polyamory, and non-monogamy in general, are still slim on the ground. If you know of any additional resources, please include them in the comments.

Dr. Eli Sheff

Dr. Sheff is an educational consultant on sexual and relationship minorites. However she is better known in the polyamory community as one of the top researchers on polyamory. A few years ago she left academia and is now available as an expert witness for folks facing court challenges based on their life- and love-styles. Sheff’s testimony as an experienced researcher who spent 10 years gathering information on children raised in poly relationships can be extremely helpful in establishing that polyamory is not harmful to your children.

Poly-Friendly Professionals Lists

These lists are far from complete, but a good starting place for finding a lawyer or therapist in your area who is open to polyamory. If you can only find one poly-friendly lawyer, and can afford to hire two lawyers, I recommend hiring the poly-friendly lawyer to represent your kids. Your lawyer is required to act like they think polyamory is good for kids regardless of their personal thoughts. Your kid’s lawyer is required to act in what they think is the best interest of the kids. Which means if they support polyamory they are more likely to support you, if they are against polyamory they will almost definitely support your ex.

Poly-Friendly Professionals List

Love More Poly Professionals List

Sexual Freedom Legal Defense and Education Fund

According to their website, the SFLDEF provides:

  • Money towards legal and litigation expenses, such as attorney fees and expert witness fees.
  • Referrals to attorneys and expert witnesses knowledgeable about alternative sexual expression and willing to take cases dealing with it.
  • Public information and education about alternative sexual expression

for people in alternative sexual lifestyles. Really wish I’d know about these folks during my case. I suggest making them your first call.

This wraps up our review of polyamory in child custody cases.

Trans Poly Fic/Pics

Okay folks, wrapping up this short series with some trans polyamory stories and webcomics. I won’t be covering bisexual poly because I had to wade through a couple hundred bisexual poly books to find what’s on the lesbian and trans poly lists, so I don’t think any bisexuals are having trouble finding themselves represented in poly fic! Anyway, here’s the (sadly short) list of trans poly fics and pics:

Tales of MU by Alexandra Erin, this fun webserial is set at Magisterius University where high fantasy meets higher education. At least one trans woman character (I stopped reading several years ago, so it’s possible other trans characters have popped up since). Also got mention on the lesbian poly list, due to the heavy focus on f/f(/f/f/f/f) relationships. There are (or were) a couple of males scattered around as well.

Kimchi Cuddles by Tikva Wolf, “A webcomic spreading awareness about poly, queer, and genderqueer issues in the most hilarious way possible” I’ve never gotten into Kimchi Cuddles, in spite of its great rep in the poly community. Anyway, it includes a trans (or perhaps several trans) characters, lots of poly situations, and a bunch more too.

First by Jacob Louder, description includes queer and trans characters, and suggests lots of non-monogamous sex. Came up on “polyamory trans” search.

Roller Coasters by Kris Ripper, first chapter has some really sweet interactions between poly cis man and genderqueer person who don’t seem to know what to make of each other but have a lot of fun in and out of bed. Description suggests the book centers around these characters, and some dealings with poly guy’s boyfriends.

The Peacock Notebook by Kira Elliot, tagged polyamory and transgender. Description makes the poly very clear, no details on any trans characters.

 

If you know of any other fics or pics with trans poly characters/themes/plots, please share them in the comments. I tried to filter out books that fetishize trans characters. Suggestions in the comments which appear to fetishize trans will be removed. I usually don’t moderate comments that heavily, I’m making an exception in this case.

 

Poly Gay Fic

So, I rounded up a short list of gay polyamory fiction, but to be honest I didn’t have to try that hard. I’d say it took nearly three hours to gather the lesbian polyamory fic/pics list at the beginning of the month, this list took less than an hour. Not too surprising when the Goodreads Best Gay Polyamory Romance list has over 300 items. So all in all, if you can’t find anything you like on this list, just dig around a bit, I’m sure you’ll find something!

 

Evergreen by Racheline Maltese

Misfits by Garrett Leigh

The Forgotten Prince by Kelex, description notes two men from a “Triad” being sent to find the prince who is their destined mate. Destined mate stories usually hit coercion/rape notes so read with caution.

Above the Dungeon by SM Johnson, as the name implies, BDSM themed. M/m/m.

Beyond Complicated by Mercy Celeste, based on the description and several reviews, involves consensual adult incest.

The Scientific Method series by Chris Ripper Another BDSM themed, starts off F/m, moves to M/m, and ends up M/M/m by book 4.

Tales of the Thessali Harem series by Danielle Summers tagged gay fourway sex

Lone Wolf Chronicles by Alastair Anders gay shifter romance, tagged polyamory and orgies

 

Lesbian Polyamory Fic/Pics

Recently PolyLesbian on Twitter shared their frustration with how little representation of lesbian poly folk she has found in fiction. So for the next few weeks I’ll be posting links to all the ______ polyamory fiction and comics I can find. Not sure how many _______s I’m going to hit, but definitely gay and trans. Possibly asexual, kinky, PoC, and others. Feel free to contact me with suggestions. I haven’t read all of these, inclusion in the list is based on search tags, book reviews, and synopsis found on various book sites.

Here’s the (disturbingly short) lesbian polyamory link list. Please add your own links in the comments!

SchpogArt webcomic — Lesbian trio finds some mistletoe. Due to being in a place where I need to keep my comp screen SFW, I didn’t check out much of SchopArt’s other stuff, but the little I saw seems like it might have more along this line somewhere.

Just some nice threesome pics

Forsaking All Others by Kathleen Knowles

Rymellan 3: The Triad by Sarah Ettritch (Debatable, description sounds coercive)

Big Damn Heroines Anthology, tagged “polyamory,” Goodread’s review describes one of the stories as “A trio of warrior-wizards…”

Jiai Jouwa series by Hildred Billings, tagged polyamory/open relationship

Third by Q. Kelly, Description includes two not-so-happily married women and a third woman who enters into a romantic relationship with them (amid time traveling insanity.)

Tales of MU, by Alexandra Erin, delightfully explicit fantasy web serial set in a girls’ college dormitory. I’d qualify this one as more pan/omni-sexual but most of the characters (up to where I’ve read) are women, there’s plenty of F/F action and lots of women in multiple relationships.

Horrors of the Parasitic World: A Love Story by Anya Schwartz, described as two women decide to open their relationship

Links are in no particular order. I have not read the majority of the books mentioned and am basing their inclusion on reviews, tags, and book descriptions. Links, with occasional exception, go to the location where I found the book. None of the links here are affiliate links.