What is a Plural Family?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A plural family is a family in which the parents practice a form of polygamy or polyamory, meaning that the family includes multiple wives and/or husbands or partners. Most commonly, the plural marriage which forms the nucleus of a plural family is polygynous, in which one man is married to multiple wives. Plural families are associated in particular with certain Mormon sects and also with some segments of the Muslim community, although a plural family does not necessarily have to be linked with a specific religion or culture.

The Salt Lake Temple, a Mormon temple in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The Salt Lake Temple, a Mormon temple in Salt Lake City, Utah.

In the case of a religious plural family, the plural marriage which forms the foundation of the family is established because the parents believe in plural marriage as an important aspect of their religious faith. Some people believe that their religion commands them to take multiple spouses, or to participate in a plural marriage. In regions of the world where polygamy is illegal or frowned upon, people who practice polygamy as part of their religious culture can experience considerable prejudice, and the head of the family may be imprisoned for polygamy in regions where it is illegal.

A plural family involves multiple husbands, wives, or partners.
A plural family involves multiple husbands, wives, or partners.

In a secular plural family, people simply gather together in a plural marriage because it seems natural, enjoyable, or advantageous to them. This sort of plural marriage is less likely to be specifically polygynous; it may include a multitude of wives and husbands, for example, or it may be polyandrous, with a single female as the head of a household which includes many husbands.

Advocates of the plural family argue that it can be incredibly supportive and productive for all the members of the family, as the parents pitch in together to help each other support the household financially and raise the children. In many plural families, it is common to see a large number of children, and the cooperation of the sisterwives, husbands, or partners in the marriage can keep the house running smoothly. When fully consenting adults come together to build a plural family, supporters feel that this should not be condemned reflexively.

Opponents of plural families argue that it can be demeaning or exploitative, pointing specifically to instances where plural marriages have covered up abuse and coercion of young women. In the case of religious plural marriage, some members of conservative sects may feel pressured into building a plural family, rather than deciding to do so on their own, and this can lead to stress, strife, and ultimate unhappiness. Religious plural marriage can also lead to a shortage of available wives, and a phenomenon sometimes known as the “lost boys,” in which men are expelled from conservative sects which promote the plural family out of concern that there will not be enough wives for everyone.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@MrsPramm - I actually don't see why not. I mean, I understand why it was made illegal in the past. Certain groups used to force very young women into marrying men who already had multiple wives. It was awful for the women and ultimately unsustainable because there simply weren't enough women for everyone to have multiple wives.

But in the modern world I think people should be able to design their families however they want as long as no one is being exploited or harmed.


@KoiwiGal - It does seem to be shifting a tiny bit, although there is still a long way to go. And in some ways, I can understand why. I think of marriage as a legal contract that can have as much or as little religious significance as people want it to have, but is ultimately about naming a particular person as having a special status in your life.

If you start allowing people to name multiple people to that status, then the law will become very tangled. Can you imagine a divorce with multiple children and more than two parents involved when everyone has legal rights? It's messy enough with just two parents when they split up.

I do think that people should be able to cohabit or participate in religious ceremonies or whatever they want with as many people as they want. But I think multiple people in a marriage contract just won't work.


I've always been fascinated by cultures that have multiple partners in the traditional relationship like this. Most of the time there are multiple wives, but there are a few cultures where it's the wife who has multiple husbands. Usually it's in places like Tibet where it means that brothers can have the same wife and don't have to divide the land up among multiple heirs when someone dies.

It supposedly only works in that case because the men in Tibet are often away from home trading, so the brothers don't usually have to share their home at the same time.

I guess I'd just like to know how everything works in a culture like that. Ours is so centered around the idea that people should only be in couples.

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