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What is Bigamy?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Bigamy is the practice of being married to two people at once. This form of polygamy is considered illegal in many Western countries, and it has historically been a topic of contention, especially in the United States. Some Mormon sects support the practice of polygamy, and resent state interference in what they view as their private affairs. As a general rule, this crime is rarely prosecuted, and when it is, the penalty varies; the primary spouse may be ordered to serve time in jail, and potentially to pay a fine, for example.

In a classic example of bigamy, a man marries a woman, and then marries another several years later, while he is still legally married to the first women. Depending on the culture in which this occurs, the second marriage may be undertaken with the full consent of both wives, or the second marriage may be concealed. Should the man take a third wife, he would be committing trigamy; if he added additional spouses to the mix, it would become polygamy, or, more accurately, polygyny.

Sometimes, people commit this act by accident, and there is some leeway in the law to provide for this. For example, if a couple separates but does not formally divorce and one spouse remarries, this could be considered a form of bigamy, but it is often permitted if the separation was more than five years ago, and the remarrying partner made a good faith effort to formally divorce the other. In some regions, if someone has been missing for five or more years, he or she could be legally declared dead, allowing the surviving spouse to remarry without fear of charges.

In the United States, where polygamy has been a particularly fraught issue, several court cases and laws have clearly dictated that being married to more than one person at the same time is illegal. The Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862 specifically outlawed the practice, and it was upheld in a Supreme Court challenge in 1878. The laws are often difficult to enforce, however, especially since they targeted the Mormon community, which lived in isolated regions of the American West. Even today, pressing charges can be challenging, and such charges are usually integrated into a larger indictment.

In some regions of the world, being married to two people is perfectly acceptable and commonplace, due to cultural or religious values. Some people feel that such marriages can be beneficial for those involved, allowing the partners to share the work in the marriage and work together as a team. Others feel that it exploits one or more of the people involved in the marriage, especially when a second wife is treated more like a household slave than a member of the family.

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Mary McMahon
By 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.

Discussion Comments

By Oceana — On Oct 24, 2012

Bigamy just sounds like a health risk. Don't people worry about getting STDs?

I suppose if all the people involved had waited until they were married to have intercourse, this wouldn't be an issue. Maybe this is how the religious sects manage, but if just one of them messed up and got infected, the disease would be shared by all three.

By OeKc05 — On Oct 23, 2012

I have often wished that there were two of me, so that I could get things done around the house without slaving all day. On this front, I understand how bigamy could be useful.

However, I would not want my husband being intimate with another woman. I have a jealous streak, and I know I would flip out.

I wonder how people who hold bigamy as part of their religion handle the jealousy. It just comes so naturally, and I don't think I could fight it, even if I did have a lot of help around the house!

By StarJo — On Oct 23, 2012

@healthy4life – The first marriage is the legal one, of course. Do you think it's fair to the original wife for the second marriage to have happened at all? How do you think she'd feel if the courts decided that her marriage was null and void, while the other was solid?

I hear stories sometimes about men who travel a lot for their jobs, so they wind up in the perfect position to lead two lives. Some of them have wives in different cities, and a few even have entire families elsewhere.

I can't imagine someone living like that for years and getting away with it. Just think about how the first wife and family would feel if they found out about it!

By healthy4life — On Oct 22, 2012

If a man is married to one woman and then takes another wife without telling either woman about the other, which marriage does the law on bigamy uphold? It doesn't seem fair to the second wife for the law to say that she is not his legitimate wife, since she didn't know about the first one.

By anon274714 — On Jun 13, 2012

I got married in 1997, never got divorced, lived with him for a month and left. I got married to someone else in 2005 in America, left him in 2008 and went back to the UK. I got divorced from my first marriage in 2007. Am I still married to my second husband?

By anon243783 — On Jan 29, 2012

A man can file for divorce just like a woman can. No excuses!

By baileybear — On Oct 01, 2010

@turtlez - It is really her business, but I thought I would ask after stumbling upon this article because it got me thinking about her situation. Even though most people think it's awful, Bigamy can still be unintentional or accidental. Although, the thing I don't understand is HOW could you forget that you're still married to some one???

By turtlez — On Oct 01, 2010

@baileybear - It really depends on where you (or your friend) lives. Like the article states, Bigamy is perfectly fine in some cultures and an awful thing in others. Bigamy law is pretty straightforward and if you can, at all costs, just go ahead and get the divorce. In many cases you can file online or get the forms online for very, very cheap - so there is no reason it should happen unless there is a life threatening emergency or something.

By baileybear — On Oct 01, 2010

@empanadas - I have a friend that is in this situation, but the article states something about separation or divorce...? What is that about? Would my friend be considered a Bigamist if she was legally separated, but didn't divorce and had been with a guy for literally, years and had been introducing him as her husband? What are the punishments of being a Bigamist?

By empanadas — On Oct 01, 2010

My fiance is working on becoming a Police Officer and in the state of Texas Bigamy's definition is defined in the way stated above, but also in another way. Since Texas recognizes the "common law" marriage, being married to someone and then being with some one else and introducing them as your spouse is also a form of Bigamy.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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