Two’s company, three’s a crowd

Cohabitation|News|Relationships|September 4th 2012

Have you ever been to a wedding where the cake was decorated with figurines of the happy couple? In their plasticky  way those figures perfectly represent most people’s idea of marriage: one man, one woman and  kids on the way. Perhaps in a year or two, that image will be joined by one of two same sex partners. We know there are parts of the world which take a different approach to marriage, but practices like polygamy seem quite alien and far-away – something that takes place on far-flung tropical islands perhaps, but mostly illegal and thoroughly frowned upon.

In fact nearly 50 countries around the world permit polygamy – largely countries with a tribal or Muslim heritage. It may surprise you to learn that polygamous unions are recognised  in UK law as well – as long the marriages took place in countries where polygamy is permitted. Polygamous marriages cannot be conducted in the UK and spouses in such marriages have fewer rights than those granted by conventional marriage.

Could this situation ever change? On the face of it, such a possibility seems very unlikely, but a recent story from staunchly Catholic Brazil suggests one way in which the concept of multi-partner relationships could – at least in theory – gain legal recognition in other western countries.

The story caused quite a stir in the South American country: a public notary in the state of Sao Paolo  had approved a civil union between three people: a man and two women.

The notary , Claudia do Nascimento Domingues, said the trio had decided to declare their relationship in order to obtain the same family rights as conventional marriages – those available following separation or the death of a partner, for example.

The notary’s office examined Brazilian law and concluded that nothing prevented the union being recognised.

The anonymous man and women had already been living together in Rio de Janeiro for three years by the time Ms Domingues recognised the union. They share bills and have opened a joint bank account, something which is also not against Brazilian law.

Ms Domingues said: “We are only recognising what has always existed. We are not inventing anything. For better or worse, it doesn’t matter, but what we considered a family before isn’t necessarily what we would consider a family today.”

You won’t be surprised to hear, I’m sure, that not everyone in Brazil shares that view. Influential lawyer Regina Beatriz Tavares da Silva, denounced the move as “absurd and totally illegal” and pledged to annul the ruling as “something completely unacceptable which goes against Brazilian values and morals”.

Marisa Lobo, a psychologist and evangelical Christian, also expressed outrage. “Jesus, come back soon!”, she wrote in an article for the Verdade Gospel. “I try to imagine the sons of these three people, how would they feel?”
Despite its Catholicism, Brazil has already shown a willingness to take a progressive view on family matters. It is, for example, one of only three South American countries to permit civil partnerships between same sex couples (the others being Argentina and Uruguay). As in the UK, these civil partnerships grant the same legal rights as conventional marriage.

I am intrigued by the suggestion that the unnamed trio from Rio de Janeiro represent a fresh take on the concept of family. Many will find this idea difficult to accept I’m sure – even those who otherwise take a liberal view of family matters. But as a society we have shown ourselves quite capable of accepting – albeit sometimes slowly and grudgingly – ideas that were once quite shocking. Nowadays nobody is scandalised by couples who live together without getting married – the phrase ‘living in sin’ is a quaint relic of a bygone age. Civil unions between same sex  couples are legal and increasingly uncontentious, with legislation for full marriage amongst gay couples increasingly likely.

Polygamous relationships may seem a bridge too far now, but in 20 or 30 years? Well, I don’t think we can rule anything out

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  1. Jancis M. Andrews says:

    Polygamy will only become legal in those patriarchal countries or states where women are not considered men’s equals. Chief Justice Robert Bauman of BC Supreme Court, Canada, for example, was asked to rule if Canada’s laws against polygamy were constitutional. 13 groups, both pro and con polygamy, presented Briefs. He took 4 months to study them, and on November 23, 2011, ruled that Canadian laws against polygamy were constitutional because polygamy is an anti-social act, contravening women’s equality rights, harming their children, and allowing rich men to garner concubines for their harems, to the detriment of their poorer brothers (Nature does not provide even two women for every one man.) His report is 354 pages long and is available on the Internet. It should be required reading for those wanting to promote polygamy. The year is 2012 AD, not 2012 BC, and women (at least in the First World, but not in the Third) are no longer considered chattels.


    Polygamous marriages cannot be conducted in the UK and [GREEDY-LIKE] spouses [“WHO WANT TO [UNILATERALLY] OPTIMIZE DIVISION OF ASSETS AND/OR WHO DO NOT WANT TO DIVIDE ASSETS”] in such marriages have fewer [ASSETS] rights than those granted by conventional marriage.

  3. DT says:

    Very interesting Marilyn.
    You make some important points Jancis. Thus far, it’s always been a very pro-male practice.
    Polygamy isn’t something I’ve ever given much thought to as I’ve never had exposure to it, but I’ve watched programmes on TV and wondered just how it works in reality. I can’t see how somebody, at some point, wouldn’t feel left out or jealous. The dynamics are difficult for me to get my head around to be honest. And can you imagine just how messy (and possibly inequitable) a break up could be?!
    I was surprised that polygamous unions are recognised in the UK (assuming they’ve taken place where they are legally valid)– I didn’t know that. If they’re recognised, is there any case law dealing with break-ups?
    I wonder how many polygamous marriages are women having more than one husband, as it’s usually the other way around?!
    Or, how about a same-sexes polygamous marriage?! One man having 4 husbands?
    Would there be a limit on the number?
    I wouldn’t like to see a polygamous UK and I don’t think I will to be honest, but who knows. I’m unsure as to the genuine need really.
    I have all on coping with one partner, let alone two or more – I can’t think of anything worse!

  4. Keith says:

    The problem in some places is that only polygyny is allowed an women are otherwise treated as lesser. Where there is gender equality, there’s nothing wrong if all forms of polygamy are allowed. An adult should be free to share love, sex, residence, and marriage with any consenting adults, without prosecution, bullying, or discrimination. Don’t like it? Then don’t do it. But a woman should be free to not only marry another woman, but marry two women, or marry a man who is married to someone else already, as long as all agree. All of the legal issues can be worked out. It is absurd that people can have have sex with multiple strangers every night, or have multiple partners, have children with all of them, live with all of them, even marry and divorce them one at a time, but we don’t allow say, a woman to be married to both of the fathers of her children at the same time, when all are agreeable.

  5. JamesB says:

    Not good for the spare men left over. Having been to Tunisia and met a lovely poor young man with no prospect of having a woman years ago visit a very ignorant farmer with 9 wives, I think no thanks. Serial monogomy is the real question. I think so, young women are in demand, so the young men and old women hitch up alright 😉 .

  6. JamesB says:

    p.s. Said man was in early 20s.

  7. DT says:

    Hi Keith
    It’s all ok in theory, and yes, in principle we should be able to marry whoever we want and as many as we want BUT I have real concerns that the appearance of consenting and the reality might be quite different.
    Working the legal issues out of a ‘usual’ / ‘normal’ relationship breakdown are bad enough but what if there were more than 2 adults to consider? And what about kids? I think it would be very difficult for children.
    Can you really see it working Keith?

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