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Polygny and Divorce

Alex Tabarrok writes:

Polygny will be bad for poor men who lose out in the competition for first wives to rich men who are on their second. This already happens, by the way, because of serial polygamy - older men divorce their older wives and marry younger ones leaving older women unmarried and some younger men without young wives. Bad for the young men but not necessarily bad for the young wives. For this reason it's probably true that polygny cannot be countenanced in a democracy. At least not until the supply of young men is reduced enough so that every many can have at least one wife even if some can have two.
I think this serial polygyny business is oft-misunderstood. It carries the implication that before the era of easy divorce, monogamy was the norm and the main impact of easy divorce has been to implement a kind of pseudo-polygny. This obviously does happen now and again, but it doesn't capture the real trend. Back in the day, in elite circles at least, informal polygny was very much the norm. The dynamic was that a man's wife had no real choice -- legal, social, or economic -- but to put up with infidelity as long as her husband kept up appearances to a reasonable extent. This is your classic double-standard. Read Anna Karenina. Changing laws and norms about divorce and the increased economic empowerment of women means that non-monogamous marriages that formerly would have stayed together now tend to break up instead. But what's increasing isn't primarily male non-monogamy, but female intolerance of male non-monogamy and to some extent female non-monogamy. Most divorces are initiated by women.

February 25, 2006 | Permalink

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Comments

It is to be noted that in Anna Karenina there is also a sense that women can be unfaithful, if they're discreet about it - I seem to recall that this kind of thing was being done by one of Anna's friends - Betsy, maybe? Anna's mistake is that she isn't willing to abide by appearances. But there's certainly a double standard - it's hard to see how Stiva behaves with any more discretion than Anna does, and obviously everything always works out fine for Stiva.

In discussing olden times, though, one should note the rather obvious fact that throughout most of the nineteenth century, young wives frequently died in childbirth. Thus, "serial polygyny" was probably about as easy to accomplish back then as it is now, with lax divorce laws.

Posted by: John | Feb 25, 2006 3:31:39 PM

Now that Dobson is supporting a CO proposed law that gives the OK to civil contracts between those who are not legally allowed to marry, perhaps this is the time to just scrap marriage as a matter recognized by the state (making it a purely religious matter), and making contract marriage the norm - recognized by the law. A whole new field in law awaits, with dozens or hundreds of standard contract forms for the two contracting parties to select from. "Oh, you'd like the sexual fidelity clause with punitive damages for violation? Here's that form".

I'm not much worried about the young guys not having age-appropriate women to select from. There are always those cast-off older women with their punitive damages in hand to select from.

Posted by: JimPortandOR | Feb 25, 2006 5:03:30 PM

Another solution is for young men to become broader in their tastes, and start appreciating older women. I'm not sure how you make this happen -- the only idea that comes to mind right now is government-subsidized MILF porn, which would not work politically.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Feb 25, 2006 5:40:21 PM

You're correct that most divorces are initiated by women. John Gottman, probably the foremost researcher in the US on marriage, has found that the most powerful predictor of whether a couple will stay together is whether the husband accepts influence from the wife. Couples in which this doesn't happen split up, presumably because the wife gets fed up with being discounted by her husband. This suggests that if men were socialized to accept influence from women, the divorce rate would decrease. So far, the only other proven method for keeping the divorce rate down is to repress women: countries where women have little political/economic power have the lowest divorce rates. Women, no matter how badly treated or miserable they are, simply can't initiate divorce in these countries.

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, RN, PhD | Feb 25, 2006 6:42:09 PM

I don't think "widespread philandering" really amounts to "serial polygny." I think the mark of the latter is maintaining multiple households.

Also, adultery was a ground for divorce in the 19th century, as was cruelty and mistreatment. 2/3 of divorce petitions were granted to women then, meaning today's inequality in which sex initiates divorce isn't new. So its not true that women had no recourse, even if it was harder to get the divorce because of the need to actually prove legally the charges of misconduct. The change in the frequency of divorce is surely down as much to a change in norms as it is changes in the law.

Posted by: rd | Feb 25, 2006 10:30:28 PM

hell, you don't have to read anna karenina (although you should); you only have to read simenon.

and according to the headlines i saw festooned across Us and People while at the grocery earlier, it's Jessica Simpson's infidelity that is leading Nick Lachey towards a hostile stance in their property settlement: an interesting example of what happens when it's the woman with more economic clout....

Posted by: howard | Feb 25, 2006 10:43:30 PM

Jim,
Eliminate the state sanction of marriage? You realize this will be spun as, liberals are so against families and traditional American values, they want to abolish the institution of marriage. No, that won't rile up the red staters (and blue staters too).

There is much to be said for older women. However if a young man wants children of his own (and not be content with being stepdad to teenagers) then older women are really a suboptimal marriage choice. Better to outsource the problem. If its a scarcity issue, we're a rich country, we can outbid anybody. Bring in more mail order brides and let the young men in developing countries face the wife shortage.

RD,
until the 20th Century, in divorce cases, the father would take custody of the kids. If that rule (or even mandatory joint custody) were brought back, the number of divorce filings would go way down.

Posted by: beowulf | Feb 25, 2006 11:46:03 PM

"For this reason it's probably true that polygny cannot be countenanced in a democracy. At least not until the supply of young men is reduced enough so that every many can have at least one wife even if some can have two."

Or until the supply of young women is increased enough.

All that would be needed would be the return of a dowry system as a financial incentive for sex selection by abortion favoring females. Raise two or three daughters in addition to a son and your retirement is taken care of.

All we have to do is get rid of those damned Christians standing in the way, and I think that kind of system would make everyone happy.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 26, 2006 7:49:42 AM

It's worth mentioning that before antibiotics, women's expected lifespan was lower than men's. A man might easily survive three wives, what with childbed fever and other complications of childbirth.

"Until death do us part" used to be a much shorter period.

Posted by: Jonquil | Feb 26, 2006 2:44:45 PM

"Also, adultery was a ground for divorce in the 19th century, as was cruelty and mistreatment. "

You're oversimplifying. Men could divorce for adultery alone; women could divorce only for adultery *and* cruelty. The laws varied from state to state and country to country, of course.

Posted by: Jonquil | Feb 26, 2006 2:47:13 PM

What kind of consequences can we predict in a polygynous society, where, let's say, 25% of men have two wives, and 25% of men have no wives?

First of all, we can predict an increase in prostitution and greater tolerance for homosexuality.

Second, we can predict that the society will be sexually repressive. Activities or images that might be sexually arousing will be suppressed.

Third, we can anticipate that the unmarried men will be interested in poaching the extra wives of the married 25%. The married 25% will start insisting that their women be locked away. When they are outside, the women will need to be covered up and escorted. The consequences for adultery will be severe--death by stoning.

Finally, frustrated in their attempts to secure a womb for themselves, the unmarried men, saturated with male hormones, will begin to get irritable and aggressive. They'll look for other cultures to hate. They'll start wars. They'll become religious fanatics.

Women in a polygynous society experience special consequences. Their sexuality will be more controlled. They share their husbands with other women in a domestic competition. If they are not the first wive, they may have little influence in their home. They may be picked on by first wives. They are likely to be locked up, covered up and generally made invisible. They are less likely to be educated because an educated woman might insist on more authority.

Posted by: PTate in MN | Feb 26, 2006 4:10:03 PM

"If its a scarcity issue, we're a rich country, we can outbid anybody. Bring in more mail order brides and let the young men in developing countries face the wife shortage."

An atrociously poor solution. Many mail-order brides are nothing but con artists.

Posted by: Peter | Feb 26, 2006 10:36:01 PM

But, can you really blame the women? I mean-given the choice between leaving a man and perhaps having a chance at starting over, or staying with an unfaithful one...which would you pick???

Posted by: Narnia Nerd | Feb 26, 2006 10:52:06 PM

Seriously, who even wants two wives? One wife and a lot of mistresses, that's cool!! Two wives? Not cool, just twice the pain.

It's tough being the poor guy irregardless of a change in whether other men can have two wives. I don't think the super rich woudl be doing this, but instead, the people living in trailer parks.

Posted by: Chad | Feb 27, 2006 1:26:25 PM

"For this reason it's probably true that polygny cannot be countenanced in a democracy. At least not until the supply of young men is reduced enough so that every many can have at least one wife even if some can have two."

Or until the supply of young women is increased enough.

huh? Maybe my point of view is just skewed by living in DC and having lots of really nice, attractive single women friends and very few socially functioning men, but it seems to me the problem we currently have has nothing to do with too many young men and not enough women, but the reverse.

So maybe the polygyny scenario would be good for some of us young women by reducing the competition--or even forcing guys to compete for us. But, on the other hand, I don't know how many educated women I know would go for being a second wife. Unless the current wife was pretty hot, too, it wouldn't seem very appealing.

Posted by: flippantangel | Feb 27, 2006 1:42:41 PM

Peter,

My point was if there were polygamy, the men who were cut off from the possibilty of finding an American wife would look elsewhere. I don't have any first hand experience with the mail order bride racket, but from what I've read, its older or socially unadept men who've had no luck finding a partner in a society where there usually is someone for anyone. No doubt they have overly high expectations, if they settled for someone equally as homely as themselves. but I suppose you could say that about any single person-- we're all looking for the bigger better deal.

Anywho, do the mail order brides come here as con artists or do they come here with high hopes and then get turned off by the loser they're stuck with? If they're from socially open, developed nations that have fallen on hard times (i.e. Russia), I'd guess the former, if they're from poor, traditional societies (Thailand, say), I'd guess the latter.

However, does the dynamic change if the pool of husbands looking overseas are suddenly younger, more desirable men who are just "priced out" of the American marriage market by polygamy? Even a working class man in America is wealthy by third world standards. Of course after a few months of watching Lifetime TV movies, just like Eddie Murphy's imagined third world wife, the wives would probably sue for divorce and want half. :o)

Posted by: beowulf | Feb 27, 2006 6:08:58 PM

It's tough being the poor guy irregardless [sic] of a change in whether other men can have two wives.

The point isn't that men having more than one wife will make the poor single guy even more miserable, it is that men having more than one wife will cause there to be more poor single men.

Posted by: Glaivester | Feb 27, 2006 6:23:15 PM

I think that in our society, if polygyny created a female shortage, it would wind up being solved by some women choosing polyandry. A woman who wants a large family but who cannot find a husband wealthy enough to support one (and who cannot or does not want to support one through her own income) could marry several men and have one child by each.

The main reason why polygyny is more common than polyandry worldwide is that women's reproductive capacity is the limiting factor to how many children a family can have (men have practically unlimited reproductive capacity, so that is usually not a limiting factor, and income is only a limiting factor in countries where children are not economic assets [as they are in farming economies]). In the modern western world, the limiting factor is often income (in that people cannot afford to have a large family at the standard of living at which they would like to live). Under polyandry, an extra husband can mean an extra income for the household, thus enabling another child.

I've discussed this before.

Posted by: Glaivester | Feb 27, 2006 6:31:22 PM

Glaivester says:
"I think that in our society, if polygyny created a female shortage, it would wind up being solved by some women choosing polyandry. A woman who wants a large family but who cannot find a husband wealthy enough to support one (and who cannot or does not want to support one through her own income) could marry several men and have one child by each."

I've just written on the subject of surplus males. Along the way, I address exactly this point. In short, it won't happen unless males lack any other option. And there are always other options in the modern context. The basic problem is that men have evolved extreme vigilance to protect them from the hazards of cuckoldry. Even going to war will likely sound like a better deal.

Glaivester is on the right track, though. In the rare cases where cultures have evolved polyandry, intense resource pressure is the precipitating factor. But even in such circumstances, the co-husbands are often brothers, cutting the fitness costs and thereby reducing the basis for conflict.

In any case, here is my post on the subject. Check it out. Many of the points made here are addressed. And I made some important points that haven't been raised here yet. Think China.

Cheers,

Bret

Posted by: Bretw | Feb 27, 2006 9:42:01 PM

I think it is interesting that no one seems to have noticed that the author thinks this is good for old men and young women but not good for young men that serial polygyny exists. As a middle aged woman I can tell you that it is usually worst for the older woman being dumped for the hot young thing. I've seen a lot of women thrown into poverty from this and with no realistic hope of finding another mate. Yet nowhere does he mention the impact on such people. Perhaps because in our society older women aren't really considered to be people of value?

Posted by: HLGEM | Feb 27, 2006 10:41:47 PM

HLGEM,

A fair point, I suppose most of the commenters here are male and so we look at the issue from that perspective. I'm not sure what legal reforms could best help older women in that situation.

It is fun to remember that North Carolina still has an alienation of affection law-- If you steal someone's spouse, they can sue you for big money. If other states adopt it, it'd be a good time to take that private investigator home study course and make big money. http://www.rosen.com/alienationofaffection/

What's interesting is to identify which gender (on average) files for divorce. In most middle class marriages, and therefore most marriages overall, the wife files for divorce in the vast majority of such cases. In wealthier families, it's my understanding (though with no statistics handy), the husband is the one who usually files. It appears whether a husband is a "good earner" determines which partner is more likely to call it quits.

I would be interested to hear your perspective on this.

Posted by: beowulf | Feb 28, 2006 2:42:26 AM

Alimony and child support requirements suggest that society is concerned about the problem. There is a strong argument that we should do more because the risks and harms are diverse and sizable, but isn’t as if the problem has simply been ignored. The most important and interesting point, though, is that the harms are pervasive—men, women, children, a country’s geographical neighbors and in the modern circumstance, the world itself—we are all imperiled by systems that create surplus males. The bias in this discussion, I suspect, stems from the fact that the harms to women and children are frequently discussed—the harms to polygynously married women often being the focus—while the very real harms to most men tends to go unnoticed. So we are discussing the part that has been ignored because that’s the most interesting and fruitful thing to talk about. In the post I mentioned above, I argued that polygyny only serves the interests of men at the very top. Everybody, else suffers. If the objective of focusing on the harms experienced by first wives is to get society to act against polygyny, then focusing on those harms alone is a mistake. I do not in my piece talk specifically about the financial plight of women made poor by abandonment—I probably should have—but I do discuss the odd circumstance of women in industrialized countries who seem to have accepted the costs of polygyny without demanding the benefits. And I try to put all the harms in perspective. I think you will be surprised how strong the case against polygyny really is.

Bret

Posted by: Bretw | Feb 28, 2006 9:11:36 AM

I really don't know what can be done to solve the _de facto_ polygamy problem. It cannot simply be outlawed, as is done with "true" polygamy. Social pressure might help, in other words if men who take multiple women are ostracized, but that solution is complicated by the fact that the worst offenders are at either extreme of the socioeconomic scale: the ghetto "player" with his stable of "ho's," and the CEO who gets a new trophy wife every couple of years. Neither type is likely to be much concerned with social pressure.
Bottom line: non-Alpha males are in for a tough time.

Posted by: Peter | Feb 28, 2006 10:51:37 AM

Flippantangel wrote:
"huh? Maybe my point of view is just skewed by living in DC and having lots of really nice, attractive single women friends and very few socially functioning men, but it seems to me the problem we currently have has nothing to do with too many young men and not enough women, but the reverse."

It's just your perception. The reality is quite different. Check out the singles bars and nightclubs in DC, and you'll see that most if not all of them have to resort to costly "ladies' night" promotions in increasingle futile attempts to get enough women. Or look at the male/female ratios in local personals ads. You'll see **FAR** more Men-seeking-women than Women-seeking-men. Or check out the increasingly popular speed-dating events in your area. Even months in advance most of them will be "Sold out for men/places available for women."

What might well contribute to your perception is that women who are unable to find men often complain to their friends about their plight, while men who can't find women retreat into solitary pursuits and tell no one. Hence it seems to the casual observer that the lovelorn women outnumber their male counterparts.


HLGEM wrote:
"I think it is interesting that no one seems to have noticed that the author thinks this is good for old men and young women but not good for young men that serial polygyny exists. As a middle aged woman I can tell you that it is usually worst for the older woman being dumped for the hot young thing. I've seen a lot of women thrown into poverty from this and with no realistic hope of finding another mate."

At least these dumped older women can take solace in the fact that they once enjoyed being the center of male attention. Compare the plight of a non-Alpha man, who is quite possibly facing a lifetime without women.

Posted by: Peter | Feb 28, 2006 11:39:00 AM

Petey: "All that would be needed would be the return of a dowry system as a financial incentive for sex selection by abortion favoring females.Raise two or three daughters in addition to a son and your retirement is taken care of."

Minor point: you mean bride-price. Dowry is paid by the bride's family to the groom; bride-price, vice versa. Both exist in various societies. What would happen, incidentally, is a shift to later marriage - especially if the bride price was very high, as you are suggesting - and, probably, more couples living with parents until they could afford a house.

Posted by: ajay | Feb 28, 2006 12:53:56 PM

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