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Home / Articles / Identifying Abuse / When Domestic Abuse Happens in a Polygamous Relationship

When Domestic Abuse Happens in a Polygamous Relationship

Finding nonjudgemental support is a challenge for those in plural relationships

When Domestic Abuse Happens in a Polygamous Relationship

People in polygamous or polyamorous relationships—aka, having more than one partner or sharing a partner with someone else—can face all the same relationship challenges as people in two-partner relationships. They can also be just as much at risk for domestic violence as other individuals—in fact, some studies denote they’re at greater risk.

First, some quick definitions: Polyamory denotes having multiple intimate relationships simultaneously, sometimes same-sex and opposite-sex partners simultaneously, though these relationships are not always sexual.

Polygamy is the practice of having multiple spouses and is typically rooted in religious beliefs. One couple is legally married, but other partners consider themselves “married” as well. Since no U.S. state recognizes more than two partners in a marriage, the people in the relationship who are not legally married aren’t entitled to the rights that come with marriage. 

Polygamy in Religious Sects

Polygamous relationships come in diverse forms, just like two-partner relationships. TV shows like Sister Wives and Big Love depict polygamous relationships in a religious context. While not legal in the U.S., some communities of conservative Muslims and Mormon fundamentalists still practice polygamy. (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints banned polygamy in 1890.)

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Women in these marriages are more likely to face domestic abuse, possibly because these practices encourage control over women. A study from Emory University examined polygamous relationships in more than 170 countries and found increased levels of violence toward women and children. Abuse may come at the hands of the husband, and wives may also abuse each other. 

Survivors of abuse within plural marriages say they often have little or no access to money or resources since their husbands often control finances and access to information. Some live in communities that encourage polygamy and patriarchal structure, and in remote areas of the U.S. where it’s difficult to connect with outside help. Theses survivors may not have access to telephones or transportation, and they may not even be aware that help is available outside of their religious community. They often distrust the government, according to this piece from The Guardian. And they may need mental health counseling, according to this study published by the National Institutes of Health.

Abuse in Polyamorous Relationships

Apart from polygamy in religious communities, there are also partners who join into triads or larger groups. These relationships often form when a married couple invites a third person or others to join their relationship. “If people want to live as such they can, but only two of them can be married,” says Steven J. Mandel, a New York-based divorce attorney who has handled cases involving domestic violence and involving polyamorous relationships.

People in these relationships are less likely to face the isolation found in remote religious communities. But Mandel says that there are legal issues involving how these people are protected, and how custody decisions are made. These relationships are typically not treated as domestic partnerships or marriages. “You’re not going to get the same protections,” Mandel says. Depending on the nature of the relationship, it can be more difficult to get an order of protection, for instance. 

When an unmarried partner leaves the triad, that person likely has no custody rights, even if they’ve been instrumental in raising the children. They also may not have the right to receive financial support. So if they’ve been maintaining the household and/or caring for children, they could be in a financially precarious position when they leave.

There’s also a lot of overlap between polyamorous relationships and the LGBTQ community, so partners in these relationships may face abusive tactics that target their sexual orientation or threats to “out” their polyamorous status.

What Abuse Can Look Like

People in polygamous and polyamorous relationships can face the same types of abuse as people in two-partner relationships. And they can also face some unique challenges.

  • A partner joining a previously monogamous couple can find that the couple prioritizes their own relationship without giving the new partner a voice in the relationship. 
  • People can feel insecure or jealous and can then try to control the other person’s behavior. 
  • More-experienced partners can manipulate less-experienced partners, especially in polyamorous relationships, since most people don’t have much exposure to these types of relationships.
  • People may forbid contact between shared partners or may insist on sharing everything.
  • People may fear that if they report abuse they will be judged or blamed for choosing this type of relationship.

If you’re in a polygamous or polyamorous relationship and you’re experiencing abuse, the National Domestic Violence Hotline can help. Chat from their web page or call 800-799-7233. The Network/La Red, based in Boston, works to end abuse in LGBQ/T, SM, and polyamorous communities.

The Attorney Generals of Arizona and Utah, where you can find religious communities that still practice polygamy, partnered to develop a primer for helping people facing domestic violence in polygamous communities.