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Research Article - ASEAN Journal of Psychiatry (2021)


Department of psychiatry, Institute of Applied Psychology University of Punjab, Lahore, Pakistan

*Corresponding Author:

Sabila Naseer, Department of psychiatry, Institute of Applied Psychology University of Punjab, Lahore, Pakistan, Email:

Received: 20-Nov-2021 Published: 17-Dec-2021, DOI: 10.54615/2231-7805.47221


Polygamy has become common practice in many communities including Pakistan. Objectives: The study investigated the causes of polygamy, outcomes, and women's coping strategies to deal with co-wives’ relationships. Method: Exploratory qualitative method was used. Data was collected from 11 polygamous women who consented to an in-depth interview. The study was conducted in 2017 with approval from the institution and polygamous women. Results: Three themes emerged from the study based on findings. First theme: reasons of polygamy as findings indicated that majority of females allowed their husbands for co-wives due to infertility or having only female children, husband’s love marriage, and in-laws family pressure because they wanted to secure their marriage instead of divorce. Second theme: outcomes of polygamy as jealousy, unhappiness, and loneliness due to injustice, by the spouse were explored as potential pitfalls of polygamy. The advantages of polygamy were included sharing in-house responsibilities and child-rearing. Third theme: The coping strategies used by polygamous women have included faith in religion, fate role, and compromise with the co-wives. Conclusion: Polygamous women though claimed that polygamy has disadvantages but to them, divorce is not an option. The policymakers and law enforcement agencies should pass laws for the welfare of polygamous women. They must be educated through different seminars and programs to cope with the stress and manage other consequences of polygamy. The study is not against polygamy but the need to improve the family structure of polygamous families is a major concern.


Polygamy; Antecedents of Polygamy; Outcomes of Polygamy; Coping Strategies of Co-wives.


Polygamy has become very common in numerous cultures particularly in Islamic society. Islam allows men to marry up to four wives at one time but the condition is to maintain equality and Justice in all the possession whatever a man holds in material means [1]. In Muslim families the textual basis is provided by the Holy Quran for the practice of polygamy: "Marry women of your choice two, or three, or four, but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them) then only one". While in many cites it has been claimed that if a man is unable to maintain justice and equality to treat all the wives then the above verse is interpreted as in favour of monogamy [2]. The majority of Muslims have accepted official polygamy. In the Muslim world, polygamy is acknowledged because it is supported and associated with religious doctrine as well as a fair and legal way of relationship. It protects the families from contracting sexually transmitted diseases and possible deviation to an illegal sexual association [3]. Women also support their men for polygamy if they are facing infertility to secure their marriage instead of divorce [4]. Another common stereotype that is associated with females is to give birth to only female children which increasing the ratio of female infanticide because some men are in favor of only male children. In many typical cultures like India, China, and Pakistan infanticide is a very common practice despite an illegal and social evil [5-7]. So infertility and no male child is the main factor to permit polygamy by the wives [8].

The outcomes of polygamous marriages have also been seen. Literature indicates that the structure of the polygamous women's families badly affected the psychological and social functioning of polygamous women and children [9-11]. It is a very common experience that discriminative behaviour of the husbands and unequal treatment with their wives causes several mental health issues in polygamous families. These are jealousy, poor marital satisfaction, unhealthy competition, lack of trust, and many other mental health problems [12]. In some countries like India, Iran, Iraq, Bangladesh, Algeria, Lebanon, Morocco, Jordan, and Kuwait allow a woman to include a clause prohibiting polygyny in marriage contacts. But in Pakistan and Iran, only consent is required from the first wife and need to show it in the court as proof for the second wife. In the modern-day polygamy is not as much disputed as in the past. In the beginning, females refused to share their partners but with time they accept it. As when co-wives share their domestic chores, and other responsibilities of the family they become less possessive with time about their partners.

Many qualitative and quantitative studies have been conducted to evaluate the challenges and issues facing polygamous women on an international level. In Pakistan polygamous women also facing many psycho social problems because our society is far away from the original teachings of Islam about polygamy. In literature, the problems faced by polygamous women were highlighted. But the current qualitative study is an attempt to fill the gaps that are left unexposed by survey-based or quantitative research and particularly to explore the positive consequences of polygamy and coping strategies which the polygamous women used to deal with co-wives’ relationships other than causes and disadvantages of co-wives. Therefore, in line with the objectives of this study, qualitative interviews were a superlative choice for inductive approaches aimed at generating concepts and hypotheses that have far more potential for research than any other model.

Study Questions

•To find out the reasons for multiple spouses by men.

•To evaluate the outcomes of the relationship between co-wives.

•To seek the coping strategies to accept the new relationship by co-wives.


Sample and research design

A sample of 11 polygamous women was included through snowball sampling from the different cities of the province of Punjab, Pakistan with an age range of 18-50 years. A qualitative methodology was adopted to explore the experiences of polygamous women. The design was flexible and consent was taken for an in-depth interview. In addition, the interpretive phenomenological analysis (IPA) was used to generate a wide range of perceptions and opinions that women carry out about their experiences in polygamous family structures.

Assessment measure

An in-depth interview technique was used with probing questions to get the perception from polygamous women about their life experiences, reasons behind polygamous marriage, and what strategies were used by co-wives to deal with such relationships. An interview guide was prepared before conducting interviews which were consisted of the following research questions based on literature. The questions were translated into English according to the needs of international journal. In this concern two research experts (co-authors) were consulted.

1.Why your spouse (husband) preferred 2nd or 3rd marriage?

2.Explain the nature of your relationships with co-wives.

3.What were the coping strategies which you used to accept the co-wives’ relationship?

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Formal permission was taken from the institution for data collection. A record of 26 women was collected for polygamous families through snowball sampling for the availability of co-wives. 11 in-depth interviews were conducted with the help of the above-given interview guide with an age range of 18-50 years of polygamous women after obtaining initial data. Both verbal and written consent was obtained. The co-wives were approached from their homes. Appointments were previously taken and the interviews were conducted at their places for their convenience. All interviews were audio-taped, transcribed verbatim, and were then analyzed by interpretive phenomenological analysis. Confidentiality of the data was ensured to all the participants. The interviews were verified for accuracy and consistency by listening to the recordings. The first author analyzed the transcripts line by line, which was read repeatedly and thematically analyzed for their contents. The supervisor of the study verified the emerging themes and contents.


Description of findings

The purpose of this study is to investigate married women’s experiences in polygamous marriages and their ways of coping to accept this relationship. The women of polygamous families shared their lived experiences of polygamy. An analysis of 11 cases of polygamous women transcribed verbatim showed a cluster of themes as infertility or having only female children, love marriage of husband, family pressure, the relationships among co-wives, and their coping strategies to accept this relationship in their marital life. These themes emerged in 3 main themes as Causes of polygamy, outcomes of polygamy, and coping strategies of polygamous women. These themes were generated from the co-wives’ experiences.

Demographics of participants

Eleven women participated in the study. Their mean age was 33.83 ranging from 18-50 years. Six were first (senior) wives, four were second wives, and one was the 3rd wife in status. Their average marriage duration was 11 years and living in the same house or compound. Seven women were single before marriage, while two were divorced and two were widowed. All women were Muslims. During the analysis, three major themes were identified; (1) reasons for polygamous marriages (2) Relationship with co-wives/ consequences of polygamous marriage, and (3) strategies to cope with the co-wife’s relationship.

Theme 1: Reasons for Polygamous Marriages

The first theme was generated from the verbatim of the first question which was asked to polygamous women. The co-wives shared their several experiences and reasons why they allowed their husbands for 2nd or 3rd marriage. Following subthemes were included in these main theme categories.

Infertility or only female children

Mrs. Tanveer was 39 years old lady. She had a male child during the interview. She was the first wife of her husband and it was a happy arranged marriage. After 11 years passed when she had not conceived her in-laws forced her husband for co-wife. When her husband refused, she said that she convinced and allowed her husband for second marriage. She believed that by allowing for a co-wife, she too would be blessed to have a child. She stated, “When I allowed my husband to marry a second wife, then God blessed me to have a child” (translated from Urdu to English). Mrs. Kamal was also a childless first wife from the past 6-8 years and she accepted a co-wife rather than divorce. She tried her best to convince her husband not to get married to another woman but she was not succeeded. Though later on, she had a good relation with 2nd wife.

One female Mrs. Abdullah was feeding a new born baby she was 3rd wife of her husband. She was blended with her husband by love marriage. She was divorced from her second husband because of infertility and the first time her husband died of an illness. She was in severe depression after this trauma.

At that time her 3rd husband supported her emotionally and financially. She said, “I don't think I was the one that could not have children. It could have been the man's problem too”. Because her first husband always cursed him by saying a childless woman. Mrs. Amir was the 2nd wife and also had no children her husband married her for children and his family again forced him for 3rd wife by giving the reference of the religious doctrine.

Mrs. Imam was the first wife with a love marriage and she had two female children in three years. Both babies were through cesarean. Now she was not ready for 3rd. Her in-laws forced her husband to marry another female because of only female children. They also threatened her with divorce. She stated, “I allowed a co-wife in my marriage because I was not able to have more children after my second child. I allowed and agreed to my husband’s request for a co-wife to have more children.” She also claimed that love with time is declined and she preferred to accept co-wife rather divorce to safe their marriage and secure her daughters’ future.

Love marriage: Love marriage is a very common reason for co-wives [13]. Mrs. Ahmad was a second wife and it was a love marriage. She said that she and her husband was working in the same organization. Lateron, both married. Though she faced a lot of criticism from the first wife. But it was a happy marriage for her with 2 children (one boy and one girl). Mrs. Abdullah also had a love marriage. Mrs. Arslan was the first wife of her husband. It was an arranged marriage. Both were a happy couple with 2 boys and 1 baby girl. But few years passed her husband was involved with another lady and married after few years.

She told that” She was like a witch, spoiled my whole family”. Mrs. Mustafa was another 1st wife. Her ex-husband died. It was a love marriage. She had only one daughter. She said that she convinced her husband for 2nd marriage because of her illness. As she said 'I am unable to fulfill the needs or desires of my husband, so I allowed him for 2nd marriage”. Her husband got married to Miss Sobia who was the 2nd wife and it was again a love marriage. Mrs. Kamran was the 2nd wife, working in a hospital. She was a nurse and divorce. She met Mr. Kamran 6 years back and married her after falling in love.

Family pressure: Family pressure is also one of the common reasons for polygamous marriages. Mrs. Gulzar was another first/senior wife having three daughters. She told her a tragic story. A lady was working in front of her husbands' clinic and usually visited the clinic. Later on, she came to know her husband has married her with the support of his family for a male child. When she asked her husband, he refused to accept it. But after few months it was disclosed.

She said that time was very painful for me and my little daughters. Miss Nadia was the second wife of Mr. Imam. She was married to Mr. Imam due to family pressure when he had already a wife with 2 children. She told that “My in-laws had not good relationships with the first wife of my husband. So, I was second selection of my in-laws." In all the other cases of infertility, family pressure was the main factor despite childlessness (Table 1).

Table 1: Frequency of co-wives for infertility, only female children, love marriage and family pressure as reasons of polygamous marriages (n=11)

Responses by Co-wives Frequency of Co-Wives
Infertility 4
Only female Children 3
Love Marriage 6
Family Pressure 2

Theme 2: Outcomes of Polygamous Marriages

Outcomes of polygamous marriages were a second theme generated by evaluating the relationships of co-wives.

Negative outcomes of co-wives

Jealousy: Jealousy is a common response to protect ones’ relationship [14]. Mrs. Gulzar who was 36 years first wife told as she came to know her husband has a hidden marriage with Miss Nasreen. She was very much disturbed and afraid of losing her husband. She was living with her in-laws and never allowed her husband to live with his second wife in the same household. She said "After it, my husband was not trustworthy for me anymore. She explained" in the beginning, my husband ignored me and my daughters and reduces the monthly income for my children.

This was a very uncertain and painful time for me”. Mrs. Tanveer was though accepted her husband's second wife but she told, “when my husband got married to the second wife this sharing was indeed hurting for me.” Mrs. Imam was 58 years old working lady living with her 2 children and a relationship with her co-wife. She has been married for 40 years. She was living with her husband first 10 years of her marriage. After her husbands’ second marriage she said, “I moved to a separate household, “to me, it works best because I don’t have to see her (co-wife) come into the house to visit my husband”. She stated ‘out of sight, out of mind’, She preferred the living arrangement”. Miss Nadia was the 2nd wife of Mr. Imam. She said "first wife of my husband always get more privilege than me." She also said, "'my children and 1 should get a fair and deserving share of the marriage and properties". Mrs. Ahmad being 2nd wife told that after second marriage "I and my co-wife did not get along; our children also did not get along, and there was constant bickering between us.” She stated “I prefer not to attend the same social function or activity with my rival (co-wife)’. Unless of great importance or a family-related event, we rarely attended the same social event together with our husband.”

Unhappiness and loneliness: Mrs. Gulzar was unhappy about a lot of things in the marriage. She described that she was completely alone with her daughters after her husband's second marriage. She said, “there was a time when I thought no one in the world was in my favor except God". Mrs. Amir (second wife) and Mrs. Kamal (first wife) were felt lonelier and criticized by their family because of infertility and the new wives were getting more privilege socially and financially because of having children.

As Mrs. Amir told the researcher, in the beginning, she got more privilege than the first but as time was passed and she did not conceive there was a time when she was completely ignored by in-laws and later from her husband. She said, "Emotions change with priorities". Mrs. Kamal due to the age factor she was very distressed at the time of her husbands' 2nd marriage but with time she accepted this relationship and had a good relation with 2nd wife and with her children. Mrs. Arslan told that she was shocked when she came to know about her husband's affair. She told, “It was very shocking and tragic for me to have another female in my husband's life". She told, "I used to cry in isolation". Mrs. Mustafa though convinced her husband of second marriage but she said “I was very much distressed and lonely after the 2nd marriage of my husband”.

Positive outcomes of co-wives

Sharing household chores: Mrs. Tanveer with time accepted her co-wife and living in the same home. She said, "I used to take care of my child and co-wife's as well". She also explained, "I never made differences among children". She said, “2nd wife of my husband also helps me in daily households’ activities”. Mrs. Kamal also has a good relationship with her co-wife. Her relationship with her co-wife was perceived to be sisterly. Mrs. Kamal helped to take care of her co-wife and her new born. She said, "We both share the housework and I always take care of her children". Mrs. Abdullah also told though they have minor disputes among co-wives still they help each other. Minor clashes are part of life to her. As she had a new born she told when she was admitted to the hospital 1st wife of her husband prepared and brought food for her from the home. She told she was also present during the delivery. According to Mrs. Abdullah (3rd wife: Amina), she and other wives are living in the same home and got along well. She said, "1st wife of my husband is working so 2nd wife of my husband and I used to manage the household chores”. "We being realistic have accepted the co-wives". She said, in the beginning, I was not happy but with time and being realistic I have admitted and have divided the household chores. 1st wife of Mrs. Imam and 2nd wife Miss Nadia have attended some important ceremonies together but they did not get along (Table 2).

Table 2: Frequency of co-wives for jealousy, unhappiness, loneliness and sharing household chores as consequences of polygamous marriages (N=11)

Responses by Co-wives Frequency of Co-Wives
Jealousy 9
Unhappiness 7
Loneliness 6
Sharing household chores 4

Theme 3: Strategies to Cope Co-Wives Relationship

Religion, fate, and compromise

The participants expressed the usage of different coping Strategies in polygamous marriage as religion, fate, compromise, and sisterly bond with co-wives. Mrs. Tanveer (first wife) has accepted the co-wife relationship because to her “religion has allowed the man for multiple wives”. She said being Muslim I should follow and admit the true teachings of Islam." Participant Mrs. Abdullah stated that in her pain after her 1st husband's death and later divorce from her previous husband due to barrenness when she met her third husband who dealt her effectively with her emotional pain. She said," My husband helped me to survive emotionally and financially". She told when her husband introduced her to the other co-wives, in the beginning, they both cursed me but later they made a compromise and accepted her. She also never tried to snatch her husband from the previous co-wives as she said in her religion the Holy Book says “A man can marry women of his choice two or three or four, but there must be justice and equality otherwise only one is enough". So she said “I always support my husband for equal treatment with all wives because this life is much better than the previous one." Mrs. Amir had no baby so she said, "It's Allah's plan for me and I have accepted my fate". She also stated that "whenever I am depressed, I am used to saying my prayers and get relief because divorce is not an option for me." Mrs. Mustafa said, she approved and permitted her husband to 2nd marriage. She stated, "'in my religion, co-wives expect to get along. Islam allows for a man to marry up to 4 wives rather illegal relationship”. Mrs. Arslan did not avail of divorce and said it was her fate to share her husband with her co-wife for the future of her children. Mrs. Gulzar said "I had no option other than to make a compromise and accept co-wife because of my female kids. I knew society is very cruel and it would be very tough for me to bring up them without father." So, she accepted this relationship. Mrs. Kamal reported "in the beginning when I thought about the second wife, I engaged myself in different activities because it always hurt me." However later on she has also accepted co-wife because of infertility and destiny. Mrs. Imam, Mrs. Ahmad, Mrs. Kamran, and Miss Nadia also admitted co-wives’ relationship and compromised with this relationship (Table 3).

Table 3: Frequency of co-wives for religion faith, admit the fate role, and compromise as coping strategies in polygamous marriages (N=11)

Strategies Frequency of co-wives
Religion faith 4
Admit the fate role 2
Compromise with co-wives 5


The main strength of this study is that it provides preliminary data on women in polygamous marriages and the foundation for further research. The study was an attempt to gain perspective about the causes of polygamy, its consequences, and the most important women’s ways of coping strategies in polygamous marriages. The study describes the different experiences, reasons behind polygamy, its outcomes, and the coping strategies used by first, second, and third wives. Though plural marriage is banned in developed courtiers, it is surprisingly common, and popular, that 55% of the women share their husbands in developed countries while an average of 16% of women in less developed nations. Resource-defense, scarcity of men, and countering a high pathogen load, and cultural determinists posit religion and gender discrimination as factors of polygamy in these countries [15]. While Pakistan being an Islamic state where religion allows polygamy, the more typical reasons have been observed in the current study by multiple co-wives such as infertility, a woman being a mother only by female children, love marriage, or family pressure with the reference of religious doctrine. The study findings may be inconsistent with the previous one except for the religious factor due to cultural differences. In another study man's wife having been diagnosed with a mental health problem, infertility, a man has only daughters or having children mentally and physically sick or man's wife older than he is, and exchange marriage are common reasons were discussed in a previous study. These reasons are in line to some extent with the current outcomes as infertility and having only female children was also one of the major factors for polygamous marriage. The findings were consistent may be due to cultural and religious resemblance because Al-Krenawi and his colleagues conducted their study in Arab states.

In the current study, co-wives reported several negative consequences of polygamy such as jealousy, lack of trust, unhappiness, loneliness, unequal financial division, and social privileges among the multiple wives those are consistent with previous studies conducted in UAE, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan, the Gaza Strip, Arabs in Israel, Palestine, and Turkey which point out that the wives in polygamous marriages have reportedly more psychosocial, familial and economic problems compared to their counterparts from monogamous families [16-20]. In a previous study by the perceived advantages of polygyny included sharing house chores and child-rearing similarly in the present study most of the polygamous women were reported particularly the infertile women helped the co-wives to bring up their children as well as daily household activities. Few helped financially in return for child-rearing to the senior wives. Different coping strategies have been explored to deal with the co-wives’ relationship by women to share their mutual husbands. Ethnographic accounts of 69 polygynous systems and reported evidence that the majority of co-wives in a polygynous family prefer pragmatic co-operation with one another while maintaining a respectful distance however having a deep-seated feeling of angst that arises over competing for access to their mutual husband [21]. Current findings are in line in terms of infertile women who accepted co-wives rather than divorce but those having children never bother to admit or respect co-wives as one of female told she is living in a separate home. As she stated, "out of sight, saying of mind."

In Pakistan culture, most polygamous women get relief in religious practices and other activities as one of the senior wives (Mrs. Amir) said "whenever I am depressed, I am used to saying my prayer and get relief because divorce is not an option for me." And another wife Mrs. Kamal reported," in the beginning when I thought about the second wife I engaged myself in different activities because it always hurts me." Further, they accepted co-wives as fate roles and made compromises rather than separation in most of the wives even they had kids. While in past empirical tests showed that children are strategic complements. One wife raises her fertility in response to an increase by the other wife because to them children are the best claim to resources controlled by the husband [22,23]. In Pakistani culture, infertility can be one of the reasons but exploring other factors like love marriage and family pressure, and religious reference are also common factors. The average duration of polygamy was about 11 years so most of the co-wives had been accepted co-wives and engaged themselves in several activities and got comfort considering it fate role, religious permission, and compromise for the sake of their children's future rather than divorce. 

Conclusion, Limitations, Suggestions, and Implications

The current study provides preliminary data on women in polygamous marriages and the foundation for further research. The strength of the study is an attempt to seek the coping strategies of co-wives to deal with such relationships in the Pakistani context. However, several limitations exist. Data collection was not collected scientific way because of qualitative study and the findings cannot be generalized beyond the women in this study [24,25]. Data collection from the participants may have been affected by differences in age, years, and rank in marriage, educational level, and religious faiths. The sensitivity and the comfort level of discussing polygyny may have affected the sample size. Only 11 of the 26 women agreed to participate in the study. The findings of the study indicate that polygamy is a painful and bitter pill for most women to swallow. Women experienced various degrees of emotional difficulties including jealousy, unhappiness, loneliness, and lack of intimacy with their spouses. For the majority of these women, infertility, love marriage by husband, lack of social and financial support, and fear of divorce were the cited reasons for allowing co-wives in their marriage.

The positive side of the study is to explore the advantages and strategies used by polygamous women were very significant. These findings have implications for policymakers and family advisors. The appropriate strategies which are purposefully working by co-wives must be enhanced with proper education and implement programmers that teach coping mechanisms and stress management. Women need to be empowered with education and positive affirmation of self-worth. Instituting change for women in a male-dominated society is a daunting task; however, it is essential. Community awareness of the effects of polygamy on women through media campaigns is a beginning step. Of importance is the need to disseminate the findings of studies like this one to those who are in a position to make change a reality. Policy-makers should be made aware of the implications of polygamous marriages on women’s health and well-being. The psychological health of women is essential to raising a sound, healthy family and should receive high priority, particularly in developing countries where resources are limited.


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