What Term Describes Your Relationship: Polygyny, Polyamory, Monandry?

Sex, marriage, and the law. Always complicated. That’s why there are so many words to describe how two people (sometimes more) live and love together. Like polygamy.

Do you remember the 2007 arrest of Warren Jeffs, a religious leader and polygamist on charges involving multiple marriages and underage girls? The case, and polygamy, are back in the news.

The Utah Supreme Court reversed the charges against Jeffs and ordered a new trial, saying the jury received improper instructions. The legal situation revives interest not just in polygamy but in all the different types of marriage and the words that describe the multiplicity of matrimony.

Polygamy is “the practice or condition of having more than one spouse, esp. wife, at one time.” Here’s the important part: polygamy refers generally to multiple spouses or multiple marriages, not husbands or wives in particular. The opposite of polygamy is monogamy. Poly is the Greek root for “many.” Mono is “one.” Gamos is “marriage.” So these terms literally refer to “many or one marriage.” Another common gamos term is bigamy, “the crime of marrying a person while one is still legally married to someone else.” The bi- is Latin for “two.” But here’s one you may not know that complicates matters further: Digamy is what you call “a second marriage, after the death or divorce of the first husband or wife.” Di- can also mean “two” or “double.”

Is this complicated enough yet? Because there’s more nuptial nomenclature nonsense. It’s a common misconception that polygamy means one man married to multiple wives. The real term for that arrangement is polygyny, “the practice or condition of having more than one wife at one time.” Poly was defined above, and -gyny probably looks familar, from words like misogyny and gynecology: it’s the Greek gyne, “woman.”

What about a woman who has more than one husband at one time? That’s polyandry. ( Andro is Greek for “man.”)

Our journey comes down to a few more words, one of which is quite controversial. amour in –amory. Tellingly, one definition of amour is “a secret love affair.” Polyamory cuts to a primal concern about love, marriage and relationships: fidelity, and its counterpart, infidelity.

Our last terms are how many people would describe with their relationships: monandry, “the practice or condition of having one husband at a time,” and monogyny, the same thing but regarding wives.

What do these words say about your relationship and the state of marriage in general?

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