DISCUSSIONS ABOUT POLYGYNY amongst Muslims tend to be quite stilted and repetitive – the same old tired mantras regarding a man’s “right” to take on other wives; that enduring the situation with patience is a first wife’s jihâd; that polygyny is a cure-all to half the Ummah’s social issues, from poverty to the divorce rate to single moms.
Rarely, however, are women–those who choose to go into polygyny as second or other subsequent wives—given advice on what they’re getting into. Amongst average Muslims who don’t necessarily have many positive associations with polygyny, second wives are viewed in a pretty harsh manner – as little more than secret mistresses, home-wreckers, and simply selfish.
The truth is more complex, however. In some cases, the women don’t even realize that they are second wives until after they get married, and only then are they informed (or sometimes, find out accidentally) that their husband already has another family. In other cases, it is an unfortunate reality that some women enter polygyny with the full knowledge that the first wife is completely unaware of what the husband has done.
Sadly, Muslims seem mired in unhealthy models of polygyny that are founded upon a lack of honesty, transparency, and consideration for others who will be impacted by the new marriage(s). There is little out there to provide practical advice on how one can begin a polygynous marriage and maintain it in a positive manner that seeks to embody the concept of iḥsân (excellence) with regards to all parties involved.
Hopefully, one step in drawing closer to promoting healthier polygynous relationships is the following advice, from one polygynous woman to those who are considering polygyny or have already decided to enter it.
- Don’t Be Naïve. Many women who think about entering polygyny as second or subsequent wives do so while being oblivious to the reality of polygynous life.One common trend is that men seeking other wives will attempt to woo the prospective spouse by telling her that he doesn’t ‘really’ love his first wife, that he’s only remaining married to her for the children/family, or that there is something deficient in the first wife that has led him to seek another woman. He will convince her that she will be the wife he truly loves, the only one he really cares for.
This is a lie. Don’t fall for it.
The truth is that these men are married to their first wives for a reason – if the situation were truly all that bad, he most likely would have divorced her already. Rather, he already has a solid and established relationship with his first wife; in most cases, the emotional bond that he has with her is such that he will never consider actually leaving her.
Even so, such men often don’t feel too many qualms about going behind her back to marry another woman, very likely because he knows full well that she either has no option to leave him, or because she herself loves him deeply and would rather remain with him despite the deep emotional suffering he inflicts on her. Is that really the kind of man you want to marry?
Be aware that the reality of polygyny is a far cry from “he’s a good guy who just can’t leave his first wife because of X-Y-Z.” A man who will truly be a good polygynous husband will have the courage to be open about his reasons for it without trotting out cliché lines that depend upon playing on women’s emotional needs and insecurities.
- Be Honest With Yourself. Just as men need to be honest about their pursuit of polygyny, so must women. The assumption is that women considering poly are already aware of what it entails and are prepared for it. The reality is not so. Too often, women have unrealistic expectations or ideas about how poly will work – that they will be the ‘favorite’ wife, that they will be able to handle any hurdles (emotional or otherwise) that come their way, and that they will be able to have the best of both worlds, marriage and singlehood alike.The reality is far more complex. Marriage in and of itself is not easy – add polygyny into the mix, and it holds its own challenges.
Women must realize that men have emotions as well, and that the husband’s relationship with the first wife is not simplistic but deeply layered with years of love, loyalty, and shared experiences. While one naturally expects that a first wife would feel a great deal of jealousy and emotional turmoil, the truth is that second wives do as well. Ask yourself – can I really handle knowing that he truly loves his first wife? Am I happy to know that he loves his first wife, or do I feel threatened?
To be a successful polygynous wife, a woman must be able to face her fears, admit to her insecurities, and work hard to grow and improve as a person. Confidence, strong self-esteem, and a realistic perspective will go a long way in making polygyny easier to adjust to. Clinging to unhealthy ideals or unrealistic expectations is a surefire recipe for dragging down the relationship from the moment it begins.
This is not to say that being confident and realistic will completely remove all negative emotions – but it will make difficult situations a great deal more manageable. So again, be honest with yourself and if you find it difficult to even stomach the idea of the other wife… just don’t do it.
- Be Straightforward. When speaking to a married man with a view to entering into a polygynous relationship with him, be aware of red flags and don’t be afraid to call him out on them. If he refuses to tell his first wife about his intentions before he marries you, find out why. Often, the excuse is that “it will be too difficult on her if I tell her now; I’ll just wait until we’re married so that she can’t do anything about it.”Again, ask yourself – do you really want to marry the type of man who doesn’t have the courage to be honest with his wife about a decision that will completely change her life (and not necessarily in a good way)? A man of principle and honor will have enough respect for his first wife to tell her up front, even if he knows that she won’t be happy about it.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you intend on being a second wife, ensure proof that the first wife knows about it. Insist on speaking to her directly, and do so with the sincere intention to be as considerate as possible – not to rub it in that her husband is looking for another wife.
Some first wives may know about their husband’s polygynous intentions, but do not have interest in speaking to potential co-wives; others appreciate the transparency and consideration, and prefer to be involved. Find out what your potential co-wife is like, and deal with her accordingly and with consideration… but do not be complicit in deception.
As well, do your best to make sure that he is financially capable of maintaining you without withholding or taking away resources from his first wife and children (if he has any). There are some men who will take advantage of welfare or social benefits in order to take on additional wives, or force one wife to work against her will in order for her to be able to survive financially. Ensure that the man you are considering for marriage is a man of decency and honor who fulfills his role as a qawwâm in the best possible manner.
The above points are just some of what should be seriously considered by any woman who is seeking to enter polygyny as a second (or subsequent) wife. From the get-go, one must be willing to put aside foolish idealism and recognize that reality is far from a fairy tale. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with being optimistic or hopeful, Muslims should make an effort to do as the Prophet ﷺ advised: Trust in Allah and tie your camel. (Tirmidhi)
There are further considerations that women must also be aware of when thinking about polygyny, not only with regards to herself and the man she might marry, but to the woman he is already married to as well. Part 2 of this article will discuss this in further detail, inshâ’Allah.