Polygamy Survival Guide
Dhakiyya Umm Ruqayya presents a practical guide for how to make polygamy work, drawn from personal experience.
Polygamy is often seen as the end of a happy marriage, but it need not be that at all. Take it from me, I’m a happily married first wife and I’m friends with my co-wife, masha Allah; in fact she’s sitting in the same room as me as I’m typing this. Polygamy can work if the husband and both or all wives go about it in the right way.
I have heard many horror stories about polygamy gone very wrong, and in all those cases, at least one person in the marriage was not following the Qur’an and Sunnah, usually the husband. Polygamy requires us to adhere to everything that Allah (SWT) has taught us about marriage, and to follow the example of Muhammad (SAW) and his wives (RA). This is the foundation upon which any marriage, monogamous or polygamous, is built, but with polygamy, it’s even more critical. Without this foundation, it isn’t going to succeed.
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While polygamy is frequently seen as benefiting the husband to the detriment of the wives, the reality is that it’s far more difficult for the husband. He has to not only fulfil the rights of both wives and support both families financially and emotionally, he has to juggle his time between them, settle any disputes and difficulties that arise, and all the while ensure that he’s being just and fair. The penalty for him failing to treat his wives equally is being raised up on the day of Judgement with half his body paralysed. The Qur’an strongly warns men that if they can’t be just between their wives, they are truly better off with only one. For men that take Islam seriously, polygamy is a huge and weighty responsibility and it’s an arduous task to get it right. Meanwhile, each wife has no more responsibility than a monogamously married wife, and in some cases (e.g. where the wives choose to share accommodation) they can end up with a lot less responsibility than monogamous wives, as they share the running of the household and help each other out with the children.
One of the biggest fears women have of polygamy comes from a misunderstanding about the nature of love. Love is seen as something finite which has to be shared between people, so if a man takes a second wife, it’s assumed that he must love his first wife less because of it. The truth is that love is infinite and does not need to be shared between people. Just as when a mother has a second child she still loves her first child as much as ever, when a man takes a second wife he still loves his first wife just as much. Good Muslim men who choose polygamy do so because they truly want to love and protect two or more women. If he really didn’t love the first, divorcing her then remarrying is a much easier option for him both financially and emotionally than having two wives.
What you share in polygamy is your husband’s time. Whether spending less time with your husband is a good thing or a bad thing depends on your outlook. Of course it’s natural to want to spend plenty of time with people you love, but we also need time for ourselves. On the days when he’s with his other wife, there is no benefit in sitting around missing him. Instead, treat it as a time for you, and a chance to enjoy things that married women find it hard to make time for. On your nights with him, you have a husband to share your bed with; on the other nights you get the whole bed to yourself and can snuggle up with a good book and have some “me time”. Plan your evenings when you’re not with him to do things that you enjoy, so you look forward to your evenings without him as much as your evenings with him.
Try not to see your co-wife as a rival. Instead, try to focus on strengthening your relationship with your husband. If you don’t feel secure in your relationship, then it’s only natural that you’d see the other wife as a threat. If you are sure of your relationship with your husband, then ask yourself why you feel threatened, and remind yourself of what you have. If your husband is going to love you and stand by you no matter what, then what can she take from you?
A useful piece of advice I heard from a brother is “the insecurity of the first wife is that the second wife is her replacement and he doesn’t love her any more. The insecurity of the second wife is that the first wife is his first love and he’ll never love her as much as he loves his first.” This reminds us that the other wife has her own doubts, and to see clearly what we have instead. Look at why your husband loves you and try not to dwell on what he may or may not feel about her.
No love triangles in Islam
Focus on your relationship with your husband as a single entity, disconnected from his other marriage. Islamic polygamy is not a triangular relationship; his marriage with you and his marriage with your co-wife are two separate relationships. You are not obliged to have anything to do with your co-wife, but if the two of you choose to be friends, then that’s a third and discrete relationship. This means when you’re with him, the two of you need to act like the other wife doesn’t exist. Enjoy your time with your husband and do all the same things a monogamous couple would do together. If you are friends with your co-wife, don’t discuss your husband when you’re together, and spend time with her when he’s not around.
Jealousy is best tackled by focusing on what you have. “Jealousy is when you count someone else’s blessings instead of your own,” (anon). If you feel jealous about anything, ask yourself if it’s over something that you really want, or whether you desire it simply because your co-wife has it. If it’s the latter, then try to forget about it and remind yourself that you don’t actually want it. If it’s something you really want, then focus on how you can get it for yourself because you would like it, not because she has it.
If it’s the relationship you’re jealous of, concentrate on building your own relationship with your husband as though she’s not in the picture. If you feel that he loves her more than you, then maybe he isn’t giving you enough attention or affection, and frame this as a problem in your own relationship that you need to talk to him about and resolve, rather than as a problem with your co-wife.
These things won’t eliminate jealousy altogether, but they should minimise it. Remember that even ‘A’isha (RA) had times when she was jealous of Muhammad’s (SAW) other wives (RA), and even broke a plate because of it.
When things go wrong
If your husband is not dividing up his time fairly, or not fulfilling your rights in Islam then he is the guilty party so don’t blame your co-wife for this. This applies whether it’s something minor or very serious. Speak to him about the problem and tell him how you feel. If he’s a good husband, he’ll do something to rectify the situation. If he doesn’t and you’re having significant problems in your marriage because of it, then you need to go about dealing with it in the same way you would if you were monogamously married.
Marriages fail either because one partner is not fulfilling the rights of the other (or worse, abusing the other), or because the two partners are not compatible. This is the same in monogamy and polygamy. Relationships fail sometimes in spite of one or both partners putting in their best efforts, and that’s why divorce is halal.
Sometimes men try to fix a failing monogamous marriage by taking a second wife – in my opinion this is like trying to put out a fire in the living room by starting another fire in the kitchen. Other men want all the benefits of polygamy but refuse to accept any of the responsibility and end up treating their wives very badly. There are some situations where staying in a marriage is not in anyone’s best interests. If you find yourself in such a situation, then you do need to know when to call it a day. An important thing to remember is not to blame polygamy itself for the marriage failure. The failure is due to incompatibility, or one partner systematically failing to fulfil their responsibilities to the other.
Polygamy, when done according to the Qur’an and Sunnah can work and indeed be beneficial to the wives, and it’s my opinion that it doesn’t need to be feared. We should fear Allah swt, and be good spouses to each other. We should remember to show our husbands our appreciation of them and all that they do for us, and they need to do the same for us. This is the key to a happy marriage, whether polygamous or monogamous. Insha Allah, by following the advice above, this happiness can be maintained in a polygamous marriage, despite the specific challenges this type of relationship may bring.
Dhakiyya Umm Ruqayya is happily married and currently lives in Bahrain. Her co-wife is living nearby, and they have four children between them, aged between 5 months and 6 years. Dhakiyya plans to work as a literacy and English as a foreign language tutor and freelance writer.