Polygyny and Marital Life Satisfaction: An Exploratory Study from Rural Cameroon

By Gwanfogbe, Philomina N.; Schumm, Walter R. et al. | Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Polygyny and Marital Life Satisfaction: An Exploratory Study from Rural Cameroon


Gwanfogbe, Philomina N., Schumm, Walter R., Smith, Meredith, Furrow, James L., Journal of Comparative Family Studies


The possible effects of polygyny on family life usually have been studied in terms of fertility (e.g., Aborampah 1987; Adewuyi 1987; Anderton & Emigh 1989; Bledsoe 1990; Garenne & van de Walle 1989; Lee & Whitbeck 1990; Mulder 1989; Pison 1985; Ukaegbu 1977) or child/adolescent outcomes (e.g., Cherian 1992; Gbekobou 1984; Issac & Feinberg 1982; Owuamanam 1984; Oyefeso & Adegoke 1992; Roth & Kurup 1990; Salminen 1987). Even though polygyny is common in sub-Saharan cultures (Caldwell & Caldwell 1990; Welch & Glick 1981) and positively sanctioned by Islam and other religious traditions (Abdal-Ati 1974), with upwards of 50% of all wives living in polygynous unions in some cultures (Ware 1979), it is of timely importance to study the correlates of polygyny, because its occurrence may be declining in many cultures (Makanjuola 1988; Solway 1990) as happened in the United States (Faux & Miller 1984; Iverson & Dunfey 1984; Logue 1985; White 1986; Wyatt 1989), though the declines in the United States were associated for the most part with political changes. If we do not capture it's relationships within such societies now, eventually too few polygynous relationships in too few societies may exist to enable scientific study of this form of social structure.

Two analyses, upon which this report has relied extensively, have assessed the polygyny-divorce relationship in Nigeria (Gage-Brandon 1992; Grossbard 1976), a nation situated just to the west of Cameroon. However, relatively little research has been conducted on polygyny and its relationships with life or marital satisfaction. Although two clinical reports from Saudi Arabia have found apparent adverse effects of polygyny on wives, especially senior wives (Chaleby 1987, 1988), such reports may not accurately reflect conditions in the larger population. In reviewing the polygyny-divorce relationship, Gage-Brandon (1992) found little theory and mixed evidence on the association between wife order and marital stability. For example, from an economic perspective, a husband who adds wives to his household might increase his economic stress by gaining the benefits of the household and farm productivity of the additional wives (Singh & Morey 1987). Gage-Brandon (1992) noted that polygyny is lower in urban areas, possibly because it is more difficult to support multiple wives there, but that it may be more common in situations in which wives are in the labor force and, thus, contribute positively to household income. Grossbard (1976) found that polygyny was more common among husbands who were middle-aged (peaking at 43-46 years of age), wealthier, and more educated but less common for wives with higher education or those who were of a peak age of 21-23 years. In terms of marital stability, having additional wives might reduce the emotional barriers to divorcing any one of the wives, but it also might reduce the pressure for earlier wives to have children or else face divorce, because the husband could always marry additional wives in order to attempt to have children. A further complicating factor is that the senior wife may assume an authoritative role with respect to the junior wives and welcome their support in housework and childrearing, leading to an increase in her marital stability, or she might resent their competition, possibly leading to lower marital stability. However, competition, at least in terms of the sexual relationship, may diminish when the senior wife is older, if the local culture discourages high rates of sexual activity among postmenopausal women. Grossbard (1976), in an analysis of data from the city of Kanuri in northeastern Nigeria, found divorce to be related positively to polygyny but negatively to age of husband, husband's income, number of children and duration of the marriage. Analyzing several models with data from 5,665 women who participated in the 1981-1982 Nigeria Fertility Study, Gage-Brandon (1992) found that two-wife marriages were more stable than monogamous marriages, which were more stable than marriages involving three or more wives.

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