Academic journal article Ethnology

Co-Wife Conflict and Co-Operation

Academic journal article Ethnology

Co-Wife Conflict and Co-Operation

Article excerpt

Conventional wisdom holds that the polygynous family system is as sexually and emotionally satisfying as a monogamous one. Ethnographic accounts of 69 polygynous systems, however, provide compelling evidence that the majority of co-wives in a polygynous family prefer pragmatic co-operation with one another while maintaining a respectful distance. Moreover, there often is a deep-seated feeling of angst that arises over competing for access to their mutual husband. Co-wife conflict in the early years of marriage is pervasive, and often marked by outbursts of verbal or physical violence. Co-wife conflict may be mitigated by social institutions, such as sororal polygyny and some form of "social security" or health care. Material wealth may be divided more or less equally, but as a husband's sexual attention (a primary source for increased fertility) and affection cannot always be equitably distributed, there is ongoing and contentious rivalry among co-wives. (Co-wife conflict, jealousy, co-operation, pair bond)


Cultural anthropologists generally assume that humans are highly adaptable to a wide range of life circumstances. Less accepted is the qualification that "cultural models can have significant psychic costs for individuals" (Shore 1996:49). The assumption of enormous adaptability has also been challenged by many anthropologists (see Brown 1990 for overview) concerned with the topics of reproduction and family intimacy. For example, some (Ekvall 1968; Levine and Silk 1997) find that the fraternal polyandrous marriage system is unstable largely due to sexual and emotional factors, rather than economic considerations. Research on co-wife relationships in polygynous families find them to be emotionally unsatisfactory for the majority of participants (Al-Krenawi 1999; Al-Krenawi and Graham 1999; Chisholm and Burbank 1991; Hill and Hurtado 1996; Jankowiak 2001 ; Meekers and Franklin 1995; Strassman 1997; Ware 1980). However, other researchers (Borgerhoff-Mulder 1992; Kilbride 1994; Madhavan 2002; Mason 1982) report that under certain circumstances, women living in a polygynous family system enjoy material and emotional satisfaction.

This article examines the effect of structural and psychological factors on co-wife conflict and co-operation. Specifically, it seeks to determine whether a pair-bond impulse is present in every culture, and if so, whether it undermines co-wife co-operation. Unlike previous studies of co-wife conflict and co-operation that focus only on one culture or a single geographical region, we have expanded the scope to include co-wife interactions in cultures from all over the world. We also identify the material, social, and emotional factors that can undermine or strengthen co-wife bonds. Examining how individuals respond to the polygynous family allows for a more thorough exploration of the polygynous family's divisiveness. To this end, we use the reasons for co-wife conflict as a means to identify anxieties within the polygynous family.


The conceptual frameworks of behavioral ecology and evolutionary psychology are two of the more predominant explanatory schemes used to account for variation and continuities in polygynous family life. Although the two frameworks can form a unified theory, most researchers emphasize either the cultural variations or the continuity in their data. The behavioral ecologist Monique Borgerhoff-Mulder (1988, 1989, 1992) argues that material and related structural factors exert an enormous impact on shaping the quality of co-wife interaction, and that the degree to which a woman is materially dependent on her husband determines her willingness to co-operate or compete with a co-wife over material resources and reproductive considerations. From this it follows that the greater a wife's material dependence on her husband, the more frequent and Intense will be her conflicts with a co-wife. …

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