Group marriage is a form of polygamous marriage in which more than one man and more than one woman form a family unit. In principle, all members of the marriage share parental responsibility for any children arising from the marriage.
Group marriage has been more idealized in writing than it has been realized in practice. While group marriages have been formed occasionally, and a few have endured through a few decades, most such experiments have ended with breakdown of the group. Two of the greatest challenges to such groups have been the bearing and raising of children, and maintaining the expected equivalent and non-specific emotional relations without comparison, judgment, and jealousy while engaging in continued and changing intimate relations. Notable and relatively long-lived examples of group marriage were the Oneida community in the nineteenth century in the northeastern United States, and the Kerista commune in San Francisco in the twentieth century.
Group marriage (also known as Circle Marriage) is a form of polygamous marriage in which more than one man and more than one woman form a family unit, and all members of the marriage share parental responsibility for any children arising from the marriage (Murdoch 1949).
"Line Marriage" is a form of group marriage in which the family unit continues to add new spouses of both sexes over time so that the marriage does not end.
Group marriage is occasionally called "polygynandry," from a combination of the words polygyny and polyandry, which describe polygamous relationships involving multiple wives or multiple husbands, respectively.
Group marriage has been judged to be rare in traditional societies, although this judgment may be unwarranted, since the modern understanding of such societies is less than perfect. Many traditional societies have been nearly or totally destroyed by colonization and other forces. Nevertheless, among the cultures listed in George Peter Murdock's Ethnographic Atlas, the Caingang people of Brazil practiced group marriage most frequently as a socially accepted form of marriage. Even among them, only eight percent of unions were group marriage (Murdock 1949). Thus, without additional anthropological research there is little evidence to support the prevalence of these unions.
It is difficult to estimate the number of people who actually practice group marriage in modern societies, as this form of marriage is not officially recognized in any jurisdiction, and illegal in many; however, it seems likely that its practice is limited to relatively small numbers of people. With the legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada and some parts of the United States, there has been some discussion of attempts to legalize group marriage.
The Oneida Community was a utopian commune founded by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848 in Oneida, New York. Noyes taught that he and his followers had undergone sanctification; that is, it was impossible for them to sin, and that for the sanctified, marriage (along with private property) was abolished as an expression of jealousy and exclusiveness.
The Oneida commune practiced sexual communalism and shared parental responsibilities, and in effect functioned as a large group marriage until sometime in the period 1879-1881. The community believed that since Christ had already returned in the year 70 C.E. it was possible for them to bring about Christ's millennial kingdom themselves, and be free of sin and perfect in this lifetime (a belief called "Perfectionism").
The Oneida Community practiced "communalism" (in the sense of communal property and possessions), "complex marriage," (group marriage) "male continence," "mutual criticism," and "ascending fellowship." There were smaller communities in Wallingford, Connecticut; Newark, New Jersey; Putney, Vermont; and Cambridge, Vermont. The community's original 87 members grew to 172 by February 1850, 208 by 1852 and 306 by 1878. With the exception of the Wallingford community, which remained in operation until devastated by a tornado in 1878, all the other branches outside Oneida were closed in 1854. The Oneida Community dissolved in 1880, and eventually became the silverware giant, Oneida Limited.
Even though the community reached a maximum population of about three hundred, it had a complex bureaucracy of 27 standing committees and 48 administrative sections. Males and females had equality and equal voice in the governance of the community. A community nursery provided care for infants and children so that both parents could work.
In theory, every male was married to every female. In practice, this meant that most adults had continuous sexual access to a partner. Community members were not to have an exclusive sexual or romantic relationship with each other, but were to keep in constant circulation. To help prevent a "special love" from forming, each community member had his or her own bedroom. This extended even to couples who came to the community already married. A married couple entering the community was not required or even encouraged to legally dissolve their union, but rather to extend the borders of it to the rest of the community in complex marriage. The average female community member had three sexual encounters, or "interviews," every week.
Post-menopausal women were encouraged to introduce teenage males to sex, providing both with legitimate partners that rarely resulted in pregnancies. Furthermore, these women became religious role models for the young men. Noyes often used his own judgment in determining the partnerships which would form and would often encourage relationships between the non-devout and the devout in the community, in the hopes that the attitudes and behaviors of the devout would influence the non-devout. Men were encouraged to hold their semen during sexual intercourse and in this way control the conception of children.
John Humphrey Noyes believed that sex had social and spiritual purposes, not only biological. To communitarians, it was yet another path to perfection. Generally, it was believed that older people were spiritually superior to younger people, and men were spiritually superior to women. Noyes and his inner circle were at the top of this hierarchy in the community. In order to improve oneself, one was supposed to have sexual relations only with those spiritually superior. This was called "ascending fellowship." Once a community member had reached a certain level (usually determined by Noyes and his inner circle), they were then to turn around and practice "descending fellowship" with those communitarians trying to work their way up.
The ideal of such highly structured sexuality met the reality of human emotions, and dissatisfactions arose over time. In 1879, John Humphrey Noyes fled to Canada under threat of arrest for the charge of statutory rape. Shortly thereafter he wrote to his community advising that they should no longer practice "complex marriage." Subsequently, the Oneida community was dissolved and in the following year, more than 70 of the former members participated in traditional man-woman couple marriages.
Kerista was a new religion that was started in New York City in 1956 by Bro Jud Presmont. Throughout much of its history, Kerista was centered on the ideals of "serial monogamy and creation of intentional communities."
From 1971 until 1991, the community was centered at the "Kerista Commune" (not a single physical building), founded in San Francisco, California. The Keristans practiced group marriage, and maintained a very high profile which included publication of a popular free newspaper and several national media appearances. The Keristans lived a work-optional life, shared income and could choose whether or not to have paying jobs. "Hunter-gatherers," with paying work outside Kerista would financially support the endeavors of Keristans who opted for other, non-paying endeavors.
The official Kerista website lists 33 people as having, at one time or another, joined Kerista during the community's history in San Francisco. In 1979 and 1980, two female members gave birth. In 1983, the adult male Keristans had vasectomies as a means to deal with birth control in the group, emphasize non-breeding new members, and address global population issues. All male applicants subsequently had the requirement of having a vasectomy within a set period of time after joining the community.
The terms "polyfidelity" and "compersion" were coined at the Kerista Commune to describe their group relationships. Polyfidelity refers to their family structure in which clusters of friends came together around shared interests and mutual attraction. Inside this group, members were non-monogamous, relating to all their partners without a hierarchy of preference. Thus each of the women had sexual relationships with each of the men, and no group member related sexually to anyone outside the family group.
The term compersion was coined to address the issue that it is normal to experience feelings of jealousy when one's sexual partner has sexual relationships with others. Thus, compersion means the opposite of jealousy, positive feelings about one's partner's other intimacies.
Although Kerista members expressed that this type of group marriage was the ideal family situation, in reality many struggled with feelings of jealousy and lack of value. As "Even Eve," one of the early founding members, put it:
Polyfidelity is a great idea. Even today I could come up with a long list of features in its favor. The catch is that the idea has a hard time translating itself into successful practice.… As committed as I used to be to the ideal of equal relationships, I sometimes found the discrepancy between the emotional reality (of being most in love with one partner) and the intellectual premise (of non-preference) to be quite excruciating.… I finally admitted to myself that I did indeed have such a desire… and that there was nothing wrong with it. To be told "I love no one more than you," (unsaid: but others just as much) doesn't pack the same satisfying punch as "I love you," (unsaid: more than anyone else in the world).… Whether wanting this kind of love is a matter of cultural conditioning or innate genetic predisposition is not important. No amount of indoctrination to feminist or other ideological rhetoric can change the fact that to me, success in love includes being the most important person in my lover's intimate life.
In 1991, the community experienced a major split, the founder going on to create "The World Academy of Keristan Education."
Group Marriage in Fiction
Interest in, and practice of, non-monogamous relationships is well-known in science fiction. Group marriage has been a theme in some works of science fiction, especially the later novels of Robert A. Heinlein, such as Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. The relationship in Stranger in a Strange Land is a communal group, much like the Oneida Colony.
Heinlein described "line families" in detail in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, with characters arguing that the line family creates economic continuity and parental stability in an unpredictable, dangerous environment. "Manuel's" line marriage was over one hundred years old, and the family is portrayed as being economically comfortable because the improvements and investments made by previous spouses compounded, rather than being lost between generations.
Marriages that join groups of multiple individuals together as a single family can in theory provide those involved with sanctuary and financial security. Communally raising the children produced in such a marriage can in theory provide the children with a more well-rounded upbringing than they could receive in the common two-parent family. However, the apparent benefits of group marriages seem to remain more theoretical than real, considering the short lifespan and survival rate of such groups.
Reproduction was an issue for both the Oneida and the Kerista groups and each found its own form of birth control as a means of trying to assure the group's stability. Neither was able to realize the presumed benefits to be achieved by raising the children communally. While the groups may have been able to stop any unwanted pregnancies, there was no way for them to avoid issues such as jealousy, mistrust, and emotional preference. The evidence suggests strongly that a group marriage has all the challenges of a conventional marriage and that those challenges are only multiplied by broadening the marriage to include a group.
- Emens, Elizabeth F., "Monogamy's Law: Compulsory Monogamy and Polyamorous Existence." New York University Review of Law & Social Change 29(2) (2004):277.
- Even Eve. “Even Eve says Hi and writes about her conversion to monogamy!” kerrista.com. Retrieved August 22, 2007.
- Klaw, Spencer. Without Sin: The Life and Death of the Oneida Community. 1993. ISBN 0713990910
- Murdock, George Peter. Social Structure. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1949. ISBN 0029222907
All links retrieved July 18, 2017.
- Ethnographic Atlas Codebook - Derived from George P. Murdock's Ethnographic Atlas
- Oneida Community Mansion House - Museum of the Oneida Community
- The Oneida Community - New York History Net