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What are Sisterwives?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jan 31, 2024
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Sisterwives are women who are married, as a group, to the same man. As a general rule, sisterwives have equal status in the relationship, each bringing their own unique talents and personalities into the marriage. The use of the term “sisterwife” varies; some people describe themselves as sisterwives, for example, while in other cultures the relationship between women in a group or polygamous marriage is not expressed with this term.

In countries where polygamy is illegal, sisterwives often use this term to express solidarity with each other, cementing the idea that they are a family, even if they are not legally related. Group and polygamous marriages in cultures where this practice is frowned upon get around restrictions in a variety of ways. For example, a man might marry and divorce a series of women who all take his name and identify as sisterwives, or people might choose to wed in private ceremonies which have no legal standing.

In some cultures, the first wife has a special status, even if she identifies as a sisterwife. This reflects her long-running relationship, and it may entitle her to special privileges. In other cases, sisterwives do not distinguish between each other, and the identity of the first wife may be a private matter which is shared among family members only, to avoid singling her out in public.

Marriages which involve more than two individuals take a wide number of forms, and they are often associated with religious or cultural traditions. The participants in such a marriage generally negotiate their own personal boundaries and beliefs, often reinforced by religious values surrounding marriage and spousal duty. Some anthropologists believe that there are distinct benefits to polyamorous marriage, especially for the sisterwives themselves, who enjoy the support and companionship of a group of like-minded women in their daily lives. Others worry that polygamous marriage is exploitative, especially for women and girls.

Technically, sisterwives are in what is known as a polygynous marriage, meaning a multiple marriage with one man and an assortment of women. In a polyandrous marriage, one women would be married to an assortment of men, who could presumably identify as brother husbands, if they choose. Some anthropologists use the term “polygamy” to refer specifically to a type of marriage in which there is a mixture of wives and husbands; for example, a women might be married to two men and one woman. In what is known as a group or circular marriage, a group of people are married to each other, with no primary spouse around which the marriage revolves; the women in such a marriage may also choose to call themselves sisterwives.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By DinoLeash — On Jun 07, 2011

@momothree- The TLC “SisterWives” show brought a lot of attention to the subject of bigamy and polygamy. The family is in Utah and they present themselves to the public as a perfectly happy and normal family. However, the show has also brought attention to local authorities who are now investigating it as bigamy.

Technically, the husband in the show is only legally married to one of the women. He just calls the other three his wives, as well. It is hard for us, as Americans, to accept or try to understand this new culture of people who choose to live a polygamous lifestyle.

I try to stay neutral and I don’t really have a personal opinion on it, mainly because I don’t understand it either.

By momothree — On Jun 05, 2011

I watched a show on TLC called “Sister Wives” and I just don’t understand it. I know that people express themselves in different ways but I just don’t see how four women can share one husband and be truly happy.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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