Guest Guru: Alisa Singer – Polyandry – Why you probably never heard of it

Polyandry – Why you probably never heard of it

Article and illustrations by Alisa Singer,

As we approach the season of romantic summer weddings, let’s spend a moment contemplating a different kind of marriage, one that’s not likely to be celebrated with a splashy affair at the Ritz. Imagine, instead, the blushing bride gliding down the aisle to face not one, but a half-dozen or so, eager grooms. I refer to the form of common marriage known as “polyandry”, in which a wife takes several husbands at a time, never very popular but still practiced today in certain remote villages in the Himalayas. There the custom is for a woman to marry all the brothers of a single family. This has the salutary effect of consolidating the brothers’ family wealth into one household and, theoretically, making “sharing” of the wife less of a source of tension. (And yet, somehow I can’t help but envision the mother of all cases of sibling rivalry.)

But as I said, polyandry is a trend that never really took off. This is not surprising. We can safely assume that a man’s preference would be for a marriage in which the wife-to-husband ratio is at least one-to-one. (Of course, his true fantasy would simply involve multiple women – skip the marriage part altogether.) And polyandry clearly presents some unique challenges for women as well.

To illustrate, consider the situation of the Himalayan housewife, let’s call her Chomolunga. In order to satisfy all of her husbands’ carnal appetites she is expected to orchestrate a nightly rotation of her “marital duties”, an arrangement which could easily rival, in terms of intricacy and exhaustion, the most demanding of carpool schedules. And then there are the extra meals, cleaning and laundry, and the overwhelming job of placating all those male egos. And though it’s nice to have a man around the house to operate complicated media equipment, a woman from a remote village in the Himalayas can’t possibly have enough DVR systems in her home to justify that kind of aggravation. And let’s not forget the inevitable debate over exactly whose baby it is and, by extension, who has to get up in the middle of the night to change the diaper. Picture this 2 a.m. dialogue among our Himalayan husband/brothers when 2 month old Mahendra wakes the household with his piercing cries:

Brother Barati: “Brother Paneru, the infant Mahendra is your son – you get up.”

Brother Paneru: “With all due respect Brother Barati, Mahendra was born on January 10th and counting back 280 days we arrive at April 5th, always one of your blessed nights.”

Brother Barati: “Pardon me, Brother Paneru, but please to remember that I switched with Brother Nawang that night because I had playoff tickets.”

Brother Nawang: “Yes, I do recall that Brother Barati, but anyone can see Mahendra has Brother Thakchay’s curly hair and skinny legs … “

I’m guessing that, before this debate ends, the weary Chomolunga will be the one to change Mahendra’s diaper and, since she’s already up, also the one to let the buffalo out. (Factoid – Most of the milk in Nepal comes from buffaloes.)

And so poor Chomolunga spends her days putting down upright toilet seats and cooking and cleaning for a family of twenty, all the while berated by a mother-in-law who, no doubt, thinks she wasn’t good enough to marry any of her sons, let alone all of them.

Which is not to say, however, that our current form of marriage is the best solution. In fact, forward-thinking women would do much better to negotiate an altogether different kind. What I have in mind is a sort of serial monogamy that borrows liberally from the vacation timeshare industry. It would look something like this: A woman marries, or rather “leases”, a man for a certain number of years, the choice of man and the number of years to depend on her particular needs and interests at the time. So, while she’s young and highly hormonal she can go for looks and chemistry. During her childrearing years she’ll seek the family guy who’s willing to read to the kids at night and pick them up from soccer games. (Cooking skills would also be a plus.) When it’s time to start paying those college tuition bills a man’s financial resources come into play. During the empty nest years, compatibility is key. At the end of life she wants him strong and healthy enough to be able to pick her up or wheel her around, if necessary, and good-natured enough to be willing to do so.

By my count that comes to an average of five husbands per woman but, more important than the number, the right man for the right time. And to provide for the possibility that something like love might show up along the way, the bride could negotiate up front for a lease-to-buy option or the right to extend the term. (And one could get very creative with the subletting possibilities.)

So my advice to future brides: When the clergyman asks “‘Til death do you part?” the proper response is, “Not quite – only ‘til the lease expires”.
Alisa Singer’s humorous essays have appeared in a variety of print and online newspapers and magazines across the country and in Canada.

She is the author of various gift books designed to entertain and amuse baby boomers. You can learn more about her work and purchase her books by visiting her website: or contacting her at”