When the subject of polygyny first comes up in a marriage, it can be either a casual exploration of an idea or it an extremely delicate and threatening topic that causes all kinds of trauma. So some words for both sisters and brothers on the subject:
Brothers: I imagine that when a brother begins thinking about polygyny, he spends a good bit of time considering it, weighing the potential advantages and disadvantages, and – let’s face it – maybe even fantasizing about being one of those men who can successfully keep two (or more) women happy. So I advise you to take at least as much time as you spend thinking about all these things to truly, honestly, think about how your current wife will feel. This kind of empathy is difficult for brothers – they often block out a lot of what they themselves feel; what someone else feels is pretty far down there on the list of things they want to contemplate. But if you’re considering polygyny, you’d better get used to it, because a man who is a successful polygynous husband spends a lot of his time anticipating the feelings of his wives and understanding the feelings of various family members.
The way a man brings up the idea of polygyny to his first wife can say a lot about whether he’s even spiritually qualified to enter it. While there can be extenuating circumstances, as long as your first wife is not a criminal or an abuser herself, kindness and respect should rule your behavior. I know of a man whose first wife found out about his philandering (for that is what it is when you marry behind your wife’s back) when his friend called her one day and said, “I just thought you had a right to know: your husband is not on a business trip. He’s getting married in the next town over”. I also know of a woman who found out about her co-wife when her husband came to her with a woman and said, “Hello, Honey, I’d like you to meet my wife”. I even know of a case where a woman who found out her husband was married to another woman when that woman delivered his baby. These are not kind or respectful ways to broach the subject of polygyny with your wife.
A much better method would be to tell your wife you’ve always admired the sahaba and other polygynous families (or whatever intro you’d like to use), and that you would like to consider marrying another sister. It is better to bring your wife in on your musings as soon as you begin contemplating polygyny, because it can then become a decision you both make, as opposed to a decision that you impose upon her. She might be able to bring up variables you had not thought of and help you reach your decision with a more complete picture of the pros and cons. Speaking to her about it right away also gives gives her time to adjust to the idea before it becomes a reality. Polygyny as an abstract concept is much easier to accept than polygyny in the form of a woman your husband has already fallen for. Telling your wife of your thoughts early on makes polygyny something a Muslimah can approach as a good deed – not what she had envisioned as a young girl fantasizing about marriage, but something she is willing to tackle for the sake of Allah. It also communicates the message that you and she have a meaningful marriage, in which trust and respect matter, and that you care enough about her to bring her in on a decision that will affect her life greatly. It also demonstrates that you take seriously the Islamic precept of mashura. There are even many couples who go about choosing a new wife together. On the other hand, dictating it to her or telling her after the fact is a form of betrayal – a kick in the stomach that communicates the message, “you are inadequate and I don’t really love you.” It involves duplicity and deceit and all the attendant feelings those evil deeds stir up. It is much more noble, Islamic, and wise to consult with your wife about the idea of polygyny before you even dream of making it a fact.
This is not to say that broaching the subject early on will cause her to jump up and down and clap her hands with joy at the idea, but it does increase the chances that, if it should become a fact for your family, your first wife will be able to meet the challenge with a healthier, more positive attitude. And no matter what difficulties she faces as a co-wife, at least she will not have to shoulder the searing, often cauterizing pain and humiliation of having her husband spring his new little passion-fruit on her unawares or marry on her behind her back.
One further note of caution: be aware of your wife’s personal past experiences with polygyny. If her father married on her mother and she watched her mother suffer for years in an unfulfilling or downright abusive marriage while her mother’s co-wife was enjoying a happy marriage with her own father, polygyny may not be something she will ever be open to, no matter what. In that kind of situation, if you have a hankering to marry another woman, you might just as well reconcile yourself to the idea that it will not be polygyny, because it will probably cost you your current wife.
In addition, it seems counter-intuitive, but the recommendations I’ve made apply mostly to converts or people whose wives are converts, because those sisters are often the most open to polygyny. Malaysians and some other Asian/South Asian sisters might be a bit more comfortable with the idea, but I’ve noticed that many Arab women have an active hatred of the idea. Such a vile repulsion that it causes them to bad-mouth those who are in polygyny and actually ostracize them. They say things like, “It is wrong.” When it is pointed out that it is halal, they still do not make the connection. “It is halal, but it is wrong.” It is a fanatical view that has a lot to do with colonialism and Arab classism. Most converts don’ t hold such violently anti-polygyny views, since they have had to shuttle all their old cultural norms and accept a set of norms that is defined only by Islam.