October 13, 2010

Big Love

Because we are apparently gluttons for punishment at the hands of reality TV, Beth and I just recently watched an hour of Sister Wives. If you don't know what the show is all about, here's how TLC describes it:

Meet husband Kody — along with his three wives: Meri, Janelle and Christine and their combined 13 children — and see how they attempt to navigate life as a "normal" family in a society that shuns their lifestyle. From their unconventional family structure and living arrangements to financial challenges, each half hour episode exposes the inner workings of a polygamist household, revealing the unexpectedly tight-knit and loving relationships between Kody's wives.

Now, before I get to my point, I want to make a few things clear. Here's what I understand:
- This is a reality TV show and we know reality TV only partially resembles actual reality.
Even if the people and events are truthfully and accurately portrayed, I've only invested one whipping hour in this thing. I'm not exactly an authority.

That said, I'm not sure I see anything wrong with the way these people have chosen to live.

But here are five (Kody is engaged to a fourth wife) seemingly intelligent people each of whom admit they understood the intricacies of the lifestyle they were signing up for and, in fact, wanted and encouraged it. And what these people have ended up with - if reality TV is to be believed - is a close-knit family, each looking out for each other to form a complex but fantastic support system. How can that be bad?

I understand that the practice of polygamy is often rife with abuse and exploitation. I get that roles, relationships and responsibilities aren't equitably shared between men and women. And I'm hip to the prevalence of brainwashed child brides and dirty old men who marry them. I can't condone any of that. But maybe those are the exceptions, not the rule.

I think homosexuals should be allowed to marry and that they should enjoy the same rights as those of us who just so happen to be straight. In fact, I believe that any two people who love each other should be allowed to marry and enjoy the benefits and rights afforded to married people. As a result, I find it hard to justify a law that prohibits people from marrying multiple people they love so long as everyone involved understands the arrangement. I guess more than anything, I don't think it should be my - or a politician's - choice. It should be theirs.

Am I off-base here? Should marriage be legislated? To what extent?

Posted by Chris at October 13, 2010 7:00 AM

In this day and age, most people turn a blind eye to non-standard relationships since most of the prohibitions are rooted in outdated notions of religion, but we have a problem here. How far do we go? Marriage is a legally recognised state of union and just so happens (mostly) to be defined as a relationship between a male and a female. If we follow your line of reasoning, why shouldnt a man (or woman for that matter) marry their horse for instance, or dog, or cat, or rat, or garden plant. The definition of marriage is a legal one and it has to be defined somehow or else it ceases to be a legal and public declaration. We have to have some sort of wording and the wording that was settled on long ago was the one that seemed to fit the majority of human interactions. With rights come responsibilities and the estate of marriage is less about the rights of the pair who choose it, and more about the responsabilities to and rights of the resulting offspring and in the case of probate, the decendents. Since by definition, homosexual couples cannot procreate naturally, they tended to be precluded from this definition. However, given modern science, it has become possible, it is simply that the law hasnt caught up. I still think we're taking liberalism to the nth degree by attempting to include all possible combinations regardless of how representative they are of the population in general, it's a pretty slippery slope dont you think...next, we'll have people protesting about not being able to marry their garden gnome. Homosexual couples, absolutely, bigamy....not so much, not least because it's all bloody complicated when it all falls apart.

Posted by: ChocolateChip_Wookie at October 13, 2010 7:43 AM

On this issue, my libertarian sensibilities absolutely agree with you. Sometimes I think the easiest thing to do would be to take away "legal" marriage and then people can get married and change their names to match if they want to but not have it recognized by the government. Legal marriage causes all kinds of problems from taxes, division of property, custody, as well as social security, welfare, insurance, etc. There are a lot of people who work the system using marriage (either getting married or not getting married) to get more things.

In my opinion, if someone wants to marry their garden gnome they should be able to, but since it isn't human we don't have to recognize it. But, I do believe any human being should be able to marry any other human being with recognition from the government and all the benefits it involves.

As for bigamy, I am with you. Sometimes it looks like people know what they are doing but there are a lot of people trapped in a life they wouldn't have chosen. I don't know how to allow it without the negatives but if there is a way, I think it should be considered.

Posted by: goodsnake at October 13, 2010 8:12 AM

You know, this is something I've thought long and hard about, being a polygimist myself. I really hate that there is legislation on who can and cannot get married. OK, I agree that immediate family, and cousins, etc, shouldn't get married. That one, to me, is OK to be legislated, because that can cause mental problems. I think it should just be if its two consenting human beings, then they can marry. And if you want to marry multiple people, then all the people should have to agree to it, and know that you're marrying a second person. Then the marriages, should they desolve, end just like a regular marriage. No need to make it extra messy - the marriages, even if its to multiple people, shouldn't be any different than if you're married to just one person. The way we run our relationship, my two relationships with the boys are seperate. The boys are friends, and we all help each other out financially. But one doesn't have a bearing on my relationship with the other. And it works for us. So I don't see why a marriage would be more messy just because there's multiple people involved. If anything, just let the churches regulate who can and cannot get married in the churches. Let people who want to get married to other people get married if they want in front of a justice of the peace. People should be allowed to love who they want, how they want.

Posted by: Secha at October 13, 2010 8:30 AM

Chris, glad you brought this up. I totally agree with your perspective on this! The biggest surprise for me with watching Sister Wives is how I now "get" the appeal for the women to be in a polygamous relationship. I previously thought it was a terribly male-centric view (a man has needs, etc, etc.) but I like how this show portrays all sides: one wife couldn't imagine staying home with the kids so she works outside the home; one loves being a SAHM, so all the kids get benefit of her choice; sometimes there's jealousy... it's real life.

And why is it my business (or the government's) as long as they're all committed, aware, and adults?

Posted by: Leslie at October 13, 2010 8:37 AM

You're asking about what is legal. When it comes to the law, there are regulations in place to protect fraud in insurance, property ownership, and decision-making for children. There is a lot of our society's laws that are based around a two-person-only marriage and I'd like to stick to that. However, like you I believe that homosexuals should be able to marry and that there is nothing inherently wrong with the polygamist setup. I don't think any government body should tell us what to do in our own homes but when it comes to signing legal documents, I really do think the simplicity/complexity of a two person union is enough.

Posted by: Brad at October 13, 2010 9:29 AM

Interesting thought to ponder .... had never thought of it before - thanks for raising the issue.

Posted by: Heather at October 13, 2010 9:54 AM

I've been watching Sister Wives and I agree that we can't really know FOR SURE how accurate a depiction it is of their reality. However, if it is somewhat accurate, I feel they are not keeping their kids out of mainstream society, nor are they forcing their kids to grow up to practice the same lifestyle they practice. They have said in several different episodes that just because they've chosen these lives, it doesn't mean they expect their kids to adopt either their religion or their marriage practices. As far as I'm concerned, if you can show your kids the good and bad sides of your lifestyle and feel perfectly ok with them choosing something different, you are ok with me. (Yes, of course there are some exceptions - but mostly people who practice very different lifestyles are adamant that theirs is the best and only right way and do not allow their kids to know about, let alone choose, any other lifestyle.) It's a very interesting show. I'm kind of a polygamy buff. I find it really interesting and read a lot of books about it and you are right that there is tonnes of abuse in the polygamist lifestyle. The reading I've done would suggest that the Sister Wives crew are the exception and not the rule, unfortunately.

Posted by: Shannon at October 13, 2010 10:31 AM

The "marry your dog or cat" argument misses the point. An animal or child can't legally consent to anything; let alone marriage. Adults can.

Personally, polygamy wouldn't be my choice. However, if I'd been around when the Mormons were persecuted and hounded from state to state because of their beliefs, I would have been on their side screaming about the 1st Amendment. I've told a couple of my Mormon friends that they should have stuck to their guns in Utah instead of caving in exchange for statehood.

So long as the arrangement involves consenting adults and doesn't harm others, I don't have a problem and I don't understand why the fundamentalists scream about government overreach and then are determined to control what we do in our bedrooms and with our bodies.

That means I also don't have a problem with same sex marriage. My son's seems to be doing fine so far.

Posted by: Ann Adams at October 13, 2010 10:40 AM

I think you are absolutely spot on. When everybody involved has made a conscience decision then why should any of us care? Let people live the life that they want. On the other hand, like you said, I completely DISAGREE when one or more parties have no choice. As in; the thirteen year old girl is forced to marry the sixty five year old man. Blech. That is so wrong.

I just recently started watching Sister Wives and I was shocked that I walked away feeling good about the show. I'll be honest though, Kody kinda seems like a tool.

Posted by: Holly at October 13, 2010 10:43 AM

It's interesting to think about. Ideally, marriage wouldn't be legislated at all, since it's sort of none of the government's business who I want to marry (or how many of them). However, since marriage comes with legal rights, etc, it's sort of a necessity.

If everyone involved is happy, then I can't see why there's anything wrong with it. Do I think it's a little weird? Yes. Is it my thing? Not at all. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be someone else's thing.

Posted by: Dawn at October 13, 2010 11:32 AM

I'm with you. If all of the power dynamics are equal, and all parties involved are making an informed decision to participate, then hey, have three wives and two husbands if that's what works for you.

I've had plenty of arguments with one particular relative who insists that things like gay marriage and polygamy make a mockery of straight marriage and I've never, ever been able to understand her point of view. Love (between consenting adults anyway) is love to my way of thinking, and it isn't any less valid if it isn't exactly traditional.

Posted by: hillary at October 13, 2010 11:34 AM

I am absolutely 100% behind gay marriage.

Polygamy - not so much. And, there are a number of reasons.

As already mentioned, fraud and avoidance thereof becomes very difficult.

Divorce from a complex family would be a legal nightmare - everyone would lose - inevitably. When these marriages fail, as they surely must sometimes... would we split a household into fourths, or fifths??? How does that work? How does child placement work, if a SAHM (non-mom) has provided the bulk of the care to-date? What would this do to the children? Can you only imagine the convoluted pathway these legal issues will meander through? What a disaster for families, especially the children.

More to the point... intimate relationships (my opinion) work when they are exclusive. Even then, intimate relationships hit bumps in the road. Couples need to be a "team" to work through issues and maintain long-term bonds. I find it difficult to believe that a man (or woman) can maintain a relationship with more than one woman (or man) and have all partners feel as though they are treated properly, fairly, and equally lovingly.

I have only watched one hour of this show as well, so I am not expert. But, I was completely unsurprised to see each of the members of this relationship in tears during this one hour. Why? Jealousy and envy and hurt feelings and inequities in distribution of time and resources. The older wives are concerned about the new woman because she is pretty, younger, and fresh. The new gal is concerned about fitting in with the other women (and, while I didn't see any unpleasantness, we are all well aware that women can and are mean at times). The children were both uncomfortable with watching their dad "courting" and trying to come to terms with how this will change their family dynamics. The longest-term wife was the most comfortable and encouraged the addition of a new wife while the others were more guarded - why do you suppose?

Multiple partners (in even the most functional families) seems sure to promote hurt feelings and inequities.

If polygamy is legal, it is inevitable that some men that would want a female partner will be completely unable to find wives (human populations are close to a 1:1 sex ratio). Maybe this is a concern, or maybe that is ok. But, do the math and this is a fact. Are we ok with setting a number of men up for sure failure? For very real biological reasons - polyandry (females with multiple monogamous male mates) is vanishingly rare - legal or otherwise (see the animal kingdom for details).

Posted by: K at October 13, 2010 11:36 AM

Chris, I am so glad you brought this up because I thought of this recently, too and I agree with you. I realized that if I support Gay marriage (and I certainly do), then I have to support polygamy, too. Between consenting adults, it's not up to me to decide. So even though I felt a little uncomfortable about it at first (for no reason, really, other than having a knee-jerk reaction that polygamy felt a little squicky to me), I quickly realized that it doesn't matter.
I do not believe that marriage between consenting adults should be legislated. So long as there is separation between church and state, there is no reason for it to be regulated (I have yet to encounter an anti gay marriage stance that is not based in religion, hate, or fear). I have never understood it: What is a legal marriage anyway? Marriage means different things to different people (some people might think I am not really married since I didn't get married in a church, for example), and as long as consenting adults are involved, why does the government need to be?

(And yes, I am married! In fact, we took care of our legal paperwork as soon as we got engaged in order to receive full military and monetary benefits -- but we did not FEEL married until we had our wedding almost a year later. Many people in our families had a big problem with this, so I have thought long and hard about the meaning of government/paperwork involvement in marriage, and what it means.)

And as for the commenter who said "If we follow your line of reasoning, why shouldn't a man (or woman for that matter) marry their horse for instance, or dog, or cat, or rat, or garden plant.". Oh, I do get SO tired of this argument.

In fact, if we follow Chris's line of reasoning, we do not arrive at marrying horses and doorknobs and tree stumps. Because that requires veering OFF the line of reasoning from discussing real relationship between consenting adults, to discussing hypothetical 'relationships' between a consenting adult and an inanimate object. Apples and oranges, my friend.
There IS a large population out there that wants to marry their loving (homosexual) partner. There is NOT a large population arguing for tree stump marrying rights. If that ever happens, we can certainly discuss it then.

Posted by: Caitlin at October 13, 2010 11:49 AM

if it weren't for the special status afforded to marriage legally (tax benefits, etc.) i'd be with you. if he's only legally "married" to one of these women, that's OK. as far as just all living together in a group? let it fly. group marriage? not as long as marriage is legally special.

Posted by: magnolia at October 13, 2010 11:55 AM

One more thing, Chocolate Chip Wookie, with regards to "With rights come responsibilities and the estate of marriage is less about the rights of the pair who choose it, and more about the responsabilities to and rights of the resulting offspring and in the case of probate, the decendents. Since by definition, homosexual couples cannot procreate naturally, they tended to be precluded from this definition. However, given modern science, it has become possible, it is simply that the law hasnt caught up."

I disagree. My husband and I neither have children nor have plans to have them. Our decision to get married had nothing to do with raising kids - it was a commitment to each other. It's a mistake to assume that marriage = children to all people. Not all people can have kids, and not all people choose to.

Posted by: Caitlin at October 13, 2010 11:58 AM

I have trouble with this show...yet I can't seem to stop watching it. The one who said, it was my lifelong dream to be a third wife? That scares me. It scares me that they are raising their children to think this is the way to be.

Also? I'm pretty convinced that man just wanted everything. When he talks, he reminds me of a silly hippy teenager. Not a man with four wives and 92 children.

Posted by: Issa at October 13, 2010 12:00 PM

I have an issue with it... but more on the "A necessitates B" front. It doesn't really bother me if a guy wants to have 3 wives that all want to share him with each other. But then you bring children into the mix - and it seems that all polygamous groups have children, and lots of them. I don't really think it's fair to the kids.

Posted by: Amy at October 13, 2010 1:13 PM

I agree with the points about the technical difficulties in tracking these sorts of marriages, but I think it may be a cart and horse issue; if this were to be legislated as "OK" then I think it would have to come with some pretty well defined rules up front; we have a great deal of legal precedence around pre-nuptial agreements, and there would have to be something of that nature in place here clearly spelling out the details of ownership, custody, etc. When they do go bad ( agreed, some statistically will ) then it would be a starting point to negotiate from instead of trying to determine it on the fly.

From a "moral" standpoint, I think that the traditional stance on marriage is too constricting and based mostly on our historical origins as a nation and law building, rather than on any strictly practical standpoint. Marriage is a commitment to your personal deity, lifeforce, or at the barest atheistic minimum to another sentient being to place your relationship into a different category, with all the perks, pitfalls, and responsibilities included.

For the argument about inanimate objects, we are rapidly approaching the day when we will have people arguing that they should be able to marry their artificially intelligent partner, and we will have to come to terms with that from a legal / moral standpoint someday as well. But I don't think that polygamy will lead to doorknobamy.

Posted by: metawizard at October 13, 2010 1:28 PM

I say love who you want. I'm definitely FOR gay marriage. And I'm for pluralism - I guess my concern comes into play with regards to insurance and the implications of letting a man insure his twelve wives. I guess at that point, if it were legal, insurance companies could deal with that...

Shoot, there are days when I wouldn't mind a wife or two.

Posted by: Sarah at October 13, 2010 1:45 PM

Thank you, thank you, thank you. Finally, I feel like someone just expressed in words, exactly how I feel. To support one kind of marriage and not another, is hipocrisy. So, kudos to you.

Posted by: Christine at October 13, 2010 2:18 PM

One question. What would Beth say if you brought a woman home and wanted to marry her too?
Although I say whatever to Sister Wives, I'd never share my marriage with anyone! Just call me selfish!

Posted by: Maribeth at October 13, 2010 3:23 PM

Funny you should mention this and go to the next level. I have always though that we should be allowed to marry farm animals, it doesn't really hurt anyone. Besides the upside of your spouse being unable to nag there is also the benefit of being able to eat them if you tire of them!

Posted by: Jeff A at October 13, 2010 4:54 PM

50% divorce rate in the U.S. between two people. The only thing that would change is that the younger sister-wives likely couldn't apply for welfare anymore (many do).

From Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who is well-versed in many different religions. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-shmuley-boteach/the-case-against-polygamy_b_98287.html:

"There is good reason to outlaw polygamy. Marriage is the most romantic institution because it establishes the inviolate uniqueness of its participants. A woman is made to feel that she is the one and only to her husband. A husband's devotion confers upon his wife the blessings of primacy and exclusivity. But polygamy subverts that pledge, establishing not a woman's uniqueness, but her ordinariness. Her husband marries her with the express understanding that she alone will not satisfy him. He requires others. She is inadequate.

"Likewise, she is forced now to compete for his affections for the rest of her life, thereby immersing in her an unnatural competition for the man who has already pledged himself to her. This competition also erodes the natural fraternity and universal sisterhood of women, engaged as they are, even after marriage, for the affections of the same man.

"In this sense, polygamy fosters unending rivalry and leads not to peace and harmony but to altercation and strife. How can any polygamous marriage be happy when, by its very nature, it does not bring people together but drives them apart.

"Marriage is the very foundation of every civilized society precisely because of its civilizing influences. Marriage takes a man and a woman who are strangers to each other, orchestrates them together into inseparable flesh, and lends children a stable and secure environment within which to be raised.

"Polygamy, however, offers children a model not of security but of rivalry, not of confidence but of permanent insecurity, as the members of a single household compete to be favorites. It is a toxic environment in which men are kings and women are courtiers.

"After marrying and sacrificing all for her husband, no woman should ever have to feel that she is still not good enough."

Posted by: alektra at October 13, 2010 6:18 PM

I'm still not sure how we go from people to horses.

Polygamy... I just worry that many of these women are brainwashed into following a religion that sees them as housekeepers, and baby producers. Who then have to get on with all the new young thing he brings home... I just don't get how this is good fr these women.

Personally, I'd like to see the state get out of marriage.

Posted by: Nat at October 13, 2010 9:49 PM

Wow - your post virtually summarizes a conversation I had with my mother the other day. My parents are former hippies who still have very open minded opinions (even as they say "in their old age"). We came to the same conclusion - how can you support one and not the other. And just because you support it, doesn't mean you want to participate.

Posted by: Melissa at October 13, 2010 10:05 PM

hmm. technically i agree with you. and i really don't believe that "slippery slope" business about marrying animals and trees. There should still be age laws and dirty old man laws. but i can't say that the lifestyle in ANY way appeals to me other than as some good entertainment (big love has been a fave show since it started).

ps. secha's post confuses me and intrigues me.

Posted by: kati at October 13, 2010 10:12 PM

I agree with you about supporting gay marriage, etc. But I just have one question: How would you feel if Beth said she wanted to have one or two more husbands in addition to you?

Posted by: JW at October 14, 2010 1:15 AM

I've been watching the show too and I want to run out and get me some Sister Wives! Seriously- it seems like a brilliant idea. The people on the show are so much more "normal" than I ever thought polygamists would be and the way they run their family really seems to work! I'm all for it. The more people to share the responsibilities of marriage and family life? The better!

Posted by: alfredsmom at October 14, 2010 8:49 AM

I think I'm leaning towards your way of thinking. Some men beat their wives, that doesn't mean that we outlaw heterosexual marriage.

Posted by: Hope at October 14, 2010 10:32 AM

One big problem with permitting polygamy is with all of the existing systems that are set up to provide benefits to a "spouse." Social security, pension plans, IRAs, and more, all provide benefits for the spouse, which is just one person. (So this shouldn't be an issue with gay marriage to one other person, but for the fact that the Defense of Marriage Act defines marriage as between one man and one woman - seems like you could define it to be between two people, without issue.) But if you have more than one spouse, there is no way to apply those laws, and things are rife for abuse (very easy to just marry someone else so that they get extra benefits).

Now...there are plenty of other problems with these systems too. But that's one reason why polygamy can't be accepted legally - too many other things (laws) would have to adjust.

Posted by: TeresaLynn at October 14, 2010 11:28 AM

I came across this show for the first time this weekend. We watched a bit together and had quite the discussion afterwords. Really this seems to work for them and they seem pretty normal, whatever normal is. I was actually quite impressed.

Posted by: Adi at October 19, 2010 8:20 PM

Following is a different take on this show.

Posted by: K at October 21, 2010 3:46 PM

That is understandable that money can make us disembarrass. But what to do if somebody doesn't have money? The one way is to receive the credit loans or just collateral loan.

Posted by: NixonMolly19 at November 10, 2010 2:28 AM