An idyllic image lies in front of me: I am married to the man I love. He applauds my intelligence, encourages my pursuits, and communicates with me as open-heartedly as he can. Our marriage isn't completely harmonious because there are those little nuances that don't go with mine, such as the facts that he is anal retentive over cleaning things, can't stand seafood, and isn't as big a fan of the Lord of the Rings trilogy as I am (alas, no, instead he's a Trekkie. A real big Trekkie.) But he makes sure I know that I am loved, cared for and an important part of his family.
Most of all, he reiterates all three principles during my scheduled day of the week.
Clearly, I've been inspired by the new HBO show "Big Love" in contemplating polygamy. As a Catholic-raised Filipino woman who still secretly hopes that John Cusack will show up with a boombox at my doorstep, I’ve never really considered polygamy my kind of ticket. But, the premise of the show makes the possibility intriguing. Could being part of a three-wife system satisfy me Happily Ever After?
Polygamy doesn't seem inherently scary. I don't think it's some horrible monster under the bed that'll bite me in the ass, nor do I see it as chock-full of vivid, thoroughly immoral licentiousness -- we have porn to thank for that (and warping a lot sexual habits, too.) Society itself doesn’t seem to have Carrie Nation’s rampaging spirit when it comes to unconventional practices, for we chalk them up with a blase "hey, it's a lifestyle choice" rationale.
Still, however liberated or progressive our society claims to be, mainstream culture is a staunch promoter of the typical two-partner relationship. Like an old matchmaking grandmother, it will never stop advocating dinner for two. Nor will it ever recommend joining a co-op for love and emotional relationships. Polygamy is greeted with suspicion precisely because it deviates from it and promotes alternate sexual patterns and practices. If I were to tell my old-school Catholic Asian parents I was seriously considering polygamy, they’d probably put their foot down and say that one nice guy within a tribe of traveling Hare Krishnas was more acceptable.
Yet another prospect comes to mind: what if I was well-provided for? Not just in a strict financial or material sense, but what if he truly gave me the nourishment my soul needs? Acceptance for who I am, the freedom to be myself, trust in my intelligence, and respect for my spirit? What if he made sure I was physically and emotionally safe? Could I thus, in exchange, give him the privilege of being married to other women and allow him to share himself sexually, spiritually and emotionally with them?
The thought leaves me uneasy. Throughout my dating life, I have shied away from even being involved if I know there's another woman in the picture. I have never enjoyed the thought of going head-to-head with another woman over a man, nor have I ever liked the feeling of being a daisy to be plucked at beck and call.
But, that analogy prevalent in single life wouldn't apply in married polygamous existence. According to the model shown in "Big Love," I would be a selected flower that's already placed in a bouquet, not a blossom picked at leisure. Instead of being victim to a man's beck and call, I would be able to call some shots and schedule my time.
Although I am unsure of how good I would feel at sharing my husband with another wife, as an independent woman, I love the idea of being able to retain the freedom to pursue my life. One polygamist wife has said that she has her husband for one week out of each month, and the remaining three to spend at her leisure while her husband was with his other wives. It would be something else if I had a life where I could jet off to Barbados for a week while my husband was off with Wife B or Wife C. Maybe I could lead a monastic life and write undisturbed while my husband is off with Wife D. Time spent writing or reading instead of bickering over what to have for dinner or feeling bored while he watches TV is tempting.
Another unexpected nod to women in polygamy is that it requires a man to support his wives. A man can't just assemble the dream harem of his fantasies; he has to afford it and be able to support each of his spouses equally. Thus, I would totally believe some women are truly happy in polygamous marriages. If I, along with Wives A and C, were supported nicely, that would be a good standard. (However, if my husband weren't rich and I had to live in the same house with Wives A and C, then there would be more than a few problems and potential catfights.)
All in all, polygamy doesn't seem inherently wrong. If I were to ever personally encounter a polygamous relationship model that was happy, where people aren't bickering over stupid things and raising their children well, then great. I generally don't oppose any alternative lifestyle that is practiced for the same pure reasons anyone retains when it comes to people they love and that looks out for the people they love. But polygamy isn't for me.
While there is an immense amount of stories told about dysfunctional monogamous relationships that don't succeed every day, there is also quite a few untold ones of relationships that do. I concede that it sounds incredibly good to have a lot of time to nurture my soul, but that's what single life is all about. Marriage is supposed to be about a relationship on a higher plane and caring for a collective, shared life; while I can understand giving my partner space within our relationship, having a de facto single life wouldn't ring true to principle. Maybe the only way I will ever know how I feel about a polygamous relationship is to experience one. But like sexual body piercings, it's something I accept other people want to have, but don't feel a need to try.
I want Big Love in my life. But I want it every day, not on a schedule.
An expert in coloring outside the lines while reading between them, Alex B has a head for business, bod for sin, and weakness for ice cream during all seasons. Apart from watching Bravo marathons and enjoying haute bites here and there, she writes about TV, pop culture, and coloring outside even more lines. She sneaks Tweets via @lexistential.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
6.26.06 @ 11:17a
I would imagine deciding which in-laws to visit for Thanksgiving would be difficult.
6.26.06 @ 5:11p
Welcome to Intrepid, Alex!
Now then...how come the tables never seem to be reversed in this situation -- one woman with multiple husbands? Better still, one woman who supports those husbands financially so THEY can stay at home doing what they want to on the other three weeks of the month or what-have-you?
Personally, I couldn't handle another wife, let alone another family. I suppose there are attractive benefits to the situation; a different partner might be able to fulfill different needs the the other(s) couldn't (or wouldn't). Wife 1 isn't kinky enough in bed? Wife 2 takes care of that. Wife 2 can't talk quantum mechanics? Fortunately Wife 1 has a degree from MIT!
Truth is, those kinds of itches — well, the non-sexual ones at least — are the kinds that we should be able to scratch by cultivating friendships, which, though not legally binding, can often prove stronger than marriage anyway.
I definitely see the potential in a communal lifestyle; I suppose I read a little too much Heinlein as a teen. Everyone supports everyone, shares equitably, screws like rabbits and lends a hand in the raising of the kids. But when it comes down to it, I'm still very much a loner at heart, and while I adore my wife and kids, I'm content that they're the only ones I have to share my life with on such an intimate, involved level. Doing anything more would be spreading myself too thin, and I think I'd lose my identity to the collective.
But you're not a Star Trek fan, so what would you know about that? ;)
6.26.06 @ 5:30p
If my husband had THREE mothers-in-law, then the competitive in-law factor would be frightening. "My daughter raises her kids better than your daughter..."
But, my mom getting into potential catfights with two other little ladies... might be something I want to videotape.
6.26.06 @ 6:00p
Thanks for the welcome and the comments :-)
The reverse seems intriguing. While I would imagine they would be happy being stay-at-home types and financially supported, I wonder if the guys would be all right with the sexual politics. Sharing a woman- the breadwinner, no less- has the potential to feel somewhat emascualting.
If I were the Alpha Woman in this situation, I'd have the feeling of spreading myself too thin. Devoting myself body and soul to one partner is already a challenge; I would do a shoddy job trying to devote myself to three. I too wouldn't want to lose my identity to the collective.
While I'm sure a Trekkie would understand that, I'm pretty sure there's an Aragorn-esque Viggo Mortensen lookalike that truly comprehends it :-)
6.26.06 @ 10:05p
If I were the Alpha Woman in this situation, I'd have the feeling of spreading myself too thin. Devoting myself body and soul to one partner is already a challenge; I would do a shoddy job trying to devote myself to three.
Which is why it just doesn't work when it's one man with many wives, either. Unless you're Bill Paxton.
6.30.06 @ 2:12a
I feel love knows no bounds. Sometimes that is a good thing, and sometimes it crosses a line. Personally I don't believe in marriage for anyone, let alone multiple marriage. I've loved two people at the same time, and AT the same time, but none of us were legally bound. That isn't to say there wasn't a bind. The first time I feel in love I mentally decided to be monogamous. That decision didn't last, but my love did last for quite some time. Eventually that love died a really ugly death, but I survived.
I also learned from that love that I can survive anything. Now I make choices based on my needs. If I love two people, and I want to be with both of them, I will be with both of them. Personally the idea of mutliple pairings works, without the legal bounds, but only in theory. I'm ready to practice, just to make perfect.
6.30.06 @ 7:21a
Welcome, Alex. Good piece. Brings up some interesting points.
Since I have a very negative opinion in general of the institution of marriage, I'm against all of 'em. Monogamy, serial monogamy, polygamy, polyandry, communal, whatever. I watched that PBS documentry about the "Women's Kingdom" in China, and wondered why they called it a kingdom since it's based on matriarchy. I like the idea of matriachy. Maybe that's because I'm a woman and a bit tired of patriarchy. I've loved more than one man at the same time, but I couldn't sustain either relationship. I'm easily bored when it comes to men. I used to say I didn't know what boredome was and then I met some men. Ho hum! It's too bad I'm a hard-wired heterosexual, ain't it? Sigh!
6.30.06 @ 6:42p
Russ finally plunked this in front of me to read in my spare time which you think I would have more of as a stay at home mom. I really, really am glad to hear that Russ does not like the idea of polygamy at least for him. I rely on him as a husband and father way to much for me to even think about sharing. He really wanted me to read this though as I recently read Under the Banner of Heaven , a 300 some page book about Mormonism. The Fundamentalist branch and offshoots are pro polygamy. While many of the women proclaim that they are very happy, the writer suggests that they are born and raised to do so. The lifestyle seems to promote hair raising injustices toward women, such as, incest, rape, entrapment, murder, battery, etc. Most women are forced into a sexual relationship with an appointed man whom they celestially marry at 14. It can be argued that most of these ills are present in any society, but I think no one needs encouragement of any kind. Women need to protect themselves by avoiding a culture that promotes arranged marriages that are common with polygamy. Mormon fundamentalists would not have much to do with me.
6.30.06 @ 6:44p
That last message and this are from Kathy and not Russ....well, I hope you don't think he is a stay at home mom.
michelle von euw
6.30.06 @ 11:34p
Alex, terrific first column! I love your take on this. (And your bio -- yay, moxie!)
I, too, have found myself sucked into the show Big Love, despite my rather strong misgivings about polygamy (as well as my inability to wrap my head around it from a logistical point of view). I've finally accepted that I can adore Big Love the way I adored Buffy: polgymists are just about as realistic as vampires to me.
Kathy (hi, Kathy!) raises some really significant points: the reality of polygamy is quite different than the carefree and, dare I say, "liberated" face that the sources you refer to (and to an extent, Big Love) puts on it. For one, as one of the tenants of polygamy is many (many) children, there aren't too many opportunities to jet off to Barbados.
From a sociological standpoint, polygamy is extremely disruptive -- Valerie Hudson's "Bare Branches" is an excellent study of how destructive it is to societies when there's a surplus of "spare men."
7.1.06 @ 7:45a
Hi Robert! I agree love knows no bounds and that you can romantically love people for different yet equally valid reasons. However, actually having two intimate relationships alive and well at the same time strikes me as incredibly trying. People work to create- and maintain- a good emotional and spiritual status quo through one relationship, and I'm not sure how they can apply the same kind of effort in two different bonds at the same time. If they find a way to master it without resulting in someone getting hurt or some kind of emotional dysfunction, I'd like to know about it. I'm not sure I could do it, though.
Hi Sandra! I haven't entirely lost faith in the institution of marriage, because not only am I unwilling to give up my daydream of getting married barefoot on a beach, but also because I truly think that it isn't entirely about love, but spirituality. That sense doesn't have to originate from organized religion (especially a fundamentalist one- yikes), but if both parties have a good understanding of one another and are very committed, then it's an appropriate ritual to undertake. (It certainly isn't all about the ring or debutante-gone-mad Bridezilla issues).
Hi Kathy! I've heard similar warped things about polygamist groups, along with other religious fundamentalist groups. The expectations for women to suck it up and accept emotionally lopsided (along with abusive) lives is frightening as it is, but what makes it worse is that sacramental holiness is attached to it by the men in charge to ensure obedience. God isn't about blackmail.
Hi Michelle! You're definitely right in pointing out that Big Love is a very pretty version of grim reality. As a fellow Buffy fan who owns all seven seasons on DVD and someone who has always asked "why", I've come to the conclusions that polygamists would probably want to have me booted off the property- and that I'd be a very sucky third wife.
7.2.06 @ 3:31a
Alex, you bring up an interesting point. Emotional dysfunction. I reaslly think everyone has some level of emotional dysfunction, and all relationships are a constant struggle to maintain equal footing in emotionally dysfunctional situations.
I agree that maintaining an equal level of love and respect for multiple partners would be difficult, more like impossible.
Not being a Mormon or a polygamist I probably shouldn't voice my thoughts, but here goes. From what I've seen about polygamist through the news, and now Big Love, it seems that legality aside, these people are emotionally dysfunctional and emotionally self-destructive. I'd need a lot, and I mean A LOT, of money to compensate me for being a sister wife or for dealing with the extended family unit. No man could support me in a polygamist relationship. They simply couldn't afford me. I think the religious aspect helps keep money hungry guys like me out of the polygamy game. Also the fact they don't approve of my "lifestyle", even though their own "lifestyle" is presecuted with more fevor than my own. At least I'm no longer illegal everywhere.
7.2.06 @ 5:44a
Robert, you bring up an interesting point of your own: the financial aspect of polygamy. In Big Love, Bill Paxton is an affluent businessman able to provide each of his wives with her own house and enough for household expenses. However, I would think the financial reality of the average polygamist family isn't that utopian standard. While husbands are obliged to support their wives, they don't seem to be required to make a certain or minimum amount of money. What if the support was very minimal- all a husband could give was a room in a converted garage in the backyard of the main house? What if the support was erratic, unequal, and dependent on how "good" she was as a wife?
I would imagine that a woman from a polygamist setting wouldn't consider the standard of living a major issue because she's been raised to accept what's given to her unconditionally and without question. But as someone who has enjoyed being on her own, think it's a vital issue.
If a prospective polygamist suitor couldn't or didn't offer me a standard of living that exceeded mine, then I wouldn't accept- I do well enough without having to share in other people's expenses or having to chip in my income to a pool. But if I was offered a Big Love-esque scenario, I'd have to carefully consider the strings accompanying the offer. We tend to get more than what we sign on dotted lines for. The danger in accepting would be an "I bought you, hence you do what I say" mentality. My seemingly liberal-minded boyfriend may become a domineering husband who forbids divorce.
EEEK. (Again, I would be a really sucky third wife...)
7.3.06 @ 3:20a
Alex, I saw a brief news story on a polygamist and his financial background. Apparently this particular man and his family are in construction, and the homes they were showing being built were extremely large, very modern, and all with plenty of room to house several wives and sets of children.
The story went on to explain how this make, I don't remember his name but he's on the FBI's most wanted list, is a contractor and has built several homes for himself and his friends throughout Utah and Nevada. Granted not every polygamist is financially well off. I was more under the impression that most polygamists all lived under one roof, and the husband shifted from wife to wife at his will.
Again, I'm only just learning about polygamy and I suppose there is no one hard and fast rule as to how to handle a group marriage. I would think it would be a learn as you go process.
7.5.06 @ 10:43a
I don't share certain things well. I'm confident I'd rather just date and not commit myself if there's not equal commitment from the other party.
But I think it goes back to what you said, Alex, about women being raised in a culture in which their options are limited, and to be a part of this way of life doesn't seem out of the ordinary.
Funny how you rarely hear of a female polygamist. Why don't women take on more husbands?
OH - THAT"S RIGHT. :)
I've not seen the show, tho (no HBO) but I think after a while I'd get tired of seeing women in that role.
7.5.06 @ 2:33p
Actually, Tracey, polyandry has been documented in a number of places, especially regions of Tibet and Nepal. In one form, one woman gets married to a group of brothers. It's been a while since Anthro 200, though, so I couldn't give you more details without research.