I just watched the new FLDS documentary, and now I’m listening to a really good in depth podcast on the Short Creek polygamist community in America. Which has got me thinking about polygamy, and how it is present in all cultures to some degree, and yet in the modern world we resist acknowledging it.
Obviously, the place to start a thinky post on plural marriage is with Orthodontia. When my sister and I hit the age that we needed braces, my Mom started shopping for an orthodontist. With two kids who both had VERY bad teeth, this was going to be a multi-year relationship so she was picky. And what she wanted to avoid was a clinic where it felt like one man and a harem of women. For some reason, that was a pattern in orthodontist clinics. And it felt…icky. One man being worshipped and above All Women. We ended up going to a very nice young orthodontist who was just starting out and his only assistant was his wife. It didn’t feel weird, it felt like a partnership between two equals. By the time we left, 4 and a half years later, he had moved up in the world and his wife was office manager and he had a bunch of young female assistance fluttering around him in the exam room and it was starting to feel a little odd again.
When you have one person of one gender in a singular role, and other people of other genders all sharing the same role, it doesn’t feel right. I shouldn’t even say “gender”, it’s really any two groups. One person has to be the boss, sure, but there shouldn’t be such a big divide where one person is the boss, everyone else is equal, and the two can never meet, AND there is some other artificial divide between them too. Gender, race, language, age, anything, it’s WEIRD and dangerous.
And now we get to polygamy. If you live in a world of strict gender divides, and you have one spouse of one gender and multiple spouses of another gender, the possibility for abuses is infinite. When I hear about polygamous families, in any culture, it tends to be “the man/father is gone all day working, the wives/mothers stay home and have children and raise children”. This isn’t necessarily an abusive situation. I am sure there are some families where it works perfectly well. But it is a situation where abuse can appear so very very easily. The wives can be uncomfortable with this “equalness” and start competing between each other for power, abusing each other and their children in an effort to rise above and be different. The man can start to see his wives and children as interchangeable and discard one or the other because he has so many. Or the alternative, a man can grow tired of his wives and keep adding more until it becomes unsustainable economically and he just doesn’t care.
The best version of polygamy, the one that makes sense to me, is one where we acknowledge that a family can be more than just the bonds of blood. For instance, one of my co-workers just worked remotely for 6 weeks because she had to help take care of her stepchildren. Her husband can’t work remotely, the mother of her stepchildren lives in a whole other state and is the sole caregiver for two kids, and she tore her ACL (ouch!). So my co-worker stepped up and moved for 6 weeks and helped out. She gets along fine with the kids’ mother, she loves the kids, and someone had to do something. So, why not?
This is what I think of as “modern” polygamy. We don’t even call it that in the west, and I kind of wish we did, but with divorces now being common and accepted you have a situation of multiple kids with multiple parents and ending a marriage doesn’t REALLY end the relationship. I know in the past, when divorces were a bit more unusual, the idea was once the marriage was over, the two partners never spoke again. The kids went with the Mom and if she remarried, that was their new father. But today, the “American family” seems far more likely to include a hodge-podge of multiple parents all working together and all loving each other in different ways. And I think that’s good! More love is always good.
This is also the version of polygamy that, I think, is often what happens in other cultures we just don’t like to say it. If we look at Indian film stars, I think Aamir Khan, Dharmendra, and Sunny Deol all probably have very similar personal private experiences in their families. They all got married on the younger side, had kids, and then as the kids got older started growing apart from their co-parent. Fell in love with someone else with whom they had more in common at this phase in their life and moved on to a new relationship while still staying as an active co-parent and support to their first wife. But Dharmendra, while he couldn’t get a divorce from his first wife, was allowed by society to marry a second time and have two wives. Sunny was in a place where society would no longer accept plural marriage but still would not accept divorce, so he quietly separated from his wife and started a long term unofficial relationship. And Aamir Khan was at a time and place when divorce was just beginning to be acceptable, so he divorced his first wife and remarried.
That “legal” part of it is also a big thing. Listening to the story of the Mormons in America, the fact that polygamy is illegal does a lot of harm. Just in basic things, the second and on down wives are told not to list their husband’s on the kids birth certificates, and of course they have no marriage certificates of their own, so no legal rights to anything. Slave Labor is a big part of polygamy, wives and children work from dawn to dusk and a few powerful men get very very wealthy. But you can’t demand that money as part of community property, or your children’s inheritance, because you have no legal rights. If you leave, you leave with nothing and little hope of ever getting anything.
And of course, since it is an illegal society, there is a fear of going to the authorities. You don’t want to report being raped or abused or your children being beaten, or allllllllllllllllllllll that forced labor, because you are afraid your kids will be taken away from you and you will be put in jail. In America, that is a legitimate fear because kids ARE taken away and mothers WERE thrown in jail. It won’t happen every time, but that fact that it has happened ever is enough for the leaders of the groups to hold it as a threat over their followers, to warn women not to go to the authorities about anything because it may mean they lose their children. Men also, although less often, they are threatened that if they complain about having their marriages suddenly ended, or being forced to marry someone else, or forced to have their daughter’s marry, they can’t go to the police about it because they themselves would be arrested.
In India and, I am sure, other countries where polygamy is legal to a greater or lessor degree, there are advantages. We see that all the time with Hema and Dharmendra. The media pays attention, it expects Dharam to step up for her and her daughters when they need him. If she ever wanted something from him, she would have no fear of going to the police or lawyers or anyone else. Well, no more fear than any wife would in reporting her husband.
One thing that is clear, polygamy was accepted and practiced everywhere in the world always. It does not belong particularly to one tradition more than another. The old testament of the Bible has all kinds of polygamous stories in it, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana do as well, so do Greek and Roman myths, and the Northern European tales of Odin etc. They also have monogamy in there, but both sort of live next to each other.
For me, I think we are still working towards the best answer. But I think it involves no longer trying to say everyone in the relationship is equal. That may be an ideal, but I think it is just too hard to achieve for most groups and the lie that it is achievable is harmful. Going back to orthodontia, I would find it less odd if a clinic had a doctor, the doctor’s first assistant, and two trainees. Somehow it’s the dynamic of one doctor, and an assortment of equal assistants, that I find unhealthy. Just as one man and a dozen equal wives feels wrong to me, while one man and the woman he is currently in love with, and also the two women he was previously married to and who are parents of his children, feels okay.
(there’s also the issue that it’s one thing to accept a man divorcing and remarrying, but it is a whole other thing to accept that the first wife might also fall in love with someone else! But that’s a different post)