Thinky Post: Plural Marriage/Polygamy/Polyamory, a Constant in All Cultures

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.

I originally had a photo of an orthodontist office with 12 women in identical scrubs and one man in a suit, and then I thought “how weird of one of those people googles and finds their photo in a post about polygamy”, so I replaced it with this. But if you google “orthodontist office staff”, you will find a million examples of what I am talking about.

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.

Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor shared a husband, but they also “shared” a daughter and a lifelong friendship

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.

1953 raid on the polygamist community in America, parents and children were separated for as long as TEN YEARS in some cases. And only because of polygamy, at that point there was no accusation of child labor or abuse of any kind.

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)

13 thoughts on “Thinky Post: Plural Marriage/Polygamy/Polyamory, a Constant in All Cultures

  1. There wasn’t any post for me to put it in, so I’ll just put it here. ALIA IS PREGNANT! In my opinion, they announced it with a picture just WAAY too early. Even Anushka and Sonam only did so when it was impossible to hide it or it felt safer for them physically down the line. Also, I really have a dreadful ‘lock her up young into marriage’ feeling about all this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I just texted Margaret about this. I should be happy. I want to be happy. But, all I feed is dread.

      I’m going to assume that since they covered up the ultrasound, Alia’s in her second trimester and they feel comfortable in the viability of the pregnancy.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’m going to soap box a little bit about the “proper time” to announce a pregnancy. Western manners declare the proper time is after 14 weeks, largely because then the risk of a miscarriage is less. Because we don’t want to discuss miscarriages? Because we are scared that if people talk about them then… what, we know people feel pain? It is a little bit like pretending women don’t poop, but with larger emotional implications.

      Miscarriages are common and painful and if a family experiences one they can use all the emotional help they can get. But they don’t get emotional help because they are supposed to hide that it happened.

      I will be thrilled when western manners no longer declared proper times, and families can tell friends and loved ones about major life events whenever they choose. Alia looks happy. I’m happy for her even if Ranbir sucks. The permenant man child wore a backwards baseball cap to his wife’s doctor’s appointment.

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      • Just to put it out there, for some people talking to others and telling others about a painful thing that happened to them magnifies the pain. So I will say that yes, folks should be a lot more open about miscarriages and stuff, but also for some people they just don’t want to talk about sad things and announcing a pregnancy means later on you have to announce the miscarriage if it happens. But if you AREN’T those people, absolutely it shouldn’t be forbidden to discuss miscarriage.

        On Sun, Jul 3, 2022 at 1:02 AM dontcallitbollywood < comment-reply@wordpress.com> wrote:

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  2. I think there is some wishful thinking about Hema getting any rights at all via court if things go wrong. Technically, she is just his mistress in the eyes of the court. If he died suddenly without a will or anything, she would lose all rights to any property that he hasn’t specifically put in her name.

    And with the Indian court/legal system, it could be a decade or more if she saw any reparation.

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    • I always thought they were legally married? Through the Muslim marriage laws loophole?

      Anyway, at least Dharam publicly acknowledges their kids and they have his name, at the very least they have that, which is more than a lot of “Second wives” get.

      On Mon, Jun 27, 2022 at 8:29 AM dontcallitbollywood < comment-reply@wordpress.com> wrote:

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  3. FDLS also has the phenomenon of the Lost Boys.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lost_boys_(Mormon_fundamentalism)

    I think plural marriage is unsustainable unless the society is overall balanced in such a way that most people get to be married, since that’s what most people want. In societies where plural marriage has been commonplace for centuries, there are still plenty of mono- marriages, and most plural marriages have just a few spouses not 10s or 100s of them.

    I’m in favor of plural marriage but in a post-feminist world, where there could even be more than 1 partner of more than 1 gender, and it wouldn’t be patriarchal but equitable – however the group defines that. It’s just that our laws – marriage, tax, inheritance, medical, etc – aren’t built for that.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I do know some people who are in happy stable polyamory relationships. But I think maybe the key is that everyone is equally illegal? Well, not illegal, but unlegal. There’s no power dynamic reflecting who society acknowledges and who they do not.

      On Wed, Jun 29, 2022 at 7:48 PM dontcallitbollywood < comment-reply@wordpress.com> wrote:

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  4. As a senior at a Catholic high school I wrote my senior thesis on polygamy, defending it as a religious right. From my perspective then, and now, I could care less what consenting adults do as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. Now with what happens in some insulur cults, of all religions, but in America primarily offshoots of the Mormon religion, I cannot not say that all participants are consenting adults, and I can’t say that it doesn’t hurt anyone, but I’m not sure making it illegal helps.

    My family just returned from a camping trip at Zion, our last day there the kids were wowed by a group of women, dressed in the old-timey, but not really, dresses mostly seen on women in polygamist sects. They were rich colors, exactly the same in cut, made of wool (it was 100 degrees) and the womens’ hair were all done in beautiful fancy braids. It was like they were there for a photo shoot. No kids. No obvious man for that matter but I was trying not to stare. So now the kids know about polygamy, but in all honesty, the dress, the EXACT SAME DRESS on all women, it isn’t polygamy, it is something else. A burka of a different style.

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    • Oh! I just listened to the most fascinating podcast about the Short Creek community! It started as more of a back to the land movement that also happened to have polygamy, and then the Jeffs took control as recently as the 90s and destroyed everything in many many ways. They brought in the restrictions on dress, the plural marriages with dozens of wives, all the abuses. But the illegality of polygamy opened the door for a lot of that, since the community was already trained to live in secret and obey God’s Law not man’s.

      Anyway, part of the podcast was talking about how the original back to the landers loved loved loved their community because Zion is one of the most gorgeous natural parks in America and it’s a hidden gem that not many people visit. Lots of talk about the Red Cliffs calling them home. Kinda made me want to visit the park.

      On Sun, Jul 3, 2022 at 1:18 AM dontcallitbollywood < comment-reply@wordpress.com> wrote:

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      • It isn’t little visited anymore, but Zion is an amazing park. Walking up the Narrows, basically an upcurrent creek walk in a canyon, is kinda like going to a Nature theme park – in fact the whole place is like a theme park. They have shuttles, and you wait in line to get on the shuttles, and then the shuttles take you to your rides (hikes). It is hot so on the one hand fall would be the best time to visit, but then if you want to walk up the Narrows, the water is cold, so in that case go in July! There are some beautiful fancy hotels just outside the park, a decent lodge inside the park, and a shuttle to other stops in the town for those staying in less beautiful hotels. Of course, we camped.

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