I am fascinated by stories about polygamy, both fiction and non-fiction. I've watched every episode of the HBO television series “Big Love.” I've read the Brady Udall novel “The Lonely Polygamist.” I've read Irene Spencer's harrowing account of her life as a polygamist's wife in the 50's, 60's, and 70's, “Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamist's Wife.” I have several other fiction and non-fiction pieces to read or watch in my queue that I haven't gotten to yet.
I like to read and watch these things partially because polygamy is inherently fascinating to those who were raised in a monogamous culture, but also because as someone in a polyamorous relationship, I'm interested in seeing how the experts do it. How do people raised in a culture where ethical non-monogamy is an integral practice deal with the problems that come up for anyone sharing a partner or juggling multiple lovers? It seems to me that age-old question “Is jealousy inevitable?” can be answered by looking at a culture that makes getting over jealousy a sacred practice. The bad news: Yes, jealousy is inevitable. The good news: It can be dealt with and you can be happy despite it.
Most of the books about polygamy that I've read tell some distressing, heartbreaking stories. But the horrors aren't the result of conditions that are integral to polygamy, but instead associated with the way it is practiced by certain people, in certain families, in certain subcultures. The appalling life conditions of polygamists in these stories are the result of abject poverty, or a husband taking on many more wives or children than he can support financially or emotionally, or a failure to ensure that their families will have a clean and well-ordered environment.
Fundamentalist Mormon polygamist marriages are essentially mono-poly relationships (or, as I've heard them referred to before, “Monopoly relationships”!) – a situation where one partner has multiple partners, and the other only has and only wants one. Some of the negative consequences in these stories are directly related to living in a mono-poly polygamist marriage. In each of the stories the wives struggle with having access to their husband only one-third (or one-fourth, or one-ninth) of the time. If the wife doesn't form good relationships with her sister-wives, her husband may be her only intimate companion. The wives struggle with loneliness, lack of sex, difficulty getting emotional support, and the hassle of taking care of many household and life issues alone. However, although these are issues that may be inherent in Fundamentalist Mormon polygamy, they are not necessarily inherent in polyamory. If these polygamist relationships allowed the women to seek out other partners to fill the void of companionship and support they feel because they don't have their husband's full attention, these problems could be avoided.
I just finished reading the book “Love Times Three: Our True Story of a Polygamous Marriage,” a memoir about the Dargers, a modern polygamist family that lives in a suburb of Salt Lake City. This is the family that served partially as the inspiration for “Big Love.” I enjoyed reading this book because this family allowed us to look more directly at polygamy itself. The benefits and issues related primarily to polygamy were not overridden by the issues generated from poverty and negligence. This family has enough money and seems to have enough time and attention to adequately support their large family and provide for all the family members. Everyone seems reasonably happy, well-fed, and well-educated. These are people you can relate to, people like your friends and family members … except that there are three wives, and many more children. I found a lot of lessons in this book that apply directly to secular polyamorous relationships.
One of the things I thought was most interesting was that they see living a polygamous lifestyle to be a sacred religious practice, much like meditation or the practice of celibacy among monks. They freely admit that polygamy is difficult – and that is part of what makes it valuable to them. Polygamy presents them with many challenges that allow them to work on improving themselves as people and grow in living closer to their faith. I am not a religious person, and the spiritual angle doesn't hold any resonance with me. However, part of the draw of polyamory for me is that it is challenging and gives me a chance to master something difficult but rewarding, live closer to my ideals, and become a better person in the process.
In “Love Times Three, ” one of the wives, Alina, writes:
When people say I “practice” polygamy, they've got it right: my efforts to live this lifestyle are constant and ongoing. There are many religions that have practices aimed at deepening spiritual insights and expressing faith, such as fasting, saying the rosary, and making a pilgrimage. That's what plural marriage is for me: a daily practice that focuses my attention on the highest ideals of my religion. The benefits to me, in terms of spiritual and personal growth, joy, and completeness, far outweigh the hard work and sacrifice it takes. (p. 162)
This approach to polygamy as a rite of personal and spiritual growth seems to be true for all of the members of the relationship. Another wife, Vicki, says, “Plural marriage, for me, is about overcoming weakness and selfishness, about having compassion for others, and about relying on the Lord in daily life.” (p169) Vicki is clearly energized by the chance to challenge herself. She writes, “I like to compare my decision to live the Principle to climbing Mt. Everest: from the minute I decided to do it, I knew it would be a challenge, but I was excited to see what I could conquer.” (p.169) The third wife, Val, also talks about this: “I loved growing up in a plural family, but those fond memories alone are not enough to carry me through the trials inherent in plural marriage. That's where my faith comes in. I wouldn't have chosen this lifestyle if I had not received a spiritual confirmation that it was right for me. I have to constantly examine my behaviors and motives to see if I am really working for the betterment of us all, which is how this lifestyle becomes a spiritual practice.” (p.184) Their husband, Joe, also sees it as an opportunity to improve himself as a spiritual person: “Living this lifestyle requires me to focus on fundamental gospel principles and work to overcome the slothful, selfish, jealous, lustful, and prideful aspects of my character. I can't be controlling or manipulative, behaviors that have doomed many plural marriages. And I've learned the hard way that I have to keep my temper in check.” (p.188)
Many of the things they write about living in polygamy could have been written by any secular polyamorous person, with a few word substitutions. Here are some quotes that resonated with my personal experience or my observations of other non-mongamous people:
Alina: “I have found that love has a boundless capacity to grow, and when I love, it comes back to me in even greater amounts. I made this choice; I want these challenges.” (p.168)
Vicki: “It is a constant, inner-directed labor to live this lifestyle, one that regularly pushes me out of my comfort zone. Because of the extra work it takes, I think my relationship with Joe is better than the relationship many of my monogamous friends have with their husbands. In fact, friends have told me they're envious of the depth and richness of our relationship! I cherish that and certainly don't take it for granted.” (p.171)
Joe: “The decision to pursue plural marriage was, for me, similar to the choice people make when they decide whether or not to have children: I felt it promised a richer, fuller life, one with challenges and sacrifices but also more varied experiences and enjoyment.” (p.201)
Val: “The point is, I don't feel I have any less love or joy in my life because Joe has relationships with Alina and Vicki. In fact, I have more. And, as I told Oprah, in this day and age of alternative lifestyles, I should be able to make this choice–just as other adults, such as homosexuals or polyamorists, are able to structure their personal relationships however they choose.” (p.266)
Joe: “The debate about polygamy often overlooks personal choice and constitutional liberty rights. I want the right to structure my family and my personal relationships with other consenting adults as I see fit. I want tolerance for unions like mine, entered into freely and willingly by consenting adults who are motivated by religious belief and whose conduct cannot be shown to pose any substantial harm to the state or to those under its protection.” (p.280)
One of the topics that is most interesting to me is how jealousy is dealt with in a polygamous family. It has always seemed to me jealousy might be a bigger problem in a mono-poly relationship because one of the partners is sharing their sole lover with other people, without having any other partners to compensate for what is lost. In this polygamous family, it is clear that jealousy still comes up, and often from the same old triggers that causes it to arise in other relationships, both monogamous and polyamorous:
Vicki: “But jealousy is an unfathomable emotion, one that can surface for no apparent reason and stage an attack when you least expect it. It can be the result of a misunderstanding, or rooted in the realities of plural marriage. A great personality can set it off; so can physical characterics. I've had jealousy triggered by pretty ordinary-seeming aspects of living the Principle: a look Joe gave someone else, an occassion when he slept late into the morning with another wife, and times when he seemed to go on more dates or have a better connection going with one of my sister wives. Anyone who is human knows that jealousy is not always rational!” (p.170)
But they recognize the destructive role that jealousy can have in a relationship and fight (mostly successfully) to resolve it and not let it cause bigger issues. Their approach to polygamy as a spiritual practice seems to help this:
For a person coming from a polyamorous viewpoint, I thought this book had a lot to offer in the way of insights from people who grew up in a culture of non-monogamy. For me, it validated that multiple loving, committed relationships can be the best choice for some people, and can work in a way that produces a stable, loving committed relationship that last a very long time. The biggest lesson I took from the book is that recognizing and accepting that this type of lifestyle requires extra work, and yet seeing and having faith in the extra benefits that you receive goes a long to way to sustaining a commitment and making someone happy in a non-monogamous relationship structure.