Husband and wife…and wife…and wife…and wife…

This is turning out to be Polygamy Week around here, what with two book reviews related to the topic (one posted on Monday, the other will be up tomorrow) – and two books with common themes read in near-succession tend to get me thinking.

In a review of yet another novel about polygamy, Natasha of Maw Books Blog asked the question, “Should polygamy be legal?” and wondered if the answer might be less obvious than it seemed at first glance.

Here in California, we’re still fighting over the legal definition of “marriage” as “one man, one woman” – with the emphasis on the genders. Polygamy would seem to be a similar issue, but with the emphasis on the numbers instead. It’s even been suggested that if same-sex marriage were to become legal on a broad scale (like in more than six relatively small states), multiple marriage would be the next issue to land on the table.

Marriage to more than one person at a time is illegal, and you can’t get a license to partake in it. Polygamous “marriages” exist only within the framework of particular religious beliefs – but the fact that government and churches don’t have to define marriage the same way has come up before. Although ministers and priests are legally authorized to perform marriages and sign licenses, the church ceremony is separate from the legal license to wed, and a wedding doesn’t have to involve a church at all. And a church wedding ceremony without that properly executed “piece of paper” isn’t going to be recognized by the law as producing a married couple (emphasis added).

So if I support granting gays the legal right to marry – which I do, and you may recall my talking about it here (and there) a few times already – must I also support granting the legal right to have multiple spouses at the same time? Wouldn’t that be consistent reasoning?

Well, then I’m inconsistent. I don’t think that healthy families thrive in polygamous households (while they can in homes with same-sex parents, and I’ve known a few myself), and think that the state would be wrong to permit such households to exist legally.

In a comment on my review of The 19th Wife, Dreamybee said:

I’ve heard people knock (polygamy) as being an unhealthy environment for kids to grow up in, but I actually think that aside from the practice of marrying young girls that you may be closely related to (okay, granted, that’s a big aside!) kids would do quite well in this environment. They are constantly surrounded by their siblings and watched over by other family members-very much an “it takes a village” approach which I think is often lacking in today’s society.

There probably are some polygamist families that work that way, but based on my limited reading on the topic, I suspect that they’re exceptional. If the wives get competitive with one another, they’re looking out for themselves and maybe their own kids, never mind anyone else’s – and some of these families are huge, with dozens of children living in the same house. Chances are pretty good that quite a few of these kids are neglected more than nurtured.

But if these families didn’t have to live outside the law, would the kids be better off? Perhaps legal recognition of plural marriage would change those conditions, but since its practitioners see it as a religious calling and, therefore, of higher value than secular law, I’m not sure how much they even care about whether it’s legal or not – they’re doing it anyway, and separation of church and state means that there’s not much interference unless they’re found breaking some other law.

As it is, since most of the mothers of these children are not legally married to their fathers, they’re technically all single parents. And since many of them are not permitted – by church edicts and/or their husbands – to work and earn money, their single-parent status puts many of these women and their children in the welfare system. (“We don’t follow your government’s laws, but we’ll take its money” – now that attitude irritates me.) The communities where polygamy exists are small and isolated, and unwelcoming to outsiders – and in order to keep things that way, education has to be strictly controlled and limited.

I could get into more discussion about how patriarchal and demeaning to women plural marriage can be (and it’s nearly always men with multiple wives, not the other way around) and the dangers to young women and girls in an environment where men hold all the power, but I’m actually trying to stay focused on the child-welfare question here. As far as that goes, I think that polygamy should retain its current legal status – which is “not” – because I really don’t think it’s a good family structure. And I can only hope that over time, as its adherents grow even more isolated from mainstream society (and probably inbred, too – there won’t be that many other options for them, will there?), more people will grow disillusioned and desert the culture, and eventually it will die out.

It may be inconsistent with some of my other beliefs about marriage, but so be it; I don’t think it should include any more than two people, no matter who they are.

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  1. My issue with legal polygamy is that it only involves a male-head household. You leave a lot of men without wives ot marry (as happens in polygamous communities), and you don't offer the right for women to marry multiple partners. If you were going to offer multiple marriages equally, you'd end up in a situation where each man and each woman could marry multiple people. So if a man and woman marry, then the woman marries another man and the man marries another woman, how are those outer marriages related to the inner ones? Are the two women married? the two men? What about all the people those people are married to? You end up with a chain of marriages so that the government is trying to accomodate long-range benefits. It's too confusing to sort out.

    I don't care if people have religious polygamy, as long as they aren't marrying little girls of course. I don't care if they have religious polyandry, either. But allowing legal status of these sorts of marriages would lead to bad things in a legal sense. Imagine people marrying others solely for making sure a sick person had benefits. You could end up with siblings as part of the same household because of a line of marriages. And so on.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you've said here. I'm a staunch supporter of gay rights and gay marriage, but I think that's about allowing people to commit to the person they love and have access to equal rights regardless of their sexual orientation, whereas I think legalizing polygamy wouldn't be so much about equality as it would be about giving credibility to an unsustainable family structure.

    Would it give protection to the women who are currently not legally married to their husbands? Yes. Should we do that? No.

    With so many families today struggling to pay their bills and support families with 2 spouses and a few kids, I can't imagine the pressure and stress that would be created by having multiple spouses and many more kids, and I agree that we shouldn't make it acceptable to put kids in that situation.

    I'll join you in resisting the urge to rant about patriarchy and the inherent sexism (even misogyny) in polygamous systems, but I'm right there with you.

  3. From the memoirs that I have read, polygamous households do not rear each others children in a "it takes a village" approach. It is every woman and her family for herself. I read of horror stories of mothers being unavailable for whatever reason and their children would be beat, unkempt and not feed. When momma lion isn't around to protect them, nobody will.

    I live in a part of the country where I regularly see polygamists out shopping and never without a male escort. Polygamy isn't some far off thing for me. It's very real. I always thought that I would be against polygamy but after reading Carol Jessop's memoir ESCAPE I'm flip flopping on the issue. She hates polygamy for all of the reasons that you mentioned, but thinks that it should be legal simply for the reason that they would no longer have to hide. Being able to come out more into society would solve some of the problems. And there are a lot of polygamists that aren't part of the extremist groups but living among us normally.

    Some days I'm for it, other days I'm not.

  4. I've watched many documentaries on polygamy, seen interviews with people inside polygamous marriages and those who left. I have to say that I'm a bit on Natasha's side. There are times where I see polygamy as a sexist hidden society that pays all the attention to the man. On the other hand, I do feel that every person has the right to live how they want if it is not hurting others.

    But then again is it hurting the children? How far do you go with the term "hurt?" I know a lot of parents who are "hurting" their children emotionally but I don't think that their children should be taken away. If it obvious abuse within the marriage to the children (physical or sexual) then yes, polygamy is wrong. However, if I think that child is not getting hugged enough…does that make polygamy wrong? Probably not.

    I think that it is a very complicated issue and there really isn't a right or wrong answer.

  5. I have mixed feelings about legalizing polygamy. For me, it keeps coming back to the children. I lean more against the idea, but I do see the other side of the argument as well. For the most part though, I have the same concerns that you and Amanda have voiced–and I think that is what keeps me on the "against" side.

  6. Thank you all for jumping in to the discussion!

    Amanda – I'm not sure I'd thought it through quite as far as you did re: the complicated legal interpretation of relationships under civilly sanctioned polygamy (which, if it were legal, should probably include polyandry as well). The current status is definitely simpler – legally, the husband is married to just one – or quite possibly none – of the wives.

    Rebecca – You've made me feel a little better about my seemingly inconsistent positions on gay and multiple marriage, and I appreciate that :-)!

    Natasha – I'm really glad you weighed in on this. I hadn't really thought about polygamists living outside of their own communities, so it's interesting to know that you see them in your local travels. (The male-escort thing sounds so Middle Eastern to me.) And I did get the impression from Carolyn Jessop's book that it was definitely NOT an "it-takes-a-village" child-rearing environment.

    And one of the things I wonder about is if being able to live openly would help with some of the problems, which makes me think about the legalizing-marijuana question. It's definitely NOT a simple-answer thing!

    Tracie – The answer as far as the law goes may be just leaving the issue alone, and keeping the current illegal status – which I suspect is what will happen for the foreseeable future. But there are other considerations besides the legal ones.

    Wendy (Literary Feline) – That's pretty much how I made the call, too. But there's always the "if we legalize it, we can regulate it" argument too, which is a position I take on some other issues…so it was a tough call, but on balance it came down to "no."

  7. Eeee! I didn't know my comment was going to get its own post!

    I guess the things that I've seen/read must be different than some of the things everybody else is seeing/reading. I've always been under the impression that the sister-wives generally get along well and if they don't they figure it out anyway because they all love the same man (or, at least they are all committed to the same man) and all love God, and, ultimately, isn't that what they are supposed to be focused on?

    I agree with all the things people have said about how difficult it would be from a logistical point of view to legalize polygamy. BTW, I was a little confused so I looked it up-polygamy refers to multiple mates of either sex, so it could refer to a husband with multiple wives or a wife with multiple husbands. Polyandry is having more than one husband. Polygyny is having more than one wife. Amanda brought up the issue of everybody being able to marry everybody else-i.e. one man has several wives and each of those wives in turn has several husbands. That definitely wouldn't work out. I think there would have to be some kind of limitation like you could be EITHER one of many wives OR you could be a woman with multiple husbands, but not both.

    I, too, have thought a lot about this issue as it relates to the current struggles to legalize gay marriage. I've never been able to understand why people get so bent out of shape about two people who love each other and want to commit their lives to each other being able to do so because of what they like to do in the bedroom. Really, if Lisa wants to commit herself to Mary and Rob wants to commit himself to Louis, they should be able to do that. Then one day I thought, What if Mary wants to commit herself to Rob…and Joe? Shouldn't she be allowed to do that? (Or what if Mary wants to commit herself to Rob and Lisa–Oh dear! There's a whole new problem!)

    I don't know. It certainly is a complicated issue, and probably not one that we're all going to figure out here tonight! I'm not necessarily for polygamy, but I don't know that I really have the right to be against it either. The fact that it does tend to be so closely tied to a particular religion does make it more difficult, I think. And where does the separation of church and state come into this? Isn't everyone supposed to be allowed to worship according to his own religion. I believe that the separation was originally meant to protect the State from the Church, not the other way around, but it does go both ways, doesn't it?

    Sorry for the long post, but I think this is an interesting topic and one that we might realistically be faced with someday.

  8. I know of a polyamorous group that involves 17+ people of both genders and various sexual orientations. Some of the members are only sexually involved with one other individual, some with two, and some with more. They live in multiple homes in two different cities and visit back and forth. They decide unanimously as a committee whether to include a new person. To this point I believe none of them have any children. They are discreet enough that I only found out about it when I was "invited" to join. Yikes! Not my speed.

    Personally, I don't care a fig what other people do if they do it with respect. There are several threads in the weave: Sex; Children; Property; Religion; Daily living; and Finances. Take the sex and the religion out of the mix, and you'll find every imaginable variation of the other factors. For instance, my grandma and my uncle shared a house for years, and she listed him as her "husband" on forms where it would help, like Costco membership. (That sort of red tape has been liberalized quite a bit, so that now people just have to be "household members.")

    I think a lot of the static around marriage is that it means different things to different people, and we haven't really resolved whether the state or (a) church has the ultimate authority to decide who gets married. I think there should be all kinds of different "official" household arrangements that involve benefits to the extent that there is a real commitment. Why focus on who is in which bed instead of on "Golden Girls" type roommate arrangements and the like?

  9. Dreamybee – Natasha's question originally inspired the post, but your comment gave me an angle and perspective, so thank you for that :-)! And I think this isn't the first time one of your comments has led into a post here, so please keep 'em coming!

    I think that to some extent, separation of church and state is what makes this possible – these marriages are recognized within a particular church, but not by any state.

    Jessica – That "invitation" must have been quite an interesting conversation!

    I think that the fact that the polygamous relationships in question here DO usually involve children – I know of one sect that tried to make a rule limiting sex to procreation only (good luck enforcing that one) – makes the questions here about more than personal lifestyle.

    The more I think about this issue, the happier I am that this is NOT something I have to deal with in my own life!

  10. I'm picturing a Venn diagram of state- and church-approved marriages. A church could approve of marriages that met state laws, but with extra strictures, such as covenant marriages. The state could approve of all sorts of marriages objected to by various churches, and the churches would respond by not recognizing them or shunning the offending church member. In turn churches would have to expect that church-recognized "marriages" that violated the laws of the state would be prosecuted.

  11. Jessica – Ouch. Trying to picture that makes my head hurt – but it does illustrate just how complicated this whole issue is.