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TLC's 'Sister Wives': The High Price of Polygamy

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Dr. Michelle Golland: During the "twenty-year wedding anniversary" episode of "Sister Wives," the pain that wife number one, Meri, was feeling was palpable. This was caused by Kody Brown, her husband, showing his giddy affection for young wife number four, Robin, who is just joining the family. Meri has been married to Kody for twenty years.

Robyn Sullivan and Christine, Kody, Meri, and Janelle Brown

"Sister Wives," the TLC series that is shining a spotlight on the polygamist culture (well, at least at one polygamist family, anyway), has been in a bit of trouble lately. The authorities are investigating the family for felony bigamy; Meri was fired from her job for exposing this part of her life on television

Of course, TLC won't be addressing the amount of child sexual abuse that goes on in polygamist culture, or the forced marriages of young women which are performed in order to create family alliances, with no regard for the emotional state of the girls involved. (The polygamist Kingston Group of Utah became infamous in 1998 when a 15-year-old girl accused her father of forcing her to become her uncle's fifteenth wife.)

These issues won't be addressed during the show; they would be more appropriate for a "serious" documentary. But I find it strange that the show doesn't discuss the "whys" of polygamy, and its history. When I watch the show, I believe there's an elephant in the room that nobody is addressing. What is the elephant? The inherent discrimination and one-down position that this lifestyle places on the women.

The reason that polygamy is part of the Fundamentalist Mormon faith in the first place is that Joseph Smith, Mormonism's founding prophet, felt especially close to the Old Testament. He believed that his mission was to restore Old and New Testament traditions, such as the authority of prophets, temple rituals and the ancient Semitic custom of plural marriage. In 1833, Smith combined polygamy with the idea that a man gained higher status in his next life based on the quantity of wives and offspring he had in this life. Smith said he had a revelation from God that he was to take numerous wives and bear as many children as possible, and that if he did so, he would be closer to God and be "exalted" -- the highest form of salvation in the Mormon heaven. Joseph Smith had thirty-three documented wives, some as young as 14. Brigham Young had fifty-six wives, some also as young as 14.

What "Sister Wives" is attempting to do is normalize the polygamist lifestyle. The problem is that there is an inherent inequality between the men and the women who are in these "marriages". Of course, these sister wives are adults who are choosing to live this lifestyle; nobody in this show is being held against her will. However, it is well-documented that forced polygamy does occur in the polygamist culture. As a mental health professional, I see how these women try to heal their emotional wounds. They are setting themselves up for what I believe to be loss, pain and rejection as they age. This is something they can't predict, because it will happen gradually over time.

It is sad to watch Meri, who has been with Kody for twenty years, clearly being jealous of the new wife coming into the family. She was pleading with him, angry and tearful at times, trying to express to him her struggles with the lifestyle, wanting him to understand her jealousy and her large compromise in living as a polygamist. While watching her cry to Kody about her feelings of rejection, I couldn't help but imagine that as she gets older and older and becomes less and less sexually attractive (and less of Kody's attention and time is given to her), she will be in even deeper pain. Kody will continue to feel enlivened and excited by his new "spiritual connections," while the sister wives -- from the moment they marry him -- are on a downward trajectory away from the time and attention of the man they love and have committed themselves to and had children with.

At one point, Meri turns the table on Kody and asks him how he would feel if she were to be sleeping with another man or kissing another man. His unequivocal response was rather stern and bewildered: "Obviously, that's just not something I am even comfortable imagining," he said. "The vulgarity of you with another man or lover sickens me." That response shows exactly why Meri will never be able to feel she is his equal; as she ages, he will continue to get younger and younger wives, and she will be pushed further and further out of the intimacy dynamic. 

I believe this jealousy and rejection will turn into more and more anger, because what Meri is feeling now will only be compounded over time. The "newer, younger wife" will continually replace her and the others. These issues are seen by Kody and the sister wives as being some sort of spiritual weakness that must be dealt with by the women. This sets them up to believe that their natural feelings of jealousy after being pushed aside by their husband for another woman is in some way abnormal.

When Kody acts giddy and childlike around wife number four, you can see how it seriously annoys the other wives. They feel left out, ignored and less-than. You can see it on their faces. It is new and exciting and allows Kody to experience romantic love all over again. It was disturbing, to say the least, to see him kiss wife number four while he was heading to the hospital to be with his third wife, Christine, as she delivered his fourteenth child.

While watching Kody at different moments during the show, I saw a man who is self-centered and revels in the attention bestowed upon him by his multiple wives. The moment that showed his immature and selfish side most was when he revealed that he had "chosen" Robyn's wedding dress because he had felt left out when the other sister wives went with her to pick her dress. He betrayed Robyn (who had wanted to keep that a secret) and made the other wives feel jealous, hurt and confused. To his credit, he did repair this with an apology, but I couldn't help but notice a side of him that just can't get enough attention.

I guess it's a good thing Kody Brown has four wives to shower him with all the attention he needs. My question is, how can his wives truly believe they will be able to receive the love and attention they need from their husband? What all the "sister wives" seem to agree on is that having multiple wives to help raise the children and provide Kody with emotional and sexual attention is a true benefit of the polygamist lifestyle. I just think that psychologically, there is a very high price to pay.

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63 comments so far | Post a comment now
Annonymous October 20, 2010, 2:24 PM

Thanks for exposing the pain and injustice that polygamy causes for women. My heart aches for Meri having to compete with another woman for attention on her 20th wedding anniversary.

Meri, if you’re reading this, I’d like to tell you that there is nothing like having the love of a good man who loves only you. A man who is in your bed every night telling you he loves you, a man who calls you beautiful and kisses you goodbye, and most of all a man you don’t have to wait to have every fourth day. I hope doing this show helps you to see what you are sacrificing for this man. You are still young enough to find another man who will love you if you get out now.

My heart aches for the other sister wives, too, denying their hearts and trying to convince themselves that they don’t mind sharing a man.

I do not believe that God would have wanted the wives to suffer the way they have suffered when Cody brought home his new wife. I think Cody mistook lust and excitement over a new romance for a leading from God.

Anonymous Again October 20, 2010, 2:32 PM

I disagree with only one thing in this excellent article. It is not a good thing for Cody to have four wives to shower him with attention.

1) It is spiritually damaging for him. Oppressing other people always damages your soul. From a Christian point of view, you are called to love others as yourself - you can’t do this if you don’t want your wife to kiss another man but she has to watch you kiss three other women.

2) Cody is not having to grow up. Part of being a grown up is not getting everything you want and putting other people first.

3) Cody is not learning about the kind of love that comes from devoting yourself to one person. He is actually missing something by having so many wives.

4) Cody is being encouraged to fool himself that getting what he wants is a leading from God. Again, this is bad for him spiritually.

Sister wives, if by any chance you come across this, you are not helping Cody by letting him have what he wants. This is really, really bad for his spiritual development.

Jancis M. Andrews October 20, 2010, 3:38 PM

Why refer to Kody the Copulator’s women as wives? Only the first woman is his wife, the rest are merely concubines in his harem. What these foolish women seem not to understand is that they have put themselves and their children at risk of extreme poverty. Only the legal wife and her children are entitled to benefit from this selfish little man’s health insurance, dental insurance, life insurance, pensions, etc. The rest are on their own. God help them if they and their children develop a serious health problem. God help all the children later on when they require Kody’s help in paying huge university fees. Kody is enjoying a bounteous sex-fest, while his wife and concubines are deprived and have to line up and wait their turn Why do they degrade themselves in this way? Polygamy comes from the dark ages and Kody the Copulator is using them for his own supremely selfish ends. These women should wake up and smell the coffee. The year is 2010 AD, not 2010 BC.

Katie October 20, 2010, 3:50 PM

Yes, I have been curious about this show. But the whole thing of polygamy gives me such icky feelings I have chosen not to watch it. I can not tell any person how to live their lives but I really, really don’t agree with polygamy, again with the icky feeling

Jayanna October 20, 2010, 4:31 PM

I am puzzled as to why these women feel that they need to overcome their natural feelings of jealousy. Why and how does sharing a husband make you a better person and on a higher plane of existence? I could not get over the “pig in s@*t” look on Brown’s face and his obvious lust for #4 while the other 3 insisted that the wedding was a wonderful occasion for all. Also unanswered - what of Robyn’s children’s father? Did he just give his 3 kids to Brown to add to his collection? Brown’s selfishness can’t be disguised by his “hey, how’s it goin?” boyish/adolescent me, me me attitude. Why the wives go along with it is a mystery to me.

Anoymous October 20, 2010, 4:31 PM

This is an awful show. This is against all of what GOD had in store for women. You women are degrading yourselves and the rest of us. Cody is an awful awful disgusting man. Wow, 4 women different times whenever he pleases and those women have to wait their turn. I think he is such a horrible man.

Terri K (@tkharmonic) October 20, 2010, 5:04 PM

I have so many opinions about this show and these people that I don’t even know where to start. It’s morbidly fascinating to me, though not the sort of thing I usually watch.

First, a very small correction, I think Christine’s latest birth was his 13th child. I remember them talking about how the date was the 13th and it would be the 13th child as one of the reasons they wanted to go ahead and induce that day.

Second, it makes sense that Kody is a salesman, because I totally see him selling himself to these women. I don’t like him, polygamist or not, and find it difficult to understand why one woman would want to marry him, let alone four women.

Third, and this is a point I’ve made elsewhere on the internet and don’t see anyone else making: I think the benefits the women get from this arrangement are the same benefits people used to get just a few generations ago when it was common for extended family to live in one home and uncommon for many women to work outside the home (think the Waltons when Mary Ellen and Curt lived in the house with all the Walton kids, parents and grandparents).

To me, these women are like a support group for each other trying to learn how to be happy with less than they deserve. It’s very troubling to me, on a number of levels.

When Meri said without the polygamy, they’d only be a family of three, my immediate thought was that if she’d had a husband in her bed every single night instead of every third night she might have been able to conceive more children. I think I feel most sorry for her, because she grew up in a polygamist family and I think that’s heartbreaking for kids to grow up believing it’s right to accept such a dimished role and then passing that low expectation to more generations of children.

Often today as women age, men leave them for younger wives and I see the parallel here, but divorced women don’t have the new wife in their face on a regular basis. For me, the idea of sharing a man under any circumstances is unacceptable and humiliating, for these women it seems to be acceptable and humiliating.

Instead of needing to be showered with attention, I think what Kody needs is to be neutered.

DrQxx October 20, 2010, 6:02 PM

And now a guys perspective. I would love to legalize prostitution and polygamy. One of my founding principle is to, “Not get in the way of others fun”. If him and his wifes or boyfriends are cool with it. Then more power to him. I have a women if I had another I would kill my self. -DrQxx

p.s. I am not for anyone being forced into something they don’t want, @ any age.

Anonymous October 20, 2010, 7:05 PM

it is a sin to have more than one wife

Anonymous 2 October 20, 2010, 7:24 PM

The only person polygamy ever benefits if you want to call it that is the man. One thing I have never understood is why any man needs to have 13 children or 19 children i.e. the other show. If children are such a blessing why not adopt children already in the world whose parents don’t think they are such a blessing?

mick October 20, 2010, 7:49 PM

By way of correction, Joseph Smith received numerous revelations during his life. One of those, which was indeed received due to pondering and asking God for further understanding about David, did deal with polygamy

However, he never indicated that salvation was dependent upon living this principle. Nor was bearing “as many children as possible” EVER part of his teachings.

Dramatizing history may be good for your google rankings, but it is shoddy at best and dishonest at worst.

Katlyn October 20, 2010, 9:23 PM

Robyn is bursting with joy and relishing in Meri, Christine, and Janelle’s jealousy. I think Meri will end up divorcing Kody. Robyn will have a gizillion kids and have a vagina that they will be able to walk out of. But oh well because it seems like a good idea now. Someone needs to support her and her kids(sarcasm). It seems like she has been needing some time for herself and wanted attention. I like hearing Christine’s blunt point of view. I wonder if Kody still has sex with Janelle? I thought she was pregnant for a long time… Meri is too mature for everyone.

Scott October 20, 2010, 9:27 PM

Meri was not limited to the number of kids she was able to bear because of polygamy or limited nights. She clearly stated that she has only be pregnant twice in their 20 year marriage. That is not a matter of every third night, that is just life. Sometimes people just aren’t able to have kids, it has nothing to do with polygamy.

Anonymous October 20, 2010, 9:29 PM

Can you point out where in scripture it says that polygamy is a sin?

We All Have Our Own Choices October 20, 2010, 11:44 PM

Maybe this isn’t the ideal or perfect situation, but being realistic, there aren’t a whole lot of ideal or perfect marriages or relationships out there. We hardly bat an eye now if someone has a child out of wedlock or has a family of children with various fathers/mothers. It’s not uncommon to divorce twice or thrice in a lifetime. Looking at this polygamist family, it seems that the real problem isn’t the polygamy, it’s the fact that, after 15 years of the 3 wives living together and being used to each other and truly like sisters in a family, the husband is now bringing in a young wife that has not had the history and bonding time that the others have had. He did make a mistake in bringing in a new wife after so many years. However, I’m not sure that having the three wives within the first 5 years caused all that much trouble. My husband and I have both been married before and both of our marriages ended in disaster because of our exes’ bad decisions, but just the same, there has been jealousy in our relationship because of the former spouses and the children that we brought in from those relationships. This is very common. It doesn’t matter if the spouses are simultaneous or one after another, or even if you are just married once in your life, but jealous of other people who get attention like coworkers or extended family, humans are jealous creatures and there will always be jealousy of some kind. I don’t think jealousy alone is a good reason not to support polygamy. I do think that in any marriage, though, you do need to employ some common sense and deference to the feelings of others.

Anonymous October 21, 2010, 6:48 AM

@Dr. Qxxx - I think it’s important to remember that Cody’s marriage is not about fun for everyone. It’s about men are the boss and if they want more wives, the women have to adjust. As far as he’s concerned, the idea of his wife kissing another man is crude and disgusting. These women are stuck in a way that even most conservative women wouldn’t have to put up with. At least conservatives say that a man should love his wife and treat her well and forsake all otehrs.

Anonymous October 21, 2010, 6:56 AM

@other anonymous re: scripture.
To me the fact that Jesus says “Thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself” is an argument against polygamy. If you aren’t willing to share your wife, you shouldn’t make her share you.
I think most people point to the place in the Bible where Jesus says marriage is between one man and one woman. He also says that if the man divorces her and marries someone else, he is committing adultery. That implies that you can’t have more than one wife.
I believe there are a couple of other places in the New Testament where someone says having more than one wife is bad.
Although there is polygamy in the Old Testament, by the time of Jesus, Judaism had turned to monogamy.
However, for me the Spirit of what Jesus says is more important that the Law. I think Cody is very much turned away from God and has learned that as a man he gets to do what he wants.

Anonymous October 21, 2010, 7:07 AM

@Scott - I think if you have any kind of fertility problems, then you would be better off in a monogamous relationship.

Because she sleeps with him every third day, the chances that he will have sex with her when she is ovulating go down.

Because he is sleeping with other women, his sperm count is lower when he gets to her. I would assume that there are even times when he is just not in the mood for sex every night, so she might miss her chance to have sex when she is ovulating.

Anonymous October 21, 2010, 7:14 AM

One of the things I like about monogamy is that there’s so much less jealousy. I might feel a twinge every now and then, but ultimately, I know my husband loves me the best and is not sleeping with anybody else. It’s pretty easy to overcome any thoughts about women at his office or his dreams and even laugh at myself. That’s nothing compared to what these women have to deal with.

Aliomaley October 21, 2010, 8:07 AM

We all have to remember that these women are choosing this lifestyle. It is hard to feel bad for them. Personally the whole idea is creepy, and Kody must have some serious Mommy issues.

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