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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
michelle October 21, 2010, 8:53 AM

This is just an extreme case of what religious people of all stripes do every day: justify their unethical behavior by hiding behind religion. These people are not that different from other fundamentalist Christians.

Anon October 21, 2010, 9:43 AM

@Michelle - religion can also protect people from abuse. For most fundamentalist women, they are supposed to give in to their husband, but the religion imposes limits on his sexual behavior. This gives them some freedom and power.

Anonymous October 21, 2010, 9:48 AM

I wonder how much choice these women have? His first wife was raised to believe that this was right and that women should get over their feelings, not men. I think she may also have been raised to believe that men should be the bosses. She got married relatively young.

Now I don’t think the women are completely free to leave him. Who owns the house they all live in? Do any of the women have any savings of their own? How much do they earn? They all have children and I think one of them has six kids. They might not need Cody’s money because the women support each other, but one woman alone might not be able to afford to leave. I don’t think anyone but his first wife would have any rights to support from Cody if she left. Even if she could get child support, does he have enough to support all those kids? So I think they may be stuck even worse than your ordinairy housewife.

Seth R. October 21, 2010, 3:30 PM

There’s a lot of condescension being thrown around here for these people.

Also, it seems to me rather naive of you all to assume that a family selected for a REALITY SHOW would actually be representative of the majority of a population.

Ummm…. hello? Were you guys born yesterday? Since when have TV reality shows been particularly known for portraying actual reality. Only the most ignorant viewers today remain unaware that TV producers of reality shows deliberately select participants based on how much drama they are going to generate over the course of a season.

Of course they aren’t going to pick a well-adjusted polygamist family for us to watch. They’re going to pick one that, in their judgment, is all set to explode in an entertaining fashion.

This is a complete “no-duh.”

Now, if you are interested, there’s a podcast interview someone did with anthropologist Janet Bennion, who is the foremost expert on North American polygamy, and spent a few years living with polygamist families in Montana. She presents a view of American polygamy that does not shy away from the real abuses going on, but presents a much more nuanced and complex picture than the one-sided and highly prejudiced comments happening here.

And no - I do not advocate for or support polygamy. Nor do I have any wish to practice it.

Seth R. October 21, 2010, 3:32 PM

Sorry, I didn’t provide a link to that interview. Here:

http://mormonstories.org/?p=1000

Loretta October 21, 2010, 8:46 PM

I have researched a lot on the polygamist Fundamentalist Mormons…
This is what I’ve learned

1) There is a lot of abuse involved in this lifestyle.

2) Since only the first wife is “legally” married to the husband, the subsequent “wives” and children receive government aid since they are considered “single” mothers by the State.

3) The thick community ties in these communities (usually they live in communities that are 90+ percent polygamists) so it is almost impossible for a woman to leave/divorce her husband without having to flee the community, too.

KS October 21, 2010, 9:26 PM

I would never chose to live like this and I would not chose a spouse like Kody. However, all of these women have. They all have the option of leaving the marriage and making a life without the family support.

I could harp all night on what I feel is not ideal about their situation. Then again I’m sure there are countless hours of normal day to day family footage that isn’t dramatic enough to make it on the air.

These women chose to live this life with thier husband. It is no bed of roses as we have see. Yet none of them are asking any of us to suffer the consequences of their decisions.

I am no fan of polygamy and I thought your article was insightful and well written. Then again I don’t think this family is the worst evil to walk this earth either. Kody will have to deal with his immaturity one day and he may wind up alone when that happens.

a real sister wife October 23, 2010, 8:48 AM

I am in a polygamous relationship, and not for any religious reasons - we are people of faith, but not Mormons. We do it because it works for us, and we are happy. If you want to check out my new blog site, http://www.polygrrl.com there are more details there, and I promise to update it very soon with what it has been like to add our very recent 4th “wife” (none of us are legally married).

It is a valid lifestyle choice. I know it is hard for some to understand, and it wasn’t something I sought out myself - I thought long and hard about getting into it, but both my “husband” and his first “wife” were such attractive people that I couldn’t say no. It is hard sometimes, but so is everything… and I have way more support for everything I do than I would in a monogamous relationship.

anon October 24, 2010, 3:16 PM

@anon - What do you think of Dr. Golland’s suggestion that polygamy might be more painful for you as you age? In other words, that later on, your “husband” might add more, younger wives and pay more attention to them than to you?

I noticed in your blog that you said you all let your “husband” lead you because you trust him and seem to see him as a spiritual leader. Would you have the right to tell him you don’t want any more wives? Do you have any say in who he “marries”?

Also, why can’t you have close female friends or even housemates who support you instead of sister wives?

And do you have any children yet? Do you think that will change things for all of you?

anon October 24, 2010, 3:21 PM

Sorry, I meant to say @a real sister wife.

Anonymous October 24, 2010, 3:28 PM

@Seth R. - I think this family was carefully selected to be one that looks good. They are all older, no abuse, and he has been with three of his wives for a long time. They look normal and have jobs. So whatever reality TV wants, I think the family or their community tried to chose someone better than normal. The fact that they still can’t hide the real problems of their lifestyle says a lot. Although I think almost anyone’ family will implode if you put them on national TV. In this case, maybe that’s a good thing.

Betty October 25, 2010, 4:37 AM

Mick,

I think you should be honest about this history before you attack someone else.

Joseph Smith “had a revelation” AFTER his wife threw her maid out of the house because she was pregnant by her husband. He told the wives of other men that God said they were his. He “married” a 14 year old, who later wrote that what she experienced was sexual abuse. He went through something like 30 women in TWO YEARS. Then Bring Em Young, a megolomaniac, widened the practice, bringing other men into it to share the blame. That’s all well documented history, much of the “geneology” documented by LDS historians. Anybody who thinks that God was telling Smith to take multiple wives is REALLY, REALLY gullible, or just wants to believe that God has ordered what is most fun for him. The fact that anyone ever gets a woman to believe this totally amazes me.

Betty October 25, 2010, 4:56 AM

Aliomaley,

I agree that no one is horse whipping them to get them to agree. But choice is not as clear as it might seem. If you believe that your closeness to God is based on your willingness to subjugate yourself in this manner, then are you really choosing this or are you choosing to value your relationship with God over your own needs? The fourth wife comes from the Hildale/Colorado City area and was raised in and around polygamy. What choice does she have if she was raised to see women as property? What choice do Islamic women have who were raised to believe that extra wives are a man’s right and only he can request a divorce?

This is NOT equal and open polyamory. I think a lot of libertarians and liberals think that’s what this is; it is not at all and Kody stated that quite clearly. He sees exclusive sexual rights as his birth right and anything else as an abomination; and he sees that his wives because of their gender have absolutely no right to the same thing. If one of his wives had an affair and got just a little bit of the fun and power Kody has all the time, she would be called an adulteress by him and their whole religious community and be out on the sidewalk so fast her head would spin. Then it would be up to her to sue (without the documentation of marriage) for what she had contributed in 20 years of marriage. Often times when a woman leaves these relationships, she loses custody of her children or is suddenly a single mother (of 6!).

It is inherently unequal and demeaning to the women. I’m not going to argue for the right of all women to chose to be slaves, that’s not what America is about!

S October 25, 2010, 7:52 AM

For the New Testament Scriptural reference on polygamy and Christianity, see the following from 1 Corinthians 7 : 1 - 2 -
Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry. But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.

DANNI October 25, 2010, 10:39 AM

DOES ANYONE KNOW WHY THE SHOW WAS NOT ON LAST NIGHT?

A Bible Student October 26, 2010, 11:36 AM

Read the truth about polygamy in the new book: The Great Omission (Christendom’s Abandonment of the Biblical Family)

This book presents twenty years of study, taking a candid look at the issue of multiple wives in Scripture and society.

ISBN-10: 1-934251-71-2

Me October 31, 2010, 9:40 PM

I just have one question on this topic. Is there a shortage of men in UTAH???? This is ignorance on so many levels!!

Joni November 21, 2010, 12:09 PM

This show actually makes me sick for the women especially Meri when he was leaving to go see his then fiance Robyn she looked so sad as he said goodbye to her. I could never ever ever be second best. I just dont know how these women can live like this. Id be so jealous constantly thinking he liked one better and was having better sex with them. I can guarrantee he is having the best sex with Robyn.

shadey November 21, 2010, 9:34 PM

Kody’s dirty dingy has been in all them hoes! what a nasty lifestyle!!!

crickett November 26, 2010, 1:28 PM

Have these women given any thought to how nasty it is to taste each others private parts,Im sure they have heardthe term sloppy seconds, Meri should think what Kodys response meant when she asked about role reversle,, How stupid could these women be,ohand Janele probably doesnt get any now You know Kody said no romance their bestfriends. what bullshit.


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