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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
Utah native June 2, 2011, 5:10 PM

Why would the Brown family go on television committinga felony? The police had NO choice but to investigate, particularly after the while Warren Jeffs nightmare. Authorities had to be sure that the children are safe and I feel that they are. The fact that they choose to skulck out of Utah like they were so unfairly persecuted is ridiculous. If polygamy was always prosecuted family courts would be hopping. The mainstream Mormon church does not practice or endorse polygamy. The Brown’s have done nothing to dispell that myth; thanks guys. I will say this however, if we are forced to accept LGBT relationships, why IS polygamy illegal unless children are harmed?

DEB June 11, 2011, 10:03 AM

I see nothing wrong with the life they lead. Yes not all polygamists live this way but I watch the show and I see nobody being abused. I see well adjusted and well behaved children. So please leave your negative comments for the polygamists that deserve it

Kelly Jones  June 13, 2011, 10:56 PM

Even if they “chose” this lifestyle in the beginning, it is obvious that for Meri as she gets older, her views, thoughts and feelings have changed! Everytime I watched an episode where Cody drives around in his little “Lexus” two-seater sportscar I get pissed off. He is definately having the time of his “immature” life. While the sister wives drive vans and older model vehicles he’s roaring around like a teenager in heat.

I wish the women and children the very best…as for Cody, well I won’t say what I wish for him!


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