Sister Wives and others’ lives

“Many people do not approve of plural families…we hope that in time all of our neighbors and fellow citizens will come to respect our own choices as part of this wonderful country of different faiths and beliefs.” — Kody Brown

Last month, Utah struck down a ban on “cohabitation”, making it legal to have multiple wives1 in one household. The suit was brought by the stars of Sister Wives, the TLC reality show which follows five adults living in what they refer to as a “celestial plural marriage”: Meri,2 Janelle, Christine, and Robyn, together with their shared husband Kody Brown (and their combined 17 children). “Many people do not approve of plural families…we hope that in time all of our neighbors and fellow citizens will come to respect our own choices as part of this wonderful country of different faiths and beliefs,” Kody said.

Countering Brown’s plea, Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention stated, “This is what happens when marriage becomes about the emotional and sexual wants of adults, divorced from the needs of children for a mother and a father committed to each other for life.”

If marriage is supposed to solely be about raising children, then maybe that would be valid benchmark, but marriage is decidedly not just about children and mothers and fathers, no matter what religious advocates may say. My marriage, and plenty of others I’ll wager, is about my emotional and physical needs. It’s about companionship, about muddling through life with a partner. It’s a nuanced relationship, not a binary MOM|DAD parenting structure. A couple married without children isn’t simply a marriage between two parents-to-be. Marriage is between two adults, and whether or not they are parents already or may become parents later is completely irrelevant according to the law. You can get married if you’re infertile,3 or if you don’t want children, or are terminally ill, or elderly–the list goes on and on.4 Children can impact a marriage, but at least in my life, even if we have a child,5 our marriage is about the two people who signed the license. Marriage isn’t parenting. They’re two different things, even though I suspect there’s some Venn Diagram-like overlap. It doesn’t matter if the Browns are raising 17 children together, or seven, or zero; their marriage is still their marriage.

As far as other people’s marriages and beliefs go, I like to think that I’m the person Kody Brown already has rooting for his family. I like to think I’m open to the “live and let live” philosophy of life. Respecting other people’s choices and beliefs? Sure! If I see someone out there living in a way that I tooootally would never ever live, I like to think that I’m all “Hey, whatever works, man.” I even read Becoming Sister Wives: The Story of an Unconventional Marriage, a memoir penned by the Browns. Now, I read it to better understand their lives and the reasons they live the way they do, but in all honesty, I suggested it to my book club because we were looking for something we could all have some sort of nuanced opinion about…and also because, come on! A book about polygamy! I wanted to go into it non-judgmentally, but I really didn’t. Of course, the book didn’t help me get over my eyebrow raising since a quarter of it was taken up by a chapter on “sorority” or, as I like to refer to it, the “having sister wives is truly awful and we are all miserable together” chapter.

But putting my complete review of this book aside, the thing that makes me stop and pause about the whole topic is the idea that it seems… totally terrible to me—psychologically damaging, even. Or at the very least, it sounds like a living hell of women being catty6 and all up in my business. And yet, people–adults–choose this for themselves and stick with it, often for their whole lives. This terrifies me because if I have a kid, eventually he/she is going to become an adult.

So, what if my future kid wants to be a polygamist? What if she decides she wants to be a sister wife? What if he7 wants to take several wives and go live in Utah and cohabitate? I cheered when DOMA was struck down, but what about this? Shouldn’t I feel just as happy that now people in Utah can live their lives as consenting adults as they see fit? Shouldn’t I be pleased that they can make and live with their own choices?

The thing for me to do is to cheer that consenting adults win the day over boxed-in mindsets about what marriage should be, however, I, frankly, find it difficult. I think about what would happen if my future kid decided she wanted to be a sister wife. “Please reconsider,” I know I would say, trying to reel her back in and “talk her down” from it. And in the same breath, if my child ever came out to me, I’d be supportive to the point of smothering. I’d sew my baby a smothering quilt of supportiveness.

Crap. I am totally not equally supportive at all.

I guess it all comes down to trying to remember that just because I find something unappealing and confusing, it’s still ultimately the right of these people—at least according to Utah–to do what they do unimpeded. If they truly want to be in that relationship, with all of the flaws that we can speculate about from the outside, then that’s their call.8 But maybe I don’t need to understand their marriage at all to justify it. It sounds perfectly dreadful to me…but then so do peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Or having 19 kids.

Man, even trying to be a good future supportive parent is hard. Can you truly be supportive of your children’s choices if you also think they’re terrible, horrible, no-good very bad choices? If it’s not a sister-wife choice, there are bound to be other equivalents. But there’s not much I can do about it beyond thinking about it and hoping that, when the inevitable perceived Adult Bad Life Choice happens, I’ll be there, at least trying to sew that support quilt.9 Because ultimately, those choices are part of being an adult, even if they end up creating tension or distance among loved ones. A “sister wife” is an adult woman making a choice about her life, and I’m trying to remember that when the temptation to raise an eyebrow strikes. I’m sure in my future there are many raised eyebrows ahead, but I hope I don’t ever stop rooting for legal adults to be allowed to make their own legal adult choices.

Photo by: bradleygee

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  1. Not to be confused with bigamy; there may still only be one legal wife in the marriage, but multiple women living with a man is no longer illegal. 
  2. Kody’s first and only legal wife. 
  3. Hi! 
  4. Though not long enough in some states. 
  5. Things post-IVF look good, but I’m not counting on anything to be definite just yet. 
  6. No, not all women together in a group means there’s going to be cattiness; the situation presented in the memoir, however, seemed to depict this particular outcome. 
  7. Or she. 
  8. Even in a reality TV show, I suspect that the only people who will ever truly know how things work is the people in the marriage. That goes for every marriage. I may never truly “get” it. 
  9. I hope. Maybe. Unless it’s a really, really bad choice. Then I can just clip their wings tell them they aren’t allowed to “adult” yet, right? 
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Hayley DeRoche

Hayley DeRoche is a librarian with a penchant for cardigans and corduroys. Luckily, her professional life revolves more around technology & information than fashion.

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