Sunday, December 22, 2013

Chapter 13: A Love and Commitment Not to be Feared

Blogger's Note:  Below is an excerpt from the book I co-authored with
Philip L. Kilbride, entitled "Plural Marriage for Our Times:  A Re-
invented Option? Second Edition," published by Praeger, Santa
Barbara, California, August 2012.  In light of the recent decision
by Federal Judge Clark Waddoups over the case made by "Sister
Wives" television star Kody Brown and his four wives, this chapter
is presented as the debate in the United States about marriage,
especially plural ones, continues as well as all unions considered
different, perhaps even outside the norm, to traditional,
heterosexual, monogamous marriage, are questioned.

"A Love not to be Feared"

It must be the times in which we live.  Because it strikes us as
odd that it is easier for people to accept divorce than it is for them to
support plural marriage. 

We base this thought on the many conversations the co-author
has had with people when he’s told them about this book.  Their
reactions have included the following:  “Why would anyone want
plural marriage?  They abuse women and children?”  “If people hate
their wives or their husbands, just get divorced.  Don’t add a spouse.”
“There’s a reason we have divorce.  So people can end bad mar-
riages.”  “No woman wants more than one husband.”  “Men don’t
know how to live with one wife.  They don’t need two – or more!”
“Plural marriage?  That’s a little out there.”

Maybe it’s because so many people have been touched by
divorce in the last 30 years that the idea of marital break up is found to
be more comforting and easier to accept than the idea of plural marriage.

Or perhaps Americans just casually accept the idea of marital failure.
It’s just a matter of time, some people might say silently to themselves,
before a couple they know, including themselves, whose wedding they
may have attended, wind up sitting in a court room and asking
a judge to end their marriage.

Perhaps this acceptance is part of the fall out from the divorce
culture, which Barbara Dafoe Whitehead warned about many
years ago.[i]  In fact, in a recent survey by the Gallup Organization,
in 2008, it was learned that 70 percent of all adults found divorce
“morally acceptable.”[ii]   As for children, more than 23 million
are growing up in a household headed by either a single or divorced
parent, the Census Bureau reports.[iii]  In light of much evidence that
divorce is harmful for children perhaps that is why Americans want
children raised in intact, two-parent families.

According to the last Census, there were more than 24 million
divorced adults in the United States and there were more than
another 75 million adults who were never married, which means
the country now has around 100 million adults who are single
or divorced.  That’s about 41 percent of all adults.[iv]

So what’s better, going all out to keep marriage as it is – an institution
solely for two people, with, perhaps, a minor change, allowing two
people who share the same gender to marry – or expanding marital
opportunities so children living in single-parent houses have an
opportunity to grow up under improved
economic circumstances? 

To us, the latter, while certainly a controversial idea for a society
that outwardly claims to be monogamous, is the better idea.  It
improves children’s chances, giving them better childhoods, and
more likely turning them into healthy, educated, well-adjusted adults.
The former – standing on ceremony on behalf of monogamy – dim-
inishes many children’s prospects for the future.

The difficulty most Americans have in accepting plural marriage is
that they keep returning to the model they have seen too often on
television or read about in newspapers or magazines:  It’s an abusive
system – with adults marrying children – and puts far too much power
in the hands of a patriarch. 

We are suggesting people look upon plural marriage with a new
set of eyes – as a much more equitable system of marriage that allows
not only men to have plural spouses but also women, too, legally of
course.  We are proposing this so to recognize what already exists
often in the shadows of criminalization and secrecy.  We favor a
system whereby children grow up with at least two parents, providing
them with the guidance they so need and require with
the benefits of public legality.
And, indeed, based on the economics we know, as shown in an
earlier chapter, married women are in a stronger economic position
when compared to all other women of all other marital statuses.
That means that married women beat out – financially at least –
their single and divorced counterparts.  Since many single and never
married women, especially those in their 20s, are giving birth and
bringing up children, isn’t there a way we can offer many of
them an improved financial position, not only for them but also
for their children?  We believe there is by expanding marital
options through plural marriage.

Based on the latest information from the U.S. Census Bureau,
the United States is teetering on the threshold of having more
single than married adults.  As it is, fewer than half of all adults
are married and living with their spouses.  The traditional
outlook on marriage – something that is only for two people
of the opposite gender – does not appear to be the solution that
is going to increase the ranks of the married anytime in the near
future.  So it is best that we consider and debate – and hopefully
make legal – the option of plural marriage as described in this

In a legal, plural marriage, as law professor Adrienne Davis has
outlined, there is a means by which marital assets can be equit-
ably broken up.  She suggests that plural marriages be guided by
partnership law, which is similar to how some states, California
especially, divide assets in a marital breakup.

Plural marriage works for some and doesn’t work for others in
the same way that monogamous marriage works for some but
not for others.  “It depends” is our principle based on a strong
empirical research often in more than one culture or nation.
By saying “it depends,” we’re saying that some people have
the partners, personality, means and lifestyle to make
plural marriage – and even monogamous marriage – suc-
cessful while others do not.

Many studies show younger Americans and Europeans are
less committed to marriage than previous generations.  Kil-
bride finds college students, overall, to be keenly aware
of the disruptions caused by divorce.  As a result of these
experiences, few seem willing to defend the status quo of
heterosexual, monogamous marriage – in American family culture.
What does this mean for the future of marriage?


Polygamy today remains a stigmatized practice despite
much more public knowledge about it.  But the strange-
ness of polygamy is, in fact, not so strange when com-
pared to many another cultural practices.

Consider this for example:   “For some Japanese men, 
body pillow girlfriends based on comic book characters now
take the place of the real thing.”[v]  Lisa Katayama writes
that in Japan, where 25 percent of men between ages 30-34
are virgins, their difficulties in coping with modern romantic life
may explain why they turn to life-size dolls.  One informant
told Katayama that he, “knows it’s weird for a grown man
to be so obsessed with a video game character… ‘when I
die I want to be buried with her in my arms.”[vi]  Anthro-
pology students tell Kilbride that using dolls as romantic
partners is spreading across the United States.

In fact, there’s a company, based in California, called
“Real Doll.” Google it.  You’ll get the idea, fast!

In our view, marriage in its many forms is preferable to
otaku-like substitutes, especially from a child-centered
perspective.  For example, since much of the work of
raising children in the world’s cultures is done in the
context of marriage, this practice cannot substitute for 
parenting functions within marriage.   We were struck
by a news account from South Korea about a married
couple so preoccupied with catering to the imaginary
needs of its virtual child that its human baby starved
to death.[vii]

The term “strange,” commonly applied to polygamy,
is in fact, upon cross-cultural examination, including
the observations just considered, not so strange at all.
As we have seen in the book, it is a form of marriage
and family culture that’s widespread today just as it
was in the past.  The attitude, “It depends” also applies
to our opposition to extreme cultural relativism
(the idea that each cultural practice can only be evaluated
in its cultural context).  On this view, “otaku,” a
relationship with a life-size doll, and polygamy, 
are equally valid, enjoying approved status in at
least one culture.  We think marriage, even in its many
forms, is far more preferable to doll substitutes.
Marriage brings people together, which is better
than “making love” to a doll.

The media and entertainment industries play a
significant role in the attitudes the general public
holds toward a number of issues.  Television
shows like “Big Love” and “Sister Wives” as
well as other family-based shows on the air
today, show that family life is far different that
it was in the 1950s and 1960s.

In “Big Love” a man in Utah has three wives who
live in separate houses side by side.  Family life is
made routine to the viewers as issues of sexuality,
work, religion, and morality play out against the
backdrop of life in contemporary America.  “Sister 
Wives” is similar to “Big Love” but is based on
the real lives of a polygynous family, which
recently moved to Nevada. 

On “Big Love,” John Tierney, in The New
York Times, wrote, “The story of a husband with
three wives in Utah will not terrify Americans.
Polygamy does not come off as a barbaric threat to
the country’s moral fabric…not one that could ever
be a dangerous trend in America.”[viii]  He con-
cluded his piece writing, “These three wives …
sound much like the women in polygamous
marriages I’ve talked to in rural Africa…Overall,
they figured it was better to share one prosperous 
husband than to marry someone else without land,
cows, or a job.”[ix]  Tierney notes that polygamy
isn’t necessarily worse than the current American
alternative, divorce and re-marriage, sometimes
referred to as serial monogamy or, as is said
in Africa, “non-simultaneous polygamy.”

The father in “Big Love,” unlike so many fathers
in America, is committed to maintaining his
marriages and relationships with his wives
and children.  How much more in favor of
“family values” can you get than that?

Despite Tierney’s optimism that “Big Love” will
not terrify Americans, the evidence, as of late, is not
encouraging.  A recent, fair and balanced National
Geographic article entitled “The Polygamists”[x] 
aroused primarily negative letters to the editor.

Factual knowledge about polygamy matters as
societies everywhere have a vested interest in a
healthy marriage and family culture.  For those
opposed to marriage in any but one form, they
need to ask themselves that if there is only a
minimal marriage opportunity – heterosexual
monogamy – how will children be reared? 

Although marriage is often difficult, there is strong
evidence that marriage has some significant health
benefits.[xi]  In this extensive survey we learn,
“scientists have continued to document the
‘marriage advantage’; the fact that married people
on average appear to be healthier and live
longer than unmarried people.”[xii]  Studies
show a marriage advantage, for example, in
pneumonia, surgery, cancer, and heart attacks.

People in stressful marriages enjoy no advantage.
An extensive study of men and women in their 50s
and 60s found that, “when the married people became
single again … by divorce … death of a spouse, they
suffered a decline in physical health from which they
never fully recovered.”[xiii]  Remarriage after divorce
helped only some.  Divorce, it appears, often a rou-
tine solution for marital woe, is detrimental and not
only for children.

State government action concerning marriage is very
much in the forefront of public policy today invol-
ving a few states that have legalized same-gender
marriage.  Efforts for a constitutional amendment at
the federal level to prohibit all but heterosexual
monogamy appear to be on the back burner, at
least for now.

University of Chicago Law School Professor Martha
Nussbaum, considered earlier, identifies a number of
issues to be addressed should polygamy be legalized.
She believes that, “Children would have to be protected
so the law would have to make sure that issues such
as maternity/paternity and child support were well
articulated…polygamous unions would…be
difficult to administer – but not impossible with good
will and effort.”[xiv]  For Nussbaum, issues related
to marital dissolution include: property rights after
divorce or death; legal and financial responsibility for
minors and custody rights with divorce; and of course
income tax assessments. 

Nussbaum (2000) proposes a capabilities approach
in evaluating public policy objectives by assessing
quality of life outcomes.  She proposes specific
capabilities as fundamental to human existence, which
would serve as a framework for evaluation and policy.
Her universalist perspective includes, for example, an
expectation for a normal life span, freedom of bodily
movement, and opportunities for social interaction and
having an emotional life without fear and anxiety.
She notes that a capabilities perspective means,
“having the social bases of self-respect and
non-humiliation; being able to be treated as a
dignified being whose worth is equal to that of
others.  This entails provisions of non-
discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual 
orientation, ethnicity, caste, religion, national
origin.”[xv]  Applying Nussbaum’s policy framework
to polygamy in the United States, it is clear that
public policy needs to be directed to improve the
quality of life of those whose pursuit of the good life,
though unconventional, is unnecessarily stigmatized.

The most serious policy issue mentioned by Nussbaum
is likely taxes, already a matter of growing concern in
the United States and around the world.  One of the
letters critical of the polygamy article on FLDS in
the National Geographic mentioned taxes.  The
letter, in part, states,

If an FLDS man has four wives, only
one of them is legally married in the
eyes of the state and federal
government.  The other three are
single women with no income,
no assets, and multiple children who
apply for and consume every state
and federal entitlement benefit for
which they are eligible.  These
communities thrive through the
generosity of the American tax-
payer and the willingness of
state authorities to turn a blind
eye to the misuse of entitle-
ment funds.[xvi]

In Canada, a recent piece reports the term
“bleeding the beast” is used by some FLDS to
describe strategies to take money from the
government.  This article does not fail to cite
obvious problem cases like “self-styled ‘Bishop
of Bountiful’ Winston Blackmore, whose 22
wives and 119 children all draw taxpayers’ funds
while pursuing their…illegal life style.”[xvii]  The
story concludes that unemployed wives with
children often obtain child tax benefits based on
one low income mother’s rate, a situation, it could 
be noted, would not be possible if all wives
were legal and therefore taxed.

Taxes are an issue in other countries beyond
Canada and the United States.  In the United
Kingdom, a man who marries polygamously in a
country where it is legal can draw benefits from the
government as all of his wives are recognized as
dependents.[xviii]  For those who wish to limit
tax abuses of polygamy, this example indicates
that making it legal first and then taxing fairly, 
probably will not be popular among those who
presently profit by informal and unregulated

David Popenoe (1999), a national authority on
marriage and the family, proposes recommen-
dations to strengthen heterosexual monogamy,
which, for him, is superior to other forms of the family
including, for example, same-gender marriage and
single parent homes.  He believes that a father and
mother, united through marriage, have biologically
based, complimentary differences needed for
positive child development.  Popenoe lauds such
sex typed parenting differences whereby some studies
show mothers are overall “responsive” and
fathers are “firm.”  He states further, “…many
studies have shown that men interact with children
in a different way than women, suggesting that the
father’s mode of parenting is not interchangeable
with that of the mother’s…men emphasize play more
than caretaking…”[xix] 

Popenoe is correct to develop policy recommendations
even if only to strengthen two- parent, heterosexual
households which are central in our national cultural
family ideology.  Strengthening families through
marriage is also in the interest of all families.  We
disagree with his argument that marriage should be
exclusively heterosexual and monogamous.  We 
want to strengthen marriage, too, so by seeing its
rights, privileges and responsibilities extended to
same-gender couples as well as polygamous
men and women.  Popenoe’s argument to bolster
the “essential father” by marital links to his child’s
mother is precisely what we’re proposing as
an argument in favor of plural marriage – absent
the shackle of essentialism so often applied to it.

People, for centuries, through songs, novels, poems,
first-person accounts, politics, religious faith and
rigorous, academic study, have attempted to explain
and define love.  Yet it remains mysterious.  How
do you know when you’re in love?  Is the emotion
of love that one person experiences for someone
exactly the same that another person experiences
for someone?  Can you love two people, maybe
more, simultaneously?  Is that wrong?

What’s worse – a society that loves (even if it does
make room for many different combinations of lovers)
or a society that doesn’t love at all?  This question,
explored in variety of literature, including George
Orwell’s 1984 to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New
World and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s
Tale, would likely lead most readers to conclude that
a society that loves – even if some of the love expands
the boundaries beyond what the majority considers
acceptable and normal – is far better than one that

Why is love so important?  Because in the 21st 
century, as with the previous one, it’s a reason
two people marry in America; if it fades away
from the marriage, it’s a reason people seek a divorce.

How can a government sanction only one version
of legally allowable, committed relationships, especially
when there are plenty of examples showing hetero-
sexual, monogamous marriage doesn’t work for
everyone?  Does a government that only permits
monogamous marriage alienate lonely, divorced
and never-married men and women?

How can two Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and
Christianity, place limits on marriage, when another
one, Islam, allows polygyny?  Do you need to be
in love to marry?  Do you need to hate to file for
a divorce? 

Can plural marriage, which creates extended families, 
become the next social safety net?  Are young men, in
their late teens or early 20s, at a heightened risk of not
marrying women their age if plural marriage is legal?
Could plural marriage save one couple from divorce by
adding a spouse and spare their children the emotional
and economic upheaval such breaks up can cause, not
to mention frequent harmful impact on children?

Are these questions we shouldn’t ask because they
make people uncomfortable?

If we have done our job effectively, we’ve left you
with more questions than answers.  That’s why the
title of this book ends with a question mark,

[i] One of the most thorough articles ever written about divorce’s affects on family life was authored by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and appeared in the April 1993 edition of The Atlantic Monthly, entitled, “Dan Quayle Was Right.” The article’s title was referencing former Vice President Quayle’s response to a popular television show, “Murphy Brown,” where the lead character gave birth without being married.  Dafoe Whitehead’s article can be found here:

[ii] “Cultural Tolerance for Divorce Grows to 70 %,” May 19, 2008,

[iii] Table D1:  Characteristics of Children Under 18 and their Designated Parents:  2009, United States Census Bureau, August 2010,

[iv] Table A1.  Marital Status of People 15 Years and Over by Age, Sex, Personal Earnings, Race and Hispanic Origin,” United States Census Bureau, November 2011,

[v] “Love in 2-E,” The New York Times Magazine, Lisa Katayama, July 26, 2009, pp. 20

[vi] Katayama, ibid., pp. 20

[vii] “Couple starved real baby while raising virtual baby,” The Examiner, March 6, 2010, Tanya Valdez,

[viii] “Who’s Afraid of Polygamy,” The New York Times, March 11, 2006, John Tierney,

[ix] Tierney, ibid.

[x] “The Polygamists,” National Geographic, February 2010, Scott Anderson,

[xi]Is Marriage Good for your health?,” The New York Times, April 18, 2010, Tara Parker-Pope,

[xii] Parker-Pope, ibid.

[xiii] Parker-Pope, ibid.

[xiv] Martha Nussbaum, “Debating Polygamy,” The Faculty Blog, The University of Chicago Law School,

[xv] “Women and Cultural Universals,” pages 197 – 228, Martha Nussbaum, Pluralism:  The Philosophy and Politics of Diversity, Maria Baghramian and Attracta Ingram, editors, (New York:  Routledge, 2000), page 212

[xvi] National Geographic, June 2010, “Letters,” page 8

[xvii] “B.C. polygamist leader ‘see no sin’ in taking tax money,” National Post, June 16, 2009, Suzanne Fournier,

[xviii] “Polygamous husbands can claim cash for their harems,” The Daily Mail, April 18, 2007,

[xix] “Modern Marriage:  Revisiting The Cultural Script,” pages 151 – 167, David Popenoe, The Gendered Society Reader, Michael S. Kimmel, editor, with Amy Aronson, (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2000), page 162

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