Many TV-watching Americans (and others, I’m sure) have now seen
Sister Wives on TLC, a coming-out-of-the-closet reality show about life in a fundamentalist Mormon/Latter Day Saints polygamist sect. It seems to be unusually honest, the revelation of a way of life so different from that of conventional married life that it is, I am sure, difficult for many viewers even to imagine living in this way.
Though my life has been very little like that of the Brown family, I have a somewhat different perspective on multiple relationship.
I’ve lived in the world(s) of polygamy and polyandry in two different communities: one a place of openness, choice, and freedom, the other a quasi-Manson-like situation of the late Sixties in which women were possessions, playthings, and servants. I have never lived in any version of Mormonism as the Browns of Sister Wives do, but all the same I can relate to the concept of “sister wives”—both the happiness and the pain of sharing one’s lover and one’s whole life with other women. In this situation, one can become very close to one’s sister wives (In some cases, one is close with the “other woman” before the shared man comes along). Even today I miss my friends who were also “sister wives”—some of whom are still close friends, though there were surely times when I’d have been delighted never to have to see some of them again!
The women of the Brown family seem to find themselves caught up in very similar feelings. With characteristic honesty and an openness that makes this show worth watching, the three older wives express their feelings. They both wish to include the fourth wife and resent her at the same time, not without reason.
Kody Brown, the husband, and Robyn, his fourth wife, have just been married—not only for time but, as Latter-Day Saints believe, for eternity. In this special episode—produced after the series concluded for the season, evidently in response to the curiosity of monogamists about those who live what they call “The Principle”—the two go on an 11-day honeymoon. Robyn is young, dark-haired, and attractive despite being the mother of three by an earlier marriage, and it is clear that Kody is in love with her and as excited as a teenage boy about being alone with his present love.
She seems to understand how the other women feel, but is not really willing to alter her experience of love and marriage in order to placate them. She does, however, urge Kody to call home and to love his other wives.
They go surfing, rent a honeymoon apartment, swim, and look happy and carefree as the other three wives, Meri, Janelle, and Christine watch the children and talk about their fears and resentments as well as their desire to accept Robyn. They want to create a whole entity out of the various elements of the extended family. One has to admire the three older women, who pull no punches about their feelings. Each has been married to Kody for many years, and it is clear that they feel hurt, jealous, and abandoned. They talk about the brief honeymoons they had, and the simplicity of their weddings.
While they do deeply believe that the inclusion of other women is a way to make the love they feel for one another and their husband greater and open the doors of heaven to them all, they are clearly upset and jealous in an earthly sense. Second wife Janelle puts it bluntly. “I perceive any time he spends with her as cutting into our time. It’s the fact that he’s focused somewhere else for 11 days, and on one particular person for 11 days. That’s frustrating me.” Janelle, a strong-looking, earthy woman, makes it clear that her relationship with Kody has never been “romantic,” but more a relationship of friends. (Still, they have many children, including a newborn!) And yet, an 11-day honeymoon is taking too much away from the family, she feels.
Meri, Janelle, and Christine, it seems, never had as much time alone with Kody as Robyn. I remember well the sense that a period of ten or eleven days made a relationship seem like a singular and special one. In one communal situation in which I lived, the “Ten-Day Marriage” was popular for a time—a way of getting to have a sort of mini-monogamy with someone to whom one was deeply attracted. By spending ten or so nights together, it was possible to more deeply explore the quality and potential of the relationship—or conversely, to become tired of the person with whom one had so desired those ten days. Though this wasn’t always the case by any means, sometimes it was thought a way to “run out,” get over, a particular relationship.
Something similar seems to be at work among the sister wives, but there is also, or so it seems to me, a fear that 11 days together will lead to a desire to be together more and more. I wondered if Kody had asked each of his other wives how she felt about Robyn and him taking so many days together and leaving them to care for the kids and everything else (so far in this series, the issue of livelihood and how the group supports itself is still somewhat unclear, at least to me).
I have the sense that Kody simply decided to have his time alone with Robyn. The two of them speak often of their long courtship, and say that it is rare, in the polygamist world, to court for such a long time. Marriages are often made within 60 to 90 days, but Kody and Robyn have been going out together (and even, scandalously, kissed before marriage!) for quite a while. They seem to feel they deserve time together. Of course, this is TV, and it’s hard to say what is really going on.
I found myself wondering if the other wives could be a little afraid to complain to Kody (or to Robyn). It would be not only anti-Principle and unwelcoming, but has the potential to drive Kody further away from them. And yet, one senses each of them may feel they are uncertain how they will get back to a more reasoned, more fully shared life. Will each of them feel as though he would really rather be with Robyn when he is with when their new, scheduled four-way married life begins?
In one amusing passage, Kody and Robyn visit the San Diego Zoo, where a sincere tour guide shows them a group of rhinos, and explains earnestly that three or so females will “hang out together,” and will only find a use for the male when the time comes to mate. Robyn and Kody look both justified and barely able to contain themselves, overwhelmed with the desire to laugh.
As the Brown family has put itself in a difficult position by appearing in this show—I have read that they are under investigation for bigamy—I cannot help but wonder what made them wish to expose themselves in this way. The desire for 15 minutes of fame? Possibly money to help keep this enormous family fed and housed?
I see in Kody Brown’s eyes a kind of zealous stare to which I am not a stranger. Perhaps he—and I am not saying that he doesn’t believe in every aspect of the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saint religion—feels a drive to display their lives to the public, a drive which clearly the wives share, to one extent or another.
Possibly they believe that by doing this, they will be able to alter the state of polygamous families, to bring on a lawsuit that will validate their lifestyle.
One more word: one constantly feels, watching Sister Wives, that the three other wives, despite Kody’s rather hyper assurance that he loves them, are clearly insecure. They talk a great deal about the time they will spend with him, the substance of their own personal relationship with him. But is it a bit like having a relationship with Jesus? Is the reality of their marriages with them still a reality? Robyn has to insist that he call them while they are on their honeymoon together. The reality of marriage to many men is simply that youth and beauty are the bottom line of romance. Does Kody Brown love his other wives still as lovers, or more as security-figures, mothers of his children, now? (I appreciate that the Browns say that the children have the right to do whatever they want when they grow up, and not to be forced to marry anyone they don’t wish to marry. This makes them a lot more palatable, certainly to me.)
Do the other wives simply sense that their relationship with him is not the same as his relationship with Robyn? Meri, wife #1, tells him bluntly over the phone that they are unhappy with the long honeymoon and the entire situation.
Kody wants Robyn to have the experience of being with him alone; he wants to be with her alone, too—and he seems to believe that the tension surrounding his marriage to Robyn is normal, an unavoidable transition that comes with taking a new wife.
I cannot help but feel that real love should include everyone in the relationship, no matter how many that relationship contains. Do Kody’s wives even have a choice about what he does? Could any of them say, “We can’t handle another wife?” It’s unclear what the story is, though Meri, the first wife, apparently suggested Robyn to Kody as a possible fourth wife. The group of Browns has spoken of the marriage as being a “democracy,” but is it really?
They come to the conclusion at the end that Robyn needed 11 days‘ honeymoon and that it is “selfish” of the others to have wanted him to not spend so much time with Robyn, but there is a sense that the situation is still tense. The other wives say they understand that Robyn “needed” the 11-day honeymoon…yet it must seem to some of them, at least, that she got much more than any of them did (none had what might call a lavish honeymoon).
One hopes that all the wives feel they are getting what they need from this relationship. Robyn urges him to make sure he loves all his wives—that this gives her a sense that he will always love her. I can understand loving more than one person; and I am sure that the love they all have for one another is real. If only the women could have other husbands: and why not? (At one point during the series, Meri, whose 20th anniversary with Kody it is, speaks of her loneliness and jealousy. She says, in essence, “How would you like it if there were another man?” Kody blows up and says that the idea of her another husband is “vulgar.”) Due to their religious beliefs, they won’t have other men in their lives. The best hope one may have for the family is that all of the Browns fully blend together and be completely loving and supportive of one another.
Is it interesting? Yes—at least for some, certainly for me. I want to know more about this story, and will go on viewing the show if it renews for another season—despite my husband’s saying “How can you watch that stuff?” (Yes, I have only one husband.)
I look forward to seeing how things develop in the world of real, honest-to-goodness Big Love. I am well aware that I am writing here about real people who have a life together, children who are brothers and sisters, and thoughts and feelings. Their story is fascinating, and I wish them well…and hope, to be sure, that they avoid trouble with the law for having been so honest about the truth of their lifestyle.
Aired Sun., November 21, 2010 on TLC