Thursday, February 4, 2010

Polygamy and Mixed-Orientation Marriage Accomodations

By Mister Curie

Polygamy was one of my issues with church history, in particular the huge disparity between what we are taught in church and historical accounts of what polygamy was actually like. We are taught that polygamy was an uplifting command by a loving God to provide care for widows and orphans, that it is no longer required, etc. From this past year's teacher's manual for the D&C/Church history we are told:

In this dispensation, the Lord commanded some of the early Saints to practice plural marriage. The Prophet Joseph Smith and those closest to him, including Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball, were challenged by this command, but they obeyed it. Church leaders regulated the practice. Those entering into it had to be authorized to do so, and the marriages had to be performed through the sealing power of the priesthood.
However, historical accounts show that practical polygamy was basically institutionalized single-motherhood, was taught as an absolute requirement for exhaltation, and frequently involved the marriage of women already married to other men who were still living (known as polyandry). Furthermore, the earliest practice of polygamy was in 1832, several years before the sealing powers of the priesthood were restored. Much of my thinking on this matter was influenced by Todd Compton's "In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith" which gives the biographies of 33 of Joseph Smith's most well documented plural wives (many acknowledged on the church's own Family Search website).

I was surprised when entering the MoHo community to learn of the hope some MoHo's have that polygamy is truly of God so that they can live eternity with the woman they love and are married to, but also have eternity with the man they love. Rather than dedicating themselves wholly to their wife, despite attraction to men, or leaving their wife to pursue a same-sex relationship, many married homosexuals (not just the Mormon ones) desire to "have their cake and eat it to" by maintaining their marriage

From the glbtq encyclopedia on options for Mixed-Orientation Marriages:
Many couples in mixed-orientation marriages decide to stay together and make their marriage work. They frequently make various kinds of accommodations for the gay or lesbian spouse.

They may allow the gay spouse to be sexually open but emotionally closed to others, feeling that the real danger to their marriage comes from a possible emotional commitment to someone else. They may experiment with "open" relationships for both partners.

Some couples agree to a so-called "Closed-Loop Relationship" in which the gay husband or lesbian wife agrees to have a monogamous relationship with one same-sex partner, thus avoiding the risks of promiscuous sex.

Sometimes, if the gay or lesbian partner is functionally bisexual, the married couple continues their own sexual relationship. Other couples live together as friends rather than lovers.
I thought I would try to compare these different "accomodations" to polygamy and draw conclusions from polygamy about what we can expect if a married homosexual pursues these types of "accomodations".

Keeping the "Accomodation" Hidden From One's Spouse

So the first accomodation that some homosexuals may be tempted to pursue is to keep the "accomodation" hidden, pursuing same-sex relationships without the spouse's knowledge. This "accomodation" seems directly synonymous to me with Joseph Smith's early secretive practice of polygamy. This is Joseph Smith spied rolling in the hay with Fanny Alger, caught in what Oliver Cowdery described as a "dirty, nasty, fithy affair" in a letter to his brother (Compton, 38). This is also Joseph Smith secretly marrying the teenage girls that lived in his house, such as the sisters Emily and Eliza Partridge.

Such attempts to hide the polygamy led to lies and a loss of trust with Emma and church leaders who discovered the secret liasons. Life becomes full untruths and a fear of discovery. It is a highly unstable situation.

Open Relationships

Eventually Joseph Smith seemed to recognize the instability of his secretive practice of polygamy and sought to include Emma and other church leaders in on it, moving the practice of polygamy into the category of open relationships. Emma obviously had a difficult time with accepting an open relationship, and Joseph appears to have tried to make it an open arrangement for both of them (but then taken away the opportunity in D&C 132:51 - "A commandment I give unto mine handmaid, Emma Smith, your wife, whom I have given unto you, that she stay herself and partake not of that which I commanded you to offer unto her"). Emma eventually recanted and agreed to the open relationship for Joseph if she could choose the wives, and initially selected the Partridge girls, to whom Joseph was already secretly married without Emma's knowledge. Emily wrote that, "To save the family trouble Brother Joseph thought it best to have another ceremony performed. Accordingly on the 11th of May, 1843, we were sealed to JS a second time, in Emma's presence, she givering her free and full consent thereto." (Compton, 409). But the open marriage was difficult for Emma to accept and was another uneven relationship. Emily again wrote, "Emma was our bitter enemy. We remained in the family several months after this, but things went from bad to worse." (Compton, 409).

I think the open marriage arrangement is still difficult to accept for the straight spouse, and even if initially an attempt to have a sexually open, but emotionally closed arrangement, is probably difficult for the homosexual spouse who likely is also emotionally attracted to men. I think it puts the marriage in an unstable situation.

Closed Loop

The closed loop relationship shares many of the challenges of an open marriage, although perhaps saves the spouse from as much danger from exposure to STDs, on the other hand may be more conducive to leading the gay spouse to emotionally detach from his marriage. The man is likely to pull further away from his wife and devote himself more to his gay relationship. He "has his cake and eats it to" but leaves his wife frustrated and alone much of the time. The third partner may also have a difficult time if he is not accepted into the family by the spouse (like Emma couldn't accept Joseph Smith's wives, even after initially approving of them), and will likely be alone on important holidays when their lover is home with the family. There are few examples of closed loops in polygamy as many of the men who practiced polygamy had many wives. A large number of wives typically led to the man being unable to adequately provide for all of them (necessitating the women work to provide for themselves), and they were often left alone to raise their children (thus the institutionalization of single motherhood). It does appear that plural wives were able to be happier if their husband had a small number of wives, rather than a very large number of them.

The Analogy Breaks Down

Of course, there are many differences between polygamy and mixed-orientation marriage "accomodations." Most of these are probably in the favor of mixed-orientation marriages. Unlike with polygamy, few spouses would believe they are "commanded of God" to submit to the accomodations, although they may be threatened with divorce if they do not allow their gay spouse to pursue male relationships. Feeling one is obeying a commandment may have enabled the polygamous wife to endure the challenges of polygamy more easily than a straight spouse the challenges of accomodating the gay spouse with homosexual relationships. But on the other hand, feeling one is commanded of God may have made the relationship much less even or mutually entered into, as God was against their desires for a monogamous relationship.

My Thoughts

I recognize the challenges of the married Mormon Homosexual who loves his wife and family, but also recognizes his attraction for men. I, myself, have asked how I can accept and embrace my homosexuality and who I am without hurting my family. I recognize that homosexuality is not solely (or even primarily) about sex, and I appreciate the responses I have received about how others are embracing their homosexuality while attempting to strengthen their MOM. On other blogs, some have advocated that the only position of integrity is to leave one's spouse after realizing they are gay. That is not an option, as I love my wife with all my heart, and leaving her would be as against who I am as it would be for me to go back into the closet.

According to Dr. William Wedin, director of Bisexual Psychological Services in New York City, again from glbtq encyclopedia, my MOM is now in the honeymoon stage:
when the partners agree to remain in their mixed-orientation marriage. Typically, gay spouses who want to remain in the marriage do so for one good reason: they love their straight spouses. With both partners feeling loved unconditionally, they renew their marriage vows on an emotional level.
According to him, there will come a time when "both partners reach the limits of what is tolerable" and we will need to "consider again whether to stay together or separate." When that time comes, it will be important to carefully and honestly consider our options. I do not think there will be integrity in trying to pursue a physical/emotional same-sex relationship, while maintaining a marriage to my wife. We will have to decide which, ultimately, is the best path forward for both of us and our family. I will have to wholly dedicate myself to my monogamous relationship with my wife, or I will need to separate from her before pursuing a same-sex relationship. Since my disaffection with the church I have tried to recognize the gray area between all of the extremes. However, for right now at least, I think polygamy provides ample evidence that the gray area of mixed-orientation marriage accomodations is more likely to lead to heartache and difficulties than it is to be a viable option. While recognizing the temptation this gray area provides of being able to "have it all", I recognize that it is a false promise of happiness that would hurt my marriage.


  1. Interesting post. I agree with your conclusion.

  2. I read a book called 19th wife. Stunning revelation about how rough Polygamy was and is on people involved. As i read, I felt like it turned those men into something I'd never want to be.

    I would never try an open or closed loop situation. On or off.

  3. Are there other considerations?

    You seem to have focused on the physical and emotional bonds that might be formed and broken between a husband, a wife, and a partner (or partners), but there are other "bonds" that might deserve consideration.

    For example: though I'm sure it's certainly a distant second (or third), one of Sarah's concerns if we were ever to separate is the financial burden that single-hood would entail.

    I know a couple (straight husband, lesbian wife) who chose to divorce shortly after the wife came out, but the husband is still supporting the wife to some extent as she completes a degree. They chose to sever the legal bond, and recognized the absence of physical and emotional bonds that probably already existed to some extent, but chose to maintain a financial bond (out of love and friendship--other bonds that they still maintain).

    I've heard of other couples remaining married for the legal (tax, etc.) benefits that they receive, but who acknowledge an emotional and physical "divorce" and individually seek fulfillment in outside relationships. From a "letter of the law" standpoint, that's adultery, I guess. But if "lusting after a woman" is "adultery in your heart", then maybe a mutually-agreed-on "divorce in your heart" takes some of the sin out of the situation?

    Then of course there are often children to consider. Even a divorced couple might decide that their parenting can best be achieved by living in the same household, so that the children have equal access to both parents.

    All of this is just an attempt to "think outside the box", not intended to suggest that any particular way is the "right" way.

    I'm just reluctant to say "I'll never do [this]" or "In [this situation] I'll make [that choice]", because we change, and our situations change, and sometimes we find that the best solution turns out to be one that we once thought would be the worst.

  4. Have you considered researching cross-cultural perspectives for ideas? I know that in some cultures your situation would be encouraged. I worked with an MD from Bahrain who said most gay men are married there but maintain a lover. It doesn't sound like that's a reasonable answer for you, but there might be a society somewhere who has some out-of-the-box answers for you.

  5. Scott - thanks for the comments. I wrote my post from the perspective of trying to make accomodations to a mixed-orientation marriage in an effort to maintain a strong marriage and fulfilling life for all involved. For me, a strong relationship likely requires at least as much emotional intimacy as physical intimacy. I recognize that in any of the proposed accomodations, my emotional involvment is likely to follow my physical involvement (as you frequently point out on your blog, homosexuality is more than just sex). I recognize that in any of the proposed scenarios, I am unlikely to be able to maintain or improve the quality of my marriage by having a man on the side. For me, to try and do so would be an attempt at self-deception as well as deception toward my wife. Luckily, at least for now, my marriage is completely fulfilling emotionally and physically (although I recognize that I am still attracted to men). Rather than dwell on some nebulous hope of something better with a man (which at this time I honestly cannot imagine), I recognize that my marriage is fantastic and that I should continue to nurture it.

    If at some point I decide the marriage is no longer fulfilling, I think it would show the most integrity to admit this to myself and my wife before pursuing a relationship with a man. At that point, I think some of your other practical considerations are worth exploring. Financial burdens are a very real concern, as are raising children. I think that is great that your lesbian friend is being supported through school by her former husband. I also understand the tax considerations (and other heterosexual privileges, such as health insurance, etc.). I'm actually fine with those reasons for "staying together" and don't really put much stock in a nebulous concept of "sin", be it adultery or other actions. I can see a perfectly workable situation where the spouses stay "married" for society heterosexual privileges and to raise the children, even with both living under the same roof and remaining great friends, but both spouses know that they are really divorced as far as the emotional and physical aspects of their marriage. I do not see it being a fair situation where the straight spouse hangs onto the hope of maintaining their marriage while the gay spouse pursues a same sex relationship.

  6. Anica - I heard rumors that at some point the LDS church actually encouraged gays and lesbians to marry each other, but I haven't found any hard evidence for it. We're always looking for out-of-the-box suggestions, but I think having lovers on the side would be counterproductive, at least at this point in time.

  7. Oh, I wasn't suggesting that you have a lover on the side. I was trying to give an example of a societal norm that is contrary to ours. Sorry if I wasn't clear.

  8. I find it fascinating that the conversation focuses on the scenario where men have multiple wives with no consideration of the political and constitutional reality for Americans that if permissible for Men to have more than one wife, then also permissible under constitutional law for women who wish to, to have more than one husband or wife.

    Also, what would you do if your husband and your wife became more into each other than you? Or your wife decided to bring another man into the marriage? Or if your kids liked your husband as a father figure better than you? Or if your husband didn't work, became disabled, or developed a substance abuse problem? How do spouses #1 and #2 handle spouse #3 getting his dream job in another city or country?

    Scott, the cynic in me calls the arrangement between the lesbian ex and her former husband "maintenance" (often legally required in these situations) and not goodwill. Bravo to him for not being forced to provide though.

    I would have to say that there is a lot of loneliness in marriage historically and in the present times. Some scholars place polygamy in the early church under a microscope and never examine the big picture as to what marriage was like for women and men in the corresponding time in non-mormon circles. Today, there is still a lot of loneliness in marriage for all of the traditional reasons and then some, sexual orientation mismatch is but one small segment of the vast panoply of causes of "loneliness" in marriage, partnerships and relationships.

  9. @Quiet Song: I suppose I tend to see this from a man's perspective (and a gay man's perspective at that) because that's what I am, but I'm all for equality, and agree that women should be as able to have multiple spouses as men.

    You mention several complications that may arise in a multiple-partner relationship... But I wonder if those who have entered such a relationship have already demonstrated sufficient flexibility that they would be better able to cope with those issues than a more traditional couple?

    Not that they wouldn't be challenged by them... But perhaps they wouldn't find those particular issues any more challenging than a traditional couple finds the more common issues that challenge more traditional marriages?

    You question the goodwill of the husband who is putting his lesbian ex-wife through school (and I can understand the cynicism), but having gotten to know him reasonably well, I think I can confidently say that he's doing it out of love for her. He's a lot like my wife, in that he's become a gay rights advocate of sorts and an active participant in more than one forum for gay Mormons (even though he's straight). He does this because he believes that his wife deserves the chance to be happy with her partner.


    You are actually quoting what Joe Kort SAYS Dr. Wedin said, not what Dr. Wedin really said. If you read what Bill Wedin said in the middle of the above article, it's a very nuanced discussion of bisexual men in MOM. Kort had to read that to quote his stages. So he is well aware that the vast majority of men in MOM are bisexual. He is coldly, and deliberately, erasing bisexuals. The actual quote is "And almost every EVERY MAN is blown away by her saying that she wants to stay with him; he feels tremendous acceptance and love."

    But Kort changes that, using quotes, as though WEDIN was also erasing bisexuals, to "Wedin states, "...And almost every GAY spouse is blown away by the straight spouse [wanting] to stay with them; they feel tremendous acceptance and love." This is unethical, to put words in Wedin's mouth that he didn't say. And deliberately erasing bisexuals, when Kort knows better, in Lani Ka'ahumanu's words, is callous indifference to the consequences of bisexual erasure. There is a cottage industry of monosexual (gay and straight) therapists who erase bisexuals in MOM, but the consequence to bisexuals are divorces that don't need to happen, and amplification of the myth that bisexuals can't have happy relationships, or lasting ones, so why would anyone ever date a bisexual?

  11. Given the biphobia of most of the MOM resources currently out there, bi leaders have worked to develop more positive resources: