Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What I Learned About Marriage From Watching 'Sister Wives'

You can add to the many who already make fun of me, but I've seen every episode of TLC's reality show, 'Sister Wives.' It follows a Fundamentalism Mormon family, where one man has four wives and 17 children.

I've been unable to get away from it. I'm fascinated by this story - not because they're so unusual, but because they're so completely normal. This isn't Warren Jeff's prairie dress posse. The Brown family is certainly conservative, but they're pretty regular, as far as US families go. They're devout, but not forcing religion on their kids.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the show is their perspective on marriage. As Mormons (albeit not the LDS kind) they believe that their marriages will last for eternity. The old story is that one day they'll have their own planet to rule over (I'm not sure if the planet thing is still en vogue; they don't talk about it on the show). They do talk often about how this polygamous relationship (or should I say polygamous relationships) is a spiritual practice, not a romantic decision.

The father, maintains four separate marriage covenants - and he's quite open that at least two of them came about without romance. Both husband and wife recognized people of character in each other and chose to join together to raise strong, moral kids. They stress over and over, this kind of marriage is difficult and not for everyone - they do it because it makes their faith stronger; it helps them to grow into better people.

As a Christian, I still can't get on board with the multiple wives thing. A heavy part of the Christian understanding of marriage is the particularity of it - two people choosing each other over all others. That's important.

At the same time, I resonate (in ways I'd never thought through completely before) with the idea of marriage as a religious and even formational choice. For Christians, marriage is a representation of God's love for God's people - an unconditional relationship that cannot be broken. Now, we try pretty hard to pick a spouse of character, someone worth entering into such an important relationship with - something who is likely to keep such a commitment. However, once married, you're really more faithful to the commitment than we are to the other person.

In a culture of immediate gratification marriage has been reduced to something self-serving. Relationships last only as long as they satisfy our pleasures and desires. They become all about the other person's ability to make me happy. Marriage was intended to be formational - through commitment, unadulterated commitment, without thought to personal needs or fulfillment - we become fulfilled, we become the kind of people God created us to be.

In polygamy, the women on Sister Wives have created an even stronger bond. They can't just take the kids and leave because the kids have a larger family - siblings and other mothers who care about them. The relationship becomes even less about one person.

For Christians, we should also have an extended family. The Church, our local congregation, are the people to whom we're accountable. At least it should work that way. We get married in public for a reason. These people, in a sense, approve our marriages - they know us and vouch for our ability to live out this marriage commitment. if we fall short, it's their responsibility to help us along, to strengthen us and support us. We are connected to our spouses not just for their sake, or the sake of the commitment, but for the sake of our community, which fosters and celebrates this love.

As for the Sister Wives, I've often asked myself why one can't make the sort of lifelong, God-modeled, self-giving, loving commitment to more than one person, if everyone is on board. The wrench in the works is really sex - and the place of sex in our life and beliefs. That's a post for another day - but, as much grief and abuse they take for flaunting convention, and as much as they fall short of what I believe to be the proper conventions for marriage, this family does seem to have a better handle on what marriage is all about than most of the culture around us.

That should count for something.

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