Big Love, Polygamy and Polyamory

Big Love, HBO’s new drama about a polygamist family in Utah, has been causing lots of controversy on several sides of a whole bunch of issues. I’ve been watching with interest, not just because it’s a good drama with an interestingly constructed and thoroughly researched world, but because I’m polyamorous, which is a very different thing from polygamy in most ways, but not very different at all in others.

Polygamy, of course refers to one man having more than one wife. Wives are monogamous, the man is not, and it has been a common practice at one time or another in many religions throughout the world. The Mormon church disavowed polygamy in the mid 1800’s as a way to get statehood for Utah. It’s an excommunicable offense in the Mormon church. However, there are many practicing polygamists in America, including what is known as the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints) whose leader is currently on the FBI’s ten most wanted list. Polygamy can have undesirable social consequences including the ostracism of boys from communities when there are not enough women to go around, and in the case of the FLDS there are also many accusations regarding child brides and child abuse, although these crimes should not be considered to reflect on all polygamists anywhere at any time.

Polyamory is generally taken to mean loving more. Those engaged in polyamorous relationships may do so in many different ways. All parts in a relationship may be non-monogamous – there is no gender divide on that issue. Relationships may involved a closed group all in relationship with each other (for example, a triad where an emotional and presumably sexual relationship exists between all three of the members) or may have a more extended quality to it (Person A is in a relationship with persons B and C. Persons B and C may have other relationships with other people, and are not involved with each other, but may be friends or possibly even develop a relationship at some other time – the permutations and number of parties involves are endless).

Big Love, for all its foibles and for all the ways in which it doesn’t relate to my life at all (nor would I want it to, as a religious-based polygamist lifestyle is so entirely not what I could even fathom having in my life, much less desire), has some very valuable reminders for those living in polyamorous relationships. These thoughts and tips will of course make more sense to you if you’ve watched the show, but if not, maybe it’ll get you to turn on the TV, because quite frankly, I’d love to talk to more poly people about this one.

Scheduling is important
I think I fell in love with Big Love the moment the three wives sat down and worked out the schedule for the month, switching days for birthdays and the like. Logistics is a big part of making polyamory work, and at times it can seem like we live and die by our appointment books.

Family dinner
In the first episode of the show, we are greeted by the Hendrickson family sitting down to a family dinner – the husband, each of the wives and the children. Since polyamory often takes on very different structures than polygamy (and seems to involve more long distance relationships) I realize this is not always easy, but I do think it is important for extended emotional families to make time to do this together that aren’t logistical meetings or emotional discussions, just nice normal things, like sharing a meal.

Jealousy happens
One of the biggest myths of polyamory is, I think, that people engaged in polyamorous relationships don’t or shouldn’t get jealous. Oh we do! We just handle it differently. We don’t let it consume us, we talk about it if it is, and we get on with things. Watching the competition between the wives on Big Love always reminds me that suppressing and hiding jealousy doesn’t work. Talking about it does. Also, there’s a very important difference between jealousy (you have what I want so I don’t want you to have it) and envy (you have what I want, can I have some too?).

Honesty is the best policy
Honesty, of course, is the best policy in every relationship, but in polyamory it’s even more important, if only because with more people involved, it’s easier to get caught in a lie. And that’s not only embarrassing, its disrespectful to your friends and lovers. Big Love, being a show on HBO, has lots of liars, because where would the dramatic tension be otherwise. For the polyamorous people though, it’s hard not to shout at the TV over it sometime.

Being financially responsible is important
In Big Love, one of the wives has about 60K in credit card debt. Because this polygamist family shares resources, this has a huge impact on the entire family. Even in less family-structured polyamory situations, finances do have an impact on the others you’re involved with. None of us are perfect, and we all mostly carry some degree of debt, mistakes or plain old bad luck, but getting those issues in order can only help your own sanity and improve your relationships, and if you are sharing a household, it’s critical.

Sex isn’t (just) a hobby
I mean, sure sex is a hobby for some people, and that’s cool. As long as no one gets hurt, I don’t have objections to what people do and how they decide to do it. But one of the things I love about Big Love, as oversexed as it can be, is that it’s about relationships, not getting laid as much as humanly possible. I think that sometimes gets lost sight of, if not in polyamory, than in how polyamorous relationships are views from the outside. Sex is one way we connect to people we care about romantically.

Be true to yourself
Being polyamorous can be hard. There may be places and situations where you feel torn about how open to be about your life from photos on your desk at work, to your relationship with your family. No one can tell you what’s safe for you and yours, but I think it’s important to revisit the choices you make about keeping secrets often, and recommit to them or change your mind about them. The balance between keeping information that needs to be private, private and being proud of your life and who you love can be difficult, especially if you’re in a conservative community. It is hard, and it’s all right to feel frustrated about that. At least most of us don’t have nosey neighbors quite as bad as the Hendricksons’.

Kids are complicated
Well, kids are always complicated, but raising kids in a polyamorous environment can be even more complicated. As much as I keep saying every situation is different, every situation is really different here. My main advice is don’t underestimate the intelligence of the children involved. Being honest in an age-appropriate way is probably going to be your best bet. Watching the children in Big Love have to keep secrets for their parents in heart-rending.

While Big Love could never possibly provide a primer to how to have a good polyamorous relationship, it does manage to hit on lots of the key issues those engaged in polyamorous issues deal with all teh time. It’s also made it oddly easier to broach the topic with those one might not have discussed it with before. All in all, it means I have to give kuds to a very strange, very entertaining, and occassionally familiar HBO show.

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