Skip to main content

Why plural marriages make sense

By Janet W. Hardy
January 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Janet Hardy: It is tempting to think of nuclear family as an ideal and universal norm
  • Hardy: Plural marriage and "alternative families" based on love and mutual consent work
  • She says nuclear family is an uncomfortable fit for many, an impossible dream for others
  • Hardy: We should not expect all to conform to an unrealistic standard for the rest of history

Editor's note: Janet W. Hardy, a writer, editor and consultant, has published 11 books, including the best-selling, "The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships and Other Adventures." She has taught workshops about alternative sexualities and relationships all over the world.

(CNN) -- I grew up in the early 1960s in an affluent suburb on the East Coast. Every child I knew went home to a family that looked like mine: a mom at home waiting for us, and a dad who showed up a few hours later in time for dinner.

How tempting it is to remember such households as an ideal and universal norm. But they were rarely ideal, and they were never universal.

Let's not discuss the stresses that affected those nuclear families. Let's just talk about the innumerable people who, by virtue of race, background, health or circumstance, could not -- or did not want to -- live in such families.

Janet W. Hardy
Janet W. Hardy

Instead, they lived in single-parent households, in households with two men or two women, in extended families of grandparents and aunts and grown siblings, in households where multiple adults pooled money and skills to make ends meet, and in many other configurations.

Back then, it never occurred to the people I knew to call those configurations "families." Today, in a more tolerant era, that old standard of the nuclear family is still encoded in our laws and our tax code, as well as in the antiquated and judgmental phrase "family values."

Among my own circle of acquaintances, I hold many "alternative families" close to my heart:

-- A man and two women who have been raising their two children together from infancy through high school.

-- Three men who have shared a loving household for nearly 20 years.

-- A "core couple," married for many decades, who have consistently surrounded themselves with long-term, live-in lovers.

-- Two couples who share a duplex and a busy and intermingled sex life.

-- A long-partnered gay man and lesbian woman who together brought a third, lesbian woman into their household because the female half of the pair missed that part of her life.

Polyamory: When three isn't a crowd

There are as many configurations of genders, ages and numbers as you can imagine. These are families as surely as any family you've welcomed into your neighborhood. They share property, raise children, tend to their homes and communities.

4 'sister wives' fight to live together
Is ruling good for polygamist women?

Last month, in a case involving the plural family portrayed on the reality show "Sister Wives," a Nevada judge overturned a ban against cohabitation, enabling consenting adults to form whatever style of household meets their desires and needs. He refused, however, to overturn the part of the law that banned plural marriages.

Most Americans, when they think of plural marriage, associate it with the one-male, multifemale households of a rebel offshoot of Mormonism and of some contemporary Muslim cultures -- popularly known as "polygamy" (many spouses of both sexes), but more accurately called "polygyny" (many wives). However, these polygynous marriages represent only a fraction of the ways in which adults form families.

Many people rightly feel some concern about religious polygyny's history of abuse and nonconsent and might feel that anti-plural marriage laws are necessary to prevent such exploitation. However, strong laws already exist against forcing anyone into sex or marriage of any kind -- vigorous enforcement would surely suffice to protect the unwilling in a plural marriage recognized under the law.

More problematic, of course, are issues such as child custody, inheritance, hospital visitation, etc., when more than two parties are involved. It is clear that the current legal structure of marriage cannot readily accommodate this problem. For that reason, the Nevada judge's ruling was probably correct, at least for now.

One solution for the future, though, might be to designate "marriage" as a social institution with no legal standing and to create "civil union" as a legally recognized subtype of business partnership, available to anyone who is willing to make the appropriate commitments.

These civil unions could range from an Ozzie and Harriet nuclear pairing to a multipartner, multigenerational line marriage out of a Robert Heinlein science fiction novel. They would be required to make agreements about how they would handle the basic functions of family -- caring for children and the elderly, sharing property, ensuring succession, and so on -- and to sign contracts, just as business partners would. If they also felt the need for the social or religious status of marriage, they could seek out an institution willing to support them in that goal.

I am sure that many marriage equality opponents reading this are shouting "I told you so!" as their predictions that plural marriage would follow same-sex marriage come nightmarishly true. Many grew up as I did, in a time and place where the single-wage-earner nuclear family was the unquestioned norm and would like to see their country conform to that unrealistic standard for the rest of history.

But even then, the nuclear family was an uncomfortable fit for many, and an impossible dream for others. The America in which I want my children and grandchildren to live will make room for all kinds of families, and it will offer the same support and benefits -- legally, financially and socially -- to any family that is based on a core of love, consent and mutual responsibility.

That's what "family values" should really be about.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Janet W. Hardy.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 2209 GMT (0609 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1802 GMT (0202 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1741 GMT (0141 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1900 GMT (0300 HKT)
John Sutter says the right is often stereotyped on climate change. But with 97% of climate scientists say humans are causing global warming, we all have to get together on this.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd: When we declare that we will defeat ISIS, what do we exactly mean?
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 2040 GMT (0440 HKT)
Thailand sex trafficking
Human trafficking is a multibillion dollar global industry. To beat it, we need to change mindsets, Cindy McCain says.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
The leaders of the GOP conferences say a Republican-led Senate could help solve America's problems.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1401 GMT (2201 HKT)
Nicholas Syrett says Wesleyan University's decision to make fraternities admit women will help curb rape culture.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Mike Downey says New Yorkers may be overdoing it, but baseball will really miss Derek Jeter
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1232 GMT (2032 HKT)
Quick: Which U.S. president has authorized wars of various kinds in seven Muslim countries?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Women's issues should be considered front and center when assessing a society's path, says Zainab Salbi
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 1805 GMT (0205 HKT)
A catastrophe not making headlines like Ebola and ISIS: the astounding rate of child poverty in the world's richest country.
ADVERTISEMENT