Thursday, October 30, 2014

Book review: Plural Marriage for Our Times

Kilbride, Philip Leroy. Plural Marriage for Our Times: A Reinvented Option? Westport, Conn: Bergin & Garvey, 1994. 

In some ways, the most interesting aspect of this book to me was the "For Our Times" part. Published in 1994, just a couple years after Dan Quayle's infamous Murphy Brown speech, the author talks with great sincerity about the shame of divorce and the stigma of single parenthood. Same-sex relationships are mentioned in passing a few times as something people are starting to consider maybe not freaking out about. These priorities line up with my memories of how respectable, self-understood open-minded people thought and spoke at that time, but it was strange to be transported back, as though I had opened up a time capsule and a bunch of my college professors stepped out of a suspended-animation wine-and-cheese reception.

While Kilbride does dedicate a chapter to what he calls "Euroamerican feminist" critiques of traditional Western marriage and families, it's clear his heart is with expanding the scope of traditional values instead of smashing them up as part of a radical agenda. He places great hope in that idea that "plural marriage might be a reasonable solution to some of the hurt and damage children appear to be undergoing in...blended family redefining the cultural context," specifically by legitimizing a wider range of parental roles, including that of "wives-in-law" (21). He returns again to this theme throughout the book, drawing on contemporary African commentaries about how "given our high divorce rate, it is arguable that the United States has a a high rate of polygyny," albeit with discontinuity (44), as well as on historical early Protestant arguments that bigamy could be considered preferable to divorce (62-66).*

I am not immune to appeals to the welfare of children as arguments in favor of poly families,  and I definitely agree that relationships between former spouses and the families they form apart from each other should be characterized by mutual respect and support instead of competition and jealousy. But the idea that adding more people can somehow fix a troubled marriage leads to all kinds of real-world heartbreak, and not only for the original couple. And that idea is disturbingly common these days among people who don't outright reject the idea of having more than one partner. I could see that having the poly option in everyone's conceptual toolboxes could help compatible people keep from stumbling into extramarital situations where they can't conceive of any path forward except divorce, so I suppose it may have some validity as a sociological observation. As actual personal advice, though? Just don't do this. It's a really bad idea.**

Kilbride is on firmer ground when exploring "the tremendous behavioral adaptability inherent in our cultural institutions" (31). He observes that "ideals akin to Western ideals of romantic love can be found in most, if not all, societies" (36). Marriage, of course, is equally universal, because people everywhere have a need to regulate reproduction, property, material goods and kinship relationships (39). However, this regulation not only does not take the same form in all times and all places, it rarely takes only a single form in a given time and place. Empirically, we can all see that "it is not incompatible for a society's heterosexual, monogamous, and/or polygamous ideal to exist side by side with various practices constructed under special circumstances to suit individual and group needs" (41).

Of course, these differing family structures are not only differently categorized, but differently valued. Kilbride relies on the work of others to propose an evaluative schema of "moral," "proper," and/or "smart." Depending on the society or social group, a relationship can be morally acceptable but highly improper, or improper but smart, i.e., effective at achieving the goals of the people in it. The prevalence of smart examples of improper relationships may explain why some deviant structures evolve into propriety over time (119). In the United States, we have seen this play out in same-sex monogamous relationships, as a wider percentage of the population has become personally acquainted with faithful, honest and nurturing pairings between two women or two men. It is telling that the remaining opposition to these relationships comes from individuals and groups who cannot conceive of them as moral--though in daily public life, they are generally resigned to the fact that they are now widely understood to be socially proper. 

On the whole, Plural Marriage for Our Times is a welcome contribution to the much-needed effort to explain how "a wider, more general body of needs and functions considered important" motivates people to form families with multiple partners more than a burning desire for more, better or different sex. Which is, unfortunately, usually the first assumption of mainstream Americans--and also the starting point for a depressingly large number of polyamory how-to and advocacy books. I am therefore able to forgive most of the book's datedness and clumsy mixing of anthropological, historical, theological and activist approaches.*** I would recommend it to readers interested in the subject, with a warning to keep one's expectations modest.

* For a bunch of interesting historical situations, see:
Cairncross, John. After Polygamy Was Made a Sin: The Social History of Christian Polygamy. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1974. 
** Also bad: the idea that plural marriage could be beneficial by bringing single parents together with childless couples to form one family, thus reducing the need for adoption and foster care. While intentional co-parenting appears to be becoming more of a thing for some queer families, and I can't deny the influence that my life-long desire for a big family with lots of kids had on the formation of my own family with Amy and Dave, the opportunity for abuse seems way too big to me. "Unicorn hunting" is damaging enough without bringing children into the picture, especially when their mother may be in a very vulnerable place.

*** The section on contemporary fringe Mormon polygamy is the worst offender in this regard.