Nevermind the Sister Wives, Here's the Brother Husbands

How trying fake polygamy made me appreciate friends without benefits.
Publish date:
June 30, 2011
polygamy, big love, sister wives, brother husbands

Brothers and sisters! Lend me your ears, for I have a testimony! For yea, I have breathed deeply of the zeitgeist, and it is rife with the odor of polygamy!

I don’t think I can sustain the faux-biblical tone for 1,500 words without us all wanting to kill me, but it’s pretty hard to argue that polygamy (or more accurately, polygyny, which specifically means one dude and lots of ladies) has been having a cultural moment for some time. The Book of Mormon is the biggest hit on Broadway. HBO’s hit series "Big Love" ended in March after five season, and together with "Sister Wives," its reality TV counterpart on TLC, made the latter’s namesake concept a household term.

With all these sister-wives abounding, and as a married person who sometimes finds her very copious (and very unloveable) attention-related needs not totally, absolutely, 100 percent filled by her otherwise adorable husband, I couldn’t help but wonder (in the immortal words of Carrie “Tolstoy” Bradshaw), do women ever get to do this? Where are the brother-husbands of the world?

Poly Moms and Non-Moms

As would any serious journalist, I turned first to the enormous repository of aberrant behavior that is the Internet, only to find that brother-husbands, in the strictest sense, are pretty thin on the ground. After unearthing some interesting trivia about the Toda women of Southern India, who often marry brothers, the Maasai women of Kenya, who symbolically wed their entire age-group (like getting married to all the boys in your senior class); and the unusual domestic situation of the actress Tilda Swinton, who lives a castle in the Scottish Highlands with her young, hot boyfriend, who accompanies her to all her glamorous events, and her much older husband, who has long acceded his spot as consort and spends his days quietly and asexually looking after their children and sheep, I finally found a blog by a woman who calls herself “Poly Mom.”

An ex-Mormon, “Polly” lives somewhere in the Pacific Northwest with her two husbands, who consider themselves partners to Polly and each other and if her blog is to be believed, are the two most saintly, patient, helpful men on the planet who cater unselfishly to her emotional needs (let’s put it this way: there’s a lot of tearful cuddling going on that in that house) and never, ever forget to put a new garbage bag in the bin when the old one is full, which leads me to believe that they must be at least partially fictionalized.

Unfortunately, Polly declined my request for an interview, due to privacy concerns, and perhaps unwilling to see her narrative interpreted through someone else’s eyes. Her reticence left me with only one possible outlet for my curiosity. I would have to conduct an experiment the likes of which had never been seen before. I would have to take brother-husbands of my own. Of course, there was the question of my real-life husband, who wasn’t so into the idea, temporary or otherwise. And by not into, I mean deeply, insanely, biologically opposed.

“You’re what?” he sputtered. “You want to go have sex with other guys?”

“No!” I exclaimed. After all, if Bill Henrickson, Kody Brown from "Sister Wives" and Polly Mom had taught me anything, it was that polygamy has nothing to do with S-E-X (I’m spelling it out because that’s what Barb always did on "Big Love"). Polygamy is about love and family and inner beauty, like when a girl from some reality TV show explains she’s attracted to the person, not the genitalia (usually while making out with her own boobs on the cover of Maxim) and after seven years with my husband, the idea of sleeping with anyone else ever again seems terrifyingly complicated as such an endeavor would require all manner of minute rituals of shaving and grooming upon parts I have long forgotten are expected to be shaved and groomed.

Also, if it made him feel any better I already had given a lot of thought as to which of my male acquaintances I would take to husband, and after eliminating the obvious troublemakers (too demanding, too opinionated, too inappropriately sexual) as any responsible, family-minded polygamist matriarch or cult-leader must, the three candidates left for the newly expanded post of Mr. Shukert were all gentlemen who happened to prefer the sexual company of other gentlemen.

“Do whatever you have to do, I guess,” First Husband sighed. “Just keep it clean. I don’t want any weirdo internet perverts getting any ideas.”

Meet The Brother Husbands

Michael; Age: 29.

Special Marital Superpowers (or SMS, which also stands for Short Message Service and more importantly, Stoneybrook Middle School): Can get free tickets to any play on Broadway, always answers his phone, has nice Upper East Side parents with potential for the kind of cozy weekend family get-togethers I have always desperately wanted.Ben; Age: n/a.

OSMS: The least judgmental person in the world. Excellent homemaker--buys vodka and chicken breasts in bulk. Laughs like Suzanne Pleshette from "The Bob Newhart Show," which I wonder what that means that I find that oddly sexy in a man.Peter; Age: 27.

SMS: Very tall. Very tolerant, indeed encouraging, of all forms of whimsy. Not Jewish, adding needed chromosomal variety to an otherwise pretty shallow gene pool.Visiting The In-Laws (aka Second Husband Michael's Parents)

Michael’s parents were waiting at the door of their Upper East Side apartment to greet us both with big hugs.

“You’re here!” Michael’s mother exclaimed.

“Just in time to help me clean out Michael’s old room!”

“WHAT?” Michael’s mouth dropped.

“I thought it would be a good ‘wife’ thing for Rachel,” she explained. “I need the space for overflow from my office. And when we’re done we’ll all go out for Peking duck and spareribs at Pig Heaven, like a nice Jewish family.”

Michael’s childhood bedroom is immaculate, a shrine. The shelves are lined with relics: the prayer book from his Bar Mitzvah, photographs of his triumph as Nanki-Poo in his 7th grade production of “The Mikado,” certificates proclaiming him exceptional at whatever hobby or contest or art form to which he set his hand.

“You can’t get rid of my Pez collection,” Michael cried, having trailed us down the hallway. “The Pez collection stays!”

“What about these?” I fingered a pair of stuffed toys, Baby Piggy and Baby Kermie dressed up in wintry Dickensian finery, that I recognize as having come from McDonald’s Happy Meals during the Christmas season of 1988. “Could they maybe go into storage?” Michael went pale.

Here it was: my chance to be a wife, a loving and patient matriarch, capable of guiding my celestial family through the cruelest storm.

“Michael,” I said, in a tone I hoped was both gentle and firm. “Stop being such a fucking baby. When my mother did this I had no idea until I came home for Thanksgiving and all my stuff had disappeared. If there’s anything you want to keep, you can take it to your apartment, where you live.”

His mother winked at me. “I can tell you’ve been married before.”

A few days later, when Michael emailed to ask for a divorce, he forwarded a message from his mother: a link to a silly Passover video entitled: “Google Exodus: What if Moses had Facebook?”

I may have lost a brother husband, but I had gained another Jewish mother-in-law.

Bridal Registry With Third Husband Ben

Ben AKA Third Husband, was waiting for me at the bridal registry desk at Crate and Barrel, all dressed up in a suit and tie.

“We eloped!” he exclaimed to the woman behind the counter.

“Oh my God, congratulations!” she squealed, with such genuine delight that I actually felt a little guilty. She handed us one of those little bleeping gun things that scan the bar codes of the stuff you want on your registry.

“Do you know how to use one of these?”

“My wife does,” Ben said. “You see, this isn’t her first time at the rodeo.”

Indeed, I had fond memories of registering for our wedding at this very store with First Husband, at least until we got in a screaming fight over the viability of non-stick cookware and had to go back to Brooklyn in separate cabs.

“Oh my God, if we were really married, we could have the girliest apartment,” Ben said, as we bleeped in our orders for several hundred wine glasses, a dramatic scarlet velvet chaise lounge and a bunch of lavender satin throw pillows that we liked because they reminded us of Miss Piggy’s gloves.

It was interesting, I thought how each of my pretend marriages seemed to encapsulate a certain kind of fantasy that had never materialized for me in real life. With Michael, it was the tight-knit boisterous New York City family (which First Husband and I, with our parents living far away, could never really have): the Chinese food en famille every Sunday, the highly involved in-laws who know exactly how to deal with competitive pre-schools and co-op boards. With Ben, it was like something out of a Noel Coward play: the doting but sexually ambiguous husband, the devastatingly sophisticated wife, their glittering coterie of friends and lovers. With Peter, my Fourth Husband, the fantasy stopped, although through no fault on his part.

Dinner And Dancing With Fourth Husband Peter

If you remember from my earlier description of him, Peter is an incredibly good sport with a very high tolerance for weirdness, so we decided to do something “fun” and attend a public ballroom dancing class in a church basement.

Peter and I are not only embarrassingly bad dancers, as it turned out, we also brought the median age of the room down by about 60 years. I love and respect the elderly; however, when you realize that the thing pressing against your hip is not your partner’s incipient erection but rather the swell of his rapidly warming adult diaper, well, let’s just say that’s a line you really should be mentally prepared to cross.

After we skipped out of the “social” dance after class and went to get cheeseburgers near by, I asked Peter what he thought of polygamy, in general. “Not much,” he admitted. “I guess it’s just sort of counter to what my idea of a relationship is. For me, it’s really is about picking one person and dealing with them, for better or for worse. That’s the hard part, and the great part. That it’s just the two of you.”

Family Night!

But now, it was just the four of us, on our first Family Night. For polygamist Mormons, Family Night (if "Big Love" is anything to go by) means evenings in your enormous communal backyard singing hymns as the menfolk barbecue lobsters and crab legs in the fire pit next to the above-ground pool/personal baptismal font; the brother husbands and I wound up at a cheap Italian restaurant in the East Village, across the street from the theater where Ben was in final dress rehearsal for a show involving a bunch of drag queens dressed up as Lindsay Lohan.

“I’ll just be the busy husband who runs in and out,” Ben said.

Peter was the late husband, running, as usual, at least half an hour late. But that was one of the good things about polygamy, I mused to myself, as we drank and ate and laughed. If someone is late, or distracted, or too busy, there’s always someone else to pay attention to you.

“You can’t expect one person to fulfill all your emotional needs,” I had said to Peter after our aborted ballroom mission. “That’s not healthy.”

“No,” Peter had said. “That’s why people have friends.”

“And if you don’t want to be just friends with someone?” I asked, playing devil's advocate.

“Well,” Peter snorted. “Then it’s about sex.”

I don’t know if I agree with that; I think that polygamous relationships probably come in as many sizes and shapes and emotional gradients as monogamous ones do. Some are oppressive and patriarchal; some are hugely sexual; some about a network of emotional support that for the participants, simple friendship doesn’t seem to offer.

What Does It All Mean?

But I think Peter tapped into something about what’s driving the sudden interest in polygamy, the mainstream curiosity suddenly driving it of the shadows, and it’s deeper and more raw than merely prurient interest. Rather, we’re longing for something that has been lost.

Polygamy will never be the norm--most of us are just not wired that way, and doing your taxes would turn into a fucking nightmare--but we all need people in our life who will feed the cat when we’re out of town or drop everything to come over and watch us cry when our grandma dies (or, yes, agree to pose as fake polygamist husbands for a magazine article). We all need to feel like someone will be there for us no matter what. Polygamists, for all their faults, seem to have those things. They might not teach us how to be better partners, but maybe they can teach us how to be better friends.

After karaoke with Michael that night, I crawled into bed beside my real husband, trying not to wake him. “Just the two of us,” he murmured sleepily, curling up tight against my back. Just the two of us. At the end of the day, that’s more than enough.