Marriage, Family, and Alternative Lifestyles


Leo Madrigal and Damien Wynter 

For most persons marriage means only one thing: traditional monogamy.  For many others, however, less-conventional domestic arrangements are clearly preferable.  In the long history of civilization, every conceivable form of marriage has been idealized, and most have, at one time or another, enjoyed currency in one part of the world or another.  But today public sentiment and the law, at least in the West, remain steadfastly opposed to all alternatives to exclusive heterosexual monogamy.  Nevertheless, non-conformist groups will always experiment, and freethinking individuals will always pursue lifestyles most conducive to their own personal fulfillment.

          In the nineteenth century it was de rigueur for men of the Mormon faith to take several wives each.  This custom so outraged the rest of American society that Mormons became the object of derision and persecution.  In 1864 the United States Congress made polygamy (including both polygyny and polyandry) against the law, and for many years the predominantly Mormon Utah Territory was denied statehood because of this very issue.  Then in 1891 the governing body of the Mormon Church, yielding to public pressure, issued an edict to the effect that Mormons would no longer contract illegal marriages.  Utah was admitted to the Union six years later.  Of course, some Mormons—mostly those belonging to splinter groups—continued in secret defiance of the edict and the law to practice polygyny.

          Meanwhile, another non-centrist Christian sect was practicing its own peculiar form of complex or plural marriage.  Within this group every woman was considered wed to every man.  Under the leadership of John Noyes, these Perfectionists, as they called themselves, established a successful community of more than one hundred faithful at Oneida, New York, and supported themselves for decades with several commonly owned industries, the most-successful and best known of which is the Oneida Silver Company.

          As the century drew to a close, an intoxicating spirit of freedom and adventure asserted itself and gave rise to a marital alternative then known as the gay life (years later to be called the swinging-singles lifestyle).  Gay in the 1890s had not yet come to denote homosexuality.  In any case, this sexually promiscuous non-marriage enjoyed revival in the 1920s and again in the 1950s. 

          The 1960s witnessed a trend toward even greater permissiveness, which led in turn to wider experimentation with alternative forms of marriage.  During that decade of free love, thousands of communes were established across the North American continent.  According to one poll, some three million young people participated in the loosely structured cooperative lifestyle typical of these communes.  Superficially similar to group marriages, yet with no serious commitment on the part of their gypsy constituents and little expectation of permanence, most communes failed within a year or so.  The few that still survive are exceptional for the sense of family they have managed to create.

          Several writers have explored, in works of fiction and non-fiction, numerous matrimonial options.  In Open Marriage Nena and George O’Neill chronicled their quest for wedded bliss through non-exclusive monogamy.  Dr. Lawrence Casler attempted in Is Marriage Necessary? to demonstrate that in most cases “holy monogamy gives way to holy monotony.”  And Robert A. Heinlein in any number of science-fiction epics, most notably The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, introduced us to a peculiar version of group marriage that he called line marriage, and to which I shall shortly return, for it deserves special attention. 

          Without doubt, the most respected guru of alternative lifestyles was Robert H. Rimmer.  In The Harrad Experiment and later in Harrad Summer, he dealt with a specific form of plural marriage whereby two or more couples joined together to create a tribal group, each participant, therefore, having a primary mate and one or more secondary mates.  In Thursday, My Love, his subject was non-exclusive monogamy.  And in The Rebellion of Yale Marratt, he made a case for polygyny.

          Since the advent of AIDS, the swinging-singles lifestyle has become too risky for any but the most reckless, as has open marriage.  To feel completely safe from sexually transmitted diseases, one’s circle of sexual contacts must be closed.  However, that circle need not be limited to just one other person.  Polygamous and group marriages, as long as they remain absolutely exclusive, are every bit as safe as monogamous unions, perhaps even safer, since the temptation to cheat is diminished.

          Of course, it is not entirely beyond the realm of possibility that one mate could provide all the companionship, emotional support, intellectual stimulation, and sexual gratification longed for in a lifetime, but such an expectation seems less then likely to be fulfilled.  Researcher Carol Botwin claims to have established that sixty to seventy per cent of married men and forty per cent of married women engage in extramarital affairs.  Variety, the spice of life, it would seem, is also the spice of love.  Without that spice, couples tend very quickly to become bored with each other and then to drift apart.  Traditional marriages fail at a rate of one in three.  And how many of those marriages that survive can be said to be happy?  Certainly not all; probably not even most.

          Yet fairy-tale expectations persist.  Lovers, imagining that they will live together happily ever after, do blithely vow to forsake all others until death doth them part.  If any marriage ends not in divorce, then one or the other of the couple must eventually face bereavement.

          Objections to polygamy might include the argument that such one-sided relationships are inherently unfair.  I would not necessarily agree, but neither am I confident that polygamy answers all the deficits of monogamy.

          Perhaps, though, group marriage does, or rather I should say that line marriage does.  Imagine if you can a multi-generational family—a tribal continuum—all adult members of which are joined together in wedlock: co-wives and co-husbands.  The principle of synergy works to the benefit of all and guarantees economic security.  Real property (though not personal property) is held in common, and limited economic cooperation provides advantages no traditional family could reasonably hope to achieve.  Children and their care are the responsibility of all, and all participate in their upbringing.  Members grow old surrounded by fellow members, any one of whom might, as need requires, fill the role of friend, confidant, advisor, sibling, helpmeet, or lover.  From time to time there is loss to death, but grief shared is somehow a little more bearable.  Nor is anyone ever left to face life alone, for there is also revitalization as new, younger members are welcomed into the group.  Line marriages, you see, as distinguished from other group marriages, are intended to be perpetual.

          Obviously, not every person is suited to this type of arrangement.  Some individuals are too immature to accept responsibility.  Others are too neurotic or insecure, given to jealousy and possessiveness.  Therefore, a careful screening process is wanted for prospective members and probably a period of engagement, during which a sexual quarantine is imposed.  Interestingly, it is those best qualified to become monogamous mates that would be most desirable to a group marriage.

          Every marriage must define itself, and every individual must seek the kind of family life that is most appealing to him or her.  Still, it would be unfortunate if obedience to tradition and intolerance for the unconventional were to prejudice decisions that might well be amongst life’s most important.  It must never be forgotten that the institutions of marriage and family were created to serve the needs of human beings, to contribute to their happiness and wellbeing, and not to enslave them.

Copyright  DW & LM