Book Openers: Is Polygamy Normal?

book jacket "Love Times Three" Darger familyBy Barbara Falconer Newhall

People who are against same-sex marriage often go out of their way to say, “Marriage is between one man and one woman.”

I noticed that while reporting a story about gay marriage for the Contra Costa Times in Walnut Creek, California, some years ago.

Why “one” man and “one” woman, I wondered? Isn’t it obvious that a marriage is between two people?

I now suspect that my conservative sources – many were Evangelical Christians – were looking warily at polygamists. Specifically, fundamentalist Mormon polygynists.

Men with more than one wife.

Same sex marriage for those conservative-thinking folks was a slippery slope. If gays could get their marriages legalized, what was to keep all those polygamists from seeking legalization of their status as well?

At the time I thought the anti-gay marriage conservatives were way too sensitive. No way was our society going to sanction polygamy. Polygamy was barbaric. Polygamists were weird. Everybody knew that.

Not so fast.

Joe Darger and his three wives. Photo by Barbara Falconer Newhall

Joe Darger and his three wives. Photo by Barbara Falconer Newhall.

Since researching that story on same-sex marriage, I have watched season after season of TV’s “Big Love” (one man, three wives, lotsa kids).

I’ve also watched a couple of episodes of “Sister Wives” (one man, four wives, more kids).

And I’ve read Love Times Three: Our True Story of a Polygamous Marriage (one man, three wives, 23 living children), by Joe, Alina, Vicki and Valerie Darger.

And I can’t help concluding that polygyny – as practiced in fiction and in fact by these three families – is neither barbaric nor weird.

Love Times Three is a great read. All kinds of juicy details about how two of the Darger wives courted and married their husband at the same time. How the sister of one wife – her twin! – joined the marriage later on. How “date nights” are managed. And how this huge family manages to live together under one roof (11 computers, 5 bathrooms, 10 cars).

Journalist and co-author Brooke Adams did a fine job of winning this family’s trust, asking the tough questions, and providing background on a polygamous culture that is more prevalent – and dare I say more viable – than most Americans would like to believe.

Love Times Three: Our True Story of a Polygamous Marriage

Joe, Alina, Vicki, and Valerie Darger

With Brooke Adams

2011 HarperOne $26.99 Hardcover

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Read about my encounter with the Darger family.



  1. Polyandry is practiced in the Himalayas by Sherpas, Tibetans and others. It’s the opposite of polygamy: one woman has several husbands. Usually the husbands are brothers, and may range in age from children to adults depending upon the age of the brothers. There is a sensible reason why this is practiced: it keeps the population in check (e.g., sustainable), since conditions are harsh and food and other resources are limited. I think the motivations are pretty different than with polygamy in the U.S.

    The only reason I miss HBO is Big Love (and also Bill Maher 😉

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Right. One woman can only produce so many babies. But then… I wonder, what happens to the women who don’t get a bunch of husbands? Do they go to a convent as in medieval days of old?

      “Big Love” was a surprisingly good show. And, unlike many ongoing shows, the writers managed to tie up all the plot lines in a very satisfying, logical way. I’m still bitter about how “Lost” ended, or more accurately, didn’t end.

  2. Check out this story on on polygamy in Libya — and the US.

  3. Barbara Saunders says:

    Also worth considering, in my opinion, letting people who are not romantic or sexual partners create economic and social households. A friend posted about a New Hampshire bill that, in addition to legalizing same sex marriage, would allow civil union between any unmarried adult competent to enter into a contract, including relatives.

    • Interesting. I wonder if people would have to live in the same household to enter into such a contract… And I wonder whether a lot of domestic partners are already simply friends wanting to take advantage of the domestic partners benefits.

      • Barbara Saunders says:

        Some marriages, too, are friends simply wanting to take advantage of the benefits: I know a woman who married a friend because the two of them (both in their 40s and un-partnered) wanted children. They created a household through marriage and had a planned divorce when the children reached a predetermined age. Meanwhile, I’ve learned from couples who don’t want to marry that straight people in some (most?) jurisdictions cannot get DP benefits as an alternative to marriage.

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