By Natasha Helfer Parker
Natasha Helfer Parker is a licensed clinical marriage & family therapist and certified sex therapist with almost 20 years experience working primarily with Latter-day Saints. She can be contacted at natashaparker.org.
Question: Mormons believe that if we are sealed together as husband and wife—and if we honor our covenants—we will be together as a couple for eternity. That seems like a simple enough doctrine. However, we allow widows and widowers to remarry after the death of their spouse. We also have sealing policies that allow living men to be sealed to more than one woman. However, we don’t allow living women to be sealed to more than one man, though after she dies we will seal her to all the husbands she had in mortality.
When we hear of widows or widowers remarrying, congratulations and well wishing are everywhere. But no one dares ask: “What impact do you think this will have on your first sealing? You say you’re just remarrying to ‘take care of one another.’ Do you really think that’s all a second marriage is? What are you going to do as your love for one another grows? What’s going to happen to your relationship with your prior spouse?”
This topic has come up between my wife and me before. My wife was taught that men will have more than one wife in the Celestial Kingdom and it turns out that I am a “waiter” married to a “non-waiter.” In other words, she plans to get remarried if I die first, while I don’t plan to remarry if she’s the first to go. Ever since I understood that my wife is open to the idea of spending eternity with someone else, I have kept my feelings in check. Outwardly we have a wonderful marriage. We’ve been married 28 years and have raised four wonderful children. We’re active and hold callings. But there is an intimate part of me that refuses to give our marriage 100% because I don’t really know if we belong to each other or to potential others.
Answer: As this question points out, the doctrine and history of Mormon polygamy is complicated, unclear, and often taboo. Projects such as Lindsay Park’s A Year of Polygamy podcast and books such as Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness are just now starting to help us unravel our polygamous history and its implications. Since the early 1900s the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has separated itself behaviorally from polygamy, though the initial stages of this separation were often laced with hidden meaning and secrecy that left members confused and divided.
That confusion persists to this day. Mythology and folklore attached to polygamy continue to haunt Church members around the world: some believe that polygamy will be practiced in the Celestial Kingdom, others believe that its practice will return to the earth during the “last days.” People are exposed to different ideas about the practice depending on their family history, religious history, and geography. For example, in areas where the Church is fairly new there is little to no knowledge of the Church’s polygamous past, despite the online Gospel Topics essays that address it1 (the essays were not announced over the pulpit nor included in worldwide leadership trainings).
So, though the Church has officially stated that we do not practice polygamy and that we excommunicate those who do, our temple rituals still include polygamous ceremonies. In fact, current living apostles proudly claim eternal relationships with more than one woman. Not being a historian or theologian, I can’t help in the clarification of doctrinal issues, but as a sex and marriage & family therapist, I have deep concerns about how our beliefs about polygamy can negatively impact the quality and capacity of lds marriages.
The differences in each gender’s commitment in temple ceremonies have consequences that reach beyond first marriages. In a temple sealing, the bride covenants to “give” herself to the groom while the groom covenants to “receive” the bride. In other words, a female can only “give” herself fully to one person—but a male can “receive” many. I’ve worked with several young, widowed female clients with children from their first marriage who, when remarrying, are unable to participate in the sealing ordinances because they have been sealed before. Some of these women reported that their new husband or his family were pressuring them to cancel their previous sealing so that yet unborn children could be born in the covenant and sealed to their biological father (rather than to her first husband). The polygamous implications of the sealing ordinance also affect the children, who often report distress and confusion when trying to understand whom they belong to and how they are connected.
Ask yourself: do my beliefs about marriage in the afterlife make me unwilling to invest fully in my current marriage? Do they give rise to any degree of alienation between my spouse and me? If the answer is yes, then I suggest that you begin to talk with your spouse about the messages each of you has internalized about polygamy, and how those beliefs affect your current relationship. This is best done in a non-shaming, non-judgmental way.
Here are a few questions that can help get you started.
- Is it acceptable if one of us believes polygamy is not an inspired teaching while the other believes it is?
- Do our views on how polygamy may affect our future have an impact on the sense of safety in our current relationship?
- Do we joke about polygamy? If so, what do those jokes really mean? How do they leave us feeling?
- If we believe that others could become a part of our marital union at some point in the future, how does that affect our current level of intimacy as a couple?
- Do our views on polygamy have sexual implications? Is it a part of our fantasies? Is that acceptable to both of us?
- Do we feel pressure to either defend or fight against belief in polygamy?
- How much time do we spend wondering what it might be like to have to live the Principle? What kinds of feelings do those ruminations give rise to?
- Do the answers to any of these questions correlate to or exacerbate such things as low self-esteem, anxiety, or depression?
- Does polygamy affect our relationship with Mormonism? If so, how does that affect our marriage?
Mormons like answers, but when we are dealing with something as vast as the eternities and as complicated as marital relationships and parenting, it’s to everyone’s benefit to build in some room for nuance, flexibility, differentiation, and the unknown. It is likely that most people will love more than one person and even have children with more than one person during the course of earthly life. I believe we could keep our beloved “families are forever” creed while doing away with polygamous purported doctrines and our current patriarchal framework by conceptualizing sealings as the unification of family systems—focusing less on the marital relationship and more on the family in its entirety. We could celebrate the sealing as a ritual that connects humankind as a whole. This would allow for single parents to be sealed to their children, women to be sealed to more than one husband while she is alive (as men are able to do) and many other inclusive options. Decisions about who we spend romantic, eternal relationships with (and how we do so) could be left to the mystery realm—with the knowledge that relationships of any kind are important and integral to our sense of happiness and wholeness. If we’re going to believe in a God who creates and relishes family let’s be as inclusive as possible.
Though Mormons like to disparage it, the “till death do us part” portion of most Christian marriage ceremonies can be a useful concept. Things I believe now might change rather quickly were I faced with my husband’s untimely death. I’m sure the same would be true for him if I passed away unexpectedly. It seems to me that love itself is the most important thing—not which person it is attached to during a marriage ceremony. No one fully understands love’s depth, healing power, or ability to solve what may now seem unsolvable. Love is the framework from which I choose to live my present moment. It is the one thing I “know.” How sad it would be for a largely unknown future to hold my present relationship hostage.
Most Mormons would probably agree that we don’t actually have the eternities, in all their awe and complexity, figured out. I am thankful that the founders of our faith were willing to wrestle with the eternities, engaging it with their questions, debates, discussions, and—at times—progressive thoughts. We can either allow the enormity of eternity to liberate us, teach us to accept the uncertain, and help us hand our hearts and relationships over to God; or we can allow it to paralyze us with fear, anxiety, and the delusion that we know more than we do. I hope we can enjoy the truths we find in the healthy aspects of our doctrine while rejecting the teachings and traditions that damage both our relationships and the women of our church. We cannot allow for any level of misogyny to infiltrate the gospel teachings we take to the world.
I hope our church will take steps to leave behind the destructive implications polygamy can bring to members’ relationships. Then will we, as members, be free to fully claim the present moment and invest accordingly in the role of spouse.