MARCH 20, 2020
The Happy Throuple Buys a Home
While the supporters of same-sex marriage dismissed claims from critics who predicted that once the Supreme Court opened the door to same-sex marriage in Obergefell in 2015, it would only be a matter of time before polygamous marriages would begin to be normalized. And although there are still laws against polygamy, polyamorous marriages are already being celebrated on mainstream cable television, in the media, and in the entertainment industry. Polyamorous marriage even made a brief debut in the halls of Congress when the openly bisexual California Representative Katie Hill proudly promoted polyamory—before she resigned under the cloud of an impending ethics investigation over campaign finance violations.
The once conservative HGTV—the same network that brought us the much-loved Fixer Upper, featuring the joyful evangelical family of Chip and Joanna Gaines—is now promoting what the producers have called a “throuple,” i.e., a man and two women in a romantic relationship, who are searching for a new home with room for three sinks in the master bathroom. Promoted on HGTV’s House Hunters as “Three’s Not a Crowd in Colorado Springs,” the marketing materials describe a “throuple” in need of a new home for their growing family and promise plenty of excitement as “the house hunt becomes difficult with only one week to satisfy three very different personalities.” In interviews, the newest female member of the throuple said, “Buying a house together as a throuple will signify our next big step as a family of five, rather than all four of them plus me … I didn’t plan on being in a relationship with a married couple, but it just happened very naturally, organically.”
Well, maybe not “naturally” because there is nothing “natural” about a marital throuple. Catholic teachings—as well as the teachings of all the major religions—are clear on the sanctity of marriage between one woman and one man. The relationship portrayed was an adulterous relationship, yet HGTV portrayed the throuple as a regular family with children in need of a new house. We learn that the husband in the relationship “always knew his legal wife, Lori was bisexual.” And we learn that he was always perfectly fine with that when he says: “This has nothing to do with church and state; it’s a commitment between the three of us. We are all equals in this relationship.” Well, maybe not entirely equal as his opinions were marginalized throughout the episode: the two female members of the throuple seemed to make all of the decisions. In the middle of the house-hunting, the throuple “tied the knot” in a commitment ceremony in Aruba.
While some viewers lauded the network for their openness to diversity, others used social media to express their unhappiness with the polyamorous marriage storyline. Chelsey Reimann, an HGTV spokesperson, told a USA Today reporter that the network “features all homebuyers.”
Perhaps. But it is possible that HGTV is simply attempting to respond to earlier criticisms of the network from LGBTQ activists for the network’s failure to highlight more gay, lesbian, and bisexual couples on the home-buying network. It is even more likely that HGTV is trying to respond to the threatened boycott in 2016 over allegations of “anti-gay bias” lodged against Fixer Upper’s Joanna and Chip Gaines because their Church, the Antioch Community Church, is a mission-based megachurch led by Jimmy Seibert, who is described by BuzzFeed as “taking a hard line against same-sex marriage.”
Whatever the reason, it is clear that polyamorous marriages are trending. Responding to the HGTV episode, former California Congresswoman Katie Hill tweeted about the network’s throuple and told followers: “You know I’m gonna take at least partial credit for enough of society knowing this term for it to be on House Hunters.” The term “throuple” first emerged from the halls of the House of Representatives when Hill’s own unique marriage became public in a very messy divorce. Hill was part of a throuple which included her, her husband, and a former campaign aide. Hill was pressured to resign her seat in Congress not because of her unique marriage but because the House Ethics Committee announced it was pursuing a formal investigation into campaign finances related to her romantic relationship with her campaign aide. Claiming that there is a “double standard” in Congress, Hill promises to promote polyamorous relationships and demand sexual equality for women in politics.
While most viewers of the HGTV episode might have thought polyamorous marriages are new, the reality is that in their quest to “destroy the patriarchy,” the radical feminists of the 1970s attempted to usher in an era of polyamorous relationships. While it was not successful, it was not for lack of trying. Hollywood released dozens of movies with themes of swinging and open marriage, like Paul Mazursky’s comedy about open marriage, Bob and Carol, and Ted and Alice. The film starring Dyan Canon and Natalie Wood was the fifth highest-grossing film of 1969. Beyond films, books on open marriage proliferated. In their 1972 best-selling marriage manual, Open Marriage: A New Life Style for Couples, Nena O’Neill and her husband George encouraged couples to “strip marriage of its antiquated ideals and romantic tinsel” and find ways to make it truly contemporary. Promising a new definition of marriage without jealousy and envy, the book created a scandal but spent more than 40 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. With statements such as “Sexual fidelity is the false god of closed marriage,” the book became a sensation. It was short-lived though, and, in 1977, Nena O’Neill published The Marriage Premise, which was described by The New York Times as arguing that “fidelity was perhaps not such a bad thing after all.”
It should not surprise us that polyamory is making a comeback because it is simply one more attack on the traditional family—or what radical feminists view as the patriarchy. It is one more way to “smash” the patriarchy.
Despite the hype, polyamory is doomed to fail. In her book Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage and Why We Stray, Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist, suggests that “open marriages never end up working long-term…The reasons open marriages don’t work are biological. The parts of the brain involved in romantic love are next to areas that help orchestrate thirst and hunger…Thirst and hunger aren’t going to change anytime soon, and neither is the pair-bonding instinct we recognize as romantic love. It evolved so our forebears could focus on one person and begin the mating process.” Fisher believes that couples in open marriages are people who “want it all…to preserve their deep attachment to one partner and have romance with others. They want to be honest about it. But what they don’t tell you is that our brains don’t do that very well.” Romantic attachments are “hardwired” and the norms surrounding marriage cannot be changed as easily as the sexually adventurous throuples might think they can.
Fisher knows that such relationships are burdened with jealousy and envy. It is no surprise that California Congresswoman Katie Hill’s marriage broke down in a public and vicious divorce replete with ugly recriminations from all sides. Hill’s rancorous divorce serves as a reminder that any attempt to dramatically change the marriage rules by bringing back the “open marriages” of the 1970s will fail because we are hardwired to know that these relationships can never work. These polyamorous relationships feel wrong because they are wrong. They are sinful. Faithful Catholics call such marriages “adulterous” rather than polyamorous. We do that because words matter, and the word “adultery” is itself derived from the Latin root “to alter” or “to corrupt.” Faithful Catholics know that “polyamorous marriage” is a corruption of marriage—an aberration that will soon be relegated to the same dustbin of history as the failed “open marriages” of the past.
Photo credit: YouTube/PeopleTV
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. She is the author of Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education; The Politics of Abortion; and The Politics of Deviance (Encounter Books). She is also the co-author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops are Revitalizing the Catholic Church (2013).