I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do

The same-sex-marriage debate--and polygamy's rising cultural profile--has encouraged once secretive plural families to fight for recognition of their unions

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Peter Bohler for TIME

Joe Darger with his three wives, from left, Vicki, Val and Alina. Vicki and Val are identical twins.

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On paper, the Dargers' domestic arrangements are gasp-inducing. In person, though, they look like just another very, very big family. Their kids go to public school; they do homework, have part-time jobs, play football, put videos on the Web of themselves singing achy love songs. They even grumble about their family structure. Raising 23 kids requires compromises: one son bridles at eating "polygamy cheese" (deeply discounted and a little moldy); others decline to travel in the "polyg rig" (the 15-seat family van). "Sometimes they say, 'You're not having any more kids, are you?'" says Val, 42.

The Darger wives wear makeup and smart casual clothes--at least when company's coming. Two of them work outside the home, running a high-end cleaning firm, while the third, Vicki, usually looks after the toddlers. Except for the fact that it has three master bedrooms (one in each wife's chosen style), theirs feels like a normal house--a normal house with a punishing amount of laundry.

Polygamy is still technically a crime in Utah, although Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has made it clear he isn't going to prosecute unless other crimes are involved. But the Dargers, who belong to no organized church, do the opposite of hiding their lifestyle. They have written a book, Love Times Three, in which they detail how it works, including how Joe apportions his time among his three wives--each wife gets him every third night--and what he does with them while there, which turns out to be a lot of listening. "Trust me," he writes. "It can't all be about the sex."

They regularly speak about plural marriage as they practice it to media outlets and state-run organizations like Utah Safety Net, a group set up to build bridges with polygamous families. The Dargers are on a mission, if not to legalize polygamy, then at least to decriminalize it and reduce the cringe factor. "We just feel like we have a different story to tell than the stereotype," says Vicki, who married Joe when she and Alina were 19. "Certain things will be hot-button phrases--'Polygamy equals abuse' or 'It's all about power and control'--but these things can exist in monogamous marriage too. We became public because there are truths that needed to come out." These truths, they say, include that Vicki and Alina suggested Joe marry Val after she and her five kids fled her first husband.

Alternatives to Marriage

Across the country, just outside Boston, the Dargers have an ally of sorts in Thomas Amoroso. An emergency physician, Amoroso has a live-in girlfriend, Katherine, who has a live-in husband, Matt. (Amoroso also has another girlfriend.) They don't seek attention, but they're not averse to it. "We routinely walk down the sidewalk hand in hand in hand," says Matt, although he and Katherine would prefer that their last name not be made public.

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