Struggles of a Polygamist Family: Tension When Wives Choose the Husband

Lisa Ling documents the tension within a polygamist family in Arizona.

Oct. 21, 2011— -- The common perception of polygamy is that men pick out the women they want to marry. But at Centennial Park, a polygamist community in Arizona, the opposite is true: It's up to the women to choose their husbands with the help of God, a choice that has brought tension into the household of Michael, Rose, Connie and Teresa.

Their story will be featured on "Our America with Lisa Ling," on Sunday, Oct. 23 at 10 p.m. ET on OWN.

Michael, 42, is a school teacher, a husband to three women and a father of 15 children. While he believes plural marriage is a spiritual mandate, the lifestyle is often easier in theory than in practice.

"To go before the nation and share my family on a very intimate level is absolutely a risk because this lifestyle is against the law," Michael said. "That said, God's law supersedes."

His first wife is Rose, who chose him. The couple was married 19 years ago and they have eight children together. Rose was raised in the principle of plural marriage and said growing up she had 10 mothers, one father and 67 siblings.

"I believe I am the 49th," she said.

The two lived together as a single couple for seven years, which Rose said was "not satisfying" to her. She was actually relieved when another wife, Connie, came along.

"Caring for the needs of the man ... I enjoy having help doing that," she said.

Connie, 31, has been married to Michael for 12 years, and that added six more children to the family.

"When I was a young girl, I was taught that we should ask the Lord to guide us to the person we had to covenanted to marry," she said. "So I started praying at quite a young age that I would meet him."

If the heavenly signs are unclear, a woman may seek guidance from the spiritual leaders of the community, who can suggest a husband. But for Connie, the message was clear to her at age 12.

"I was in 6th grade math," she said. "All of a sudden, the thought came to me that, 'Here is the answer to what you've been asking for.' And I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, really? Seriously? That's so embarrassing, right? Ew, really? My math teacher?"

Connie waited until she was 19 to tell her father and the spiritual leaders of Centennial Park that she believed Michael was her intended husband. The elders called Michael and, three weeks later, he and Connie were married. She had never spoken to Rose before she joined the family.

"Initially, [it was] fine," Connie said. "After a while, they were strained because we were all just learning how to do it, learning how to live this way. ... We're on our way to being really good friends."

While Connie and Rose have worked out their differences, it has not been so welcoming for Teresa, Michael's third wife and mother of one. She has not been living with the family for several months.

"Every time you add a personality to a family, whether it's a new child or a new lady, it just totally changes the dynamics of the family," she said.

Teresa said that the problems primarily came up between herself and Connie. One night, the two got into a fight over Teresa using some of the bread Connie had bought to make a sandwich.

"I approached Michael and asked him, 'You know, I'm having a lot of these issues with Connie, particularly," and the way he perceived that [was] that I was tearing her down -- and that wasn't OK with him," Teresa said. "It really contributed to my feeling of, 'Wow, there's really not a way to work out these problems.'

"Now, of course, I have options," she continued. "I have the option not to live with the family."

Unable to resolve their conflicts, Teresa and her 2-year-old daughter, Brianna -- Michael's 15th child -- left home and moved back in with her parents.

Michael said it was one of the most difficult moments in his marriage.

"I'm in a position of leadership for the family," he said. "And, of course, I was to say, 'Why can't we just love each other and get along?' But if she wants to move out, that's her choice. If she wants to leave my family permanently, it's her choice. I personally refuse to exercise an unrighteous dominion over that choice. God doesn't and I won't."

Teresa is weighing her options of whether to move back in with the rest of the family or live apart from the other wives. That she has the option at all defies most of what little is known about polygamist families.

Watch their story on "Our America with Lisa Ling," on Sunday, Oct. 23 at 10 p.m. ET on OWN.