The disturbing truth behind Sister Wives

If you thought a reality television show starring one man with four wives would be filled with drama, well, you'd be 100 percent right. The TLC series debuted in 2010, showcasing the ins and outs of life with husband Kody Brown, wives Meri, Janelle, Robyn, and Christine, and all their kids — 17 in total.  That equates to plenty of material to televise, but behind the scenes, the controversy and spectacle runs even deeper.

Keep reading to find out how the family's outlaw status may have been overstated, how Kody legally divorced one of his wives to marry another, and how this man and wife and wife and wife and wife manage their finances, love life, and more. Though the cast has been plagued with accusations that the show is fake, there have been plenty of genuine headaches and sorrows behind the scenes. From depression and money woes to an unfortunate catfishing scandal and expulsion from church, here's the disturbing truth behind Sister Wives

Kody divorced one wife so he could marry another

In a truly head-scratching move, Kody Brown, the patriarch of the Sister Wives family, divorced his one legal wife, Meri, in February 2015. Why? So he could legally marry one of his other wives, Robyn. As TMZ (and a basic understanding of marriage law) explains, Brown is only allowed to be legally married to one wife at a time. His decision was reportedly driven by his desire to adopt Robyn's three children from a previous marriage to ensure they "have security within the family, such as insurance and access to other benefits." For her part, Meri — who was legally married to Kody for more than 20 years — took the decision in stride.

"It's about the kids; it's about the unity of the family," she said during a Sister Wives reunion special (via People). Still, she remained honest about the emotional impact the divorce had on her. "I'm not gonna lie: I've got that mixed emotion going on," she said. "It's an end of something that we had had, in a way, for 24 and a half years. But at the same time, I know it's not [the end], because I have eternity with him; I have eternity with the family. I know it's not the end." 

Regular watchers of the show know that the last part of Meri's statement hasn't aged particularly well, considering her subsequent estrangement from Kody and the rest of the family, which we'll get to momentarily. 

The family faced felony bigamy charges

When the show premiered in 2010, the Brown family became the subject of a police investigation over whether its members were in violation of Utah's bigamy laws, which have strict rules about even cohabitating with another person while you're already married to someone else. In the wake of the scandal, the Browns packed up and moved to Nevada, where they felt "they could live more openly and with more religious freedom," according to InTouch Weekly.

The investigation against Kody and his wives was dismissed in 2012, but the Browns' legal battles continued. The family pursued its own lawsuit against Utah, claiming "the state's bigamy statute violates their constitutional rights to due process, equal protection, free exercise of religion, free speech and freedom of association," according to The Hollywood Reporter. In September 2016, the plaintiffs asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, but in January 2017, the court opted not to hear the Brown's appeal. According to Page Six, "The justices left in place a lower court ruling that said Kody Brown and his four wives can't sue over the law because they weren't charged under it." Case closed.

Did they milk legal woes for ratings?

When the Browns were being investigated for potential bigamy charges, they hurriedly escaped to Las Vegas, Nev., where "mere cohabitation" does not constitute a punishable bigamy offense, as it does in Utah, according to the legal blog Justia. What that means in layman's terms is that Kody and co. were free to live like one big, happy, plural family, so long as only one marriage license existed between him and one spouse. 

But was their flight to the Silver State really as dramatic as they made it look on TV? According to third wife Christine's aunt, Kristyn Decker, the televised suspense was a ruse. Decker, who appeared on the show and had a contentious relationship with the family, told Radar Online that the family had allegedly intended to move to Vegas for quite some time. "That was their plan and they used the State coming after them for ratings. That's my strong opinion," she said. 

It should be noted here that Decker has since left her own plural marriage and became an activist against the practice, so that caveat combined with the fact that all of this went down on a reality TV show should give just the right amount of perspective as to what really happened. Confused yet? Well, the shadiness doesn't end there. 

Meri got 'catfished'

In October 2015, Meri Brown shocked Sister Wives fans when she admitted to being "catfished" online by a woman pretending to be a man. "During an emotional and vulnerable time earlier this year, I began speaking with someone online who turned out to be not who they said they were," Meri told People magazine. "I never met this person and I regret being drawn into this situation, but I hope because of it I can help others who find themselves in similar circumstances." The embarrassing revelation devastated Meri, who also claimed she felt trapped by the "situation" and suffered "a lot of anxiety" as a result of it. 

During a two-hour special in November 2015, the Brown family showed nothing but love and support. "What I see is somebody she made friends with, somebody she felt safe with, but she was just having a communication," Kody said during the special (via People). "I visualized us all suiting up in armor and circling around her," Janelle added. "We were going to go to war to protect her." 

Regular watchers of the show know that this loving, supportive dynamic has since shifted considerably. Kody confirmed in yet another special episode from 2018 (via Radar Online) that he did not "want to be intimate with Meri" at that time. Awkward! 

The wives aren't swapping bedroom stories

Sure, these women say they love being in a plural marriage, but come on, there has to be some tension now and then, right? In one episode in 2011 (via The Huffington Post), the sister wives admitted it can be unpleasant to think about their "spiritual husband" having an intimate relationship with all of them, especially when a sister wife becomes pregnant, such as Robyn, the woman Kody is legally married to.

And just to add another layer of cringe to the situation, we'll pause here to remind everyone that Kody divorced his first wife of more than 24 years, Meri (though they're still "spiritually" married), in order to wed Robyn and adopt her kids from a previous marriage. Got that?

Okay, back to the intimacy part. During an episode in which the women give a tour of their houses — and bedrooms — it's apparent that Meri, Janelle, and Christine got a little creeped out in Robyn's bedroom, particularly when they noticed "something [Kody left] on the nightstand." Yuck. But wait, there might be more to it... 

Is Kody only sleeping with Robyn?

There are also rumors that Kody "spends the bulk of his nights" with fourth wife Robyn — and Robyn only — fueling jealousy among the other wives. In fact, Meri reportedly expressed her feelings on the matter to the person who catfished her. Apparently, the scam artist, a woman named Jackie Overton, convinced Meri to reveal multiple secrets to her alter ego "Samuel," including a bombshell confession that Meri was considering leaving the Brown compound for good because her heart wasn't in it anymore.

An insider corroborated that rumor, telling Life & Style (via Hollywood Life) that Meri allegedly told the other wives "she did not want to be there anymore. That she loved the kids but the marriage was done." Kody and Meri did reportedly attend couples therapy after the whole catfishing scandal, so perhaps they also tackled this tricky topic as well.

Janelle suffered from postpartum depression

In a 2012 family memoir, Becoming Sister Wives: The Story of an Unconventional Marriage, second wife Janelle admitted she once "sank into a horrible postpartum depression" that caused her to leave her family for two years. "I felt overwhelmed by having had so many children in quick succession, and felt seriously depressed at our lack of financial means," she wrote (via Radar Online).

Janelle's depression reportedly caused a rift between her and one of Brown's other wives, Meri. "I was at my breaking point. I couldn't see my way out of my depression," Janelle wrote. "I told Kody I was leaving. That night, I got into the car and drove to my mother's house." Janelle reportedly lived apart from the family for two years, until Brown revealed he was moving the family to a new house with much more space in Utah. "We were able to be together as a family in a normal and relaxed way," she wrote. "I had my own space, but my kids had their siblings and the other mothers in the same building." They've been together ever since.

Daughter Maddie rejected polygamy

In September 2015, Maddie Rose Brown, the daughter of Kody and Janelle, announced she was engaged to boyfriend Caleb Brush. The engagement was viewed as a step away from the Brown family's polygamous lifestyle, which the couple later confirmed in an interview with People magazine. 

"We are not living plural marriage," Brush said. "We support Maddie's family with their choice of living plural marriage and they support us with our choice in just marrying each other." In a not-exactly-surprising twist, Radar Online later discovered that Brush is the brother of Maddie's aunt and Kody's sister-in-law, Erica Brush Brown. Wait, why is that not-exactly-surprising, you ask? Good question... 

Janelle used to be married to Meri's brother

In a twist that could only happen to the cast of Sister Wives, Radar Online reported that Janelle was previously married to a man named Adam Clark Barber, better known as Meri's brother. According to court documents, Janelle and Barber finalized their divorce in June 1990. Janelle got to keep their house; Barber received two cars and a motorcycle. Incidentally, Janelle purportedly met Kody while she was still married to Barber, at least based on her since-edited official TLC bio, which stated she met Kody in the fall of 1989, according to Radar. "When he walked into the room I looked at him and had that feeling of remembering something I had forgotten. It was a singular experience," the bio said.

As it turns out, the experience was not so singular after all, because yet another intra-family connection occurred when Janelle's mother, Sheryl, "married Kody's dad [Winn] three months before Janelle and Kody [had] their own matrimonial ceremony," according to Starcasm. Yep, go ahead and let that sink in for a moment. Ready for more? Sheryl and Winn's marriage created a plural union between them and Winn's first wife, Kody's mother, Genielle. Hope you wrote all that down, because there's a quiz at the end. (Kidding.)

Kody and his clan got kicked out of church

Following Meri's catfish scandal, the Browns were reportedly forced out of their worship center — a "community offshoot of the Apostolic United Brethren group," which The Salt Lake Tribune referred to as "a so-called Mormon fundamentalist group that believes in polygamy." According to Radar Online, the controversy was deemed "too public" for the church, so its brothers and sisters told the Brown family to get lost. 

"This has been brewing for a long time and Meri's catfishing scandal was the final straw," an insider told the tab. "It was a huge, kind of war in the church. The church elders told Kody that he would never be welcomed back, even if the family moved back to Utah." Another source added, "From day 1 Kody pitched the show as a documentary, but a lot of people in the faith think that this has become a straight-up reality TV show for ratings." 

Since getting the boot, the Browns have reportedly "[practiced] their faith only within their home."

The family was deep in debt

While digging up the dirt on Meri's catfishing scandal, Radar Online uncovered court documents that revealed she and Kody filed for bankruptcy in 2005 because they were having trouble supporting their ever-growing family. According to the report, the family accumulated almost $230,000 in debt, with bills ranging from "$137,000 in mortgages" to "$8,000 at Home Depot and $1,300 at Best Buy." Honestly, can you blame them? You know how many tree forts and video games you need to supply to 17 kids? 

Unsurprisingly, considering their outstanding credit debts, the couple reportedly also claimed to only have "$10 cash and $5 in five joint bank accounts" at the time of the filing. According to Radar, the case was closed at the end of 2007, when the couple was ordered to pay a little less than $188,000 "to secured creditors, trustees and attorneys."

Could there be a fifth wife?

Kody Brown knows exactly where his bread is buttered — the family reportedly earns between "$25,000 to $40,000" per episode, according to InTouch Weekly — so it's in his best interest to keep Sister Wives going as long as possible. What better way to maintain healthy ratings than to tease the idea that he might add a fifth wife to the family, right?

Kendra Pollard, a friend of Robyn's, told Life & Style (via Hollywood Life) in 2016, "He's been looking for more than a year. He's wanted someone really young, like 19 or 20. And she has to be attractive and thin." Another source claimed he's well aware "that teasing the intro of a hot new wife" could "give people a reason to tune in" and keep the network interested. Kody's current wives were reportedly "miserable" already," according to the insider, who also astutely observed, "As it is now, there isn't enough love to go around." (Although, the contents of Robyn's nightstand tell another tale — sorry to have to bring that up again!)  

As of this writing, Kody hasn't put a ring on lucky numero cinco, but you better believe if that happens, TLC's cameras and the Sister Wives legion of fans will be nothing but here for it.

Clueless casanova

You would think a guy with four wives would have an especially deft touch with the ladies, but in Kody Brown's case, he's apparently about as charming as a cousin who shows up to weddings in a tuxedo t-shirt. According to excerpts from the family memoir, Becoming Sister Wives: The Story of an Unconventional Marriage (via InTouch Weekly), Kody described his third wife as "a little chubby" when they first met and said it "turned [his] stomach" to watch her take down a plate of nachos. "I couldn't watch her eat them," he wrote. "She must've been starving, because she was eating so quickly, and there was chili sauce and nacho cheese everywhere." Wow.

In an episode of the show, Kody doubled down on his obtuse chivalry when he explained the aforementioned passage. "I will be honest, I was not attracted to Christine in any kind of physical sense," he said. Thanks for clearing that up! Unfortunately, Christine wasn't the only wife Kody wasn't feeling upon first sight. In another tell-all special (also via InTouch), Kody described laying eyes on Robyn for the first time like this: "She looked like a soccer mom. She had a van, three kids, and was divorced. I thought, I didn't need a van, a divorced woman, and three kids in my life — that's just trouble." Forget nachos, that is a heaping plate of "Nope!" right there.