What makes a 'good marriage'?

How do women and men cope with changing cultural expectations surrounding family, gender and romantic love?


What emotional and social resources do people draw upon to survive experiences of suffering—and even violence—within intimate relationships?


And what happens when new expectations about women’s rights and long-standing cultural patterns collide?

The film

The film Bitter Honey provides an experience-near account of polygamy in Bali, illustrating how kinship organization, gendered systems of power, social norms, and spiritual beliefs infuse and inform the romantic relationships and domestic affairs of three families.

Bitter Honey is a feature-length documentary presenting an intimate and emotionally charged portrait of three polygamous families in Bali, Indonesia. Following these families over a seven year period, the film portrays the plight of Balinese co-wives, for whom marriage is frequently characterized by psychological manipulation, infidelity, domestic violence, and economic hardship.

Living in a society where men have authority in many domains, these women have little voice in steering or protesting the conditions of their domestic lives. Bitter Honey draws attention to their struggle, documents the work of those taking steps to better protect and empower them, and aims to trigger a wider conversation about contemporary polygamy and women’s rights in Indonesia.

Polygamy in Bali

The practice of a man taking multiple wives has deep roots in Balinese culture and history and, while always practiced by a small minority of families, has persisted up to the present day.

Balinese polygamy, known locally in formal Indonesian as poligami or more colloquially as madu, has functioned as a way to build family alliances and establish political power, display personal potency, and accommodate male sexual appetites. It continues to be acceptable under customary Balinese and Indonesian state law, with the overarching proviso being that husbands are able to take care of all of their wives and treat them fairly and equally. In fact, some leaders and average Indonesians defend polygamy as good for women, by pointing out that through the arrangement they are able to share significant household and ritual duties and in certain circumstances secure social status and domestic stability as an additional wife.

But what is the lived experience of this marriage structure? In other words, what are the multiple effects of polygamy on husbands, wives, and children? What are the culturally specific perceptions, beliefs, and ideologies underlying the practice of contemporary Balinese polygamy and how are these utilized to make sense of it? How does being in a polygamous marriage impact a husband or wife’s understanding of self and influence the behavioral patterns and affective textures of domestic life?

The subjects

Darma and his family


I Made Darma

“It was my goal to have many wives as possible, so that I could have a lively household. The important thing is that everyone gets along."

Made Darma claims he was destined to be polygamous. His father had four wives, and his mother lived through a series of marriages and divorces. After dropping out of high school, he married his first wife, Kiawati, and moved in to her family compound. They divorced six years later and he moved back to his village. He initially tried to make a living by carving statues for the tourist market, but soon realized he was unhappy with the life of a laborer. Finally, he found success and prestige in the informal economy, using his size, strength and natural charisma to carve himself a niche as a local tough, known in Indonesian as preman—running gambling games, supervising cockfights, and providing private security services to local political gatherings. Using his gambling proceeds, he built himself a house, where he lives with three of his four current wives and their children.

Now in his late forties, Made Darma has few regrets about his polygamous lifestyle. He runs his large household with a firm hand, rotating his sexual affections among his wives according to a nightly schedule. Each of his wives takes a six-month turn assuming responsibility for the household’s ritual duties, allowing the other wives to work outside of the home and earn wages to contribute to the family’s upkeep. Darma has little tolerance for arguments or jealousies among his wives, and does not hesitate to threaten physical force should they or his children disturb his peace. Although he admits to having deceived his wives by attracting them with the reassurance that he was single, he laughs off his trickery as the means to achieving his desires. He claims that even though he’s no longer young, he could find another dozen wives if he so chose.

3rd Wife

Ni Wayan Rasti

“Before I had children, I was not happy. I was sad and became very thin. But I then I got used to it. I don’t feel jealous of anyone any more. He loves me, I love him, that’s all that matters.”

Rasti is a vivacious woman in her early forties with a keen sense of humor. She and Made Darma had a whirlwind love affair that culminated in his proposal of marriage after only a few months. Rasti was shocked, however, when she arrived at Made Darma’s house for the wedding and found out that he was already living with Sulasih, and planning on marrying them both at once. Rasti remembers crying in the car on the way to the ceremony, but her love for him convinced her to go through with the marriage. She recalls feeling heartsick for months afterwards, until she realized that her husband was happy with her and that she could be happy with him. Today, Rasti laughs at the story of her wedding, and prides herself on no longer feeling any jealousy towards the other wives. While she discourages Made Darma from pursuing new wives, worried he cannot afford the expense, she allows him to continue having affairs, even giving up her allotted nights with him so he can go out and “have fun.” Rasti acknowledges that it’s sometimes difficult to get along with her co-wives, but she appreciates that their mutual cooperation allows her to work outside of the home as a chef at a well-known tourist restaurant. Rasti has two children, and has used her wages to build her own living space within the family compound. Her co-wives often say that she is Made Darma’s favorite wife.
1st Wife, now Ex-Wife

Ni Nyoman Kamarenikiawati

“He kept pressing for another wife and I didn’t agree. But I thought if we got divorced, I might have to give up the children. The most important thing was that I could keep the children…. Now, no one decides what I do. I’m the king.”

Kiawati is a strong, independent woman in her late forties. She married Made Darma while still in high school at her parents’ urging. Because her parents had no sons, they wished to recruit Made Darma as a nyentana: a man who marries into a woman’s family and takes on the role of the son of the house. Kiawati bore three children to Made Darma, one of whom died shortly after birth. When she caught him having sex with the woman who would become his second wife, Kiawati was first worried that she would have to accept her husband’s infidelities. However, because of their unique nyentana arrangement, which mandates that children stay with their mother’s family in instances of divorce (see more about nyentana marriage in section on “Balinese Marriage Practices” below), Kiawati decided to divorce instead. Their breakup was amicable, with Made Darma returning to his own home, leaving her to raise the children on her own. While her life has been a struggle to make ends meet, often requiring harsh manual labor such as harvesting rice and lugging rocks from the river to make gravel, she feels proud that she has been able to survive as a single mother. Kiawati and her children now have a friendly relationship with Made Darma and his wives, and regularly visit his house to help with family rituals.
4th Wife

Gusti Ayu Suciati

“When a woman’s husband wants her, she should be happy right? In my case, I’m smiling on the outside, but crying in my heart. Now I’m just afraid of him, but I hide it.”

Suci Ati is a sensitive, elegant, soft-spoken woman in her thirties. Made Darma spotted her while she was still a student in high school with her heart set on going to university and becoming a tour guide. He instructed a mutual friend to tell her that he was unmarried. He would pick her up after classes on his motorbike, and she felt flattered that an older man would pay such attention to her. Eventually, Suci Ati found out that Made Darma was already married, and she tried to end their relationship. But one day while she was out shopping, he lured her into a car and took her to his house, where he forcibly married her, setting a group of his friends to stand guard outside of the bedroom door. Suci Ati cries telling the story of how the next day Made Darma sent word of the marriage to her shocked parents, and how she felt in her shame and fear that she had no choice but to stay with him--“the rice had already been turned into porridge,” she says. Today, Suci Ati and Made Darma have two children and she works at a silver factory. Suci Ati survives her polygamous marriage—and her traumatic memories of its beginnings—by focusing on educating her children and polishing her public image with nice clothes and a brave smile, determined not to feel shame in front of the community. She claims she would be willing to live as a divorced woman, but she would never want to risk giving up custody of her children to their father.
2nd Wife

Ni Wayan Sulasih

“Because he has more than one wife, I can go wherever I want.”

Sulasih is an outgoing woman in her forties. She met Made Darma at a local drama performance when he was still married to his first wife. Captivated by his charm, she dated him for two years before he married both her and his third wife on the same day. Sulasih is a vocal supporter of polygamy. She emphasizes that Made Darma is fair with his wives, sharing equally his attention, money and sexual favors. She also appreciates the help of her co-wives around the house, which has allowed her to build her own business selling food and coffee at the local cockfights her husband organizes. Sulasih has one daughter, Yuliantari (nicknamed Juli), who recently gave birth to Made Darma’s first grandchild. Juli is opposed to polygamy, and Sulasih admits that not every woman is cut out for the challenges it presents.
5th Wife

Ni Nyoman Purnawati

“I never asked, and he never told me. I just went along with things. By the time my friend told me he was already married, we had already been intimate. When we were dating, I was happy to be with him. My suffering started when I found out he already had many wives.”

Purnawati, the youngest of Made Darma’s wives, met her husband while she was still in junior high school. During their courtship, which she kept secret from her family, she was unaware that Made Darma already had multiple wives, only finding out after they had already been sexually intimate and she felt as though it was too late to turn back. Their marriage, when she was only 16 years old, outraged her family, who brought Made Darma to court for seducing an underage girl, an offense for which he spent weeks in jail. Purnawati decided to stay in her marriage when she realized that she was pregnant and her son would need a father’s name. Today, however, she and Made Darma no longer live together. Instead, she lives with her parents an hour’s drive away, where she sells clothing door-to-door and cares for her preschool-age son. Although Purnawati admits to feeling anger and disappointment in her marriage, she stays officially married to Made Darma because she does not want to subject her child to the conflict and stigma of divorce.

“The suffering started when I found out he already had many wives.”

PurnawatiDarma's 5th Wife

Sadra and his family


I Wayan Sadra

“I am worried… I have been harsh with my wives and children. But it would be hard to stop completely. It’s hereditary. Or it might be my karma.”

The eldest son of a polygamous rice farmer, Sadra is in his mid-forties with two wives and eight children. He currently works for a fair trade foundation, making handicrafts for export. With a decent job and a house that he inherited from his father, Sadra belongs to the middle class; still, the expenses of his polygamous family put him in a state of constant economic worry.

Sadra married his first wife, Ketut, when they were both in their teens, eloping against her family’s wishes. He describes their marriage as having been a good one until they had their first child and his wife quit her job, straining the family’s finances. He began beating both his wife and his mother, including one episode in which he hit Ketut in the head with a pair of heavy iron scissors. Sadra expects Ketut to serve him around the house, and he gets especially angry with her when she is late bringing him food or coffee.

Sadra met his second wife, Murni, through a mutual friend. He began seeing her, keeping the affair secret from his wife and also lying to Murni, who believed he was unmarried. After Murni became pregnant, Sadra forced Ketut to consent to a second wife by threatening to send her home to her parents and keep her children if she did not. Sadra’s parents advised him against this new marriage, warning that polygamy, in their experience, was a difficult path. Indeed this new marriage was problematic from the start, in part because Sadra worries that Murni’s education makes her unwilling to submit to his decisions.

Sadra admits to having a problem with aggression, and has consulted with both friends at work and Balinese traditional healers (balian) to try to change his behavior. While some friends have pointed to Sadra’s experiences growing up with a polygamous father who beat his own wives, and healers have claimed he is a victim of black magic, Sadra himself tends to view his treatment of women as an effect of his bad karma, earned through his deeds in a past life. While Sadra does not believe polygamy to be inherently wrong, he admits to having deceived his wives and allowed his desires to outweigh the greater good of his family. He frequently becomes depressed, frustrated and self-loathing, appearing to vacillate between idealizing traditional models of Balinese masculinity in which he would hold absolute power over his wives and recognizing that his wives have strong feelings about the hurts he has caused them.

Sadra also has complicated relationships with his children, who have witnessed his violence towards their mothers and admits to feeling haunted by fears that they will end up like him or that they will turn against him and cast him out in his old age.

1st Wife

Ni Ketut Purniasih

“I didn’t accept him taking another wife, not at all. He is the one who wanted to… My heart is really in pain seeing them together. And I have been beaten black and blue…like a thief.”

Sadra’s first wife, Ketut, is a gentle woman in her early forties. The mother of four children (one son and three daughters) she quickly becomes emotional when talking about her marriage to Sadra. Although her parents were opposed to her dating Sadra, she was convinced to marry him when he came to her house crying and professing his love. Soon after moving into Sadra’s family home, however, Ketut began to see another side of Sadra, who would rage against his father and hit his mother when they failed to comply with his wishes. When Ketut became pregnant with their second child, Sadra became violent towards her as well, punching her in the face, beating her with sticks, kicking her, and threatening her with a knife. On one occasion she left Sadra and returned to her family’s home, but her parents convinced her to return.

Ketut recalls being shocked and hysterical when Sadra broke the news that he was planning to marry his pregnant girlfriend. She refused to grant her consent, but Sadra’s threat to divorce her and send her back to her parents without her children convinced Ketut that she had no choice but to stay. Ketut recalls feeling heartbroken by the new marriage, and intimidated by Sadra’s educated, seemingly self-confident second wife. When Sadra would bring his wife to the home he shares with Ketut and sleep with her in another room, Ketut would be overwhelmed by jealousy and hurt. While the two women eventually reached an uneasy peace, working together during ceremonial preparations, their relationship has never been close.

Life has become somewhat better for Ketut as the family’s economic situation has improved. Ketut now has her own job at the same factory that hired Sadra, and their mutual employer encourages Sadra to treat Ketut well. While Ketut does not imagine that she will ever be able to leave her husband and children, she hopes that such positive outside influences on Sadra can help him to refrain from violence and treat his family better than he has in the past.

2nd Wife

Ni Ketut Murni

“I took the risk, and so I had to take responsibility. I wasn’t angry. I accepted it.”

Murni, Sadra’s second wife, is a strong-willed woman in her thirties with four children. While she projects a tough-skinned exterior, it was in part her tender-heartedness that drew her to Sadra, whom she felt sorry for, thinking he was “alone in the world” with no father, siblings, spouse or children—none of which was true. More educated than her husband or her co-wife, Murni tends to draw on her knowledge of formal Hindu doctrine and modern popular psychology to determine appropriate expectations for Sadra’s behavior and to justify her acceptance of a life she admits is a very difficult one.

Rather than join Sadra’s household, Murni chose to live separately from her husband and co-wife, and continue to work to support herself and her growing family. Today, Murni spends most of her time in a town about 30 miles from Sadra’s home. She and her sons live together in two small rooms in a boarding house. Murni’s job at a hotel requires that she spends much of her time away from her children, and she is often forced to leave them alone in their rooms to take care of themselves. Murni places a high value on education and on teaching her sons moral behavior, and insists they respect their father even when she feels he has abandoned them.

When Murni was first interviewed in 2008, she insisted that her marriage was a good one, despite the challenges of sharing her husband with a co-wife and living on her own far from any structures of extended family support. A proud woman, she stressed how important it was for her to accept the fate that God had set for her, and to draw on her own inner strengths to rise to the challenges of polygamy. She spoke lovingly of Sadra, whose company she claimed to enjoy, and whom she was still attracted to as a sexual partner. But by 2010, Murni seemed to be struggling with the strains of her life. She admitted that Sadra had been breaking his promises to her and his children and his financial contributions had become increasingly erratic.

The distance and conflict has left Murni deeply troubled: should she stay married to Sadra or not? She realizes that, as a working woman, she could likely get by without him. But she also knows that as a divorced woman she would incur the stigma of society and perhaps even be left without a family to reincarnate into in the afterlife.

“Women often aren’t aware that they are being manipulated. Women should communicate clearly so that each wife will not blame the others for her situation. Women instead need to work together to better their situation.”

Luh Putu AnggreniWomen's Rights Attorney

Tuaji and his family


Sang Putu Tuaji

“Maybe I was fated to be with many wives. Or maybe it is due to a supernatural force. Maybe in a past life, I helped a lot of people. ”

Sang Putu Tuaji is a Balinese man in his eighties who has had ten wives, five of whom are still living. Closely related to a Balinese royal family, Tuaji was well known in his younger days as being a powerful man whom few people in his village dared to cross. During the 1960s, when Bali was rocked by political turmoil that ended in the massacre of over 100,000 alleged communists, Tuaji was known to be a leader of a local anti-communist militia who directed the killings in his neighborhood. He went on to become a village moneylender, earning both the allegiance and fear of those who used his services. Today, his wives and neighbors say that it was all those factors—royal status, wealth, and a reputation for violence—that helped him to attract his wives. While some women sought him out for the high standard of living he promised, most of his wives felt that once he chose them, they had no choice but to comply. Indeed, his seventh wife, Manis, recalls knowing she would marry him when he told her not that he loved her but that he would attack any other man who came close to her.

To outsiders in the village, Tuaji’s family appears to be a model of harmony. His wives are known for rarely arguing, and for supporting each other in illness and with ritual responsibilities. They acknowledge, however, that Tuaji’s fiery reputation helps to keep order in his household. Today, none of Tuaji’s many children practice polygamy. Several of his sons have high-ranking positions in the military and feel they must keep their father’s marriages secret for fear of being marked with the stigma of coming from a “morally inappropriate” family. While polygamy is legal in Indonesia, it has been forbidden to state employees, known in Indonesian as pegawai negeri, since the Marriage Act of 1974.

6th wife

Jero Ketut Gati

“We all get along. I have never been jealous”

"We get along with the other wives, even before I was married. I was brought here to meet the other wives before we married. No, I was never jealous."
7th Wife

Sang Ayu Ketut Manis

"I did [feel jealous] in the past. Because that's already a typical way to live in Bali. We are already used to having a husband with many wives, and living with lots of other wives. Now it's not possible."

Two of Tuaji’s surviving wives, Manis and Giriastiti, his seventh and tenth wives, are sisters. When co-wives are sisters, this is referred to as sororal polygyny. Most polygynous societies do not prefer sororal polygyny, and may even forbid it, but in Indonesia, aristocratic co-wives are often sisters. This is believed to promote friendlier relations between co-wives, with fewer objections to the taking on of another wife due to their common background (Zeitzen, 2008, p. 32). While Tuaji’s wives acknowledge that during their marriages there have been petty disagreements and jealousies among the wives, they say that Tuaji has treated them fairly, and has provided them with a comfortable life. Neighboring villagers note approvingly that Tuaji has in fact provided each of his wives with land and homes of their own. When new wives came into the family, the older wives have been responsible for helping to prepare the wedding ritual; Manis even went to her own family, as her husband’s representative, to ask her sister to marry him.

She didn't want to [marry her] but he kept after her. She didn't want to be his wife, but wen my younger sister came here, he got angry with me...He was embarrassed in front of the people from Tampak Siring. 'They say that you want to marry again but the girl doesn't want yo,' like that.

8th Wife

Sayu Nyoman Lanus

"Marrying him was what I wanted. It must have been fate. There were a lot of people who wanted me. In the end, I was destine to be with him."

"Marrying him was what I wanted. It must have been fate. There were a lot of people who wanted me. In the end, I was destine to be with him."
9th wife

Sang Ayu Ketut Giriastiti

"I kept saying that I didn't want to [get married to him], but I just went there because they pressured me. I felt upset about it, but it happened."

"I kept saying that I didn't want to [get married to him], but I just went there because they pressured me. I felt upset about it, but it happened."

“There is an old school of thought in Bali which believes that you get power from having many wives. The more wives you have, the more powerful you’ll be. This is still practiced… It’s like the concept of Bhairawa in Hinduism, which says that lust should not be restrained. Lust should not be suppressed, but it must be followed, until you reach your limit…”

Degung SantikarmaBalinese Anthropologist

Meet the Filmmakers

Elemental Productions

Production Company

Ele­men­tal Pro­duc­tions is a Los-Angeles based ethno­graphic doc­u­men­tary film com­pany ded­i­cated to the pro­duc­tion of films focus­ing on the rela­tion­ship between cul­ture, psy­chol­ogy, and per­sonal expe­ri­ence. Ele­men­tal Pro­duc­tions was founded in 2007 by anthro­pol­o­gist Robert Lemel­son and evolved out of years of field­work and thou­sands of hours of footage gath­ered in Indone­sia since 1997.

Robert Lemelson

Director and Anthropologist

Robert Lemelson is a cultural anthropologist, ethnographic filmmaker and philanthropist. Lemelson received his M.A. from the University of Chicago and Ph.D. from the Department of Anthropology at UCLA. Lemelson’s area of specialty is transcultural psychiatry; Southeast Asian Studies, particularly Indonesia; and psychological and medical anthropology. He currently is a research anthropologist in the Semel Institute of Neuroscience UCLA, and an adjunct professor of Anthropology at UCLA.

Alessandra Pasquino

Producer and Post Production Supervisor

Alessandra Pasquino is a filmmaker and producer of documentaries, commercials, and special projects. She has collaborated with many artists and celebrities including: Oliver Stone, Wayne Wang, Klaus Kinski, Gregory Colbert, Leonardo Di Caprio, Pietro Scalia and Matthew Rolston.

Chisako Yokoyama


Chisako Yokoyama has worked as an editor and assistant editor on studio motion pictures, independent features and narrative and documentary films. Her credits as editor include the English and Japanese language films “Saki,” “Takamine” and “Goemon” and as first assistant editor, “American Gangster”, “Memoirs of a Geisha”, “Black Hawk Down”, “Gladiator”, and “Good Will Hunting.”

Wing Ko

Director of Photography

Wing Ko has collaborated with a who’s who of modern artists, musicians and filmmakers. He worked with Spike Jonze on several music videos and edited the pilot for MTV’s “Jackass.” Wing helped create more than 80 music videos for Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden, Public Enemy and other top bands of the time. For more than 15 years he has traveled around the world and crewed skateboard videos.

Malcolm Cross

Music Composer

Malcolm Cross BSc Mus. Studied music performance and composition in London at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, additional Post Graduate studies in Jazz and Studio Music. Malcolm has been a professional composer for film, television and stage since 1996. His original film scores include ‘Insomniac Obsession’ (directed by Paul Cameron Carter/PS Films) and ‘Oh Saigon’, a feature-length documentary for Sundance Channel directed by Doan Hoang, ‘I Dream of Dog’ an independent comedy short directed by Jessica Rice and ‘The Grey’, a supernatural thriller directed by Norman Trotter IV.

An intimate and provocative film.

Rachel CooperAsia Society

Fascinating and undoubtedly important, this is a doc you'll want to keep an eye out for.

Kevin JagernauthIndiewire The Playlist

For Westerners, Lemelson offers an eye-opening look behind Bali's profile as a tourist Shangri-La.

Sheri LindenLos Angeles Times

An informative look at how outdated traditions play out today.

John DeforeThe Hollywood Reporter

Lemelson makes these revelations more powerful by withholding judgment. Like a good scientist, he seeks understanding…He maintains distance and objectivity by having Indonesian scientists analyze the phenomenon, and then has these experts rather than himself interview the subjects. This does not diminish outrage at the physical violence, deception, and grotesquely unfair laws regarding property and human rights that are revealed, but does allow room to ponder how such evils are not just restricted to a tiny island, but spring from the universal blight of misogyny.

Peter KeoughThe Boston Globe

Robert Lemelson’s cleverly titled documentary, which follows three polygamous families in Bali over the course of seven years, doesn’t belabor the latent subservience of these arrangements, nor does it need to — the women speaking about their marriages in a candid, conversational way say plenty.

Michael NordineThe Village Voice

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