Friday, July 10, 2009

She Said: In a Good Mormon Marriage, Who Holds the Trump Card?

These days, I don't know of anyone who DOESN'T believe that husbands and wives should be equal partners in a marriage. Optimally, a married couple should work together to solve problems. But we all know that sometimes an impasse will be reached. A consensus cannot be attained, and a decision must be made. What does a good Mormon couple do in such a situation?

We often hear that patriarchy is a good system because of just such occurrences. If there is one clear leader, the argument goes, then the course to follow will be decided in advance, and it will cause less contention in the long run. In homes where one partner holds the priesthood, it seems obvious that the priesthood holder will make all final decisions when a tie-breaker is needed. In an address titled "Marriage and the Patriarchal Order," Elder Dean L. Larson expresses his opinion that male priesthood holders should be sensitive to their wives' feelings and desires when making decisions, and that compulsion should not prevail. However,
"In the Lord’s system of government, every organizational unit must have a presiding officer. He has decreed that in the family organization the father assumes this role. He bears the priesthood ordination. He is accountable before the Lord for this leadership...A wide range of individual responsibilities must be carried by the leaders and by good counselors in every successful organization, including the family organization. These responsibilities should be agreed upon and then honored as a sacred trust. The particulars may vary in each marriage unit by agreement of the husband and wife, but the ultimate responsibility for leadership cannot be successfully delegated."

The majority of Elder Larson's talk illustrates the problem I have with this principle. Over and over he speaks of unity in the making of decisions. He talks about how unanimity is important in the councils of the Church. He even expresses the idea that different areas of responsibility for family life may be divided among the spouses if agreed upon in advance. But in the end, the "trump card" is left with the husband.
"If, ultimately, a husband must propose a course of action in the absence of complete agreement, he must sense the great responsibility in taking this role and should do so with great care. It should never be done precipitously, whimsically, or egotistically, but always thoughtfully and with the welfare of those involved uppermost in mind. The powers of inspiration can more easily and readily be brought to bear in this way. When a decision is reached in any matter, the two marriage partners must be as one in pursuing the objective, whatever it may be. A wise couple will learn to sustain and support each other in their proper roles in leadership and partnership. There will never be lobbying with family or friends for support against a decision made in the proper way. To do so would be to invite contention and competition which will surely be destructive to the happiness and harmony of the marriage."

The wife is expected to submit to the husband's priesthood leadership in these cases. In my opinion, a woman can never feel like an equal partner in a marriage which is contracted under these terms. In the better marriages, she may feel that her opinion is valued, that her husband respects her judgment and so forth, but underlying all of the best efforts for unity is the crocodile of priesthood that lies beneath murky waters, ready to raise his fearful head if there comes a day that two human beings cannot see eye to eye.

Our Church leaders strive incessantly to allege that our LDS marriages are equal as well as patriarchal. This is simply not true when one partner is given a trump card. No matter how sensitively, how lovingly, how meekly he makes the decision, it is his to make, and the woman's to submit.


  1. I don't think patriarchal can be equal. But even though, it's stated, it's not lived as much. I feel very equal in my home with my husband. We make all decisions together or we delegate various decisions to each other. I do the finances and if he wants to buy something outside the normal budget he just asks if we have enough money,etc. So whatever the Church may say about presiding authority, it usually boils over to plenty of women having the final say! Those darn double standards! Sometimes they work out in our favor! hee hee!

  2. I found your blog and find it very sweet. I'm not Mormon, but lived in the Uintah Basin during my youth, and am torn between being fond of the strengths of parts of the culture and enfuriated by the weaknesses in it -- mostly in terms of the patriarchal aspect, but also the conservative nature.

    There's that analogy I've heard: A driver should listen to his passengers, but when it's time for a split second decision, only one person can make it, and it's the man. I think that's a dangerous way to live: suppose the man is in any way impaired and doesn't know it? Suppose the man dies and the woman is left alone and has never been given the chance to make those all-important, split-second decisions? Wouldn't flipping a coin, or taking turns work just as flawlessly for those instances when neither party can come to consensus?

    I see Dr's point about women's subtle control of the household. Living with 12 women, one can imagine how he feels the male perspective is hard to make heard. If I lived w/12 men I'd feel the same way. But then he'd also win out with a coin toss or turn taking method between the two of you: instead of you always getting your way (as he asserts) he'd get his half the time. And children: you counsel them, and teach them, and then they're own your own where you can still counsel, but not decide for them. Girl or boy I think that's the case.

    If the church was not patriarchal, you might be the person with the doctorate and he might be the stay at home dad. Most Mormon women I know who stay home say they're contented staying home; but in the rest of society there's a growing split. Many of my non Mormon friends are stay at home dads -- it depends on the personalities of the couples. I never see this in Mormonism, and I can think of two strong cases (among a dozen or so I know) where I really think the wife should have pursued an education and was better suited to work.

    I don't know about your situation exactly, of course, and I am willing to believe in your case you wanted to be home and he wanted to work. But I think that's not always the case, even in Mormon families -- but the patriarchy demands a paternal structure.


  3. I dunno, in 30+ years of marriage we have never hit an occasion where a decision HAD to be made. So the trump card has never been played, one way or another. Hopefully we will finish our lives going on the same way.

    In what kind of situations do people have to make "split-second decisions" that the person with a penis trumps?

    Also, I think it is a bit of a cheap shot to bring up an article from 27 years ago, which the author clearly states is his "personal" thoughts, not church doctrine per se. It was not a General Conference talk. The fact that the Ensign made him put that disclaimer up front should be noted.

  4. Naismith, decisions "have" to be made over and over again in a marriage. If you have a particularly unified marriage you may not notice this, but if you don't, watch out! Should you use birth control? Should you have another child? These decisions HAVE to be made. Delaying a decision such as this IS making the decision. The same for whether you should move, or take an offered job, or go to Church each week, or buy a new couch.

    In a patriarchal marriage, there is always a subtle difference between a husband "allowing" the woman to make the choice and the woman having equal power.

    The article I cited clearly expresses rhetoric which is taught today throughout the Church. It just puts it all in one place and I was too lazy to look for more recent talks.

  5. Kayla, I think you bring up a good point. I think many of the marriages contracted by younger couples in the Church are in fact based on equality and NOT on patriarchy. I think my own marriage has evolved this way. When in fact the priesthood holder does NOT hold the final trump card, it is not a marriage based on patriarchy, and should not be described that way. If, in the Church, we believe marriages should be between equal partners, why can't we describe them as such? Why do we have to give lip service to the patriarch?

  6. Long ago I used to agree with Elder Larson and think that organizationally a totally equal partnership was untenable and someone had to have the final say. Such situations might be rare, but in extremis a trump card had to exist; otherwise, there was no way to get out of deadlock. (Corporate boards have odd numbers of members for a reason.)

    But my experience being married has changed my mind. Our marriage is based on an equal partnership model, and we've never needed a trump card. We can always come to an agreement based on discussion and, if necessary, negotiation. So now I'm comfortable with the idea of a totally equal partnership in marriage.

  7. BiV, I particularly like your last question of why pay lip service to patriarchy if marriages are ideally between equal partners (particularly given your point that the two are incompatible). I only hope that as Church rhetoric evolves, the "father must preside" language will quietly slip away.

  8. I poses the "preside" question in a marriage class I taught during SS last month--not one of them said anything about decision making or more authority. It does feel like many members are struggling to reconcile the rhetoric with what actually happens, not to mention the huge emphasis on "equal partners". IMHO I think the church will continue to evolve on this point--not moving away from the importance of roles per se, but away from anything that puts men and women on different levels. E.g. I think the bit in the endowment related to this will eventually be modified to reflect a more equal doctrine to match what they are trying so hard to emphasize now.

  9. "Naismith, decisions "have" to be made over and over again in a marriage. If you have a particularly unified marriage you may not notice this, but if you don't, watch out!"

    The idea of us having a "particularly unified" marriage is hilarious. We are particularly contentious, most folks would say.

    But the point is that when there is a disagreement, we don't rely on a priesthood trump card. If we disagree, rather than letting him break the tie, we usually find some other logical means. If it comes to finances, I get the final vote, as that is my area of expertise. Household repairs, I defer to him.

    "Delaying a decision such as this IS making the decision."

    That's an interesting point of view, and may be true in some cases, but there have been lots of other times where we took a few months to work through an issue, without missing a deadline or having an irrevocable consequence on direction or the other.

    Nice to hear that Kevin Barney has had similar experience.

  10. "If, in the Church, we believe marriages should be between equal partners, why can't we describe them as such? Why do we have to give lip service to the patriarch?"

    Because equal does not mean "same" and I think my husband does function as a patriarch in many valuable ways. "Trump card" is not among those functions.

  11. Naismith, since you describe your marriage as similar to Kevin's, and you solve disagreements without using a trump card, would you describe your marriage as equality-based, or patriarchal?

  12. There are situations where one person has to assume command. Usually, they are emergencies. In such situations, the leader will emerge spontaneously by arriving at a decision first.

    Most of life is not an emergency and does not require a command structure. If you know what you are talking about, you will be able to persuade a well meaning and honest partner.

    The need for persuasion establishes quality control. If I cannot persuade my wife, chances are that there is something wrong with my argument.

    Human beings are less likely to uncover their own mistakes when they exercise authority instead of relying on reason and persuasion.

  13. I've found that our marriage is both patriarchal and matriarchal, but for all intents and purposes, equal. There are some decisions where my wife has the final say and some decisions where I may have the final say. It depends on the situation, our relevant experience and expertise, and the degree of 'how much do I really care about this?"

    For me, the patriarchal order has more to do with receiving revelation in the vein of Adam, Moses and Joseph Smith, and less about which brand of diapers you should buy, or what kind of minivan you should drive.

  14. Hellmut, good points.
    Anonymous, are you saying that women can have the final say when it comes to household matters, but important types of revelation "in the vein of Adam, Moses and JS" are patriarchal? I can only guess what you mean by that statement. Running the Church? Conversing with God? Creating worlds? And what exactly is it about "revelation in the vein of Adam, etc." makes it the sole province of the male priesthood? Please explain.

  15. "Naismith, since you describe your marriage as similar to Kevin's, and you solve disagreements without using a trump card, would you describe your marriage as equality-based, or patriarchal?"

    I only described my marriage as similar to Kevin's in the sense of never needing a trump card

    As to the choice offered, I think it is a false dichotomy. My husband is a great patriarch when it comes to faithfully performing priesthood functions like giving blessings, performing baptisms for the kids, serving as a witness for their sealing, etc.

    I thought Elder Oaks' Oct 2005 general conference talk on "Priesthood Authority in the Family and the Church" was pretty clear that patriarchy and equal partnership can and should coexist in marriages.

  16. I suppose that the patriarchal order means that the patriarch holds the trump card in theory, but this is not how it plays out in most Mormon marriages. I think most couples pass the trump card between them, depending on the situation and circumstances. I say that in our house the person who gets the final say is the person who is the most stubborn. If my husband feels strongly about something, there is just no way he is not going to have his way. Period. It's not because he's a man. It's because he's relentless and I just don't care enough to argue. I know that in many other marriages it is the wife who is relentless and the husband who doesn't care. It is a personality thing.

    I can't understand the patriarchal order as non-hierarchical, regardless of how the church tries to spin it, but since the hierarchy doesn't seem to apply in most marriages (in practice), I don't worry about it much--not as far as the family goes, anyway.

  17. My marriage is equality based because he has only used his patriarchal "trump card" (as you desscribe it) when I allowed him to and intentionally chose to step back for that reason (as opposed to some other reason). This hasn't really happened often.
    I've played the mother/wife trump card only on rare occasion, and it also can only work if my husband steps back and agrees with me "Well, as the mother in the family with her divinely appointed role, if she feels that strongly then I'd better defer to her wisdom."
    In reality, it is so very difficult for two different people (my spouse and I are different) to agree on things. Couples just have to figure out the best way for the two of them to solve things for the best interests of everyone (long term too, not just short term). Many couples fail to find a way that works (both patriachy and equality).

  18. We've never found a need for any one person in our marriage to have a "trump card." We just work things out together. If the Quorum of the Twelve can do business with a requirement of unanimity, (D&C 107:27), I don't see why it would be so difficult for a married couple to likewise come to a unanimous decision. Priesthood power is supposed to be by means of persuasion, longsuffering, gentleness, meekness, love unfiegned, kindness, and pure knowledge, and without guile; not by control or dominion or compulsion. I don't see any justification for one person to have the final say. If there's any priesthood responsibility in the matter, it's simply that the priesthood holder is responsible for reaching consensus (using persuasion, longsuffering, etc.), not that he gets to impose a unilateral decision.

  19. I actually think the main cause of marriages in the church being unequal is the insistence that fathers be the breadwinners and that mothers stay home with kids. It places women in a very vulnerable position. For many families it works great (I'm a SAHM myself) but in instances where there is abuse or unhappiness it can put women at a real disadvantage.

  20. Also, I have known many LDS families where the husband is given complete control of the finances because he's the one who makes the money. I overheard a friend of mine tell her kids they couldn't go shopping because "it's daddy's money and he doesn't want us to." That is not an equal relationship.

  21. Bored in Vernal said,

    "Anonymous, are you saying that women can have the final say when it comes to household matters, but important types of revelation "in the vein of Adam, Moses and JS" are patriarchal?"

    No, my wife chose the minivan. I choose the diapers (Huggies are tops in my book, btw). My point is that for all intents and purposes, the 'patriarchal order' doesn't factor much into everyday life.

    "And what exactly is it about "revelation in the vein of Adam, etc." makes it the sole province of the male priesthood?"

    Well, those types of revelation are received by those who hold priesthood keys. Adam wasn't just a spouse, he was also a prophet, who held priesthood keys. As did Moses, Joseph Smith and others. Their 'maleness' isn't nearly as relevant as the fact that they held keys.

    You also said:
    "Our Church leaders strive incessantly to allege that our LDS marriages are equal as well as patriarchal. This is simply not true when one partner is given a trump card."

    'Equal' means of equal worth, not 'exactly the same.' I can't bear children, and in that sense our marriage is not and will never be equal in your line of thinking, because my wife gets to have an amazing, life-altering experience and a real, tangible power that I will never have. The Proclamation very clearly spells out the revealed roles of husbands and wives. They are not the same. One presides and provides, the other nourishes and nurtures. But they work as equal partners, i.e. those responsibilities are of equal worth and importance.

    Your imbalanced emphasis on 'final say' and 'trump card' run counter to the scriptural guidance given in section 121 and elsewhere. It's not about a struggle for power, it's an opportunity for selfless service. The self-cancelling feature in 121:37.

    Also, I think you could swap 'motherhood' for 'priesthood' in verse 41 and the same principles apply. :)

  22. I am always perplexed that the guidelines on Priesthood power in Section 121 are not brought into this discussion.

    From what that section teaches about Priesthood leadership, it doesn't seem like there is a trump card. The leader has to lead by persuasion, by long suffering, by kindness, etc., not by virtue of the priesthood alone. The kind of patriarchal trump card seems negated by the nature of priesthood leadership.