Having One Spouse Be In Charge

(Since this issue came up several times in the comments on the feminist concerns poll, it seemed worth opening it up for discussion on its own thread.)

Proud Daughter of Eve wrote:

I have no problem with a man presiding in the home because someone has to be the head and if the mom is staying at home with the kids then isn’t that enough responsibility? Why does she have to make ALL the decisions in the house?

Sue (and others) responded:

Why does someone have to be the head? In our marriage, we’ve seen no need for one person to be in charge, or to have the final say. I don’t understand why it would be necessary…

What advantages and/or disadvantages do people see to having one spouse take an “in charge” kind of role? If you’re married, is that how you would describe your relationship?


  1. The main reason I have heard supporting the concept of hierarchy, i.e., designating one person as the head, is for the sake of order. And I agree a hierarchal system does offer a degree of order. But then again, a communistic political system also offers a certain degree of social order. This order, however, comes at the cost of diminished individual freedom and growth of the people living within the system. Similarly, I see that spiritual freedom and opportunities for growth and service can be limited for women within the patriarchal system of the church. (Please note that I said “can be” and not “is” in acknowledgement that many LDS sisters do not feel limited by patriarchy).

    In answer to your question, then, I see the advantage of designating the man/husband as the head of the family is a certain degree of order and the disadvantage is a potential limitation of the spiritual freedom and growth of the woman/wife (see the recent thread on “Blessing Sick Children” at fmh for an example).

    It seems that often the concept of “roles” gets crossed with “hierarchy.” It is possible to have a system where individuals have different roles, tasks and purposes without hierarchy, i.e., no role is set above another in terms of having more authority. My husband and I live in such a system, having designated who is in charge of what, who has authority over what, without either of us being considered “over” the other. We consider ourselves “co-presiders” for the family (even though “presiders” isn’t really a word). Things run smoothly, harmoniously, and orderly. Er… as much as they can with three young children.

    Hierarchy can bring order, but hierarchy is not necessary to obtain order. And, given the costs of hierarchy, it might not be the best family system. That said, I can see the advantage of hierarchy in the broader sense of church and business organizations where there are much larger numbers of imperfect and diverse individuals with differing views and opinions. Hierarchy may be necessary just to get things time in an efficient and timely manner. But I would prefer that such organizations didn’t designate a specific gender as the ones who are always at “the top.”

  2. I don’t know about marriage– I think that if it’s just the husband and wife then a partnership is more natural and harmonious. It’s parenting that I’m thinking of. My dad didn’t preside and my sister played my parents off of each other to the destruction of her character and their marriage.

  3. My dad did preside in parenting, and my brother still played our parents off of each other. He would treat mom like crap all day, ignoring everything she said, saying “you’re not the boss of me,” and doing whatever he wanted. Then when dad got home, dad would hear mom’s description of what went on and brother’s apparently sincere apology. Dad would declare brother’s behavior unacceptable, and brother would promise to change. Dad would declare brother’s punishment, which was *always* lighter than what mom would have given. Because, after all, brother had apologized and was behaving well by that point. Clearly he had learned his lesson, right? Well, mom continued to be disrespected and brother continued to act up…a dynamic that continues now that brother is an adult. Having dad be the final word on discipline didn’t solve it by a long shot.

  4. PDoE, I disgaree with your quote above in 2 parts.

    first, that a partnership requires a head or leader.

    And secondly, that a SAHM is “enough already” and her load can be lightened by parceling out decision authority to the husband.
    If she is the one actually in the home more, and making most the decisions already, and you ask “why must she make them ALL”, I’d point out huge efficiency gains, and better-founded decisions, when the person “on the front lines” and with the most information makes the calls.
    So I’d rank decisions best as 1)partnered 2)by the person home most 3)by the person away from the home most

    (I disgaree some about the role of SAHMs, and obviously not all marriages include a SAHM. but I’m addressing your case: where there is one, and she’s doing most of the household-running but somehow she’s burdened by handling “ALL decisions”)

  5. “My dad didn’t preside and my sister played my parents off of each other to the destruction of her character and their marriage.”

    a strong relationship, an agreement on how to parent, and plenty of communicating between the partners ought to have prevented this.

  6. Ditto to what cchrissyy and Beijing said. Presiding is not what prevents parents being taken advantage of by children. Parents having a good partnership, having lots of communication about parenting issues, and presenting a unified front on all parenting decisions to children is what would solve this problem.

    Tam, I like your system.

  7. Thanks for clarifying what you meant, Proud Daughter of Eve. (And by the way, though I can’t say I agree with you on this one, looking back at this I hope it doesn’t feel like this thread got set up just to jump on your comments. 😉 Since we were discouraging extended debate about particular issues on that other thread, I thought it would be good to have a place where people with whatever views could get into this a little more if they wanted to, since the topic kept getting mentioned.)

    I actually hadn’t thought about that distinction you make–that being in charge in the marriage relationship, and being in charge in terms of parenting, are possibly different issues. A little tangentially, I’m curious–when the FamProc says that husbands “preside over their families,” do people understand that as primarily being over the children, or over the wife as well? I think I’ve always assumed it meant both, but now I’m curious. Also, I think cchrissy raises a good question–in that area, wouldn’t it actually make more sense for the person who’s home the most to call the shots (if someone has to)?

    Back to the issue of having someone in the marriage be the designated head–growing up, I heard over and over that the husband has to be in charge because someone has to be or the marriage simply won’t work. The sense I got was that people saw this as a kind of necessary evil–it might sound unfair, but it was the only way for things to actually get done. I was always very uneasy with that; it seemed an awfully high price for the wife to pay. (I agree with Tam’s summary of the pros and cons.) Since I’m single, though, I don’t really have any direct experience with this on which to draw–which is why I find it interesting to hear about how people see this kind of thing actually playing out in their marriages.

  8. With our kids, I feel like it really is a partnership, but it takes a lot of discussion and agreement before hand, and an implicit understanding that we would back each other up no matter what. Of course, that requires trust. It helps that my husband sees the issues related to our children as interesting, and he has taken courses in child psychology for his job. I do defer to his judgement sometimes, but he does equally to mine.

    My husband has often complained that nobody has really explained to him what it means to preside, but I think he does it well anyway. He proposes goals for the family and then we talk about them. He’ll say, ‘I think we should start doing this.’ Of course, I do this too, so I’m not sure what the difference is.

    A friend of mine does not discipline her children herself; she considers it her husband’s job. She says it would damage her relationship with them. I imagine nobody’s surprised to hear that her boys are aggressively mean and rude with her, and quite sweet to the father.

  9. it seems to me that a lot of men abuse the word ‘preside’ to mean ‘do it my way’.

    THere is even the extreme that I live with, and I know that nothing works very well when your partner is a narcissist!

  10. Arareandradiantmaiden, I think that’s really sad about your friend who doesn’t discipline. Do you mean she lets them run wild and he comes home and inflicts physical punishment? How did that ever become an accepted way to parent? Kids need limits all day, not just wait until your father comes home…

  11. As always I think this discussion hinges on what is meant or understood by ‘preside.’ Those who see father’s presiding as a good thing tend to see it in terms of cases where mothers, in an effort to get their husbands involved in their children’s lives, would appeal to a father’s ‘duty to preside.’ Those who see it as a negetive thing tend to see it in terms of cases where a father will cite his authority to preside when he unilaterally implements programs that he thinks are in the best interest of his family- then leaves his wife to carry out that program by herself because he has already done his duty.

    This reminds me of the riddle where you are faced with two people, one who always lies and another who always tells the truth with no way to tell them apart. You must get some information from them, but may only ask one question. The answer is to ask person A how person B would answer the question. This routes the answer through both the truth teller and the liar thereby guaranteeing that the answer will be a lie, then you can take the opposite as the truth.

    Except here, I suspect, the ultimate goal is to have both parties intimately involved with their children. By routing certain decisions and responsiblities through the party least inclined to be involved, (or conversely by taking away certain decisions and responsiblities from the party most likely to over-involved) you will ensure that both parties will (theoretically) be more equitably involved. As always, I think this is a rather simple concept that could be taught and implemented with less confusion and less potential for abuse by using more straightforward language that doesn’t have such heirarchal overtones.

  12. cchrissy; I think you misunderstood what I was saying. I was trying to say that I didn’t see a need for anyone to preside when it’s just the husband and wife.

    Others raised a good point about a united front in parenting. Things would have been a lot better if my parents had been able to do that.

    It is unfortunate that we don’t have an agreed-upon definition for “preside.” Something that’s been knocking around the back of my mind this afternoon; maybe “preside” is a sort of code word for “be a male parent.” “Descent of Woman,” a rather dated by now but interesting look at evolution from the woman’s point of view points out that the irreducable unit of family isn’t “mummy-and-daddy,” it’s “mummy-and-the-kids.” There are many species where the father’s role is merely biological. The more helpless a species’ young are, the more likely they are to need a community with family units devoted to the survival of the next generation. Human infants are some of the most helpless young there are. It’s not just how helpless they are at birth either but how long before they’re adults and I’m pretty sure that at 15-20 years, we have the longest period to adulthood. During that time, through nursing and the other tasks of motherhood, Mother clearly has her role and her responsibilities. I think that by telling men to “preside” in their families, we are carving out the niche for fathers to fit in, giving them a role to play beyond genetic delivery service. That’s how “daddy” is added to the “mummy-and-the-kids” group.

  13. Proud Daughter of Eve, I think you are probably right–as Starfoxy said, those who are in favor of “presiding” tend to see it as a way to get men involved with their family, which I completely see as a desirable thing.

    But as Starfoxy also mentioned, I’m just wondering if there’s not another way to do this (that would avoid the potentially negative consequences of men abusing their authority). I’d like to think that we could figure out a way to get men involved with their families without using a system that has the potential to be abused. There were aspects of Elder Oaks GC talk on priesthood in the family vs. priesthood in the home that I disagreed with, but I did appreciate his points that while the church is hierarchical, families are not supposed to be. My guess is that the reason he boldly made this point is that there’s still a significant minority in the church that have hierarchy in their homes as well as at church.

    P.S. I also wish we had a clearer idea of what “preside” was supposed to mean. Of course, I have to admit that the murkiness has left me with the option of setting it aside/interpreting it how I think best. I much prefer the current system to one where the leaders were saying “preside means that the husband gets to make all the decisions.” 🙂

  14. #11: “As always I think this discussion hinges on what is meant or understood by ‘preside.’ “

    #12: “It is unfortunate that we don’t have an agreed-upon definition for ‘preside.’ “

    #13: “I also wish we had a clearer idea of what ‘preside’ was supposed to mean.”

    It seems to me that the word “preside” has a very clear, agreed-upon meaning. The Webster-definition of “preside” is: 1) to occupy the place of authority, e.g., president or chairman, 2) to exercise guidance, direction, or control. The antonym for “preside over” is: follow, give allegiance to, obey.

    I don’t see how it is up to an individual to agree or disagree with the current definition of a word– a definition just is. Thus, if a man presides over his family, he occupies a place of authority over his family and gives them guidance, direction or control. Those who do not preside follow and obey the one that does preside. For me, the discussion hinges less on what the word “preside” means and more on how a wife fits into the word “family” in the family proclamation, as mentioned in comment #7.

    I have always been taught that the wife is included with the children in the word “family”, and that she and her children are presided over by the husband/father. Apparently that is not how others see it and I find it interesting that some think that it pertains to parenting only. Could anyone elaborate on the idea that “a father presiding over his family” means that he presides only over the children and not his wife, i.e., where does that idea originate and how do you see it fitting in with the wording of the family proclamation?

  15. Tam,

    I think the reason people are searching for a definition of preside (rather than just taking the one from Webster) is that the church teaches two contradictory principles: that the husband presides in the home, and that the husband and wife are equal partners. If the husband “occup[ies] the place of authority” and the wife “obey[s]”, they aren’t really equal partners.

    I think the interpretation that the husband presides over the children and not the wife is some peoples’ effort to reconcile these two ideas.

  16. I think that most of the problems with the word “preside” come from the church changing their position on the role of the father. I think that it did in fact mean that the father was the authority and the wife/mother and children followed him, but that as the times have changed the church’s stance has changed as well. If that was because the church was wrong or because the typical American family has changed and it now fits better I can’t say. I wonder how that phrasing is translated/interpreted in other languages and cultures?
    Of course an important question to ask is what an eternal family will look like. As we have no idea what Heavenly Mother’s role is, it’s difficult, impossible even, to say. At the present, I don’t think an equal partnership is looking promising, but I’m hoping for the best.
    My husband and I have decided that for our family “preside” is interpreted to mean that he does the business end of church things. He calls on people to pray, arranges schedules around Family Home Evening, etc. Of course both of us end up doing these things anyway, so the idea of actually designating someone in charge of this area is a little laughable (in my opinion).

  17. I just have to mention that I got a laugh out of the short title for this post, on the sidebar list of recent comments: “Having one spouse“. It makes the thread sound like a plebiscite on polygamy. “Just one spouse — pros and cons.” And look at all the comments!

  18. Maybe a better model is one of presiding over a council. Like in a ward council, or the council of the twelve, the various leaders get together and share their experiences and ideas and come to unanimous decisions. (Or that’s the way it should be, I think.) The role of the presiding authority is to present his or her vision for consideration and keep everybody on track. This describes better what happens in my family, and seems more consistent with the teachings of the gospel.

  19. but in a ward council or GA setting, when there is a decision to be made, don’t all the members defer to the final decision of the presiding authority?

  20. I think if there is a disagreement they should, but they sustain that decision as guided by the Holy Ghost and after praying about it, if needed.

  21. I’m glad to see you haven’t completely vanished, Kaimi! I read it the same way you did–I was practically rubbing my hands with glee at the prospect of reading a juicy thread on “having one spouse.”

    On the issue of presiding, I don’t think presiding in a Church capacity should be our model for marriage, a fact even Elder Oaks seems to recognize (as problematic as his solution is). Bishops actually do have power over the members of the ward, even if one hopes they exercise it benevolently and prayerfully.

    It interests me that, if women marry upon leaving home and remain married for life, there is no time or sphere in their life in which they are not presided over, first by their fathers and then by their husbands. The average man is presided over by other priesthood authorities in his ward, but in his home, in his personal life, he holds that responsibility himself. Married women, in contrast, are presided over in every facet of their lives.

  22. PDoE,
    understood. you’re reminding me of one of the best books I read least year “Mother nature: on mothers infants and natural selection”. (recommendation from Rosalynde, I think)
    Previously, I’d thought all my ancestors survived long enough to reach sexual maturity and reproduce. I hadn’t given enough concern to more important qualifiers- they had the resources to get those babies raised until their own sexual maturity.
    A mother’s job after sex, pregnancy, and nursing, is far from done unless she can also gather lots of food (or get it provided to her through a social network), secure safe housing and clothing, keep her kids safe from attackers, teach them skills, and live long and healthy enough to babysit those new grandbabies when her own daughters are working on the necessities of life.

    The tie-in to your post is that if a father wants biological success, all the same applies- he has just as much at stake in providing the neccesities of life (food, shelter, social network) until the grandbabies are raised.

  23. As a follow-up to some of the thought-provoking comments here–for those who see presiding as at least potentially a positive thing, what would you think if the FamProc instead said something along the lines of “fathers have a sacred responsibility to be involved in their families”? Would something crucial be be lost if it were framed like that?

  24. Interesting, Ann–could you say more about that? Insulted because it sounds like there’s an assumption that men otherwise wouldn’t be involved (which I can see being rather obnoxious–so maybe that’s not the best way of saying things)–or for some other reason?

    I guess what I’m trying to get at is–if the idea that men should preside is some kind of code for saying that men should be involved (an argument I’ve heard fairly frequently), is there any reason for saying the former instead of the latter?

  25. Yes, that’s exactly it. I think he’d be insulted that the FP and QoT felt the need to “remind” him to be involved in family life.

    That’s why I don’t think “preside” is a code for “involved.” I think preside means exactly what it says – leads, has authority, makes decisions.

    I’m not one of those who places much value in the Proclamation, though.

  26. I don’t see why men being told to be “involved with their families” would be any more insulting than “reminding” women to “nurture their children.” Not that I see it as insulting– it seems more like a call to clearly designate responsibilities rather than a reminder.

    I think Ann is right – preside means exactly what it says, hence my confusion in comment #14. The problem is, the same paragraph in the FP says husbands and wives are equal partners. It really can’t be both. I see the internal contradiction as evidence that we are a church in transition, and families can embrace either the idea of a presiding head or the idea of husband-wife equality, or (since my view expanded due to comment #15) they can come up with a way to reconcile or merge the two. It seems to me that any family system that a wife and husband come up with that supports loving and nurturing relationships within their family is a viable and healthy system. I can’t see how it could contradict the spirit and purpose of the Family Proclamation.

  27. It really can’t be both.

    sure it can. i think contradiction is a perception, not a reality. a wife can let her spouse (as an equal partner simply saying, OK, hon, you can be in charge of these things cuz prophets say you should be – no biggie, right?) preside over things like fhe, family prayer, etc. no big deal. spouses work +together+ to discuss and find solutions for family issues and problems as equal partners. lots of room exists to figure out how to divide and conquer stuff at home as equal partners. different roles (provider and nurturer) complement efforts as equal partners who share in the same goals. i don’t see contradiction. contradiction is supposed because of semantics as understood by some, but is not there in spirit.

  28. This discussion is now paralleling the “Presiding and Nurturing” thread, which is a lot more exciting. However, I just wanted to make a quick comment about contradiction.

    I agree, anonon, that contradiction is a perception, just as deciding that there isn’t contradiction is also a perception. But I don’t see contradiction as a negative perception or a perception that means the church isn’t “true” or good. It’s simply unavoidable in a church of 11 million+ imperfect, flawed people, which includes the leaders of the church. How can there not be contradiction? And I think the best way to deal with contradiction is to discuss it instead of dismiss it because we will overcome our imperfections faster by confronting them rather than simply looking the other way.


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