Presiding: Its History Within My Marriage

(Pollock, Male and Female)

Long ago, when Mike and I were dating, the question of presiding came up as we sat in a hot tub in Provo. Even as a 21 year old, the concept didn’t sit well with me. It just didn’t jive with my own ideals of equality and true partnership. Mike understood where I was coming from, but proposed that perhaps presiding didn’t involve decision making, but that it instead had to do with ultimate responsibility. After we’re dead, he mused, it might just mean that the man, as the priesthood holder, would bear a greater responsibility if the family went off track.A reasonable proposition, perhaps. But it made me feel nauseous. It was the only moment in our whole courtship where I thought we might not make it. How could a just God expect more from Mike than from me? How could a just God blame Mike more than me if our family went off track? How could a just God look at me as less than fully responsible for my own shortcomings? These were the questions I countered with, but nothing was resolved and I went away from the conversation feeling sick.In the first couple years of our marriage, the ultimate responsibility argument seemed to drop out of the presiding discussion. Instead, Mike proposed that we refine the idea of preside to mean that Mike presided over certain religious ordinances. Though I hated the word, this made sense to me on some level and I reluctantly agreed.Now we are seven years into our marriage, and I have entirely eliminated the idea that Mike presides over me in any way. Though Mike wouldn’t put it like that (he would say that he just has no idea what ‘preside’ means and therefore we act as equal partners), we are in practice on the same exact page. We are co-presiders, and it works beautifully for us.

There is no ultimate decision maker in our marriage. Instead we compromise or take turns when big decisions arise. There is no religious presider. Instead we decide together how religion functions in our home, and we try to make it egalitarian. We take turns asking our home teachers to pray, and we both took part in our baby’s blessing.

I sometimes joke that our co-presiding system is justified in the Proclamation. Aside from the equal partner emphasis, there is that important caveat “Individual circumstances may vary.” And my individual situation is that I am personally revolted by the idea of my husband presiding over me.

I feel great about the way our co-presiding marriage works. I know this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea – so be it – but I still do take heart when I see other young married couples that have a similar dynamic. They may not articulate that they co-preside, but in practice I see them emphasizing the equal partner model, rather than the man-as-head-of-the-household model.

How do you interpret the word ‘preside?’ How has it played out in your family? Do you co-preside too? And do you sense that co-presiding is becoming more widespread?

Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women’s Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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25 Responses

  1. FoxyJ says:

    I think we’ve both taken the “I don’t know what that means so let’s ignore it” approach too. Seriously–I don’t think we’ve ever talked about it much. We just talk decisions over and come up with some sort of compromise. I think it’s also because my husband grew up with a single mom and I had an inactive dad who really isn’t a “take charge” sort of person. I don’t think either of us really has any sort of model for presiding.

  2. AmyB says:

    It’s been my experience that most LDS couples I know personally are much more egalitarian than the doctrine of the church would suggest. The doctrinal picture and actual practice don’t really seem to line up in that area these days.

  3. Maria says:

    An awkward but fond memory: My in-laws were visiting our home for the weekend, and we were kneeling down to say the nightly family prayer together. My FIL, out of habit, called on someone to pray. My MIL then said something to the effect of “we’re in J’s home, so J gets to pick.” At which point J (my husband says), “It’s as much Maria’s home as it is my home, Mom. And Maria picks who prays in our home.”

    [Insert awkward silence for about 30 seconds as it all sinks in.]

  4. LS says:

    In our home, my husband and I act and feel like equal partners. We make decisions together, and collaborate prayerfully on bigger matters. It is only at times when the word ‘preside’ rears its head in a Sunday School class, for example, that I alternate between having questions about the word itself and the way we do things – i.e., are we missing something here? Are we not doing things the ‘right’ way? I can’t find any moral fault with our egalitarian approach. As amyb said, the theory and practice don’t seem to match. I think the word is problematic, as far as I currently understand it.

  5. Vada says:

    We generally avoid bringing up the concept of presiding at our house. In practice we each preside over different things (we talk about stuff and compromise, but in the end he got to make the final decision on which job he accepted, I get to make the final decision on what the kids eat for breakfast, etc). But when we talk about presiding, I am adamant that presiding and equal partnership are mutually exclusive. He, on the other hand, feels like he presides (I think he feels like he wouldn’t be a good father/husband/priesthood holder if he didn’t preside). As long as we just don’t talk about it, I can be happy knowing he doesn’t preside, and he can be happy feeling he does, and it all works out great 🙂

  6. mraynes says:

    My husband and I ignore the presiding language completely. I’m not sure if we ever verbally decided this but presiding issues never comes up, it just isn’t relevant to our relationship. The only reason we encounter presiding language at all is because we teach the Marriage & Family class in our ward. We skip over the presiding stuff and just teach equal partnership. If somebody brings up presiding, we redirect them back to equal partnership.

  7. Heather Mommy says:

    I’m too not sure on what “preside” really means or how it supposed to look. We have a very equal relationship. We decide on things together. In fact with both have veto powers. All decisions have to have 2 “yeses” to go forward but only 1 “no” to put them on hold. We divide responsibilities based on talent and desire. That being said, my husband has his priesthood responsibilites and that doesn’t bother me. I am so grateful for the priesthood in my home and I am so grateful that my husband is worthy to bless our family.

    But in our day to day lives I don’t see anything that resembles “presiding.” Maybe I just don’t really know what that means.

  8. jer says:

    I fail to understand why this is such a big deal. The Bishop presides over me in the ward, the Stake President presides over me in the stake, President Hinckley presides over me in the Church. My boss presides over me at work. That doesn’t bother either me or most people I know. So why does a husband presiding in the home matter so much?

    The Church is a kingdom. Our country (USA) is a democratic republic. And our homes are partnerships with the husband presiding. This is 3 different kinds of government.

    Maybe we are confusing our politics with our religion. Maybe we need to be more flexible and accept the 3 diferent governments in our lives.

  9. Jacob M says:

    My understanding of presiding comes from the constitution, where the president is the chief enforcer of the legislation. I know many a man who lets the woman do most of the deciding, and then carry out the rules in the home. Maybe that helps . . . maybe it doesn’t. 🙁

    Also, the kingdom of God is a heck of a lot different than earthly kingdoms, so using that as an example isn’t entirely helpful.

  10. Adam S. says:

    This is such a great discussion. I have strong feeling against us continuing to preach ANY type of presiding. No matter how benevolent the presider, it still assumes a power structure and hierarchy that I find condescending at best and oppressive by anyone actually taking it literally.

    That said, I don’t understand our obsession with keeping the language alive. My impression of most marriages is some version of what the post described. If that is the case, presiding has lost any sense of meaning. To me it is just a stumbling stone with no measurable benefit.

  11. skyeJ says:

    jer…. The husband isn’t the Boss. A family has TWO bosses. The parents. (if there are two.) That’s why the issue of presiding matters. One boss isn’t any more responsible than the other in an equal partnership. In an equal partnership, we preside together over the family. Perhaps we ought to be more flexible with our cultural interpretations of doctrine.

  12. jer says:

    skyj… Perhaps you are right. But there are other possibilities.

    For example, is it possible that the two sexes have differences in how we achieve our eternal goals; differences that require our different roles and different responsibilities?

    There is also the possibility that many women feel liberated by having a man that they can rely on to lift some of their burdens. Let him bear the greater portion of responsibility, and leave the woman free of this burden.

    What about the development of the guys? Perhaps they need the primary responsiblity of a family to attain the full measure of manhood?

    I can also see where this might just be a test that God gives women.

    I see all kinds of possibilities for the traditional interpretation of the husband/wife roles in the family. And I don’t for a second believe I’ve listed every possible theory.

    Studies have shown that traditional roles (among functional people) result in great happiness and prosperity. Very few millionaires deviate from the traditional roles (see The Millionaire Next Door).

    I know a family where the woman definitely rules the roost. The result of this family is whimpy guys, and messed up grandkids. Especially the boys. They only people who are happy in that home are the women. The men are miserable.

    Every family I know and respect has a strong couple at the head. The man is not whimpy, very considerate of his wife, but also very much the leader in the home. In these cases, children of both sexes are happy and well-adjusted, and the parents are happy and well-adjusted. Now there may be one of these PC, egalitarian, families with similar results, but I haven’t seen them. I wish all of you the best, but I suspect you are going to regret it some day.

    Sons do not respect fathers who are weak. When the bigger, stronger, more aggressive person is not in charge, he is perceived as weak. And that creates all kinds of problems.

    Our modern ideas haven’t resulted in increases in happiness and prosperity as far as I can tell. Instead, the contrary tends to be true.

    Now I recognize that this is the opposite of modern-day political correctness. That might be the best argument of all.

  13. FoxyJ says:

    You are assuming that the opposite of presiding is a situation where the woman “rules the roost” and the man is perceived as “wimpy”. I don’t think that is what most people here are suggesting. Having one partner “rule” over the other is the problem that most of us have with presiding, and like you pointed out tends to create dysfunction in the family. The lessons that children can learn from seeing parents who work as equal partners are things like cooperation, respect for others, respect for both sexes as capable decision makers, compromise, problem solving, and equality. I see nothing wrong with those things and they are much greater motivation to me than teaching my children to be aggresive or domineering, which is too often what happens when we assume that one partner has to be in charge of the other one.

  14. Ann says:

    Back in the day, I would ask my DH for permission to do something silly (“May I go to the bathroom?”) and he would point to the sky, strike a pose, and say “I forbid it!” Then we would both laugh.

    The only problematic thing to me about the presiding language is its existence. In practical application in my family, it doesn’t exist.

    My favorite ever blog post on presiding was this one from about a year ago at Zelophehad’s Daughters.

  15. Anonymous says:

    So you have no problem with couples who decide to ignore the ‘equal partner’ language too?

    I guess for some people the cafeteria is always open.

    -Adam Greenwood

  16. Caroline says:

    And everyone else, thanks for all your comments. I love reading about how others navigate the preside conundrum.

  17. Caroline says:

    Foxy, I think you’re right on in your response to Jer. Every one of the possibilities Jer brings up is highly problematic to me. Having a man bear more burdens and greater responsibility seems quite unfair to the man to me. Not to mention the fact that it infanitlizes the woman. And if a man needs presiding to attain a full measure of manhood (which, I think is a flawed premise to begin with), what would a woman need to attain a full measure of womanhood? The mind boggles.

    Adam, indeed the cafeteria is always open. And we ALL pick and choose, whether or not we want to admit it.

  18. Kiskilili says:

    Jer’s comment interests me in that it indicates that the term “preside” has not universally been “neutered” (so to speak) by Church members, but that its traditional definition (and its generally accepted definition outside Church contexts) continues to have currency. That is, the person who “presides” is a “leader” (while, logically, those presided over are followers).

    Equally interesting to me is the way in which masculinity is constructed in our culture. Jer’s comment alleges that only women are happy when women have ultimate power in the home, but that everyone is happy when men have ultimate power in the home. If this is in fact the case, allocating power disproportinately to men is the logical way to achieve happiness for the greatest number of people.

    However, his focus on the problems for boys in particular with “whimpy” fathers speaks to the possibility that male power results in happiness especially for males, and less clearly for females. This is where I consider our construction of masculinity problematic: when masculinity is associated with dominant behavior, women are necessarily relegated to a subordinate status; when women show signs of independence, masculinity is threatened. In my opinion, the costs of maintaining such a vision of masculinity far, far outweigh any benefits our boys may get by identifying with domineering fathers.

    I’d be interested in reading studies concluding that women who defer to their husbands are happier. Everything I’ve read indicates quite the opposite: women are happier when they have power over their own lives, and egalitarian marriages are stronger than those based on traditional gender roles. I admit to a strong philosophical bias, though, since I believe women are competent adults who benefit from making their own decisions and suffering the consequences, and that expecting them to be presided over in their personal life is a form of infantilization.

    And it may be that millionaires come disproportionately from traditional families, but how many of these millionaires are *women*? If we’re talking about male millionaires, again, this only demonstrates possible benefits to men of having subordinate wives. (Not to mention the problem with implicitly equating wealth with happiness.)

  19. sara says:

    It goes without saying that everyone’s marriage is different; I enjoy noticing the subtle and obvious differences between my marriage and those of my parents, in-laws, and siblings. But despite the subtleties, we all strive to keep our roles in line with the way God intended it; the way we learn in the temple. If hearing the word preside makes you feel like less of a woman, I think you are misunderstanding the importance of your role. I don’t know why everyone is getting so hung up on one word.

    Way to go, jer, on presenting some very intelligent arguments, which are not based on defensive feminism like so many of the others’.

  20. Dora says:

    Sara, I think that one of the problems with the word “preside” is that blanket association with men implies that women are somehow less human, not less womanly. Yes, parents preside over their children because it’s assumed that the parents are more responsible, rational, spiritually mature, and intelligent than their children. However, to assume that a husband is somehow more rational, responsible, spiritually mature and intelligent than the wife, by virtue of his maleness, is very disturbing.

    Besides which, the temple ceremony is by no means sacrosanct. It has changed in response to revelation in the past, and there is no reason that it won’t be changed in the future in response to additional revelation. It’s in the temple that we are taught how very important words and names are.

  21. Lynnette says:

    If hearing the word preside makes you feel like less of a woman, I think you are misunderstanding the importance of your role.

    If this helps in explaining where I’m coming from, I don’t know that the word “preside” makes me feel like less of a woman, so much as less of a human being, less of a full person capable of being responsible for myself. So being told that women have an important role to play doesn’t reassure me much; a society which viewed women as property with no rights, after all, could still acknowledge that they played a crucially important role in that society. My concern isn’t really about the relative importance of different gender roles; it’s about whether prescribed gender roles and hierarchical relationships make it more difficult for women (or men) to develop their full potential as children of God.

  22. Katie says:

    I did a quick search in the lds.org gospel library on presiding in the family. One of the most striking aspects of looking at what is printed in official church publications on this topic is that there is a wide variety of statements about how to interpret the word “preside.” Any of the above comments could be backed up by statements in official church publications. On the one hand, these vastly different statements create a lot of confusion about how to interpret this principle in the home. On the other hand, the variety of interpretations allows individuals the freedom to interpret this principle based on their individual circumstances. There was one article that particularly resonated with me, (April Ensign 1988, “I have a question”), but there were also other articles that I was deeply troubled by. One of the constant struggles in being a member of the church is finding a balance between common beliefs and common practices vs. individual beliefs and individual practices.

  23. Sienna says:

    “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—” D&C 121:41-2

  24. Anonymous says:

    I’ve found this discussion fascinating. My husband and I have a very egalitarian relationship and really haven’t gotten hung up on this very much. Out of curiosity, after reading these comments, I asked my husband what he thinks it means to “preside.” He said that for him, it means to make sure that he is living such that the priesthood is always available in the home, nothing more. I liked his interpretation. It puts his focus on making sure he is living worthily rather than worrying about always picking who prays or who has more responsibility for our family or whatever.

    Whether or not that is the technical meaning for “preside,” that is how we understand the principle in our home, and it feels good for us.

  1. May 19, 2016

    […] gender roles – the idea that my husband was to preside over me and expect my hearkening was particularly painful and violating to my soul — my visiting teacher handed me a stack of old Exponent II magazines. I was floored.  Mormon […]

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