"Somebody has to make the final decision. Somebody has to break the tie."I don't know how many times I've heard this argument (or something very much like it) in discussions about gender relations in marriage. It is the argument that someone has to be the "tie-breaker" in a marriage for the marriage to "work." And, given that egalitarians don't have a tie-breaker, they are believed to fail on pragmatic grounds--egalitarian marriages can't "work."
True, it is argued, day in and day out husbands and wives don't have to function via power relations. No one has to be "in charge" or be "the leader" in getting the marriage or family through the day. Couples simply coordinate, jump in where needed, and get done what is needed to get done. And if the marriage is working well this partnership feels balanced and equal and there is a mutual feeling of gratitude.
So day in and day out, it is argued, the partnership is less about power than mutuality. Still, the defender of patriarchy insists, a power relation has to exist in the background. Though this power structure is generally latent there are times when it must be brought out into the open and used. The moment for this is when the couple is deadlocked about some decision to be made going forward. There is a disagreement about what to do next. And in the face of that disagreement, the argument continues, someone needs to be in charge. Someone needs to make the decision. Someone needs to break the tie.
And God gave that job to the man. So marriages can work.
A part of the persuasiveness of the "somebody has to decide" argument is that it is willing to admit that powerplays aren't the day to day working reality of patriarchal marriages. This puts a softer face on patriarchy and suggests that 99% of the time patriarchal marriages function just like egalitarian marriages. The implication this sets up is clear: Why this fuss over egalitarianism? It's much ado about nothing. Patriarchy, it is insisted, isn't a day to day reality, it is something called upon as a last resort, when the relationship is stuck and we need to make a decision going forward.
Patriarchy, in this view, is simply a way of getting a relationship out of a jam. Sort of like calling a tow-truck.
Patriarchy, in this argument, is about pragmatics, about fixing a problem.
In this there is an implicit criticism being leveled. Specifically, the vision of the deadlocked couple is held up as a rebuttal of egalitarianism. This vision is intended to show how egalitarianism is unworkable. If somebody isn't in charge how is the couple going to get unstuck? Patriarchy, in this instance, is a gift--a gift God gave us to get marriages unstuck. Somebody has to get the relationship unstuck and God, in God's wisdom, picked the guys for this job. To be clear, the argument goes, guys aren't better than woman for inheriting this job. God's interests and the man's interests are strictly about pragmatics, about getting a job done, often a thankless and dirty job.
In short, patriarchy is about pragmatics, not power.
Is that true?
I don't think it's true. And if it's not true--and this is an empirical rather than a theological issue--then patriarchy is stripped of its pragmatic guise to be revealed as the powerplay it always was.
I say this is an empirical question rather than a theological issue because the "somebody has to decide" argument is making (implicitly) an empirical claim: Egalitarian marriages don't work, they get suck. That's not a theological claim. It's a claim about empirical reality that can be tested: Are egalitarian marriages regularly stuck in this way, ways that patriarchal marriages have "fixed"?
While I know I'm working with a very small data set Jana and I have never been stuck in the way the patriarchalist argues we should be getting stuck. But maybe we've just been lucky. Maybe egalitarian couples all around us are getting stuck, unable to move forward without having someone in the "decider" role, without a divinely-appointed tie-breaker. I doubt it. I have no doubt that egalitarian marriages might take longer to reach a decision and that the process might look "messier." But I feel certain that these couples are willing to pay that price in order to avoid powerplays and to remain in submission to each other. Regardless, I don't think these couples are getting stuck.
And if that's the case, if egalitarian marriages work, even when decisions get hard and there is conflict, then what happens to the argument that patriarchy is about pragmatics rather than power?
If marriages don't need "deciders" to work then there is no problem to be fixed. And if that's the case, if patriarchal marriages don't work any better, then the only reason to opt for patriarchy is the allure of power itself. If you don't need patriarchy, pragmatically speaking, why resort to the use of power when it's not necessary?
Let's put a fine point on this: If there is no problem to fix, if patriarchy has no pragmatic function, if patriarchy is not useful, if patriarchy is an end in itself and not a means, then the exercise of power is exposed for what it truly is. Without anything to fix the powerplay is simply a powerplay, one person exercising power over another for no other reason than the desire to exercise power.
If you don't need to wield power then why are you using it?
And with that question we get to the rub of the matter, why the "somebody has to decide" argument has been so critical in the patriarchal worldview. This argument has made patriarchy seem useful. It is an argument that has been used to hide the powerplay by dressing it up in pragmatic clothing. Power isn't about power, it is argued, it's about making marriages work better.
But what if egalitarian marriages work just fine? What then?
Without the pragmatic dress we see patriarchy for what is truly is.
An emperor with no clothes.